Parking was at a premium outside the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center just before noon on March 20. Prominent members of the intersecting worlds of black Asheville, local government, business and nonprofits jockeyed for spots as they streamed in for a lunch meeting, the second session of a new effort to address the Asheville City Schools’ catastrophic racial achievement gap. The initiative, which doesn’t yet have a formal name, grew out of a Jan. 22 joint meeting of Asheville City Council and the Board of Education.
Only 12 percent of the city’s African-American students in grades three to eight score as “proficient” or higher on end-of-grade exams, compared with 73 percent of white students.
Inside Stephens-Lee, the networking was in full force. About 30 placards marked spots at the table for invited participants, while a handful of community members sat around the edges of the room. Hugs and smiles gave way to a more serious mood as Asheville City Board of Education Chair Shaunda Sandford welcomed the group, which she said aims to tackle the achievement gap “not just necessarily as a school system, but as a community.”
Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell recapped some of the takeaways from the group’s first meeting on Feb. 12. She asked for input on the group’s purpose — “Collaborative effort to eliminate the opportunity gap that exists between black and white youths in the Asheville community by addressing racial inequities” — its goals and who should take part.
Over the next 90 minutes, attendees mulled over how much the initiative could realistically hope to accomplish. Those affiliated with Asheville City Schools and some nonprofits hoped that the effort would funnel new resources to connect children living in violent, high-poverty neighborhoods with mental health and behavioral support, as well as services such as health care, housing and transportation.
Others, more focused on the nuts and bolts of assembling a public-private partnership to meet the local business community’s need for a well-educated workforce, argued that the initiative should focus on making a strong business case for increased private investment in Asheville’s students.
Tales out of school
“Let’s just think about this week,” said Eric Howard, director of student support services for Asheville City Schools. “There was a shooting last night, there was a shooting Monday night, and there was a shooting over the weekend. So our kids see and hear that from when they’re little.”
As much as the school system tries to support children who have had traumatic experiences, he continued, trying to get kids who are “constantly in that fight-or-flight mode” to sit calmly and “do math” can be an almost impossible task.
“Our kids are struggling every day for their survival,” commented Keynon Lake, who runs the nonprofit My Daddy Taught Me That.
Sandford said she wants the group to identify community resources for funding “to provide our own behavioral and mental health services within our schools so that we can create what we need it to look like and how we want it to look like without having to bill Vaya [Health] or Medicaid.”
Nicole Cush, principal at the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences at Asheville, didn’t beat around the bush: “Obviously, the bottom line is we need more money.” The 10 schools in the Asheville district share four emotional and social support workers, she said, and most of those workers don’t look like the communities they serve.
Based on its annual budget of $71,546,197 for the 2018-19 school year, Asheville City Schools spends $16,092 on each of its 4,446 students. Buncombe County Schools, by contrast, spends just $6,246 per student, based on a total budget of $150,302,530 for 24,064 students.
Local taxpayers’ supplemental contribution to the Asheville City Schools’ budget is the second-highest in the state on a per-pupil basis. In the current school year, local taxpayers will contribute $24,732,399 to the system, alongside $29,098,225 from the state and $3,413,564 from federal grants.
Best in class
UNC Asheville associate professor of education Tiece Ruffin highlighted the diversity gap in Asheville’s teaching staff. Only 5 percent of the system’s teachers are black, compared with 20 percent of its students. Studies show black students tend to perform better when taught by black teachers, Ruffin said. But in the absence of more African-American educators, she urged the system to analyze which of its white teachers are most effectively closing the achievement gap between black and white students. Those teachers, she said, could mentor their peers in more effective practices.
Asheville City Schools Superintendent Denise Patterson and Derek Edwards, principal of Claxton Elementary, responded that ACS does use the state’s EVAAS (Education Value-Added Assessment System) to identify how individual teachers are performing with high-, middle- and low-achieving students. It’s also possible to analyze that data along racial lines, Edwards said.
Clearly, Ruffin said, “We have to increase teacher diversity.” Lake agreed, adding that hiring black teachers is only half the battle — keeping them here is equally challenging. Given Asheville’s high cost of living and other drivers of a declining African-American population in the area, he asked, “How do we get past that?”
Lake also observed that some important voices have so far not been invited to the table. He called for the inclusion of representatives from law enforcement, parents and youths. Kate Brewer Fisher, a longtime volunteer in the city schools, added from the sidelines, “And teachers.”
Ultimately, Asheville City Council member Sheneika Smith pointed out, “The capital arm is what’s going to drive this.” Community member and retired Michigan State University professor Steve Kaagan agreed, saying, “If there were three or four CEOs around this table, it would help a great deal. There are also plenty of examples around the country where the achievement gap has been attacked by business, education, government coalitions.”
Representing the newly formed Dogwood Health Trust — which will manage roughly $1.5 billion in proceeds from HCA Healthcare’s purchase of nonprofit Mission Health — Lakesha McDay said, “The business case and the bottom line are what speaks to the people who are going to spend the money.”
“Our economic development future, as well as our social fabric, hinges upon creating a good labor force,” Campbell noted.
Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kit Cramer observed that the group needs to refine its focus before calling on business leaders to invest. “We’re a small-business community,” she said. “Those small-business owners are running their businesses, and so to ask them to take a couple of hours out of their day and to delve into minutiae is probably not going to get them back again.” Cramer also noted the need to educate local business owners, who she said are “barely” aware of the existence of the achievement gap.
At the same time, Cramer said, “Because we have record-low unemployment rates, [business owners are] struggling to fill the jobs they have, and they’re having a literal mental disconnect between why there’s still people who need to look for jobs when there are jobs and they are just crying to fill them.”
Speaking after the meeting, Cramer said she feared the initiative would bog down in efforts to do too much at once or, as she put it, “boil the ocean.” Trying to simultaneously take on issues like health care, housing and transportation would make the project too large for the nonprofits at the table to address effectively, she said.
Instead, Cramer suggested that the effort focus on a single model with well-defined goals — perhaps replicating the United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County’s Middle Grades Network in local elementary schools — to make tangible progress.
Campbell also seemed wary of mission creep. “We’re trying to find the sweet spot of not being so vanilla and broad that we end up actually not doing much of anything,” she told the group. “I want us to truly understand and figure out: What can this group realistically do by next year or the next year to make a difference?”