Community Conversation: Asheville City Schools Achievement Gap

The news isn’t good. Only 12 percent of the city’s African-American students in grades three to eight score as “proficient” or higher on end-of-grade exams, compared with 73 percent of white students. Asheville City Schools has the fifth largest racial achievement gap in the nation. A few recent articles in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Carolina Public Press and Mountain Xpress tell the details of this issue. But it is important to acknowledge, as you read these articles,  that this isn’t just a school issue, this is a community issue and we all have a responsibility to address this problem head-on.  
That’s why Principal April Dockery of Asheville Middle School and Bruce Waller, United Way’s Community School Coordinator at AMS decided to host a discussion for parents about the achievement gap at a recent Homework Diner. 

Homework Diners Set Stage For Community Dialogue

photo credit Asheville Middle School staff
After sharing a healthy meal prepared by Green Opportunities, students and tutors stayed in the cafeteria to work on homework while their families and concerned community advocates headed over to the media center to begin the discussion.
Principal Dockery then presented some of the key findings of the report to the nearly 90 parents and advocates and then broke into small groups to share a wide range of perspectives on issues that impact opportunities for students. Attendees tackled six topic areas: student attendance, meaningful instruction, supporting kids with equity, how to help city systems focus on the value of all children, food and nutrition and access to mental and physical help supports. 
Just a few ideas named by those in attendance:
  • Men and women of color mentors and hall monitors (Student Attendance)
  • Focused-groups for black parents’ advocacy for academics practices (Meaningful Instruction)
  • Teachers and other adults having high expectations and belief in all students of color (Meaningful Instruction)
  • A systems-level approach to dismantling structural racism in schools and the community (Support kids with equity)
  • City youth development plan that is coordinated, holds all partners accountable, lifts up current best practices and supports effective but underfunded programs (How to help city systems focus on the value of all children)
  • The plan is youth-led with built-in avenues for youth feedback, ideas and jobs (How to help city systems focus on the value of all children)
  • Student developed opportunities for healthy food year-round: summer programs, HDiners, etc. (Food / Nutrition)
  • Transportation to healthy food sources and food being brought door to door for those in need (Food / Nutrition)
  • Full-service school-based health clinics (Mental & Physical Health Supports)
  • Trauma-informed, implicit bias and restorative practices training (Mental & Physical Health Supports)
  • Restorative practices and safe alternatives to suspension (Mental & Physical Health Supports)
This event went beyond my expectations. Many families and stakeholders from around the city came all wanting the same thing with one focus in mind. You could see concerned citizens ready with there sleeves rolled up and waiting for further instructions. Those who have been working in this community for many years came up to me and said, “For the first time I actually have hope for our city.” I could see many fires that were faint for years come alive in hours. For the first time in my working career at United Way I could see everything that I had done previously was supposed to lead up to this point. To totally dismantle the “achievement gap” along with those who have the same level of commitment and passion.  - Bruce Waller, Community School Coordinator

Next Steps

While there will be some action coming out of the school board there are still some   upcoming opportunities at Asheville Middle School for continued family input, support & engagement:
Join the ACES Collaborative for learning and discussion. Childcare is provided at no cost. Dinner and homework help are provided through the weekly AMS Homework Diner.
Another opportunity for parents to talk with Principal Dockery about the racial achievement gap. 
Issues surrounding race, class, sexual identity, gender and religion have exploded into the national dialogue. These are difficult and confusing issues to discuss, especially when crossing social and cultural boundaries. This training provides thoughtful discussion and self-reflective activities that help participants lean into the discomfort by increasing your understanding of the social dynamics impacting us all.

United Way’s Role in this Work

The problems that lay before us, like poverty and the racial achievement gap, are daunting. But across the country, communities like Baltimore, Lehigh Valley, Salt Lake City and more are tackling equally daunting issues with great success using the community school strategy. 
United Way of Asheville and Buncombe County is working with Asheville City Schools, Buncombe County Schools and a network of more than 50 local nonprofit, health, social service, higher education, faith-based and business community partners, using this same strategy to organize resources that will support the health, education and financial stability of the whole family and neighboring community. By using our local middle schools as a district-wide hub for support, we can find new ways to address the needs of the whole community.
As our community works to address the racial achievement gap United Way will work to both influence and support local plans. We will also continue to work to incorporate student, parent and community voice in our own work.