Some elementary schools are packed. Others have trouble signing up. Almost all of them have great racial and class disparities.
Schools in New Hanover County underwent a transition in 2006 to “neighborhood” schools, maintaining students in schools only a few miles from their homes. Since then, the most diverse schools in the district have seen a widening wealth gap.
Schools that once had about half of their students eligible for free and reduced lunches now have nearly all eligible students. The student body at some elementary schools, like Gregory and Freeman, has grown from a more equal mix of racial identities to more than 80% black students and less than 10% white.
Fifteen years later, communities are still feeling the drastic effects of change. Prior to 2006, elementary schools were evenly distributed across a range of free and discounted meal needs. Today, the gap has widened to show a noticeable divide between the rich and the poor, and with little appetite for reintegration, change is probably not in sight.
“Nobody wants to take their kids across town on a bus, I don’t care if you’re black or white,” said Barbara Anderson, who later attended and worked in New Hanover schools. “No one wants to put their kids on a bus for 30 minutes. And I understand that.
When the board worked to approve a 2020-2021 redistribution plan, many parents shared their views via social media – the vast majority were outraged at having to fire their students from a school they loved. Several said they have moved to parts of the city to ensure their students can attend certain schools, even to be within walking distance of those schools.
“The redistribution lines make no sense logically and would take away the consistency that all kids need,” one parent commented on a New Hanover County Schools Facebook post. “We took two years to find accommodation because we wanted to stay in this neighborhood. This change is unnecessary.
And these changes weren’t even in response to school diversification – they were due to overcrowding in several elementary schools in the city’s wealthier neighborhoods. In fact, many speakers at a board meeting in November 2019 said the new division plan would worsen segregation in schools.
Abandon disadvantaged children
A 2017 report from the UNC Inclusion Project showed that two-thirds of public schools in New Hanover County are racially imbalanced.
But this has not always been the case. In the mid-1990s, New Hanover County schools were incorporated, state-mandated, after a group of parents complained to the US Bureau of Civil Rights that the district was reinforcing racial segregation.
This lasted until 2006, nine years after the mandate of the Civil Rights Office expired. As a new superintendent was hired and a new school board was sworn in, the district parent leaders took the initiative to begin “reestablishing the neighborhood schools.” By 2010, elementary and middle schools were once again rediscovered based on closeness to students rather than inclusiveness and diversity.
“We had people on the school board who had no interest and who integrated into the school,” said Nick Rhodes, who was on the school board during the redistribution. “In fact, they were absolutely opposed to it.”
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Schools in the wealthier parts of the county, like Codington, Parsley, and Wrightsville Beach, have remained fairly stable in their free and reduced meal rates. Those who need it most – Snipes and Freeman – have seen only a slight increase. But for schools that were previously right in the middle, with 40-75% of students eligible for a free and reduced lunch in 2006, the change has been exponential.
At Gregory Elementary, for example, in 2006 there was an almost even split, with 41% of students qualifying for a free and reduced lunch. It was right in the middle of the range of free and discounted elementary school fees in the district. Fast forward 15 years, this school – now known as The International School at Gregory – has the highest free and discounted lunch rate in the county, with just under 100% of eligible students, according to a report from the City’s Community Relations Advisory Committee.
In the same 15-year period that the redistribution went into effect, Gregory went from almost half and half white students to black students, to 84% black and just 8% white.
Similar numbers can be seen for Forest Hills Elementary, now called Forest Hills Global Elementary.
And the numbers are consistent on other data points as well, including the percentage of students reading at grade level, teacher turnover, teacher experience level and kindergarten readiness, according to the Relations Advisory Committee. community.
In an attempt to pursue some integration, the district has made the worst performing and most needy schools “magnet” schools.
These magnetic schools, focused on technology and engineering, art and design and language learning, were supposed to attract families from across the district to enroll their students in specialized programs and thus create more integrated schools. while having optional neighborhood schools.
But this integration did not take place. Many school seats have been designated as ‘choice’ seats for families outside the school boundaries who wished to enroll in the program, but these seats continue to be largely vacant, according to the draft. inclusion of UNC.
Schools also have reserved seats for children from surrounding neighborhoods. The UNC Inclusion Project said this lack of enrollment outside these neighborhoods leaves schools like the Freeman School of Engineering and Snipes Academy of Arts and Design “both hyper-segregated and under-enrolled. “.
“They intentionally separated the schools, but you know they’re never going to admit it,” Anderson said. “But their appearance of making a magnetic school obviously didn’t work.”
Anderson worked as a librarian and media specialist at Freeman from when it became a magnetic school in 2008. She said she saw a once very diverse school drop from around 30% white enrollment to 8. % as Freeman’s registration limit continued to shrink to a more exclusive part of town.
She said that while Freeman has a great engineering program, the district has failed to meet the socio-emotional needs of students and families at the school, such as generational poverty and food insecurity. She said the school staff work as hard as they can, but with limited resources like social workers and counselors, they are limited in what they can do.
“These teachers over there are great and they work very, very hard, but a lot of times you have to deal with what’s going on in your head and in your stomach before you can get an education,” she said.
Fifteen years later
Parents now have the option of appealing their assigned neighborhood school if they believe they have a valid reason to change where their children attend. At a special board meeting on Wednesday, Julie Varnam said many of these requests are automatically accepted based on needs such as before and after school child care, school issues like programming. in some schools, class sizes, etc.
The Board of Education hears all appeals that have not been determined by the district as demonstrating a legitimate and serious ordeal that creates valid reason for changing schools. This year, that included eight calls. The district had 56 requests in total.
Varnam warned board members that approved applications should have proper reasoning so as not to create “unfair opportunities” to choose one’s school. She said none of the schools in the district could be considered unsafe due to persistent violent crime. While some may have an opinion on an area in which a school is located, none apply to the district’s policy on schools considered to be “persistent unsafe”.
StarNews asked to speak with district officials to inquire about future redistribution considerations on June 8, and followed up on June 16 and 29. Media relations coordinator Russell Clark responded to the request on June 29 but was unable to connect StarNews. with district administrators by July 1.
Even for those who would like to see more diversity, integrated schools say bus transportation is not a good option. Parent Sandy Eyles said in a Facebook comment she would like to see schools desegregated, but it should be done strategically to minimize the time spent getting to and from school.
Anderson said she would like to see more resources provided to these schools for socio-emotional support, such as more social workers and school psychologists or a shift to “community schools” to create partnerships between the district and others. resources to address beyond academic issues. .
“There is something to be said for a community that owns its school,” she said. “It would force the school system to think outside the box. This would force them to realize that they need to invest their money in infrastructure to meet the social, emotional and economic needs of not only children, but parents as well.
Journalist Sydney Hoover can be reached at 910-343-2339 or [email protected]