At 50 years old, Keith Edwards could still recall crying after her first day of seventh grade at Chapel Hill Junior High School.
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools had begun desegregating, so Edwards could not attend Lincoln High School, an all-Black school in the district that she thought of as a cocoon.
“I ended up coming out as a butterfly with weakened wings," she told Robert Gilgor, a local documentarian, during an interview with UNC’s Southern Oral History Program in 2000. "I didn’t have enough room to fly when I went to an all-white school.”
This year marks 60 years since desegregation began in CHCCS. But even now, across the district’s 20 schools, white students access more opportunity and face less discipline than Black students, according to a Daily Tar Heel analysis of the most recently available federal, state and local data.
During the 2019-20 school year, about half of all CHCCS students were white, 10.9 percent were Black, 17.3 percent were Hispanic, 13.9 percent were Asian and 7.3 percent were multiracial, according to data from the Department of Public Instruction.
But last school year, white students in the district were 3.5 times more likely to be identified as academically or intellectually gifted — a designation that allows access to more advanced and specialized instruction — than their Black peers, while Black students in the district were 15.8 times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
Statewide, white children were 3.7 times more likely to be in a gifted program than their Black peers. Black children were four times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
“It’s commonly said that (Chapel Hill) has the second largest achievement gap in the country,” Jeff Nash, executive director of community relations for CHCCS, said. “It’s unacceptable, and we’ve known that. We’ve been working on it.”
Nash said steps to address the district’s racial disparities include developing a strategic plan, which would generate the district’s priorities and goals by “including a very diverse group of people from our community." He also said CHCCS plans to conduct an equity audit.
In the meantime, white students remain overrepresented in academically or intellectually gifted programming. In the 2019-20 school year, two in three academically or intellectually gifted students in the district were white, according to DPI data.
This divide is particularly prominent in the district’s elementary and middle schools, according to U.S. Department of Education data from the 2017-18 school year, when it was last reported. During that school year, Northside Elementary School’s student body was 42.5 percent white and 21.9 percent Black, while its academically or intellectually gifted cohort was 76.3 percent white and 2.6 percent Black.
In CHCCS high schools for the 2019-20 school year, a similar disparity can be found in Advanced Placement classes. At East Chapel Hill High School, white students were 4.3 times more likely to be enrolled in at least one AP class than Black students. At Chapel Hill High School and Carrboro High School, white students were about three times as likely.
“What happens with Chapel Hill is there’s this energy of being progressive,” said Dwana Waugh, who earned her doctoral degree in history at UNC and wrote her dissertation about school desegregation in Chapel Hill and Virginia’s Prince Edward County. “But there was also an impulse to not push too much too fast.”
That impulse, Waugh said, led to “a sharp divide in what the interior of classrooms look like.”
This divide also takes form in school discipline. In the 2019-20 school year, Black students made up about half of all short-term suspensions in the district, according to DPI data.
For nine of the 10 schools that reported short-term suspension rates for white and Black students, Black students were at least 11 times more likely to be suspended than white students (at Smith Middle School, Black students were only three times more likely to be suspended). Chapel Hill High School had the largest disparity, with Black students being 43.5 times more likely to be suspended than white students.
“Imagine a child that gets a message early, 3 or 4 — when a lot of their language, identity, cognition is formed — about how unwanted they are (in school),” said Iheoma Iruka, who directs the Equity Research Action Coalition at UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute. “Those are traumatic events that follow children through their life course.”
Discipline trends are also affected by school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Statewide, there were "significant reductions” in the total number of suspensions after closures, according to a DPI report to the state legislature. However, the number of suspensions experienced by Black students in the 2019-20 school year was the highest since the 2015-16 school year.
“There were desegregation orders, but there was never really authentic integration,” Iruka said. “Chapel Hill thought of Black children as a deficit … that legacy is still in Chapel Hill because we never embraced the cultural wealth that Black families bring.”
For Black students subject to those desegregation orders, like Edwards, they entered all-white schools and often were the only Black person in their classes. Sixty years later, the gaps remaining at CHCCS schools are not necessarily in demographics, but in pieces of the student experience — opportunity, achievement and discipline.
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