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NHCS equity audit complete, recommendations include hiring a 'Chief Inclusion & Community Engagement Officer'

An example of, according to the Equity audit, "Photos that highlight inclusion and cultivate a sense of belonging within NHCS building."
NHCS, Sophic Solutions
An example of what the Equity audit calls "Photos that highlight inclusion and cultivate a sense of belonging within NHCS building."

Sophic Solutions, an educational consulting firm, has completed its equity audit of New Hanover County Schools. The review was conducted from March through June 2021.

The consultants, Stephenie and Rodney Smith, wrote some of their report based on a June 2021 site visit, interviews with NHCS stakeholders, and the findings from discussions during nine focus groups with district students, parents, staff, and community and school board members.

According to the district’s contract with the firm, which is based in Kansas City, Missouri, Sophic was paid around $17,000 for their work, made recommendations in the audit surrounding equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) district initiatives through in seven areas:

  1. Culture
  2. Policy
  3. Communication
  4. Training and Professional Development
  5. Curriculum
  6. Community Engagement

And, finally, and more specifically:
7. Hire a Chief Inclusion and Community Engagement Officer

Stephanie Walker is a board member and the chair of the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee (EDI). She said at the board’s November 9th meeting she hopes to pass a resolution to start the process of creating the position.

“If the superintendent gets charged with investigating and coming up with a strategy to do that. We’re doing it at a time where budget discussions start in January, so hopefully by budget time he’s given us a sheet that shows us how much it’s going to cost. [So that we understand] the duties of the officer, what the position will look like, what the organizational chart looks like,” said Walker.

The audit said the position “must be a member of the senior leadership team and work alongside the Superintendent.”

The audit also recommended that the district support the school board in “examining and transforming policies and practices that perpetuate inequity including, but not limited to access to Career Technical Education, Lyceum, and Lottery Schools.”

The audit honed in on the inequity at Lyceum Academy at New Hanover High School. The program is considered to be “an accelerated college preparatory program.” The audit said the program has “an overrepresentation of white students enrolled in the program and an underrepresentation of students of color.”

The audit consultants went on to state, “We highlight these disparities not to cause alarm, but to shed light; that in spite of the district’s promising commitment to equity, inconsistencies in the implementation of equity still exist.”

Joshua Smith, chief communications officer for the district, said they’re looking into ways to expand awareness of programs like Lyceum and to create specific communication plans for programs like the Marine Science Academy at Ashely High School, Hoggard High’s International Baccalaureate program, and STEM focus at Laney.

Deputy Superintendent Dr. LaChawn Smith, who sits on the district’s EDI committee, said the committee has specific goals around providing equitable access to education programs like Lyceum.

“And so if we have programs that are not in alignment with those goals, then looking at the work of our Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee, the expectation would be that they would examine that, and that, again, connects directly back to the recommendation of the audit around our signature programs, our specialty programs. We want to make sure that we have equitable outcomes, equitable access, equitable resource distribution, for all the students that are part of that,” said Smith.

Board member Walker agrees. She said she wants, for example, the ‘typical’ Lyceum student to change.

“We want to look at recruitment, I think, and we definitely want to see where we can include kids that might not necessarily fit what maybe they think as like the perfect child to be in Lyceum. [...] Do we want the top of the top to always go into this program or make it available for all students to try and have a chance at it?” said Walker.

The audit also highlighted the need to hire more teachers of color: “There is a shortage of educators of color in the district and that the curriculum needs to be representative of ALL of its students.”

In response to this identified need to recruit more teachers of color, Walker said, “We already have a teacher shortage as it is, and everyone knows that but we need to work on recruiting more teachers of color for sure, and the focus was to look at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that we have in our state and in our area, and trying to be more mindful of strategies.”

Smith said the recruitment of teachers of color is “not a new challenge for New Hanover County Schools, nor is it a new challenge for many districts across the state and across the nation. We’re working very closely with our human resources division, and they have a pretty comprehensive plan to engage in terms of recruiting in terms of mentoring and also retaining teachers of color, staff of color within the district.”

The audit also addressed the contention surrounding those who might not necessarily support diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives: “There is an underlying division in the district; there are some stakeholders who support this work and some who do not.” But the consultants added, “While we recognize that not all community members support or have an appreciation for NHCS commitment to DEIB, it is important to partner and align with those that do.”

But, despite this finding, the consultants ultimately said, “[i]n order to infuse DEIB in a substantial way, there must be universal buy-in from all NHCS stakeholders.”

The consultants also said even when there is acceptance of DEIB, “There seems to have been minimal acknowledgment and very few conversations about these issues throughout the district. In fact, staff and students expressed concern about whether educators can properly address such issues, especially when challenges arise. In many respects, these matters have served as stressors on the mental health and well-being of both students and staff.”

NHCS Board Member Stephanie Walker said that DEIB is a value that the district should stand behind.

“Because if we have a really strong school district, that means it should be for every child. And there's work to be done. And I don't think anybody would be against that, I really don't when it comes down to it. Buy-in is important. [...]. And so we do have to work on that,” said Walker.

Smith said that most in the community do value diversity — because it’s not just a discussion about race.

“When you talk to individuals, they're not many individuals who don't want diversity of perspective. They want to know what other people are thinking around a topic or issue so that we can better understand that issue from different perspectives,” said Smith.

Smith said there’s a ‘party planning’ analogy that she uses when she talks with community members about DEIB:

“Diversity represents the fact that you've been asked to the party. Inclusion represents the fact that you've been asked to help plan the party. Equity exists in the fact that it might redefine what the party entails, and who is in a position to plan the party. So it's not the folks who typically plan the party; it's a much more diverse group of individuals. And then belonging, which, ultimately is where we want folks to sit and rest is that you feel comfortable and welcome going to the party,” said Smith.

Smith added that she wants the whole community to feel “that they all have a place within New Hanover County Schools, and they’re all comfortable with the work being done.”

Smith said the topic of redistricting was outside of the purview of this audit, but it’s a point of contention that a school parent brought up during a focus group discussion — which was noted in the report: “We did not choose a home until we chose a school. Unfortunately, we had to select education quality over diversity.”

In response to this comment, Smith said, “there were some impassioned quotes from both our parents and students. And that’s something that we really appreciate [...] to hear their voice and hear their struggle, but [redistricting] was a topic that probably set on the minds of parents, but again, as we look at equitable outcomes, if we look at equitable access, we are making sure that the resources are where they need to be, we’re going to address some of the concerns.”

“And then, when the district is at a point where it’s ready to engage in the redistricting process, I think there are going to be very different kinds of conversations that occur at that point,” said Smith.

While the district completed redistricting in late 2019, Walker said it’s important to look at the balance of racial and socioeconomic demographics when it comes to the next round.

According to a 2020 New Hanover County/City of Wilmington Community Relations advisory report, the district continues to struggle with equity among its schools. For example, in 2019, for both Rachel Freeman Elementary and Snipes Elementary about 99% of their student population is on free or reduced lunch (FRL). At Freeman, the demographics are 81% Black students and 6% white students. For Snipes, it’s at 80% and 11% respectively.

Also, a 2017 UNC Center for Civil Rights reportfound that “66% of New Hanover schools were racially imbalanced.”

Board Member Stephanie Walker said she grew up in Wilmington and was the beneficiary of the school system’s former integration policies. And she said she saw firsthand the positives of going to school with people from different backgrounds.

“It's not just about race, it's about how we see each other from a young age. And, how we grow up with each other. And I feel like there are a lot of schools here that don't get that opportunity, unfortunately. And I know kids like to go -- and it makes sense -- to go to the school that's closest to you. So I totally understand that. It's just we're looking at the bigger picture. And we want to be a more inclusive society and grow as a city and a county, then I think that's a part of it,” said Walker.

Below: The equity audit report from Sophic Solutions

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR