07/11/11 — City Flight Part II - Is it really the schools?

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City Flight Part II - Is it really the schools?

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on July 11, 2011 1:46 PM

Performance rates at Goldsboro's inner city schools have long been a subject of discussion, not only in the county, but at the state level as well, as graduation rates at Goldsboro High School have lagged behind some of the school's counterparts elsewhere in the system.

But determining if the central attendance district's poor graduation rate leads to lower population or if the lower population leads to poor graduation rates is not so clearcut, says Ken Derksen, Wayne County Public Schools spokesman.

Derksen points out that education is not the only factor that has led to citizens' flight from the city limits, leaning heavily on statistics showing a consistent population decline at central attendance area schools that dates back to 1965. Back then, nearly 10,000 students attended central attendance schools, including Dillard Primary, North Drive Elementary and Goldsboro High School, but that number has fallen by almost 75 percent in the four and a half decades since.

Statistics presented by Derksen show that the presence of white students in city schools fell by more than 2,500 students from 1965 to 1975. North Carolina integrated its schools in 1971, when the minority population in central attendance area schools was about 4,000 students. The mark hovered steadily at about 3,750 until 1996 when the population began a decline to its current level of about 2,000 students. White students now number less than 100 in city schools.

Derksen says these numbers show that school populations were falling even when the schools weren't considered "low-performing," using it as leverage to suggest that while schools are a factor in where people live in the area, they aren't the only factor.

"We had schools that were racially diverse and higher-performing, but people still weren't moving into the city. People were leaving then, too." he said. "It's easy to shift blame and point fingers, but there's a lot of factors."

He said an aging population in the city and a shift in what potential homebuyers want in their houses are to blame for the school population declines. That change has widened the achievement gap at city schools as they must deal with a higher percentage of students from low-income households. The achievement gap makes the schools less appealing to younger families who prioritize education, leading to exponential decline.

So what is the reason for the schools' inability to produce results that bring more students to the inner city? It doesn't lie within the classroom walls, Derksen says.

"It isn't that the education isn't being offered. We're required by law to offer a quality education to every student regardless of race or economic status," he said, adding that Goldsboro High School has more computer labs and longer hours at those labs than any other school in the system. "They are getting a decent education."

But what they aren't necessarily getting is a decent home life. Derksen said most minority students at city schools come from low-income homes where education isn't emphasized.

Situations where parents are working multiple jobs or don't have an education themselves can be limiting factors toward ensuring their children's success, he said. There are also examples of children being raised by grandparents or having to care for younger siblings, which makes it difficult for all involved.

"We have people start kindergarten who have never even picked up a crayon before," Derksen said. "I think too many people want to place the parents' job on the schools when the fact is parents have a responsibility to help their child be successful as well. If the parents aren't working with their children, then how can the schools overcome those hurdles?"

Derksen said the high concentration of low-income housing and government housing projects has compounded the issue, as nearly each student comes from similar, difficult surroundings.

Mayor Al King said that the proximity of housing developments together was regrettable, but that city officials in office when the projects were planned and built didn't understand what they were setting up for the future.

"The leadership in Goldsboro years ago made a big mistake when they congregated all of this public housing in one concentrated area," he said. "If we could spread them all over the place, you wouldn't even know they're there, but we can't do that. They were providing housing where people needed it. They didn't anticipate all of this, and it happened all over the country. You've got to use what you've got."

King said much must be done to combat the stigma that surrounds the city, adding that Goldsboro Housing Authority developments weren't the problem, but that the true issues were with privately owned, low-income housing complexes. Using The Grand at Day Point, the site where a 3-year-old was shot to death on a playground, as an example, he noted that low-income housing owners often had to squeeze resources to eke out any profits.

"To hire the staff that it really needs to maintain surveillance and to enforce the rules, they probably wouldn't make money," the mayor said, adding that harboring criminals was sometimes seen as the lesser of two evils when compared with leaving a property vacant. "They will sometimes turn their head or lower their standards to make a profit."

"The dangerous households these students come from breed an environment where schoolwork doesn't register as a priority," Derksen said, adding that the apathy from family members can hold students back."If there's not discipline at home, when they come to school between 7 a.m. and 3 p.m., that's the only time they have structure and stability and that's not an environment they're used to."

As far as calls for redrawing school district lines, Derksen said that only masks the problem.

"If you brought in more white students and middle and upper-class students who are more high-performing, that performance level is going to go up, but are those lower-performing students having their needs met?" he said. "The schools could have redistricted a long time ago, but that doesn't mean we (would be) necessarily meeting the needs of those lower-performing students."

Citing the redistricting at Wake County as an example, he explained that the "masking" effect only solves the problem for the school system, not for the students.

He said a surplus of resources and quality teachers can accomplish nothing within schools that struggle to maintain parent-teacher associations.

"If the student interest isn't there and the parental involvement isn't there to help get these kids motivated at home to do their homework or come to school, the schools can only do so much," he said. "If a student were to come to school, we can teach them, but if they can't handle the structure or stability of a school, they won't be able to stay in that environment. There's gonna be some students that aren't going to take advantage of the opportunities they have."

And if those students don't take advantage of their opportunities now, it's only going to lead to more and more problems for city schools.

"If a student drops out of school, they're more likely to end up having problems with the law and finding jobs," Derksen said. "If you can't be productive, then you can end up in a low-income housing area and have children and continue the cycle."

That cycle, he said, can only be stopped through parental involvement, although mentor and graduation coach programs through Communities in Schools are seeking to bridge the gap.

Sudie Davis, the director of Communities in Schools, said graduation levels at Goldsboro High rose by 9 percent during the 2009-10 school year when the organization first introduced a graduation coach. Between tutors and mentors, she said 502 hours of volunteer service were spent at the school and that all of the students the organization worked with received their diplomas.

But the program will not likely operate as before, she said in May, now that the City Council has determined not to fund it as part of its 2011-12 fiscal year agency donations. Mrs. Davis said her organization requested no funds last year and lowered its request from $29,000 during 2009-10, the program's first year, to $20,000 this year in hopes of getting its request fully met.

"We went two years on what they gave us before," she said.

She said her organization was hoping to continue to fund a similar position at Southern Wayne High School, which is in its second year. Southern Wayne's graduation rate hovers at about 70 percent, she said.

The city eventually teamed up with the county in 2009-10 to give matching donations of $29,000 to help create a graduation coach position at Goldsboro High School. The graduation rate there was 44.7 percent when Mrs. Davis presented the idea at a City Council meeting on Aug. 3, 2009. Today Mrs. Davis reported an unofficial graduation rate of 67.7 percent.

"To see that coming up has been really rewarding for our agency," she said, noting that more than 50 volunteers turned out this year, with many coming in the waning weeks of the semester as students scrambled to complete graduation projects. "They were desperately needed to help those kids make it through those projects."

Today, Mrs. Davis said she has since made the decision to use the $29,000 the county pledged as part of its 2011-12 budget to maintain the Goldsboro High position while putting the Southern Wayne position on hiatus until more funding becomes available.

"We're trying to remain optimistic that something will come through," she said, noting that her organization's national and state governing bodies are seeking grants along with the Wayne County chapter individually.

District 4 Councilman Rev. Charles Williams said Friday that he was in favor of retaining the graduation coaches and that he didn't know what his fellow council members' motives were in not continuing to fund the organization.

"The grades went up," he said. "That tells me the program was effective. It should not have been discontinued."

Members of the council, during a budget workshop this year, centered their reasoning on not appropriating the funds for the program on the notion that it was presented as a one-time donation to create the position.

District 2 Councilman Bob Waller cited that explanation this morning.

"That was a one-year shot and then the schools were going to take it over. That's all we said we were going to do," he said, adding that the maintenance of a second position, this time at Southern Wayne, didn't change the issue for the council. "That was a school issue. I didn't see it as a city issue."