s It Hunger? Trauma? Systemic Racism?

By Leslee Kulba- “What’s most frustrating to me, is, we’ve known these facts for years. We’ve seen it happen. I spent eight years on the school board, and I spent 16 years on university boards in the state.

Al Whitesides, a long-time community activist and former banker, was elected to represent District 1 in 2016 as a county commissioner. He is the first African-American to serve as a commissioner for Buncombe County.

We have seen this information…. It’s just unrealistic, when you look at this and you think of the money that we put in schools here. We spend, what, over $90 million when you look at the city, county, and Buncombe Tech, and all are going down in enrollment.”

Commissioner Al Whitesides was reacting at the Buncombe County Commissioners’ last work session to data showing the achievement gap in Buncombe County Schools (BCS) isn’t getting any better, and that of Asheville City Schools (ACS) is getting worse. He continued, “I’ve been fighting this all my life, and it’s still not getting any better. I’m beginning to wonder, was I better off in the segregated schools? I went to college and graduated with honors.”

“We do a good job of talking, folks. Now, it’s time for us to start walking the walk…. I’m just tired of going to meetings and talking about equity and all this. Look, I can teach a course on that. I’ve been to so many over the years…. If I hurt feelings, I’m sorry, because my feelings have been hurt for 74 years, every time I look at this,” he said.

One chart showed that in ACS, 81% of white students were performing at or above grade level, but only 19% of black students and 37% of all minorities were. In BCS, the percentages were, respectively, 70%, 37%, and 49%. Dividing things another way, in ACS, since 2014, 39%-47% of students who qualified for free or reduced lunch rates were performing at or above grade level, when 80%-85% of presumably more affluent students were. In BCS, the percentages were, respectively, 49%-51% and 76%-79%.

Whitesides added the tests keep getting less challenging, enough for him to be worried about kids scoring 4 out of a possible 5. At a joint meeting of Asheville City Council and the ACS Board of Education earlier this year, a lowlight was that per-pupil spending in ACS ranked 14th among the state’s 115 school districts, with a local contribution that ranked 2nd. Following the launch of a program to address the achievement gap in 2017, ACS’ black-white achievement gap has gone from worst in the state to even worse. “I question the leadership and everything else,” said Whitesides.

Commissioner Amanda Edwards urged caution, “in how we wrap our community around our public schools and our teachers to work toward a solution. We’re addressing hundreds of years of structural racism, not only in our two schools, but across our country,” she said. She exhorted her peers to spend a whole day in a public school to see, for example, “the second-grade teacher who is literally taking up the child that didn’t eat dinner the night before, and is lashing out because they’re hungry. They’re interrupting the whole day, and they pick them up and hug them and they love them. That’s what’s happening in our schools. And if we’re not in there seeing it, it’s easy for us to wag our fingers and lay a lot of blame.”

Chair Brownie Newman and Commissioner Robert Pressley thought it would be more instructive to see data broken down by school. Newman said the county was largely safe, but some areas experience “dramatically higher levels of crime,” which could be correlated with poor school performance. He recalled how both school districts had requested more resources for mental health, and, since mental health issues often derive from trauma, he suggested county government could help the schools by doing a better job in the public safety department.

Commissioner Joe Belcher noted no information was presented on the content of the tests. He asked if kids who would make great HVAC technicians were being identified. It’s hard to find a good HVAC technician, and yet kids “great in math and LEGO robotics” might not have what it takes to succeed in the business world.

When the issue of children performing 20% lower on tests because of hunger was raised again, Belcher said, “My mind went, ‘Feed them.’” He asked why kids were taking tests hungry then replied, “Do you want to stay focused on the rules, or do you want to help a child? If a child is hungry, feed the child.” He added the child should be fed lasagna rather than whatever the latest no-carb, macrobiotic fad prescribed.

“Knock the walls down,” he said, “You want to feed kids? I’ve got churches that’ll feed kids. Knock the walls down. You want communities fed? There are people that will feed these children. Knock the walls down. You want to help black children? Knock the walls down.”

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