WILMINGTON — When New Hanover County Schools went on lockdown in March, Amanda Kausak, an instructional and impact coach at Snipes Academy of Arts and Design, and her fellow teachers hit the streets armed with packets of worksheets and pencils.
With internet access spotty and a lack of devices, they met their students in living rooms and on the porch to exchange finished work with new worksheets. They coached parents, solved technology issues, and did whatever was needed to stay connected to their students — because the stakes were too high not to.
Before the pandemic, the opportunity gap between students at the predominately Black elementary school and predominately white elementary schools was massive.
Kausak said more than 90% of households sending students to the school are at the poverty level and are considered economically disadvantaged and close to 100% of students at Snipes receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch. Kausak, who started as a teacher at Snipes in 2012, said only 38% of kindergarten students arrive at school with expected skills, well below the state average of 50 percent.
“A great deal of our kids come behind on the first day of kindergarten,” Kausak said. “For many it is the first day they step in a school setting and hearing the language of school. The odds are stacked against you before you start on your first day.”
The opportunity gap starts early
That gap starts in Kindergarten for some and persists throughout a student’s academic career. In 2018, ProPublica — using data from the U.S. Department of Education civil rights data from over 96,000 public and charter schools — found Black students in New Hanover County were academically three grades behind white students compared to a less-drastic 1.9 grade gap in Brunswick and Pender Counties. Columbus County’s opportunity gap was only 1.7 grades and Onslow County’s gap was the smallest at 1.4 grades.
The coronavirus pandemic only exacerbated the Cape Fear region’s opportunity gaps between Black and white students that existed before the pandemic with long term effects on the workforce, economic mobility, and public health.
Now, with virtual school, the challenges are compounded. Initially, many of the families didn’t have reliable devices to access the internet. Based on data recently released on Cape Fear Collective’s Racial Equity Dashboard, access to a computer and internet services is an indicator of academic success regardless of race. A person in a home without a computer or internet access is almost four times more likely to have not graduated high school than a person who has both. When you add race into the equation the gap gets bigger.
A Black person is three times more likely to have no computer and internet in their house than a white person, resulting in negative downstream effects in the classroom.
But this isn’t just an education problem. It’s an economic, health, and workforce problem begging for a community solution.
Addressing the problem
In March, the internet gap was pronounced, which is why Kausak and her fellow Snipes teachers were on the street bringing the work to students. To solve the lack of access, New Hanover County teamed with Live Oak Bank to increase free wireless internet access at county-owned locations.
“We worked with the school system to identify main locations within the county that could be beneficial for students to have wireless access,” New Hanover County’s Chief Information Officer Leslie Chaney said in a statement.
Live Oak Bank is also working to expand coverage by partnering with community organizations to increase free Wi-Fi access outside of county buildings. Apiture and nCino provided funding to expand locations.
“We believe it is important in this unique time to ensure there is equitable and free internet access for the residents of New Hanover County,” Kate Groat, director of corporate philanthropy at Live Oak Bank said in a statement.
New Hanover County Schools distributed 10,415 devices in August, but that
only solved part of the problem. Kausak said a lot of parents work two and three jobs and were essential workers during the pandemic, meaning there was no one home to help children with their school work.
“For lots of our kids, even with a device, that wasn’t enough,” she said. “A lot of families had to lean on a sibling or a grandparent.”
Deputy Superintendent Dr. LaChawn Smith said it is going to take the whole
community to close the opportunity gap. The school system is focused on improving the quality of education, but other systemic issues like lack of wealth, food insecurity, and affordable housing all impact a student’s ability to learn.
“It becomes a vicious cycle,” she said. “We need from the community a strong infrastructure that allows families to have internet access in their homes that supports streaming. We need families to have children in remote learning spaces with support,” Smith said.
A public-private partnership is addressing internet access and companies and nonprofits around the Cape Fear setting up learning spaces where students can log into virtual school with other students in safe, socially distanced environments.
Leading Into New Communities, Inc. (LINC) worked with Soaring as Eagles to recruit and provide instruction for 11 middle schools and one high school freshman at its Princess Street location. On Wednesdays, the LINC cohort hosts an African American studies class. One Wednesday local Black political leaders joined the students on Zoom.
“We wanted them to see Black people with decision-making ability,” Frankie Roberts, LINC’s co-founder and executive director, said.
On Front Street, Monteith Construction created a space for children of
employees and Camp Schreiber members. Linsey Hackett Honaker, employee development manager at Monteith Construction Corp. and Susie Sewell, director of Camp Schreiber Foundation set up the Monteith classroom.
Honaker is a former New Hanover County teacher. In one corner of the room were stacked blue and red bins from her old classroom. Honaker said it was important to make the space look like a classroom. The goal was to recreate school — socially distanced — so students have a place to do their work and have some resemblance of the social interaction so important to education.
“Home is not conducive to learning,” Honaker said.
Kausak said Snipes teachers are playing catch up now, but getting students back into the classroom is an essential step forward.
“Lots of our kids are farther behind than they were in March,” Kausak said.
“We’re talking about kids who are 2 years behind. We need to grow them two years in a year. Once we can get some kids in small groups in school, we can seriously catch them up at a fast rate.”
Kevin Maurer is a journalist and author. He is currently the Director of Community Engagement at Cape Fear Collective.