A new chapter for N.C. public education

Dec. 15, 2013 @ 02:32 PM

Just before Thanksgiving, I got an automated call from my daughter’s school. As a first-time Durham Public Schools parent to a freshly minted pre-kindergartener, these communications always command my attention. On this one, the voice on the other end issued a warning: State test results were about to released. The numbers could cause some concern.

In the days since, we’ve seen that concern come into focus. Statewide, less than half of our kids meet the new, higher bar for proficiency. In our highest-performing districts, two out of three do; at the other end, two of three don’t. Across the board, we’re struggling to prepare our students for an increasingly complex future.

As a deep believer in public education and executive director of Teach For America in Eastern North Carolina, I’ve thought a great deal about the results, as I do every year. I’ve thought about the incredible importance of taking a clear and honest look at how we’re doing and where we’re falling short. I’ve thought about the just as important need to make sure we don’t discourage thousands of committed educators across the state at a moment when they’re in such need of encouragement. And this year, my first as a public school parent, I’ve thought about that automated call.

At the end of the day, I’m not worried about my little girl. My husband and I have the time, resources and support to make sure she gets what she needs to live a life of choice and opportunity. When my own parents became the first in their families to go to college, they set this advantage in motion.

And because of it, even if nothing changes, the statistics stack up in my daughter’s favor. This is the reality of the privilege my daughter was born into --her economic bracket, her zip code, her whiteness. And while I’m grateful that she won’t face the uncertainly that others in our family have, the fact of this security makes the insecurity of so many others that much more painful. Once a leader in the pursuit of social justice, our state is home to deep, enduring inequities by race and income bracket -- opportunity gaps that come to life in our educational outcomes. Last year, along the 31 percent of all North Carolina eighth graders proficient in reading were just 14 percent of African American students, 22 percent of Latino students, and 18% of kids from economically disadvantaged homes.

In our quest to do better, we must confront the undeniable challenges we face without overlooking the countless examples of hope and excellence in our public schools – teachers, principals, neighbors, parents, grandparents and community groups who work tirelessly for kids each and every day. In their commitment and conviction, we see the possibility of a system of the public education that delivers on its promise.

A few years from now, when I send my son to elementary school, I hope we’ll be having a very different conversation -- one about excellence, equity and the incredible strides we’ve made in ensuring that every child – from Durham to Lenoir County -- has access to a public school that lets her imagine, experiment and excel. I hope we’ll look back on this at the beginning of a new chapter – a new era of which our children can be so proud. 

Robyn Fehrman is executive director, Teach For America in Eastern North Carolina.