Alarm Over Asheville City Schools’ Achievement Results

By Leslee Kulba- Causes for poor school performance would afflict children of any color. These may include, but are not limited to, a family that does not support or appreciate academic achievement, absent parents shifting their responsibilities for babysitting and housekeeping to youth, a home environment where…

…factors like a drunk uncle or frequent gunfire outside upset and induce anxiety, identifying with a group that values partying or play over academics, poverty and related issues like hunger and poor health, and nobody to reach out to for help with school work.

Changing one’s skin color will not put a child on a path to lifelong seeking and discovery. The DPI would do more for opening minds were it to track achievement gaps for factors that can be changed or ameliorated with interventions from so many good citizens looking for opportunities to make a difference.

The achievement gap in Asheville is the worst in the state, and it’s getting worse. The latest data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction was highlighted at a January 22 joint meeting of Asheville City Council and the Asheville City Schools’ Board of Education.

The disparities, as Dwight Mullen, best known for his work with the State of Black Asheville, said, were nothing to “gloss over.” In 2014, 83.9% of “White” Asheville High students earned “proficient” scores on their English End of Course exams when 27.9% of “Black” students did. Students proficient on their math EOCs totaled 71.9% and 25.0%, respectively. In 2018, those numbers were 89.4% and 18.0,% and 73.2% and 9.8%. The decline was not monotonic; instead, it dropped precipitously last year.

On a bright note, scores from the elementary schools showed some improvements in some categories. In other words, most kids aren’t going to go from deep failure to soaring success in one year, but interventions with the youngest cohorts could be planting seeds for better outcomes 6-12 years from now.

Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides, a highly-respected African-American success story in business and community affairs, called for accountability. As a commissioner, he regularly reminds his peers of their fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayer, often saying it is his wife who holds his feet to the fire.

Self-described as beyond “ticked-off,” he wondered what all the funding for programming targeted specifically at closing the achievement gap was doing. Local per-pupil funding for ACS, he said, is the second-highest among the state’s 115 public school districts.

ACS’ Director of Student Support Services Eric Howard then spoke about a discipline gap, also arrived at by creating subgroups on the basis of skin color. Whereas 25% of the student body is identified as African-American, that racial group accounted for 64% of disciplinary referrals last year. Councilor Keith Young, who is employed as a deputy clerk for the Superior Court, says he frequently sees children entering the criminal justice system with some minor offense in school.

Councilor Julie Mayfield asked for some statistical clarity. Were African-American students demonstrably more violent, or were they being harassed for impertinent technicalities, on a par with being pulled over for driving while Black? Also, were the instructors making the referrals picking on a wide range of African-Americans, or were just a few bad actors running up a big tab?

Director of Teaching and Learning Melissa Hedt agreed it would be instructive to flesh-out the numbers and trace how lives are being impacted. She said the school district had been collecting and analyzing data since 2015, and, while the correlation is not causative, she could not get around the fact that the greatest disparities showed up when students were grouped as “White” and “Black.”

Howard said the district is exploring strategies for gauging and eliminating systemic racial bias among educators. ACS’ motto is “Excellence with Equity,” and its primary goal is to ensure the success of all students. To this end, the school system is now in its second year of a thee-year contract with Integrated comprehensive System for Equity for identifying and remediating historic biases in its culture.

Work has included the creation of an Equity Leadership Team at each school, and they have, “determined core beliefs, examined identity development, and created equity non-negotiables.” ACS is also working with Dr. Chance Lewis to “eliminate inequities and examine resource alignment.”

Tuesday’s meeting closed with the sense that local leadership would raise awareness about the situation.

EDITORS NOTE: The following should go without saying, but, in light of rabble-rousers wanting reporters to foment division with inflammatory racist rhetoric, it cannot be stressed enough: Achievement gaps have nothing to do with mental ability. The brains of little African-American children are not inherently stupider than those of their white counterparts, just as there is no gene driving unconquerable systemic racism by white people to oppress people of color and maintain a master-slave wedge between the races.

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