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Unpacking the data behind New Hanover's lowest-performing schools

NCDPI labeling 12 low-performing schools.
NCDPI labeling 12 low-performing schools.

End-of-year test scores for the 2021-2022 school year show continuing disparities among New Hanover County students. WHQR spoke with Scott Whisnant, who recently compiled data on student achievement. He's currently serving on the district’s Turnaround Task Force — and is a former member of the city/county’s Community Relations Advisory Commission, which studied school diversity.

Whisnant pulled much of his data from schooldigger.com, a website geared towards parents looking to evaluate schools (and school districts). Most of the site's information is pulled from publicly available databases kept by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Note: You can view some of Whisnant’s analysis at the end of this report. The site’s methodology is here.

The shows that New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) have both some of the highest-ranked elementary schools in the state (Masonboro and Wrightsville Beach) — but also some of the lowest-ranked (Rachel Freeman and Forest Hills). D.C. Virgo, a lab school run by the University of North Carolina Wilmington and thus not technically part of NHCS, is also near the bottom of the rankings.

This dynamic is also reflected in the state’s report card.

Grading students / grading schools

Whisnant, like other educational researchers, says proficiency on end-of-grade tests is highly dependent on a student’s socioeconomic status, which tends to correlate with their race or ethnicity.

Dr. Thurston Domina is one of the leaders of University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s School of Education. He said the ‘letter grade’ is measured through 80% proficiency on end-of-year tests, and 20% on the student’s growth for that year.

“What that means, in practice, is that those report card grades correlate incredibly highly with nothing more than the socioeconomic status of the students who are at those schools,” Domina said.

He added that this ‘letter grade’ can be misleading.

“So you can have schools where students are thriving, really effective learning environments; schools that you'd be happy to have your kids in that have report card grades that don't look great. And on the reverse, you can have schools that have A's on the state's report card, but that aren't happy places, and aren’t places where students are thriving and feeling included and welcome,” Domina said.

While State Superintendent Catherine Truitt is looking to change this formula, the reality is that students of New Hanover County are concentrated in certain schools throughout the district by socioeconomic status and ethnicity and race.

For example, for the 2021-2022 school year, Masonboro and Wrightsville Beach had less than 20 Black students combined, while schools like Freeman, Forest Hills, and Snipes have majority Black populations. Those students are almost all on free-and-reduced lunch, a signifier of economic status.

While end-of-grade tests for 2022-2023 are embargoed until later this fall, Whisnant said the 2021-2022 data show that white children are outperforming Black students by “45 percentage points or more at every grade level on every test.”

Whisnant said because of this, these students are, “coming to school with completely different perspectives and cultural backgrounds, and they’re having a much different experience in our schools.”

Historic disparities

Since New Hanover County is one of the smallest counties in terms of land mass, this disparity is “unsustainable,” according to Whisnant.

“So within seven or eight miles, you have kids go into a school that's ranked seventh in the state on end-of-grade test scores, [...] and then just a few miles away, you have a school rank dead last (Freeman), and that's what the [New Hanover County Schools] Turnaround Task Force wants to address is, how do we make the school experience for children more equal and more a level playing field?” Whisnant said.

And these inequities have persisted since the former school board drew districts based on a neighborhoodschool model in the mid-2000s. According to Whisnant, these inequities have persisted much longer than that, with the historical events of the 1898 coup d’etat, the Jim Crow era in the South, the Wilmington Ten being sentenced to prison, redlining certain neighborhoods in the city, and the closing of Williston High School. These events have had lasting impacts on New Hanover County’s Black community.

When Whisnant last reviewed the data on this issue back in 2020, the situation has gotten worse. And while the pandemic did have some impact on these end-of-grade scores, he argues this variable affected all students.

But what sets the county apart, according to Whisnant, is the disparity that continues. And it shows up again in elementary schools like Masonboro and Freeman — that certain subgroups don’t even show up in the data because there’s so few of that particular ethnicity or race.

“So if you look at the top 10 schools in our county, all of which are in the 84th percentile and higher, and all of which have very few African American students, it's hard to tell what the Black kids did on the tests because there's not enough there to even register as a subgroup. And the same is true at the other end, there are so few white kids at the schools at the bottom of this list, that you don't even have a score for [them],” Whisnant said.

And Whisnant maintains that the district should look at how they’re reaching Black children.

“In one of these lower performing schools, the International School at Gregory, on a 5th-grade science test, the white kids passed at 91%. And the Black kids passed at 9%. So how can you have that big of disparity in one school on one test?” Whisnant asked. “First of all, you have to ask, was the test culturally biased to begin with? But the second thing is, how are we able to reach kids of color who may not look like the teacher or look like a lot of the school officials? And it seems to be a gap that's widening and widening,” Whisnant said.

Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust has consistently said that possible reasons for this are that in these lower-performing schools, teachers and staff have lower expectations for these students and that some are not teaching the curriculum with fidelity.

And while this delivery of curriculum and the quality of the educators do matter, the discrepancy in these numbers shows that some of these students and their families aren’t getting what they need from their home environment, which in turn shows up in school.

“But unless the kid comes ready to learn, it really doesn't matter how well the teaching or the academic factors are, the kid’s not going to learn. And so we have to somehow figure out, how does that kid come to a place that’s nurturing, a place that the child trusts, and a place that will meet that child's unique needs,” Whisnant said.

And, to Whisnant, that attention should be paid to the bottom three lowest-performing elementary schools, ones like Freeman, Forest Hills, and Snipes.

“It's one thing to say a school is failing; however three of these elementary schools are beyond failing, they're failing at a rate even much more so than the others. And so I hope that our task force is able to address that issue, how we bridge these cultural gaps that we're obviously seeing, particularly when they play out in such large numbers in the same school,” Whisnant said.

Turning around low-performing schools

Principal Diego Lehocky is leaving Sunset Park Elementary and is taking the helm at Forest Hills for this upcoming school year. He said that students from low-income communities often need extra support, but said he’s ready to take on the challenge of turning the school around.

“If you really care about those kids, it takes a lot out of you, educationally; obviously, you're trying to drive them, but socially, emotionally, they have to be there first before they can learn. So it's a very challenging profession, but so rewarding,” Lehocky said.

And some of the high-poverty schools are under-enrolled. But for the task force, there haven’t been discussions yet on redistricting.

“We know that's not an appealing political choice. There are two schools of thought about redistricting. One is you would simply be dispersing the problem throughout the county and not really solving it. The other school of thought is by doing that, you'd be sending kids to more schools with more resources to deal with it in smaller numbers – and [then the kids will] have a better chance of having some success,” Whisnant said.

As for busing, Whisnant said the district is doing some of that. He added that Black students from the Creekwood neighborhood typically go to Holly Shelter Middle School, which is more than 10 miles away from their homes.

Dr. Robert Smith, a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Watson College of Education, said he’d like the task force to look at the redistricting issue seriously.

“But the broader concern is that as a community, segregated schools perpetuate segregated neighborhoods, and at this point in time, we as a community ought to be able to take on this challenge, but it will need a broad base of public support for doing that,” Smith said.

Whisnant hopes the data he's put together will help to inform the district moving forward. Personally, he hopes to see "schools that are created that everybody wants to be part of."

"I think we've won the day when white parents around the county look at Freeman and the programming they've got, and the support they've got and the educational curriculum they’ve got, and say, ‘I want to be part of that school.’ And lo and behold, we voluntarily desegregate. Wouldn't that be the best outcome possible? Or that we have we find successes in the schools that we can replicate throughout the county, so that we don't even need people hunting and cherry picking for schools, but every school choice that they would have would be a good one,” Whisnant said.

Listen to an extended interview with Scott Whisnant

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