05/19/10 — Citizens turn out for equity inquiry

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Citizens turn out for equity inquiry

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on May 19, 2010 1:46 PM

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Civic leader and former president of the local NAACP branch Ulis Dawson listens to concerned citizens as they address representatives from the United States Department of Justice and the Office of Civil Rights at a public forum for people to voice their opinions of the Goldsboro schools. More than 350 attended the forum at Rebuilding Broken Places which was the second public forum in two nights.

Brandi Nicole Hinnant was in fifth grade when Wayne County Schools merged with the Goldsboro City Schools.

That year, she said, the racial mix in her class was 50/50 black and white.

When she entered sixth grade, the class was entirely black. Graduating from Goldsboro High School in 2002, she said there was one non-black student in the class.

Much has changed over the years, and when she returned to the district as a teacher, she saw firsthand some of the inequities.

In the fall of 2006, she taught English at Eastern Wayne High School, where every student was given a textbook to take home, while another set of books remained in the classroom.

The same did not hold true when she went on to teach at Goldsboro High School.

"I could not assign a book to my students because there weren't enough for the students," she said. "I could not assign out-of-class reading, so instead we had to read three chapters in class and then try to discuss them."

Ms. Hinnant, who is now pursuing a doctorate degree, was among the 350 who turned out Tuesday night for a community forum at Rebuilding Broken Places. Representatives from the Office of Civil Rights from the U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice conducted the session in response to a complaint filed by the NAACP in December, alleging disparities in education in Wayne County Public Schools.

This week, the Civil Rights agencies visited Wayne County to conduct a compliance review.

No findings or decisions have been made to date. The "listening sessions" -- the first of two was held Monday night -- were an opportunity for representatives to hear concerns from the public.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, said despite any negative connotations surrounding such a meeting, those who turned out had done so because of their great love for the community and for all children.

"All people in this community have ever wanted is for this system to do right for all of our children," he said.

The city might be diverse, but the school system is almost 100 percent resegregated, he said. Disparities abound, from the way students are disciplined and suspended, to the graduation rates.

"And one of the sad things is that it doesn't have to be like that," he said. "The school system here has resisted magnet schools. We tried to do that but the superintendent (Ray Brayboy) was run out of town, pretty much."

Redistricting was another effort that might have made a positive difference, Barber said, except that it stopped just short of the central attendance area.

Phyllis Merritt-James, a graduate of Goldsboro High School, said the community had been "forewarned" years ago that this could happen within the school system.

She also recalled Brayboy as being a proponent of magnet schools and wanting to address district lines.

"Unfortunately, he was displaced," she said.

The landscape has changed and so has the diversity makeup, especially in the central attendance area, where 90 percent or greater are African American, she said.

"Our children are very bright -- year after year they receive thousands and thousands of dollars in scholarships," she said. "I look at what is needed, not just what the problems are -- give them the tools, we need the funds."

Tricia Haigler, a parent who spoke again at Tuesday's session, suggested that resegregation can take on many forms -- including having white teachers verbally abusing African American students, which she called "unacceptable discipline."

Parents get frustrated when they are unable to make headway by approaching the teachers, administrators and Board of Education, she said.

"They'll pull their child out of that school," she said. "Parents, that's not the solution. You're letting them win."

Tommy's Road Elemen-tary School parent Alvin Ward said he was one of those frustrated parents who was weary of a district that hides behind "personnel issues" any time questions are raised about problems with educators.

"I'm tired of being tired," he said. "And Alvin Ward doesn't spend money in Wayne County -- stop spending money here, they'll listen then."

Ana Cruz waited patiently to speak at the microphone as a steady stream of people lined up throughout the evening.

She was there for her grandchildren, she said, one of whom is a special needs child.

Ms. Cruz said she has become an advocate for the third-grader -- calling the school board, e-mailing Raleigh, setting up appointments which ultimately resulted in people not showing up to meet with her.

The process has been "mind-boggling," she said, compounded by the fact that testing in the area of special needs can take months, sometimes up to half of a school year.

"This child has already been told her best bet for next year is to find another school," she said of her granddaughter. "I find it very disturbing."

Trebor Jackson, a graduate of Goldsboro High School with two children -- one who graduated in 2008, the other a junior -- is currently president of the school's PTA and a candidate for school board.

He commended the crowd for turning out and applauded the enthusiasm and zeal they brought.

"Wayne County Public Schools does have some issues and we need to address them," he said. "It seems to me that somebody doesn't want to admit that."

Diversity is needed to open up opportunities for all students, all over the county, Jackson said. But at schools like GHS, where substitute teachers have been in place sometimes for an entire semester, even an entire school year, to offer students "recovery" courses to make up for what they don't get, is unacceptable.

"You can't make students accountable for that," he said. "That's an injustice. It's a debacle."

Jackson proposed unity as a viable solution.

"We as a people have to come together, and we've got to fight," he said. "There's power in numbers. We have to come together, we have to work together and we have to do what's right for the children of Wayne County."

Johnnie McKoy said the current climate takes him back 47 years ago, when he was involved in the heat of the racial movement -- from standing in the crowd when Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech to being arrested and jailed several times during the Civil Rights days.

"It's a crying shame," he said. "This reminds me of what I saw as a young man back in those years."

Even city leaders spoke out.

Chuck Allen, mayor pro-tem, is a 1979 graduate of Goldsboro High School.

"We may be or may not be in compliance with the law," he said. "But we have failed miserably in educating our city-area children."

Of the state's schools cited in recent years by Judge Howard Manning as being "failing schools," Goldsboro was the only one that did not fire its principal as a result of the mandate to improve the situation, Allen said.

"Nepotism is rampant in the system," he said.

Sadly, the situation experienced in Wayne County is not new, Allen said, something he realized when he came across a speech he had given in 1999.

"It's the same deal," he said. "Attendance lines haven't been changed since the 1800s, nothing's changed. I think that's important to know. This has been going on too long."

City Councilman Bob Waller agreed that it's time for a change.

"What we do now for the city children is not good educationally, any way you look at it," he said. "These children deserve better than what they're getting.

"They need to see the real world. They need to be able to see white people, black people, Hispanics."

The community has also been hurt by it, both economically and socially, Waller said.

"Morally, I tell you it's wrong," he said. "Any way you look at it, it's wrong."