Two years ago, when creating the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) 2024 Strategic Plan, the CMS Board of Education announced it would prioritize “equity and culture.” Two years later, amidst a pandemic that amplified systemic disadvantages within the district, and a countrywide racial reckoning, those priorities have never been more important to board members and the community — or at least some of them.
As national and local data shows students falling behind — especially students of color — CMS is looking at recovery through a COVID lens, focusing on anti-racist approaches to reform systems that do not benefit all students. Though the strategic plan was adopted in 2018, CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston has emphasized anti-racist initiatives and approaches throughout the 2020-2021 school year.
But some of these approaches require funding. Where the state does not fund everything students need, the school board relies on Mecklenburg County to provide the backup to support students.
While the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) cannot tell the school board what to do with its funding, some commissioners have been hesitant to provide more funds to the district without seeing concrete results.
CMS receives pushback from county commissioners
At a Dec. 10 joint meeting between the boards, CMS recognized its achievement gaps. Though the district ranks high among large, urban school districts in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) — an in-depth evaluation of student achievement and ability within a school system — no schools in the same category score above 50% nationally.
While graduation rates improved slightly between 2018 and 2019, CMS students of color are still falling behind white students. The school board hopes to close college and career-readiness gaps among students of color by 50% by 2024.
In talks with Queen City Nerve, BoCC chair George Dunlap and other commissioners expressed frustration with CMS for the disappointing performance among Black and brown students. Dunlap said many of his constituents are not satisfied with the current outcomes, and they do not see a reliable plan for improvement.
Dunlap recognized that more people are paying attention than before the pandemic, but he and constituents feel frustrated with a lack of transparency from CMS. As a former school board member himself, Dunlap recalled publishing student performance data for the public to see.
Now, he pointed out, that information isn’t so easy to find. He suggested it should be displayed publicly in a way that is understandable and trackable.
He also said the board’s expectations for student performance should be set higher. It doesn’t make sense for the county commission to provide more funds without changing outcomes, he claimed, adding that there are ways to address some of the issues at hand without additional funding. He used suspension rates as an example.
“It isn’t easy,” Dunlap said, “but there has been enough research done that you ought to be able to put a plan in place that should change the outcomes.”
While he did not want to downplay the significance of the school board’s anti-racism efforts, he said he needs more information on the concrete steps the board is taking before he can feel confident about providing funding.
“Show us your plan,” Dunlap said. “Show us how you plan to implement it. Tell us what it’s going to take for you to get the outcomes you’re looking for. And show us the results. We want to know if your plan is working. And if your plan is not working, how long can you continue on this plan without making changes? We’re just trying to have the community get answers to those questions.”
CMS focuses on anti-racism within systems
Though they were not presented at the meeting, some anti-racist initiatives have already been implemented within the school system, according to CMS Board of Ed chair Elyse Dashew.
These efforts have included focusing on cultural competency training among school leaders with the superintendent, changing human resources and hiring practices to hire and support more educators of color, rethinking previous practices and increasing professional development training to focus on restorative practices rather than suspension, Dashew told Queen City Nerve.
The school board has also identified inconsistencies in curricula throughout schools and has worked to ensure all students get a curriculum that is rigorous, multicultural and aligned with the standards of their grade level, she added.
Dashew said the board is taking an intentional approach to anti-racism, spearheaded by Winston.
“It’s not an event. There’s no magic silver bullet,” Dashew said. “But it’s a process that takes a lot of honest self-reflection and then the hard and intentional work of identifying where the barriers are in your system and removing those barriers.”
As CMS board members look toward a recovery plan from the effects of the pandemic, they are now also developing an Anti-Racism Equity Action Plan (AREAP), which includes goals around infrastructure and capacity-building, workforce equity, student experience, community engagement, system integration and governance and accountability.
The AREAP outlines specific strategies the board will take to reach these goals, like ensuring staff adopt new ways of working that address anti-racist policies, practices and processes.
Board members also hope to hire more school psychologists, counselors, teacher’s assistants and social workers to provide additional support to the schools that need it, as many were laid off during the 2008 recession and school budget cuts across the state in an effort to keep as many teachers as possible.
“For many years, we’ve had a situation where the caseloads for psychologists and social workers were through the roof,” Dashew said. “We have been building it into our budget to be able to build back those numbers and bring down the caseload so that folks can do their work more effectively.”
Working toward a common goal
County commissioner Susan Rodriguez-McDowell told Queen City Nerve she understands the frustration among her colleagues, but she’s confident the school board has a plan of action to address the inequities.
At the same time, she wishes there was a way to measure short-term progress.
Rodriguez-McDowell said she sees where her fellow board members are coming from when they say they cannot see the numbers or a plan from CMS, but said it is incumbent upon commissioners to seek out the information in CMS board meetings, which are broadcast online. She did, however, wish to hear more about the plans at the Dec. 10 meeting.
Though most of her constituents in south Charlotte do not face the same inequities as other areas of the city, Rodriguez-McDowell said she wants to use her vote to help all students as much as possible through the CMS budget, especially with anti-racism efforts.
“Dismantling racism is going to be very hard and take a long time, but it must be our goal. It is at the root,” Rodriguez-McDowell said. “Underfunding CMS is not going to help.”
According to the 2020 Local School Finance Study by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, Mecklenburg County ranks 78th in the state in funding per student. As Mecklenburg County is one of the wealthiest counties in the state, Rodriguez-McDowell said this is something she and her colleagues should consider.
But it can’t just be the county’s responsibility, she emphasized, as public education has been underfunded at the state level for too long.
In the meantime, Rodriguez-McDowell hopes to work with the school board partners rather than treat them as adversaries, and hopes her colleagues will do the same.
Dashew said she hopes both boards can work within their respective expertise to achieve their goal to serve students throughout the county.
For now, the school board is working on its budget request leading up to the county commissioner’s budget retreat in January.
“It’s just a matter of demonstrating what the needs are and what is needed to provide the students with the sound and basic education that is the constitutional right of every student in North Carolina,” Dashew said of the budget request. “So, what does it take to make that happen, and how will those dollars be used most effectively?”
Dashew said both boards share a common goal to serve all students throughout the county, and she believes they can work to close achievement gaps and dismantle inequitable systems if they put aside their egos and work together.
“I know in my heart of hearts that every single one of us wants what is best for the children that we serve,” Dashew said. “We also have some huge challenges on our plates and we have an opportunity to work together with mutual respect to pull together and deliver for our kids. It’s never been more important.”
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