If you don't like baseless stereotypes and are repulsed by racism, avoid the reader comments on local newspaper and TV stories about the press conference held last week by the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP.
If you were to view them, you'd learn, among other unprintable things, that minority and low-income parents are to blame for their kids' failing end-of-grade exams. And you would learn that they should stop whining and depending on teachers and the schools to bail them out.
Fair or not, that's the reaction the NAACP received after publicly contending that the school board is creating de facto resegregation by adding six high school honors courses in social studies and science without first addressing the minority achievement gap.
It's certainly not a response that Rev. Mark Royster can accept. He led the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district's Blue Ribbon Task Force in 1992, a group of 70 administrators, parents and students who crafted detailed suggestions to increase the number of minority and low-income students in honors classes and decrease the number in detention.
Some 18 years later, Royster stood on the grass of the school administration lawn, the former site of the segregated Lincoln High School, questioning why minority and low-income test scores plateaued after initially improving and why there are too few black and Latino faces in upper-level courses—and too many in detention.
"They're saying, 'I've never heard of a group that gets upset when the school system tries to implement a program which will enrich the education,'" he said, citing reader comments in stories previewing the rally. "Or, 'Based on the stats, I do not think that the school board needs to do anything to widen the achievement gap. It looks like the minority students are doing just fine achieving that goal by themselves.' We don't need that kind of publicity. We don't need those kinds of statements. Where have things gone wrong?"
It's a fair question, and one that's gone unanswered. Most of the discourse since last week has focused on aesthetics of the event and the immediacy of the honors course debate, rather than the racial and class inequity undergirding it.
End-of-grade tests given to third- through eighth-grade students support Royster's point. Black and Latino students were progressing steadily for more than a decade, but after new, more rigorous tests were implemented in 2006 for math and 2008 for reading, scores for those groups have fallen more precipitously than for others.
In 2005, 99 percent of whites and Asians passed the math test, compared to 80 and 86 percent of African-Americans and Latinos, respectively. Today that's dropped to 95 percent for whites and Asians, 65 percent for Latinos and 59 percent for blacks.
Reading scores were similarly impacted, with the 2007 test scores showing 99 percent of whites and 96 percent of Asians passing, compared to 83 percent of Latinos and African-Americans. The 2009 results indicate that white and Asian student scores fell slightly to 95 and 86 percent, respectively; meanwhile, African-American and Latino marks plummeted to 42 percent and 47 percent, respectively.
"I think you can readily say that kids of color know more mathematics than they did before. On the other hand, what we expected kids to know got bigger," said Diane Villwock, the district's director of testing and program evaluation.
"You have to look at what is expected for all children: Did we narrow gap up until '06? You bet we did. Are we still narrowing the gap? Yes. Has it gone away? No"
Anecdotes tell the story, too, like the ones offered by two white parents at the press conference. One of them was Duke University professor Tim Tyson, author of Blood Done Sign My Name, said his two children found an "elitist and careerist atmosphere" at East Chapel Hill High School.
"The program of the school seemed aimed at them, really, and not at all of their friends," Tyson said.
Local food writer Nancie McDermott recalled her anger when a student told her daughter that parents are to blame for low minority achievement levels. "This problem is white supremacy and white privilege," she said. "It didn't start here, but it lives here, and the fact that people don't see it doesn't mean it's not there."
These inequities festered long before the board's vote to add honors courses became the topic of the day. That decision only underscores the larger issue: Despite its national recognition as a top school system, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, still struggles to achieve results for all students.
"I don't think there's any question that what this school system does best is prepare students who are college-bound to be extremely well prepared when they graduate from our high schools," Superintendent Neil Pedersen said. "That's our success story. We are less successful with those who aren't so certain of their career or perhaps don't have those aspirations."
To remedy the situation, school officials have debated dozens of strategies, like the Knowledge is Power Program or the Harlem Village Academy. Yet the model doesn't matter as much as the commitment, UNC School of Education Professor Kathleen Brown said.
Brown, a former principal, studied 24 Wake County elementary schools in 2007-2008, all within a 10-mile radius and with similar budgets, teacher experience and demographics. All were dubbed Schools of Excellence, though half had achievement gaps of greater than 15 percent. Those with smaller achievement gaps had more "academic optimism."
"In those small gap schools, there was a celebration of academic achievement, there was academic leadership," Brown said. "It's a mind-set, it's a focus on that. It's got to be at the forefront. We know what we need to do. Doing it is the hard part."