Education

‘Some unpleasant truths’ on race, poverty and opportunity revealed in CMS report

White students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s low-poverty schools have the best shot by far at getting top-notch teachers and graduating ready for college, while black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools are left behind.

The message might not shock people who follow public education in Charlotte. But the messenger might: Superintendent Clayton Wilcox pulled no punches about the links between race, income and unequal opportunity in a new report presented Friday morning.

Breaking the Link,” a 70-page tally of school demographics, teacher qualifications, test results, advanced classes and attendance data, is Wilcox’s bid to lay out “unpleasant truths” as he and the school board chart long-term solutions. He and his top staff say they hope it will jolt political, business, community and faith leaders into joining the district’s effort.

“The systems that are in place in this community are failing some of our families and some of our children, and we in CMS are one of those systems,” Wilcox said at a news conference. “As a district we are ready to meet that challenge. This report is the first step as we draw a line in the sand.”

The upshot is that both race and school poverty levels are linked to everything from a student’s opportunity to take advanced classes and graduate ready for college to chronic absenteeism and the chances of having inexperienced teachers. Consider:

▪ White students made up 29 percent of all CMS students in 2016-17, the year the report is based on, but accounted for just over 50 percent of students in low-poverty schools. That’s more than 30,000 students. Those students came out on top of virtually every measure, often by large margins. (Asian students, who made up only 6 percent of all CMS students, are not included in the report.)

▪ At the other end of the spectrum were the roughly 36,500 black and Hispanic students attending high-poverty schools. Those groups made up 62 percent of all students but almost 90 percent of the enrollment in high-poverty schools.

▪ Racial gaps persisted at low, moderate and high-poverty schools, but each group generally fared better with lower concentrations of poverty.

Wilcox and Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes acknowledged that the tally is far from comprehensive. It does not, for instance, try to tally the advantages and disadvantages linked to homes and neighborhoods.

But they say it’s a starting point to revive “equity” tracking that has been absent for the last seven years, derailed by churn in the top job and recession-related turmoil. Friday’s pitch to reporters kicks off a push to take the numbers into the community, with special efforts to reach Spanish speakers, students and African-American advocates, such as a clergy group who came to a January school board meeting to demand improvements in high-poverty schools.

Leake and ministers new crop
A group of African American clergy, joined by County Commissioner Vilma Leake, stood up at a January school board meeting to say they want to help Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools eliminate disparities based on race and income. Ann Doss Helms ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

“Race and poverty have been issues in American public education for years and years and years. I’m not aware of a single school district in this country that has gotten it right,” Wilcox said. “But that’s no reason for us to shirk from the challenge or the responsibility.”

Here are some of the highlights.

Who’s passing exams?

It’s no surprise to anyone who follows the news or checks North Carolina’s school report cards that the highest test scores consistently come at low-poverty, majority-white schools. But the CMS report shows the vast gaps that emerge based on school and race.

For instance, more than 77 percent of white students at low-poverty middle schools earned reading scores that indicated they’re on track for college and careers, compared with just over 20 percent of black and Hispanic students at high-poverty middle schools.

And when last year’s 11th-graders took the ACT, almost 89 percent of white students in low-poverty schools earned a score that qualifies for admission to the UNC system. Among black and Hispanic students from high-poverty schools, only about 20 percent hit that mark.

Who gets the best teachers?

Teacher quality is one of the most crucial measures of equal opportunity, and one of the toughest to quantify. The CMS report looks at North Carolina’s value-added ratings, a complex calculation based on student test scores. It’s designed to show how much progress each student made, regardless of where that student started the school year, and calculate how much teachers contributed to those gains.

About 40 percent of students in low-poverty schools were taught by a top-rated teacher last year, compared with 27 percent in high-poverty schools. Within poverty levels race didn’t make as big a difference as it did on many other measures – with the exception of the schools in the middle range, where white students were significantly more likely to get the best teachers.

Black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools were also the most likely to be taught by first-year teachers.

Who’s in advanced classes?

White students in low-poverty schools were by far the most likely to have taken at least one college-level course in high school, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or a community college class. Last year just over 73 percent of those students hit that mark, compared with fewer than 30 percent of black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools.

And the AP students in high-poverty schools were far less likely to earn passing scores, with a 7 percent pass rate. That compares with almost 65 percent in low-poverty schools.

Those gaps are partly based on differences in academic skills; not all students are ready for college work. But even among students whose PSAT scores show they’re ready the discrepancies persist: More than 85 percent of white students in low-poverty schools took an AP class, compared with 39 percent of black students and 56 percent of Hispanic students in high-poverty schools.

Those numbers echo the findings of Counted Out, a 2017 investigative series by The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer, and of a recent national report on “the gifted gap” from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Who’s missing school?

In elementary school attendance is consistently high, regardless of poverty or race. But by middle and high school, students of color in high poverty schools are far more likely to be chronically absent – that is, missing about 18 days out of the 177-day school year. Rates of chronic absenteeism in grades 9-12 range from just over 8 percent for white students in low-poverty schools to more than 35 percent for black and Hispanic students in high-poverty schools.

Black students are far more likely to be suspended, especially in high-poverty middle and high schools, than Hispanic or white students.

What’s next?

CMS has already embarked on some attempts at quick fixes. For instance, the district has long been working on alternatives to out-of-school suspensions in an effort to reduce the disproportionate number of African-American students being sent home for relatively minor offenses.

And district officials are using this fall’s PSAT scores to push more high-potential students to enroll in advanced classes next year. That effort is focused on four high schools: West Charotte (high poverty), Myers Park (low poverty) and East and West Meck (moderate poverty).

“We know we have these challenges and we are going to do our very best to get them fixed in the short cycle,” Wilcox said. “We’re beginning this work now.”

But Barnes cautioned that real change won’t come quickly. Wilcox and the board are working on a six-year strategic plan and a budget for the coming year. And district officials are lining up a series of meetings to get ideas and support from other public bodies and groups such as the Leading On Opportunity council.

“The conversation must move from speaking to action, and we’re ready,” said school board Vice Chair Rhonda Cheek.

This week’s report doesn’t break out data on individual schools, though some of it is already available from the state. In March CMS will release new school-by-school data dashboards of its own, officials said.

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

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