The New Hanover County School System has struggled to provide an equal education to all students. That’s according to a recent New Hanover County/City of Wilmington’s Community Relations Advisory report. But whether or not redistricting is the answer remains an open question.
In 2017, researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Center for Civil Rights issued a stark finding: 66% of New Hanover schools were racially imbalanced.
Theodore Shaw, the Director of the Center, says the ‘neighborhood school’ policy where students attend schools closest to where they live is one of the main causes for this re-segregation.
“New Hanover County and school districts across the county, many students and their parents made decisions that fled these school systems, rather than have school systems deal with issues of equity.”
Newly elected Board member Stephanie Walker agrees. She says she saw the writing on the wall about neighborhood schools when the policy was put in effect.
“It angered me that a policy change would drastically change the lives of children. All you have to do is look at the numbers. And you can just clearly see it hurt children.”
Some of these numbers are found in the Community Relations Advisory Committee’s newly issued report, which shows a continuation of what Professor Shaw discovered. The Committee, created by Wilmington and New Hanover County, deals with issues involving prejudice or discrimination.
The Committee’s report shows that starting about 10 years ago, students in poverty became more concentrated in specific schools around the district. And when that happened, overall student achievement dropped dramatically in these schools.
Take for example Rachel Freeman Elementary. In 2005, the Black and White student populations were relatively even and about 70% of their student body was on free or reduced lunch. Fast forward to 2019, 99% of the population has this designation, and it’s only 6% White. And Freeman’s ranking compared to other public schools statewide dropped significantly according to a third party analysis.
After the Committee's report, members sent a list of nine specific recommendations to local governments and to the School Board. Scott Whisnant, a member of the Committee, says the district needs a new approach to achieving equity:
“We’re very clear that this solution is more complex than just sending some White kids to a downtown school, and then putting them into a bubble so-called academically gifted, that looks nothing like the rest of the school. That’s what we’ve done in the past. And that’s not integration. But we’ve asked them to see if they could aim for districts that would have no more than 55% of the student body be on free and reduced lunch.”
Stephanie Kraybill, another newly elected Board member, says with the school system operating in a pandemic, it’ll be hard to address the issue any time soon:
“I was a pretty staunch advocate of not doing redistricting the way we did 10 years ago, but I think at this particular moment in time, that we are not in a good position to do redistricting.”
Stephanie Walker says issues with equity top her list of priorities:
“I can’t give you a timeline because I have to get in there and find out who gets Chair who directs what happens over the next year. But I really do hope to work on this, and it’s my goal to try.”
One of the first actions the Community Relations Advisory Committee is asking local government bodies to take is to allow them to present their findings in open session.
Stephanie Kraybill is a newly elected member of the New Hanover County School Board. She says when the time comes to redistrict schools, she’ll listen to the experts, but it might not mean moving kids around the district.
“I truly believe that if we worked hard at making all of our schools better by the way we distribute our funds and by the way we distribute our people power, then it really shouldn’t matter what school your kid goes to. I know that is like Pollyanna rose glasses, but I think that’s what should be our end goal. And if our kids want to go to school with their friends in the neighborhood they live in, then they should be able to do that and the parents should feel comfortable that their kids are getting a good solid education.”
Theodore Shaw is the Director of UNC Chapel Hill’s Center for Civil Rights. He agrees, but says it’s not that simple.
“I appreciate the sentiment that we need to make all schools better, but having said that, what does that mean? I don’t think that there’s a magic bullet, but there some things we know about both racial segregation and economic status. Poverty impaction is one of the most devastating factors with respect to the challenges of providing quality education.”
Shaw says that concentrating students in poverty in any school is to be avoided. He says that this concentration diminishes the quality of instruction and reduces equal access to educational opportunities and resources.
He also says that it’s in all of our interests to have economically and racially diverse schools. If we don’t, he says, it limits the ability of all of our children to enter the ‘marketplace’ of employment and to fulfill their civic responsibilities.
A spokesperson for New Hanover County Schools says they have no plans to redistrict at this time. In regards to the Community Relations Advisory Committee’s report, they say it “is being evaluated in coordination with city and county discussions on the topic, as well as district goals and standards, to address achievement for students at all schools.”
When asked how the school system is planning to reduce the achievement gap in schools with high percentages of students on free or reduced lunch, they are conducting “a literacy audit and will develop a literacy plan that starts with the youngest learners. The district is working to make sure their reading readiness approach is being identified and that we are moving forward with that. Our goal is to ensure that 90% of students are reading on grade level by the time they get to 3rd Grade.”
Additionally they will be “looking at our Tier 1 instruction and work to achieve a 10% increase in student achievement in all subgroups within the next three to five years. NHCS will begin with a district-wide approach and will then work with principals to develop specific plans for each of their students in each subgroup.”
Author's Note: For the last round of redistricting in 2019, the district has made attempts to equitably disperse free and reduced lunch student populations. For example, Hoggard High went from having 21% of its population on free and reduced lunch to 28%. Ashley's numbers decreased from about 37% to 32%.