Last year after months of protests to ban the Confederate flag, Orange County Schools leaders announced they were forming a task force to improve academic outcomes for children of color.
Now they’re reporting back to the community. On social media last week, Superintendent Todd Wirt described next steps, including new disciplinary practices to reduce suspensions of black and Hispanic students, who get suspended at higher rates than their white classmates.
“We have gaps in academic performance between our students of color and their white peers,” Wirt said. “In addition, disproportionate number students of color are being suspended. While we have made small incremental improvements in these areas, it is our desire to eliminate these inequities.”
Parent Latarndra Strong, who founded the Hate-Free Schools Coalition and serves on the task force, said the district is making an effort but that Wirt should have made his announcement with the task force.
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Leaving the task force members out is symptomatic of the school system’s’ “top-down” decision making, she said.
“This is the problem we’ve had before,” Strong said. “I think they’re trying, but they’re trying from that same perspective.”
Wirt’s message follows more than 12 months of work by the Equity Task Force, whose members attended workshops, analyzed current equity efforts and shared stories of racial inequity in the school system and community.
Black and Hispanic students are roughly 37 percent of OCS students but received 55 percent of short-term suspensions during the 2016-17 school year. By comparison, white students who are 56 percent of the district’s enrollment received 42 percent of short-term suspensions.
The task force was formed in April 2017 amid growing controversy over students’ right to wear Confederate symbols to school, which many students and parents found offensive. Four months later, the school board banned the Confederate flag, Ku Klux Klan symbols and clothing and swastikas from all district schools.
The decision came after a white supremacists’ rally in Charlottesville, Va., turned violent. Heather Heyer, 32, was killed when 20 year-old James Alex Fields, Jr., drove a car into a crowd protesting the rally.
in the coming months, OCS has pledged to create a draft equity policy for school board consideration and to rewrite the district’s Code of Conduct to include restorative practices. The practice address students’ conflicts by repairing relationships, eliciting remorse from offenders and forgiveness from victims.
Durham Public Schools and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools have also adopted restorative practices to reduce suspensions. DPS, for example, has eliminated in-school suspension this year in favor of a new restorative practices program and CHCCS has used restorative practices for several years with good results.
OCS has hired “Engaging Schools,” a consulting firm that helps school systems rewrite codes of conduct and trains school staffs to address inequities in discipline practices. The OCS Equity Task Force will advise those revising the code.
For the new equity strategy to work, Strong said students of color must receive the support that they need.
She said it’s also critical to take a look at the curriculum.
“The curriculum is based on a white perspective so that makes it difficult for students of color,” Strong explained. “There’s nothing wrong with the students, we just haven’t figured out how to educate students of color. We’re not going to fix this by simply measuring the performance of students. We need to also look at the performance of the system itself.”
‘A cultural change’
Sherita Cobb, director of student support services for OCS, said the task force’s work has already prompted the school system to look at how teachers and administrators respond to students.
Cobb warned, however, that the changes sought by the district won’t occur overnight.
“The work of this task force is not going to produce immediate results,” said Cobb, who co-chairs the group. “It’s going to take time and a cultural change and mind shift from people who have been doing business a certain way for a long time.”
Meanwhile, Wirt noted that the district has not been in a “holding pattern” while the task force went about its work.
The district’s Academically or Intellectually Gifted Plan has been rewritten to include additional pathways to identify students for AIG services., Wirt said. He said access to upper-level math courses in middle schools has also been increased and the process for recruiting and identifying students for Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses improved.
Additionally, the district is now using strategies to recruit a “workforce that is an equitable representation of our community” and has formed partnerships with historically black colleges and universities, Wirt said.