In early 1993, Dianne Jackson, at the time a librarian at Glenwood Elementary, joined other school employees to form The Blue Ribbon Task Force, the first committee to deal with the achievement gap and equity in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.
25 years later, Jackson is retired, and CHCCS is still facing many of the same issues. But Jackson said the attitudes have shifted.
She said parents support the equity plan, as long as it doesn't take resources from their children.
“At the point in time it felt like everybody wanted to come together to fix the problem,” Jackson said. “Now it seems that resources are such that everybody says they want to fix the problem – as long as it doesn’t touch the program my kid is in.”
According to the 2017 Racial Equity Report Card released by the nonprofit Southern Coalition for Social Justice, in the 2015-2016 school year, Black students were 10 times more likely to receive a short-term school suspension, a suspension of 10 or fewer days, than white students in CHCCS.
Peggy Nicholson, co-director of the Youth Justice Project at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said the organization created the Racial Equity Report Cards to provide the community with data to back up claims and investigate their school systems' racial equity.
CHCCS's Equity Task Force created an equity plan during the 2015-2016 school year that required all groups affiliated with the district to be inclusive and diverse, for CHCCS to create quarterly reports on outcome data and to provide mandatory equity training courses by August 2017.
“Essentially, we are reasonably confident that schools have made great improvements in this area, however I know of no data to confirm that notion,” Jeff Nash, spokesperson for CHCCS, said in an email.
The number of short-term suspensions for high school students decreased overall from the 2015-2016 to the 2016-2017 school year, from a rate of around six per 100 students to four per 100 students. But the drop disproportionately benefited white students.
The proportion of white students suspended dropped by around 25 percent, while the share of Black students suspended rose by around 4 percent.
In the 2016-2017 school year, Black students were 13.9 times more likely to receive a short suspension.
The data only includes the number of short-term suspensions that are recorded by the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice.
The figures don't include any instances where teachers asked parents to pick up their student from the classroom because of a disciplinary complaint or students that were suspended from the bus and lacked transportation to school, Nicholson said.
Wanda Hunter, a member of the Racial Equity Institute's core organizing team, said this is because the current equity plan addresses equality too generally, without directly dealing with race.
“It cannot be race neutral if it is a race-neutral intervention," she said. "The people who are going to benefit are going to be the people who always benefit, which are white students."
Lee Williams, the executive director of equity and inclusion for CHCCS, said the plan is not solely focused on race and is meant to include other marginalized groups such the LGBTQ+ community and those with less resources.
Williams said the district doesn’t currently collect data on the LGBTQ+ students in CHCCS.
He said part of his work is making sure that students are represented in the curriculum and feel included in the classroom.
“Nothing is done in isolation,” he said. “We're not looking at equity separately — it is ingrained in everything we are doing.”
Nicholson said short-term suspensions are harmful because they remove students from the learning environment and increase the gap in academic achievement, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline.
The Southern Coalition for Social Justice defines the school-to-prison pipeline as a system of policies and practices that move students out of schools and into the juvenile and criminal systems.
Jackson said CHCCS is benefitting the students that already have the resources to perform well anywhere. She said the system leaves behind students from marginalized backgrounds who rely on a public education.
“Are we educating kids for the community that they live in?” asked Jackson. “Or are we educating kids for parents who are here to get an education and then leave?”
CHCCS, community advocacy groups and parents have recognized the problem and proposed solutions for years, but the achievement gap between white and Black students still persists.
In the 2016-2017 school year, only 28.8 percent of Black students were “College and Career Ready,” meaning that they had scored a four or five out of five possible levels on end-of-course exams.
“That is the elephant in the room,” Jackson said. “That we have done all these things – so what’s the problem?”
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