OPINION: The Time To Fix New Hanover County Schools Is Now

By Evelyn Bryant, posted Nov 12, 2020
Editor’s note: This letter was sent Wednesday from the Community Relations Advisory Committee to members of the Wilmington City Council, New Hanover County Board of Commissioners and New Hanover County Board of Education. The Community Relations Advisory Committee, which Evelyn Bryant chairs, was created in 2016 by New Hanover County and city of Wilmington officials to “address community issues involving prejudice or discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, creed or religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, disability or medical condition.”

Click here to see the committee's presentation on neighborhood schools.

Dear Elected Community Leaders,
The Community Relations Advisory Committee exists to identify and address areas of discrimination, especially on the basis of race and economics. We are a committee that is mandated to inform Wilmington City Council and the New Hanover County Commissioners about our findings and make recommendations.
In recent weeks, we have facilitated discussions about the impact the policy of “neighborhood schools” has had on a number of elementary and middle schools in New Hanover County over the last 10 years.
In short, this policy has been disastrous for several schools concentrated in the downtown area. While the neighborhood schools districting policy created schools outside the city with almost no diversity – some with less than 2.5% African-American enrollment – downtown schools are largely filled with minority and disadvantaged children.
Children have been allowed to fall behind academically and socially, while led by inexperienced teachers flailing in a system that has been content to allow the schools to fail. These schools struggle to reach 50% passing end-of-grade tests and at one school, less than 5% of incoming students were “kindergarten ready” when they arrived in 2019. We have allowed elementary schools, some of them in modem new buildings, to fall to the bottom 5% of schools in the State.
This was predicted in 2010 when the neighborhood school districting policy was fully implemented. It took place before our very eyes, and nothing was done to stop it. We, as a Community, tolerated this.
Now it’s time to do something about it.
Our overall goal is a system in which every child in every school can succeed and foresee a future with a college education, career choice and economic opportunity. We want a county where future homeowners don’t buy homes based on the school district because all schools are high quality. We would like to live in a county where diversity and integration are considered vital and worthwhile components of the child’s educational experience.
We are not recommending that the school board move a number of kids from one race into another school and deciare victory, or create special programming that in effect places certain demographics in a “bubble” away from the general population. We already have enough of that strategy in place now.
We invite you to review the recommendations attached (Editor’s note: The recommendations are listed below). There are likely more items to be added. We cannot wait for solutions to be identified – We need to make an impact on some and add others as we go. For a generation of children in six or more of our schools, we have already waited too long to address this issue.
This issue, if left unresolved, will have lasting implications on business recruitment, tax revenue, prison capacity and school retention, among other areas. But it is first and foremost a moral issue. No community should have ever done this to a cohort of its schools. We have proof it was disastrous, and now it’s time to fix it.
We welcome the opportunity to be part of the solution. We will follow up at one month, three months and six months to monitor progress.
Evelyn Adger Bryant
Chair, Community Relations Advisory Committee

Community Relations Advisory Committee Recommendations
November 2020

As members of this committee, we recommend:
• All County legislative bodies meet, in open session, within the next 90 days to hear and respond to the presentation entitled “New Hanover Schools: The Impact of Neighborhood Schools.” (Click here to see the presentation.)
• School Board develop a plan, before the end of the school year, to develop capacity for districtwide Pre-K education. The goal should be universal pre-K within two years.
• School District develop a plan, to start immediately to assure diversity in the instructional staff of every school. Progress reports should be incorporated into periodic staffing reports to the School Board. We request a baseline report of current diversity, then 20% improvement by June 2022.
• School Board empower the Equity, Diversion and Inclusion Committee to revisit the district’s redistricting policy, focusing specifically on how to redistrict within neighborhoods. The Committee should begin work within the next 90 days. The end result, by the end of this school year, should include a district plan with no more than 55% of the children at any school qualifying for free/reduced lunch. We expect a vote by the School Board during the 2021-22 school year.
• School Board develop minimum standards for all schools and a monitoring system to assure compliance. Failing grades for schools are unacceptable. We expect no more F grades after the 2021-22 school year. Future County bond funding will be contingent on these standards being met.
• School Board overhaul “Magnet Schools” to ensure they meet a standard of students enrolled from outside the immediate school district. We would recommend that at least 20% of the student body at a Magnet School live outside the district by the start of the 2022 school year.
• School Board develop a plan to incentivize teachers to stay or transfer to schools with the greatest numbers of free/reduced lunch and minority students. Turnover for the 2023 school year
should be less than 15% at any school.
• School Board provide resources for all schools to become fully trauma-informed, complete with programming and policies to mitigate Adverse Childhood Experiences. The New Hanover Resiliency Task Force can define the standards that meet “trauma-informed status,” but they include less absenteeism, fewer suspensions, and improved overall reading scores. This should be complete by the end of 2022-23 school year.
• County Commissioners and the City Council adopt forthcoming recommendations from the Joint Workforce Housing Advisory Committee to increase workforce/affordable housing throughout the County; recognizing the importance of affordable housing availability in desegregating schools.
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