Howard Lee said he has been having the same conversation about the achievement gap since 1966.
That’s the year Chapel Hill High School opened, merging the student bodies of the all-black Lincoln High School and the old Chapel Hill High School.
2012 FINAL TESTS
95 percent (bold numbers)
white students passing
black students passing
Hispanic students passing
Lee, Chapel Hill’s first black mayor and a long time education leader, spoke Wednesday on a panel about the achievement gap held by UNC’s Students for Education Reform.
Lee said at the time of integration, many white families’ education levels were very high, while many black students’ parents had not graduated from high school.
“So, what we found was many of the students were falling through the cracks.”
Almost 50 years later, Lee said, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools still struggles to serve its rare population.
The system serves a combination of the highest performing students in the state and populations that require greater support.
“It’s almost like you still have students from Lincoln High School and the old Chapel Hill High School, and they still haven’t meshed yet,” said Alex Werden, a senior at Chapel Hill High School.
David Bennett, a social studies teacher at Chapel Hill High and another panelist, described having to track down one student on Facebook to tell him to come back to school. As a ninth-grader, the student was too young to drop out, but a troubled home life deterred him from going to school. That student’s needs were different than some of his other students with wealthier parents, Bennett said.
“They’ve had a Blue Ribbon Mentor called ‘Mom,’ and summer enrichment called Daddy’s a chemist,” he said.
Both Bennett and Lee said community involvement is key to closing the achievement gap. They praised programs like the Blue Ribbon Mentor-Advocate program, which pairs at-risk students with mentors who stay with them from elementary school until graduation.
They also said schools need to set higher expectations for at-risk students. Lee said more than 30,000 students across the state are in easier STEM classes than what they’re capable of.
But Lee and Bennett had different prescriptions for community involvement.
Last month, the opening of a school in Lee’s name — The Howard and Lillian Lee Scholars Charter School — was postponed when the for-profit organization supporting the project backed out. Still, Lee thinks a K-8 charter school could offer tailored support to at-risk populations.
“We’ve got to stop committing ourselves to the public school system as the savior for our kids, and focus on public education,” he said.
Bennett said that mixed-ability classes without labels like “honors” help raise achievement for everyone.
“That was brilliant and worked well and made me feel like I was doing my job better than I was,” he said.
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