Education

Groups urge CMS to get cracking on equal opportunity. Here’s the new boss’ response.

African American clergy supporting the call for a renewed focus on equity stand while Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake speaks to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.
African American clergy supporting the call for a renewed focus on equity stand while Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake speaks to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is overdue to put serious scrutiny on schools that shortchange low-income and African-American students, two civic groups and half a dozen black ministers told the school board this week.

“You sit at the crossroad. You are responsible,” the Rev. Jordan Boyd of Rockwell AME Zion Church said. “If we fail, if our children fail, we will all reap the consequences.”

Members of the clergy, the Black Political Caucus and the League of Women Voters urged the board to take a range of actions, such as reviving a citizens’ panel to oversee school equity, finding a way to monitor opportunity, scrapping programs that aren’t making a difference, bolstering vocational classes and refusing to accept low academic results for students of color.

“I’ve heard every excuse under the sun,” said Arthur Griffin, a caucus member and former school board chair. “They live in poverty, they come from dysfunctional families, there’s substance abuse, there’s violence in the home they live in, or untreated mental health issues.”

None of those excuses should be used to justify the fact that only about one-third of black students are earning reading scores that indicate they’re on track for career and college success, he said.

“I care deeply about this town I call home. I care deeply, even more so, about our local public school system, and I want to help,” Griffin said. “The community wants to help.”

Griffin chaired the school board at the turn of the century, as CMS was converting from race-based assignment to a neighborhood-based system that sharply increased racial isolation and concentrations of poverty. At the time the district created annual reports and a citizens’ oversight committee to track whether schools were offering equal opportunity, or equity.

Over the years, with frequent changes in leadership, both the panel and the reports melted away.

On Tuesday, the League of Women Voters gave the board its own stab at a new equity report. The league analyzed recent data and found that schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students had newer teachers, higher turnover of faculty and principals and fewer National Board Certified teachers than schools where most students come from homes with more resources. The conclusion: Instead of helping students compensate for disadvantages at home, schools are compounding them.

“We can see that in critical areas our schools are not equitable,” said Helene Hilger, co-chair of the league’s education committee.

Clayton Wilcox, who became superintendent in July, said the league’s report has already sparked good discussion among his staff.

“My job as the superintendent is to translate that discussion into action,” Wilcox said, “and that’s what we will be doing in the next days and weeks ahead.”

For starters, Wilcox said he plans to present his own equity report in early February.

“With the support of this board we’re going to go forward boldly and try to make a difference for kids,” he said. “It is not easy and it is not work that happens overnight ... but we also understand that there has to be an urgency because the kids that we have today don’t have tomorrow.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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