Opinion

Chapel Hill-Carrboro must do better for all students before expanding Mandarin program

Students learn Chinese calligraphy in this file photo taken at Glenwood Elementary School in Chapel Hill.
Students learn Chinese calligraphy in this file photo taken at Glenwood Elementary School in Chapel Hill. N&O file photo

The achievement gaps in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS) are at crisis levels, and they have been there way too long. The administration presented alarming numbers in the latest Annual Report of Student Performance.

The “achievement gap” is defined as the percentage of students in a particular subgroup who are not college-ready. In our district, 16 percent of white students are not college-ready. While that number certainly could be improved, it stands in sharp contrast, for example, to our 70 percent of African-American students who are not college-ready, and 72 percent of economically disadvantaged students who are not college-ready.

Despite these glaring inequities, the CHCCS school board and administration have devoted an inordinate amount of time in recent meetings discussing the future of the Mandarin Dual Language program, housed at Glenwood Elementary School.

None of the CHCCS parents and voters who have joined in this letter has ever lived in the Glenwood Elementary School attendance zone nor had a child who attended Glenwood. We are greatly disturbed, however, by the lack of action on the school board’s stated priority of fixing the achievement gap.

The decision and process by which it was made, to convert a traditional track school with an existing Mandarin program into a school exclusively for families opting-in to a Mandarin immersion program, all but ensures this school consists of the district’s highest-performing student groups at the expense of all others.

In an opinion column published Nov. 29, Michelle King wrote that a schoolwide Mandarin magnet at Glenwood would help “close the achievement gap,” but she did not address the fact that the subgroups who suffer most with respect to achievement gaps are hardly participating in the Mandarin program at all.

It may be debatable whether African-American, Latinx, or economically disadvantaged students could perform better if they were in the Mandarin program, but it is clear that they are not volunteering to join the Mandarin program, nor are they expected to do so in the future.

The agenda for the Nov. 27 school board meeting revealed that just 2.1 percent of the Mandarin program are African-American students, compared to the district average of 11.4 percent. Further, just 7.2 percent of the Mandarin program are economically disadvantaged students, compared to the district average of 26.9 percent.

Devoting an entire school building to a program that historically has not served our most vulnerable students would have the opposite effect of bringing equity to our district and forming schools in our community that reflect the makeup of the population we are here to serve.

The magnet plan’s solution to the program’s lack of diversity with respect to these subgroups is to allocate an additional $5,000 per year in marketing for the Mandarin program. That feels more like an excuse to say “we tried”, and something to point to when the enrollment figures don’t change, than any kind of meaningful way to promote equity in our district.

The equity issue is one of many that become glaringly obvious when our “progressive” district is forced to act on its stated values. We are forced to make resource decisions at every turn, especially in underfunded public schools. The decision to knowingly concentrate at-risk students in our remaining schools is not one we stand for in Chapel Hill-Carrboro.

It may not always be popular or easy to be the parent pushing for more fairly distributed resources, but until the funding and resources exist for all students to succeed, we will stand with ALL children in this district to advocate for equity in our schools and community.

We are not in favor of ending the Mandarin program, but based on the available facts and the manner in which the decision was made, the current conversion proposal exacerbates the equity issue. CHCCS can and must do better for all students, especially those whom we are failing miserably in terms of basic elementary education all the way to preparation for college.

This letter was signed by 80 additional people.

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