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IW wants to act on student equity

Black students are twice as likely as white students to receive disciplinary referrals in three of Isle of Wight County’s nine public schools, and they are less likely to pursue an advanced studies high school diploma.

The fact that minority students receive more discipline and less encouragement to higher academic aspirations and opportunities is not new information, said Superintendent Jim Thornton. But it’s essential to quantify and identify a problem as a starting point for doing something about it.

It’s also critical to take tangible action, Thornton continued, because publicly identifying and describing these problems without doing anything is “dehumanizing,” the superintendent said at the school board’s Oct. 8 meeting.

The current initiative to quantify equity issues started months ago, but the effort was stalled by the coronavirus shutdown, Thornton said. A school level administrator who was spearheading the division wide effort also left her position for another opportunity, which further slowed the process.

But now that education is getting back up to speed in the new normal, Thornton said, it’s time to act.

Based on the data, Carrsville, Hardy and Westside Elementary schools have the most pronounced problem with discipline referrals. Carrsville’s student population is 17% Black, but 34% of students who received referrals were Black. At Hardy, 30% of the school’s students are Black but 60% of students receiving disciplinary referrals were Black, and at Westside, 31% of students are Black but 62% of those disciplined were Black.

At Georgie D. Tyler Middle School, 19% of students are Black and 31% received referrals. That percentage declined from an earlier measure after the former principal — who also was heading the division’s equity initiative — implemented some changes, Thornton said.

Another data point for studying equity is advanced studies diplomas. Isle of Wight awards standard and advanced studies depending on the courses high school students take, which in turn positions them for college and career opportunities.

At Smithfield High, 38.8% of Black students are getting an advanced studies diploma, while 67.6% of white students are getting the advanced studies diploma. At Windsor High, 39% of Black students are getting the advanced studies diploma, while 65.7% of white students are getting the advanced credential.

One way equity manifests is through the expectations that are set for poor and minority students and empathy — or lack thereof — for what factors may lead a student to decide they don’t want to pursue higher education.

For example, when a student tells a guidance counselor they don’t want to go to college, Thornton said, instead of having a conversation about why, the adult may just sign off on the student’s schedule and move on.

“And I’m not saying that every student needs to go to college — as you know, I’m a huge supporter of our [career and technical education programs] and there’s so many other avenues, but what I am saying is why would you make that decision at age 14, 15, 16, 17? That’s not the time,” Thornton said.

Instead, the superintendent continued, all students should be encouraged to take advanced courses, which puts them in a good position if they do change their mind and later decide to go to college. And, he added, advanced education is beneficial no matter what a student ultimately decides to do career wise.

Thornton said going forward, he said he plans to add an equity report to the agenda on a monthly basis.

Leah Carroll, the student liaison to the school board from Windsor High, said during the meeting she notices who’s in advanced classes, and it often doesn’t look like the school as a whole. Other students see the problem too.
“I’ve spoken to a friend of mine on this topic and he’s expressed that he’s often uncomfortable being the only one who looks like him in most of his classes. But he’s gotten used to it. This shouldn’t be something that we all just get used to,” she said.

Carroll was part of Windsor’s High’s student-led equity committee. The group looked at issues of representation in academics, athletics and recognition in student media, such as the yearbook. She suggested forming a countywide equity committee led by high school students but made up of students at all grade levels starting with elementary school students.

That idea resonated with board member Denise Tynes. She recalled how it felt to walk the halls as a teacher. Sometimes a group of students who were part of the school’s gifted program would pass by.

“And I would look and I would actually not see anyone representing my culture,” Tynes said. And I’d say, ‘You’re telling me it doesn’t matter what building you’re in, you cannot find one child of the African American culture that would qualify to be in this program?’”

She also agreed that there should be a pause if a student says they’re not interested in college.

“At that point, that counselor should stop and ask the question why? Why do you feel that way? There should be something there, a plan where they can turn that child, that student around,” Tynes said.