Buncombe County staff presented a briefing at the Feb. 7 meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners to update the Commission and the public on the county’s “Educated & Capable Community Strategic Plan Focus Area.”
That focus area targets improving educational achievement in schools and quality of life for all age groups.
According to the report, profound racial disparities persist between African American and white students in both academic performance and disciplinary action taken against them. Students in third through eighth grades in Asheville City Schools showed the greatest performance gaps in reading skills: 13% of Black students were grade-proficient in end-of year tests, compared to 75% of white students—a 62% gap.
The differentials in mathematics were almost as severe, showing a 55% gap: only 11% of Black city students were grade-proficient in end-of-year tests, compared to 66% of white students.
Buncombe County students in those same age groups showed similar, though not quite as severe, gaps of 36% in reading and 40% in math. But Al Whitesides, the first Black county commissioner in history, said he was “appalled” by those numbers.
In terms of disciplinary actions taken against students, the statistics show a virtual mirror image of the achievement levels. Based on numbers from the staff study, Black students in Asheville City Schools were more than seven times as likely as white students (17.1 v. 2.29 per 1,000 students) to be referred to law enforcement. Many of those students find themselves out of the school buildings, either because the school has put them on short-term suspension—or they are being “dealt with” by law enforcement.
A similar picture emerges for county students: Buncombe County Schools referred 23.4 Black students per thousand to law enforcement, compared to 9.2 per thousand white students.
Former Asheville teacher Sarah Williams says, “The educational gap between African American students and white students comes as no surprise to me. There has been a gap as long as I can remember.”
She does not ascribe that differential to the students, however, instead asking, “Why does the gap still exist? The insinuation is that African American students can learn but minimally.”
But she questions why the discussion so often comes down to the students’ mental abilities. With her own background in the classroom, she points out, “There will always be strong teachers and weak teachers. The weak teachers could be the source of the problem.”
In a similar vein, she challenges the idea “that African American students come from homes where parents care nothing about education.”
That phenomenon exists among white families as well, with many white parents questioning the value of education, demanding that certain books be restricted or banned, and condemning even the idea of teaching critical thinking.
Even so, Williams says, “A teacher should go into his or her bag of tricks and work around that barrier. No, it won’t be easy, but every student is worth it.”
“I don’t have all the answers,” Williams concludes, “but I know that we can’t let the color of a child’s skin limit his or her educational success. Look within your school system and find your weaknesses—and turn them into strengths.”
Jim Causby, Interim Superinten-dent of the Asheville schools system, agreed with Whitesides that a major cause of the achievement gap is poverty, especially its far higher rate among Black families than white ones. But he also noted some positive signs, for example that the growth in Black achievement was the highest in Asheville schools’ history—though that growth began from a baseline that has been embarrassingly low for more than a decade. He also mentioned some remediating ideas, such as a “reset room” containing exercise equipment and even punching bags, where students could find an outlet for their frustrations, anger, sorrow, or other feelings.
Money, but not money alone
Buncombe commissioners provide more than $100 million a year in support of the County’s school system, but money is not the be-all and end-all solution. Better training of teachers and staff about racial bias in their response to even minor infractions is essential. Promoting and ensuring diversity, equity, and inclusion at all levels of the system; the broader community and “partner organizations” like the locally based United for Youth Network and the statewide MyFutureNC can help improve education and narrow, and ultimately close, the achievement and disciplinary gaps.
And commissioners must work to integrate other aspects of community development and equity: building more affordable housing, making libraries more accessible to all, and working in a broad way to close the poverty gap.
None of these tasks is easy, but all of them are essential if students in Asheville and Buncombe County schools are ever to achieve up to their full potential.
Also See Observations on Education: Dr. Dolly Mullen discusses ways to improve education.
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