File photo by Jeremy M. Lange
In Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, long one of the most well-regarded school districts in North Carolina, 85 percent of African American male students in eighth grade do not pass end-of-grade reading tests. African American students are suspended at a rate seven times other students. The achievement gap—the difference between end-of-grade reading and math scores between white students and students of color—is 50 points.
Those are among the findings of a report
issued last year by the Campaign for Racial Equity in Our Schools, a coalition of concerned citizens and organizations in the area. (These outcomes are not substantially different from other school districts in North Carolina, or, for that matter, the entire country.) A district plan to address some of these issues recently surfaced
, but with the retirement of CHCCS superintendent Tom Forcella
in May, efforts are being made to keep up momentum on the issue.
Forcella is being replaced on an interim basis by Dr. Jim Causby. Last Wednesday, Causby met with fifty or so racial-equity advocates in an assembly hall at the United Church of Chapel Hill and sought to alleviate concerns that the school district would lose sight of the racial equity issue under his tenure, however long that may be. (James Barrett, chair of CHCCS school board, said he expects the search for Forcella’s permanent replacement will take a minimum of six months.)
Causby, who has sharply parted white hair and a folksy sense of humor, has an impressive resume in North Carolina schools. A teacher and then a principal early in his career, he’s since served as superintendent at four different school districts—Johnston, Swain, Polk, and Hickory City—and as executive director of the North Carolina Superintendents Association. Causby has been named Superintendent of the Year in North Carolina three different times.
“I’ve retired five times,” Causby told the crowd, raising all five digits of his right hand. “I just retired again six months ago!”
He agreed to come out of retirement for CHCCS, he said, because of its reputation as one of the best public school districts in the Southeast.
“I was asked if I was interested in coming on to help a school district in transition, and I said, No way,” Causby said. “Then they said, Well, this is a unique district. And I said, Which one? And they said, Chapel Hill. And I said, Oh, that is special.”
Causby said he’s met with the school board members—several of whom were in attendance—and that each of them told him their number-one priority for the schools is improving racial equity.
“And besides keeping the school open and operating while I’m here, that’s my number-one issue as well,” he said.
But Causby also cautioned that there is only so much that can be done by an interim superintendent, and that any real change would be put in motion by whoever follows him in the role.
Wanda Hunter, an organizer with the Campaign for Racial Equity, tells the INDY
that she expects Causby to keep the issue front and center until he passes the baton to the new superintendent.
"We're hopeful that whoever is chosen has background and experience and training in the area of racial equity," Hunter says. "Dr. Causby doesn't necessarily have that. It's been a priority for him in the past, and that's wonderful. But we think the district needs to start looking at new approaches to this problem, because the old approaches that tried to target black and brown students in this district have not made the difference we'd hoped they'd make."
Eugene Farrar, a former president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro branch of the NAACP and a recently retired custodian at Chapel Hill High School, says he doesn't expect an overnight fix.
"This is a thirty, forty, fifty-year-old problem," Farrar tells the INDY
. "You can't put a bandaid on it and expect it to be OK. There are a lot of things going on here. Seven times as many black kids are suspended from school than white kids? That has to do with the way our educators are treating these kids. They treat them different. And kids are smart—they know when they're being treated differently. So it's partially a matter of screening our teachers better, making sure we're bringing in people who are conscious of some of theses biases that exist."
Hunter says there's a sort of expectation gap in addition to the much-discussed achievement gap
"From our listening sessions, we learned that our black and brown students feel teachers have lower expectations of them in the classroom," she says. "We heard multiple people say that you can walk down the hallway and look into classrooms and know based on the color of the children in the classroom whether it's an advanced class or not. And that's in part because black and Latino kids go talk to their guidance counselor to try to sign up for AP classes and are told maybe they're not ready for all these classes. And they start to believe that."
"If 85 percent of white kids in Chapel Hill were not passing their end-of-grade reading tests, people would be absolutely up in arms," Hunter says. "But it's young black males, so it's hardly even news. But that's why we're trying to keep this issue alive. That's why we did the report, and that's why we're going to keep up these efforts for true equity."