Two years ago, Xpress reported on the hope-filled 2017 kickoff of an effort to address huge disparities between the achievement of black and white students in Asheville City Schools.
Then-Superintendent Pamela Baldwin asked the school board to support the selection of Integrated Comprehensive Systems for Equity, based in Wisconsin, which she said was the only system “that actually addresses the specific components of an educational system to address the gaps and needs of children and teachers in our community.”
But since the city’s work with ICS Equity began, the problem has gotten worse instead of better. Data assembled by the N.C. Youth Justice Project, which analyzes academic and discipline data for all of the state’s 115 school districts, shows that reading, math and science scores for Asheville’s black students in grades three-eight were the lowest of any district in North Carolina last year.
Xpress asked Baldwin’s successor, current Superintendent Denise Patterson, about the status of the ICS Equity program at the end of the second year of a three-year contract, with over $100,000 spent on consulting fees and materials to date.
“We are evaluating where we are with our ICS process,” Patterson said.
Where exactly, Xpress wanted to know, is that?
“We’re at that stage right now to say: What are we doing? What are all schools doing? What are we doing as a district? Those are some questions we are posing. And then we are posing: Where do we want to go from here? So we are looking at what have we done, what are we currently doing and where do we go from here?” Patterson responded.
Xpress asked similar questions, probing for broad goals for the districtwide effort — and progress toward those goals — throughout a 90-minute interview with Patterson and other school officials. Along with attendance at 11 public meetings and numerous individual interviews with parents, teachers, organizations and elected officials since the beginning of 2019, the conversation was part of Xpress’ extensive reporting on the progress of the ICS Equity initiative. (See sidebar, “Following the gap”)
But while awareness of Asheville’s worst-in-state racial academic achievement and discipline disparities seems to be on the rise, agreement on specific goals for reducing the gap, the strategies and resources needed, and how long it could take to make progress remain elusive.
Looking for answers
Even among themselves, school officials appear divided on how to make things better for Asheville’s black children, perhaps because they haven’t come to a consensus about why Asheville’s gap is worse than those of other districts with similar demographics and histories.
It’s generally agreed, however, that no single factor is to blame. A shortage of African American teachers and low expectations for black students within the district, combined with larger societal problems such as violent crime, poverty, trauma, food insecurity and difficulty accessing medical and mental health care, all contribute to the problem.
The gap between the test scores of Asheville City Schools’ white and black students — although significant — tracked that of other districts across the state until the 2009-10 school year, Melissa Hedt, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, recently told the school board. From that point forward, the gap between white and black academic proficiency has widened dramatically. And it is falling black achievement, not rising white student proficiency, that is making the difference, she said. (See ACS testing data for 2014-18 by school, grade and subgroup at the bottom of this article.)
“If we saw at that time that the African American students were performing less, that’s when we should have done something,” said board member Patricia Griffin, a retired Asheville City Schools teacher and administrator. “We own that failure.”
Hedt also pointed to a shift in the racial composition of the district. She and other longtime ACS staff members estimated that the number of black students has fallen from 40%-50% of the district’s total in 2000 to 20% today, a total of 827 students at press time.
Board members and school staff posited that the rising cost of housing may be pushing working-class black families outside city limits or out of the region. Board member James Carter asked whether more African American families are choosing charter or private schools rather than the public system.
“We have families who have opted for charter — specifically black families — because of our gap,” Hedt confirmed. “They don’t trust us to teach their kids.”
Only 5% of Asheville City Schools’ teachers are black; 92% are white, and 4% identify as other races. Although the picture looks different at the administrative level — 22% of principals and 39% of assistant principals identified as black in the last school year — many say the paucity of black role models is a barrier to success for students of color.
“Our teachers are going to teach what they know,” Lauren Evans, principal at Asheville Primary School, told the school board. “And most of our teachers are white and female. And so they are going to default to historical norms and a historical understanding of what they have been taught.”
UNC Asheville associate professor of education Tiece Ruffin, who is consulting with the city system, says studies show black students tend to perform better when taught by black teachers. But in the absence of more African American educators, she urges ACS to analyze which of its white teachers are most effectively closing the achievement gap between black and white students. Those teachers, she says, could mentor their peers in more effective practices.
At a May 7 meeting to discuss the system’s budget for the upcoming school year, Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides asked Patterson whether the district offers extra incentives to African American candidates. Patterson responded that $2,000 hiring bonuses are in place for special education and math teachers, but not specifically for teachers of color.
Expectations become reality
“Most teachers in our district have not seen certain populations of students be successful and do not truly understand what urgency means when closing the opportunity gap,” Evans told the school board.
Speaking of black students, board Chair Shaunda Sandford said, “They’re in school from kindergarten to eighth grade, they’re raising their hand, and the teacher’s not calling on them. They’re trying; they get to middle school and they can’t read. We’ve lost so much time.”
Asheville Middle School Principal April Dockery added, “The reality is, there are children who are coming to me in the sixth grade, and they do not know their multiplication tables and they are not reading at grade level. And I am sending them to [high school] not having a tremendous impact on them for the three years.”
Asked whether the district has set measurable goals for improving black student achievement, Patterson told Xpress, “Each school has a student achievement plan, and they have a percentage goal in there that they want to make sure that they close that gap.” Those plans are accessible to the public on each school’s website, she added.
Xpress was easily able to locate some of the school improvement plans; others, not so much. A link to the improvement plan for Montford North Star Academy appeared to be broken and returned an error message. The Asheville High School plan page was last updated on Nov. 28, 2017, while the School of Inquiry and Life Sciences plan page was last updated in December 2018 and contains limited information. (See sidebar, “School improvement plans”)
Only one of 10 schools, Claxton Elementary, included a quantitative goal specifically targeting black student achievement in its plan, which states an intention that 62.6% of the school’s black students will achieve proficiency in reading in third grade. At the end of the 2017-18 school year, just 14.3% of Claxton’s black students scored proficient or higher at the end of third grade.
In math, the plan states, Claxton aims for 61.2% of black students to achieve proficiency. In 2017-18, 35.7% of black third-graders, 9.1% of black fourth-graders, and 6.7% of black fifth-graders hit that target on end-of-grade tests. Neither the reading nor the math goals included a specific timeline for achievement.
Back to basics
Even lofty goals, high expectations and culturally informed teaching strategies can’t reach children who arrive at school hungry, tired, traumatized and homeless, say city school board members, district officials and principals.
“It goes back to Maslow,” said board member and retired Asheville teacher Martha Geitner, referring to a model of human psychology proposed by Abraham Maslow in 1943. “The hierarchy — if they’re not getting fed, if they’re not getting what they need, just basics — they can’t learn.”
“Our friends who are coming into kindergarten already have significant trauma in their lives,” said Sarah Cain, principal of Jones Elementary. “They’re screaming, they’re crying, they’re tantruming. They can’t access the instruction because of what they’re walking in the door with every morning.”
School of Inquiry and Life Sciences Principal Nicole Cush gave another example of how poverty disrupts learning at her school, describing a fire alarm incident the day before. The student who pulled the alarm, she said, had become homeless that night. “We just found out that mom’s water was turned off. She had no food. He had to go sleep with a friend,” she said. “This is what we are dealing with.”
Meeting student needs that extend beyond the school campus is the job of Eric Howard, the district’s director of student support services. He told the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on May 7 that better coordination of services is critical for reducing the gap.
The city schools work with the Buncombe County Department of Health and Human Services, Vaya Health, the juvenile justice system and others, Howard said, to provide “wraparound services” to address mental health, social and emotional needs. But coordinating all those entities and interventions effectively is a complex challenge.
“All of our agencies need to be together to make these things happen,” Howard said, describing recent changes in payment sources that present “leaps and bounds that we have to go over” to offer comprehensive mental health support.
“Now, once we get those services put in place and we continue to have effective strategies around that, achievement will improve,” Howard added. Of the additional $2 million the Asheville City Schools requested above the Board of Commissioners’ recommended fiscal year 2020 budget, $515,000 was designated for mental health support.
Crunching the numbers
A comparison of the city schools’ funding with that of other area systems suggests that the amount of money spent on education is not a root cause of Asheville’s unusual disparities. Based on an annual budget of $71,546,197 for the 2018-19 school year, the city district 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.
While county Superintendent Tony Baldwin told the Board of Commissioners that his system struggles with disparities for students with disabilities, the gap between white and black students in the county schools resembles the state average, with 27.7% of black Buncombe students in grades three-eight scoring proficient or higher on end-of-grade tests last year, compared with 60.1% of white students. Statewide, about 30% of black students achieve proficiency on the tests, compared with 62% of white 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.
However, district officials say the overall numbers don’t reveal subtler financial trends. Because the number of students living in disadvantaged families is on the decline — 43.2% of students were eligible for free and reduced price lunch in the 2014-15 school year, compared with 36.5% in 2018-19 — federal Title I funding is drying up. Claxton Elementary Principal Derek Edwards, for example, said that his Title I funding went down by a third this school year.
While fewer students living in poverty sounds like a positive trend, district leaders say those who remain in the city system are the poorest of the poor. Almost 650 students live in public housing, of whom 70% are black. As of February, the district had identified 161 students who experienced homelessness this year.
To that end, school officials are increasingly advocating to fund after-school programming, which they say is most critical for poor and marginalized children.
“So many of our parents — you mention the tourism industry — they don’t start work until midmorning or noon because they are working in the many hotels in our area,” said Jones Principal Cain, who has used Title I funding to create Cubs and Hugs, an after-school program that serves about 20 Jones students at risk of falling behind academically. “If you get out of school at 3 o’clock and you have from 3 until 6, and there’s no one practicing letters with you — we have got to get our kids into after-school programs.”
Like the city school system, a new coalition of government, nonprofit and school leaders assembled by City Manager Debra Campbell to create a communitywide approach to the racial achievement gap has also struggled to propose a bold vision for Asheville’s black children. At the group’s third and most recent meeting, held on April 10, frustration flared over vaguely worded proposals.
Campbell asked the group, “What does the school need from us around trying to address this achievement gap, opportunity gap?” Dr. Dan Frayne, president of Mountain Area Health Education Center, responded, “If you just say you’re going to address something, it doesn’t actually mean you are going to make it better. So I would suggest that we make a commitment to eliminate [the gap], not just address it.”
“Folks, we’ve been addressing this gap for the last 40 years,” agreed Commissioner Whitesides, an alumnus of the city school system who has also been a parent and grandparent of students and a member of the school board for eight years. “And we’re still addressing it. Until we decide that we’re going to eliminate it, we’ll still have it.”
Gene Bell, another former school board member, current school volunteer and the director of the Asheville Housing Authority, called for a schedule with annual goals. “If we talk about eliminating anything, there has to be a date, a target or some point where we’ll know if we are successful,” he said.
“If we don’t quantify it, how will we know how much progress we’re making?” Bell asked.
The effort’s goals must address the crux of the problem — “intergenerational social and structural inequities that exist in our community” — Frayne said. “If we don’t do that, all of these things that we do are going to be the same, and we’re never going to have the lens that we need to really do something different.”