Critics accuse Forsyth schools of re-segregating

by Keith Barber

Virginia K. Newell stood up and spoke in a clear voice. The rhythm of her speech reflected her decades of work as an educator. Newell expressed deep concern over the direction of Title I schools in the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system during a meeting of CHANGE, or Communities Helping All Neighbors Gain Empowerment, on May 21 at Highland Presbyterian Church in Winston- Salem. The term, “Title I schools” refers to Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, which provides federal funds to impoverished schools.

Newell pointed out that 28 of the 76 schools in the school system currently receive Title I federal money, and that number was projected to increase for the 2009-2010 school year. Newell, a retired professor from Winston-Salem State University and former Winston-Salem City Councilwoman, said 95 percent of children attending Title I schools are minority students, which has led to a host of challenges for students, parents and teachers. “The Title I schools have been re-segregated, which is against the law,” Newell said. Newell was referring to a school plan adopted by the Winston-Salem Forsyth County School Board in 1994 calling for neighborhood schools. “[Superintendent Donald] Martin should eliminate all of those schools where all of those kids are on the same level academically. They’re poor, they’re hungry and they’re low achievers ,” Newell said. Nathan Parrish is the pastor at Peace Haven Baptist Church and the education committee co-chair for CHANGE. Parrish said because of concerns that the1994 school plan resegregated the schools in Forsyth County, the board of education formed an equity committee. In 2002, the school system disbanded the equity committee and decided to monitor itself with no outside input, Parrish said. CHANGE has determined that currently 30 to 35 of the school system’s 40 elementary schools have a disproportionate high percentage of one ethnic group. Prior to the neighborhood school plan’s adoption by the board of education in 1994, only six elementary schools in Forsyth County fit that description. “There’s been a massive increase,” Parrish said. “If you adopt a plan based on assignments of residential choice — a neighborhood plan — and you live in a city that is largely segregated residentially like Winston-Salem is, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that your schools end up as re-segregated schools.” Even before the desegregation of the Winston- Salem/Forsyth County schools officially began in the early 1970s, Newell claims the segregated schools of the past offered minority children of Forsyth County a better education than they’re getting today. Newell said overachieving students were mixed in with low achieving students, which elevated students’ expectations. In addition, teachers showed loyalty to their assigned schools. “I would demand my best teachers go into those [Title I] schools,” Newell said. “The trend happening now is teachers have an opportunity to leave those schools and go to a school where the kids are already doing well.” Newell said the other disturbing trend in the school system is the increasing number of parents who reside in inner-city neighborhoods who are sending their children to suburban schools because their neighborhood schools are failing. During the May 21 meeting, CHANGE director Ryan Eller asked members in attendance to splinter into three action groups. The education group moved to a downstairs classroom and discussed the top issues the group wishes to address with the school board and Superintendent Donald Martin. Graduation rates, school discipline, measuring the school system’s success, racial disparities, access to pre-kindergarten programs, economic disparities and Title I topped the list compiled by meeting facilitator Kelly Carpenter. Newell informed her fellow CHANGE members that a newly formed community advisory board on education would address their concerns about Title I schools to the Forsyth County Commissioners during a public hearing scheduled for Tuesday. Superintendent Donald Martin said Newell and her colleagues are addressing their concerns to the wrong body. Martin said the county commissioners don’t know “the first thing” about how the school system will allocate its Title I federal funds, including the additional $12.6 million in Title I money the schools expect to receive as part of the federal economic recovery package. “The school board makes that decision,” he said. Currently, the school system serves 27 schools with Title I funds, utilizing the criteria of 59 percent or more of the student body participating in the free and reduced lunch program. Using the federal standard of 35 percent of students receiving free or reduced lunches, 43 of the 76 schools in Forsyth County are technically eligible for Title I federal funds, said Cheryl Johnson, the school system’s Title I program director. Johnson said the infusion of federal stimulus funds will help the school system serve schools with 50 percent or more students receiving free or reduced lunches in the 2009-2010 school year. Martin said the additional federal funds will go toward backfilling budget cuts this coming school year and meeting the state’s demand that the schools return $1.5 million in funding. “It’s a lot of shuffling between funds but has nothing to do with county commissioners fund allocation,” Martin said. The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools havea policy that does not allow teacher transfers in the first two years,which was designed to address the issue of inexperienced teachers ininner-city schools. “There has to be a commitment to that school,”Martin said. “We have the power to make a teacher go from one school toanother. However, there is a teacher shortage in the country. Ifteachers don’t like their assignment, they usually go somewhere else.Very little research shows that experienced teachers are betterteachers.” With respect to the achievement gap betweeninner-city and suburban schools in Forsyth, Martin pointed out thatper-pupil spending is greater in high poverty schools, and that anumber of Title I schools are surpassing expectations. “We have somevery high poverty schools where kids are outperforming what they werepredicted to perform,” Martin said. Expectations of high povertyschools are the problem, Irma Jackson said. A veteran teacher with 30years experience, Jackson taught at Parkland High School andKernersville Junior High School. She said the key to improving thecircumstances of children attending Title I schools is hiring dedicatedteachers who are racially and culturally sensitive. “Typically,kids will rise to the occasion,” Jackson said. “As teachers, we makeassumptions about children based on what we see, not necessarily whattheir abilities are. That first impression is hard to get past andsometimes people don’t present themselves in a wonderful light to beginwith, but as you get to know them, you see they have capabilities thatno one has brought out.” Jackson related a story that underscores thelengths to which some parents will go to keep their kids out of Title Ischools. Fifteen years ago, Jackson said she moved into a neighborhoodnear Old Salem. The woman who sold her the house said the reason she,her husband and their two school age children were moving was becauseshe didn’t want her son to go to Latham Elementary. But therewas no guarantee that if she went to a school on the other side of townthat she would’ve gotten a better teacher,” Jackson said. “They were soadamant about not having their children at Latham. My grandson went toLatham in the pre-K program and there were kids who made tremendousstrides that would go to kindergarten better prepared but it was aboutthe teacher, not about the teacher at whole.” Jackson said having moreteachers with stronger credentials in Title I schools would helpimprove the graduation rate, but it boils down to committed teachers.“Everyone should expect no less than the best from these students,”Jackson said. The Rev. Carlton Eversley, pastor of DellabrookPresbyterian Church, agreed with Newell and Parrish. Eversley said thenew school plan has led to a re-segregation of the school system inForsyth. As a result, the Title I schools are half-empty, while thesuburban schools are overcrowded, Eversley said. For years, theopponents of the neighborhood school plan have argued thatre-segregation is no one’s best interest. “It is deadly for poor blackand brown kids,” Eversley said. Newell agreed. “The Forsyth CountySchools are failing the community,” she said. “The community is made upof all kinds of people — this community is diverse and I think all ofthe people are concerned about the children. I don’t think most of thepeople in this community know what is happening at the Title I schools. The children are literally and figuratively dying,” Newell saidthe best way to begin improving conditions for students attending TitleI schools is to transform the school board and the administration.School board member Geneva Brown has announced she will retire from theboard at end of her current term. Newell said Brown has asked her tohelp her groom a replacement. In addition, CHANGE has spearheaded abill in the NC General Assembly that would make Forsyth school boardelections non-partisan. NC House Bill 833, sponsored by Larry Womble(D-Forsyth) and Earline Parmon (D-Forsyth), passed its third reading onMay 6. It has now gone to the NC Senate Committee on State and LocalGovernment. Newell said a change in leadership on the schoolboard and within the school system should help improve education forall students in Forsyth County, regardless of their economiccircumstances. “We’re going to transform that school board, and wethink it’s going to transform the whole system of education,” she said