Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Deep Dive: A decade ago, some predicted ‘neighborhood schools’ would leave Black children behind. It did.

Research shows New Hanover County Schools with the highest percentage of minority children have the lowest rankings in the district. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

[This piece is a 2021-2022 N.C. Press Association award winner in the education reporting category.]

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Over the past decade, while New Hanover County schools with the most white and wealthy populations in the district moved up to the top 10 rankings in the state, the ones with the poorest and most-disadvantaged children fell to the bottom percentiles.

Proponents of diversity in schools predicted these racial and socioeconomic disparities would come to fruition back in 2006 and 2010, when the New Hanover County Board of Education adopted a neighborhood schools model to redistrict elementary and middle schools. The decisions put an end to a long-term commitment to integration over proximity in the school system.

Related: The opportunity gap for Black students in New Hanover is huge. Covid-19 has made it worse

Fast forward to today, those high-ranking schools – Parsley, Ogden and Wrightsville Beach elementary – are less than 2.5% Black. The majority of minority children are congregated in Freeman, Snipes and Gregory elementary, labeled magnet programs in an apparent half-hearted attempt to attract wealthier families and their resources to the inner city.

In 2019, 98% of Rachel Freeman School of Engineering’s students qualified for free or reduced-price meals, and less than 5% of its kindergartners were ready to start school when they arrived.

The challenges that come along with children experiencing poverty, both in Freeman and other downtown schools, often leads to heightened teacher turnover. The attrition rate is roughly 20% at Forest Hills, Gregory, Snipes and Freeman, while the predominantly white schools of Parsley, Ogden and Wrightsville Beach have retained the majority of their experienced instructional staff for 10-plus years.

Members of the board of education, the administration and the community have largely overlooked the escalating inequities until recently.

Over the past few months, the New Hanover County Community Relations Advisory (CRA) Committee has circulated a data-driven presentation on how neighborhood schools impacted students. It’s no revelation, but people are starting to pay more attention.

Scott Whisnant, a member of the CRA Committee, was familiar with the redistricting battles that took place years ago and spearheaded the effort. The committee, which exists to identify discrimination, is now pitching findings-based recommendations to the Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners to reintegrate schools.

Leading up to formal presentations to the elected officials, Whisnant has presented on the issue to different groups in the community. The argument against neighborhood schools is starting to pick up steam and people are wondering: How did anyone let this happen?

“It’s not surprising that it happened,” Whisnant said “We knew it would happen.. It’s surprising that it happened exactly the way it was predicted … and no one did anything about it.”

White schools and ‘cynical’ magnets

With a goal of populating the new Castle Hayne Elementary School to alleviate overcrowding by the 2007-09 school year, the board of education spent months attending forums and meetings, scrutinizing different proposed attendance lines.

But it was a never-before-seen redistricting plan that received the four votes needed to pass, despite two board members expressing concern over the impromptu move.

In that moment, the board erased years of work to integrate schools. 

Since the mid-’90s, NHCS had been complying with an Office for Civil Rights’ order to maintain between 15% and 50% African Americans in each school, even after it expired in 1997. The order arose out of a federal complaint that alleged the district’s assignment model exacerbated and reinforced residential segregation.

Hyper-segregation already present in housing patterns, brought on by mid-century redlining and discriminiation, becomes even more apparent under the neighborhood schools model.

To this day, former board member Janice Cavenaugh, who served for 30-plus years, maintains a firm stance on neighborhood schools. Two years ago, Cavenaugh and other longtime board members campaigned on this mantra, scattering corrugated signs across town, promising to “keep neighborhood schools.” In that election, voters unseated a collective 79 years of experience when none of the incumbents were reelected.

“I don’t remember a parent standing up and saying, ‘I want my child sent across town,’” Cavenaugh said. “It didn’t matter whether they were white, Black, rich or poor; all parents want their children to go to school somewhere in their neighborhood, and they want them to be protected and safe, and any time you go out in the neighborhood, there’s always suspicion as to what’s going to be going on.”

To address any concerns over a lack of diversity, the district established magnet programs at Freeman and Snipes, with the idea that white families would apply to the schools willingly.

“They put that together as sort of a Band-Aid to say, ‘Well, don’t complain about these districts. These are magnet schools. You can always draw from around the county,’” Whisnant said. “Well, no. They were never going to draw from around the county.”

Snipes received nine and Freeman received four applications in 2016.

Whisnant calls it “almost cynical” the way the magnet programs were put into place, with little leadership, planning and trust-building in the process.

Despite the magnet designations, the schools’ rankings plummeted over the next 10-plus years.

From 2005 to 2019, Snipes fell from the 12.2 percentile to 5.1, while Freeman dropped from the 20.6 percentile to 2.3.

In the same time span, Parsley, Ogden and Wrightsville Beach’s rankings climbed from 37, 81 and 63 to the fourth, sixth and ninth slots in North Carolina, according to SchoolDigger, a database that ranks schools based on publicly available end-of-grade test scores.

Politicized children

It was 2007. Elizabeth Redenbaugh was picking up her children at Parsley Elementary and overheard another mom say: “Did you hear? We’re redistricting our schools, and they’re going to redistrict them to neighborhood schools.”

The words instantly translated for Redenbaugh. “It meant we would have segregated schools,” she said.

Not long after, she filed to run for the board of education, campaigning on schoolwide socioeconomic diversity during radio interviews and candidate forums. As a red-party candidate, she found herself on the wrong side of a party-divided issue at the center of an election.

Looking back, Redenbaugh still wonders if voters didn’t take note of her unpopular opinion, or if they assumed because she was a registered Republican she would advocate for neighborhood schools when the middle school student reassignment appeared on the agenda.

Either way, she won. Among her and the other six board members’ first tasks in the redistricting process was to provide parameters to the redistricting committee.

Three members – Redenbaugh, Dorothy DeShields and Nick Rhodes – asked for maps that capped the population at 50% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch in any school.

On the other side of the argument, four board members told the committee they wanted neighborhood schools to keep kids close to home and promote parental involvement.

Cavenaugh said it was largely the NAACP pushing for busing, and recalled that even the African American parents were against the opposing position.

“We often had taken kids from the poorest neighborhoods and made them bus,” she added. “Because, normally, the poorer neighborhoods are the ones with the dominance of one particular race, and that’s the reason it was done that way.”

One of the first proposed maps that came back with guidelines proposed by DeShields, Redenbaugh and Rhodes showed children busing across the county. Redenbaugh said the community started paying attention. “Parents were angered – and rightly so,” she said.

They went back to the drawing board. Throughout the entire year, maps were drawn and tweaked, and scrapped and drawn again. “I can’t even tell you how many maps,” Redenbaugh said.

Meanwhile, public forums with blown-up posters of proposed maps grew contentious. Public comments at board meetings and letters to the editors in the newspaper targeted specific members. At one point, officers were escorting board members back and forth to their cars before and after meetings, according to Redenbaugh.

One day, as Redenbaugh stood in line at Learning Express, someone told her they did not want their child to go to school with Black kids. Another day she found a suspicious shell casing in her front yard. 

“It was scary, to be honest,” Redenbaugh said.

In January 2010, the board came to a decision. Chair Ed Higgins, vice-chair Jeannette Nichols and members Cavenaugh and Don Hayes formed a majority and chose a map. It left seats vacant at the new middle school they were attempting to fill, Holly Shelter, and concentrated the most disadvantaged students in a few schools.

“The point is that the school board did not want white kids from the southern part of the county to go to inner-city schools,” Rhodes said. “That was the bottom line.”

In 2019, the average free and reduced lunch percentage for the six public middle schools was 46%, except for Williston’s, at 97%.

With a population that is nearly half African American, Williston had a ranking of 643 in the state last year. Noble, Roland-Grise and Myrtle Grove – all middle schools with majority white populations – had rankings of 80, 133 and 213.

In 2010, the New Hanover County Board of Education swore to the North Carolina Department of Instruction through an affidavit that it did not intentionally segregate the schools. Redenbaugh, DeShields and Rhodes opposed signing.

In 2011, Redenbaugh accepted the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award for her role in advocating for diversity in the school system, despite coming up short. She is among recipients, such as former President Barack Obama and the public servants of 9/11.

In 2012, Redenbaugh ran for re-election to the school board.

She lost.

Rhodes lost, too, in 2010. DeShields retired. She passed away in May.

What now?

Despite select schools excelling, the district has slipped from the 68.8 percentile in 2006 to the 61.3 percentile in 2019.

The U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights states the academic achievement of racially isolated schools often lags behind those with more diversity and also fails “to provide the full panoply of benefits K-12 education can offer.”

“In order for us to succeed in life, there needs to be some diversity,” Evelyn Bryant, chair of the CRA Committee, said.

White students are the most segregated of all races in public schools. The Civil Rights Project of Harvard University found on average white children went to schools where more than 80% of the population was also white and other racial groups made up less than 20%.

“It’s because parents are making that decision,” current board of education chair Stefanie Adams said. “I think what we need to do as a community, and really as a country, is to ask ourselves why. Why is that? Why are we so afraid to have kids that look different in a classroom together? What are you afraid is going to happen?”

Adams sent her child to Forest Hills rather than their districted school, Parsley. She said the diverse study body and global curriculum attracted her.

A board member of two years, Adams questioned how close past members – all of whom were ousted in the 2018 election – were paying attention to the issues in the district. 

“Everybody is looking at this board and we need to fix 20 years of, honestly, lack of governance,” Adams said.

Related: New Hanover County school board electees poised to lead change, vow to regain trust

Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, who joined the administration in September, has also inherited the school system’s faults. Asked about neighborhood schools, he focused on his goals to improve the overall achievement levels within the next three years, barring any Covid-19-related setbacks.

He said he was not necessarily surprised by the data Whisnant presented about NHCS because students of color tend to fall in the low-performing subgroup nationwide. The same is true across the district, he said.

“It actually doesn’t matter if you’re in any of those schools,” Foust said. “It’s like some of our top schools, if you are a person of color, you’re not doing well. And so my question then goes to why?”

Superintendent Charles Foust and Board of Education chair Stefanie Adams at the November school board meeting. (Port City Daily photo/Alexandria Sands)

He believes the reason students of color are underperforming compared to others is a matter of accountability. His goal is to rid the “bless your heart curriculum,” the idea that teachers don’t push students because of their home life or other deficiencies.

“We sometimes become defeated in it, but we have stellar teachers,” Foust said, “and so it’s like, don’t give up. You keep pushing. You keep holding accountable. Kids will learn. Kids will learn. You just keep giving it to them at that high level. They will get it.”

However, the pandemic has made that level of motivation even more difficult for teachers to accomplish, as children are currently only attending class in person twice a week.

Close to 50% of the Hispanic and Black middle- and high-school students were failing courses at the end of the first quarter, while just 22% of white students were not earning passing grades.

In grades 3-5, 10% of Black students and 11% of Hispanic students are failing, while just 3% of white kids are failing.

Related: New Hanover County students failing in record numbers, still unknown when schools will fully reopen

Just this year, the school system redistricted elementary- and middle-school children. While consideration of economic, cultural, and ethnic diversity was one of the guiding principles in the decision, so was close proximity. Adams explained transportation was prioritized since the state can refund around $1 million to the county each year if its rented-out buses are used efficiently.

“Would I like to see a more integrated school system? A rainbow classroom in every building? Yeah, I would love to see that,” Adams said. “Getting there is a lot more complex than just saying, ‘Let’s do it.’”

The board of education is tasked with penning a new strategic plan in the coming year, and Adams said she plans to advocate for equity to be included.

The list

On Nov. 11, the CRA Committee sent a list of recommendations to the Wilmington City Council, New Hanover County Board of Commissioners and school board. The letter states the committee is not interested in simply moving white and Black kids around different schools, nor does it aim to establish special programs that would merely place certain demographics in classrooms away from the general population. But it does state a desire to see change.

“This issue, if left unresolved, will have lasting implications on business recruitment, tax revenue, prison capacity and school retention, among other areas,” Bryant wrote. “But it is first and foremost a moral issue.”

According to the letter, the committee will follow up in one, three and six months to monitor the progress of its requested actions.

“We’re trying to be as a committee more deliberate, intentional about our recommendations,” Whisnant said. “You’ll notice every one of these has a time limit on it, a deadline, so to speak.”

By the 2021-22 school year, the committee is asking the school system to create a redistricting plan with no more than 55% of the children in any school qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

“It’s not as simple as just moving some white kids into an inner-city school and claiming victory,” Whisnant said. “It’s got to be done with a lot of discussion, education, input from stakeholders and so on, but they got to change these districts. They gotta do something to make these schools more balanced, more equitable and fairer.”

Through receiving feedback on the presentation, Whisnant and the committee learned the county’s early childhood education program is full. It’s now asking the county to add capacity, with the goal of universal pre-K within two years.

Also on the list, the committee is advising New Hanover County to withhold bond funding from the school system until it meets minimum academic standards at all of its schools.

“That would be a really good way of holding them accountable for taking these recommendations very seriously,” Whisnant said, “if they understood that the county wouldn’t put their bond issues up for a vote unless they really started to change.”

Other proposed actions include adopting recommendations from the joint Workforce Housing Advisory Committee, improving the diversity of teachers and revamping the magnet programs to ensure the schools attract at least 20% of their student body from outside the immediate district by 2022.

“If they’re going to call a school a magnet school, they’ve got to take that seriously,” Whisnant said.

Also, the committee believes teachers who stay or transfer to schools with higher poverty levels should receive incentives. These populations of children often present additional challenges for educators to work with, from delays in learning to behavioral issues.

Some challenges stem from adverse childhood experiences, another issue the CRC committee is looking to mitigate. It is requesting all schools reach “trauma-informed status” by 2023, under the guidance of the New Hanover County Resiliency Task Force, which Whisnant chairs.

Lastly, the legislative bodies are asked to listen. By early February, the CRC committee hopes all will have arranged to meet and hear the “The Impact of Neighborhood Schools” presentation.

“I hope it becomes a rallying call for equity—not equality, but equity in our schools,” Whisnant said, “because we cannot just leave this many schools behind. A whole generation of kids gets left behind, basically.

“I think people are waking up to it.”

Send tips and comments to Alex Sands at alexandria@localdailymedia.com

Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands
Alexandria Sands is a journalist covering New Hanover County and education. Before Port City Daily, she reported for the award-winning State Port Pilot in Southport. She graduated from UNC Charlotte and wrote for several Charlotte publications while there. When not writing, Williams is most likely in the gym, reading or spending time with her Golden Pyrenees. Reach her at alexandria@localdailymedia.com or on Twitter @alexsands_

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