NAACP critical of Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system

Posted February 25, 2010 6:16 p.m. EST
Updated February 25, 2010 7:49 p.m. EST

The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chapter of the NAACP wants the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools to put more resources toward narrowing the student achievement gap in the district rather than putting more money into its honors program.

The school board recently voted 4-3 to add six more honors classes to the curriculum, upsetting the civil rights group, which claims the school system is focusing mostly on high-performing students, which will widen the gap.

Last year, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, 95 percent of white students passed end-of-grade and end-of-course testing. Among black students, 48 percent passed end-of-grade tests and 53 percent passed end-of-course tests.

Protestors rallied outside the district office Thursday, saying the gap is too great for resources to continue to go to top performers.

"We are not against raising standards and challenging all youth to succeed and excel at high levels," said Michelle Cotton Laws, president of the local NAACP chapter.

"What we are against, however, are policies that expand opportunities for those persons at the top, with little or no genuine attention given to how to bring those children at the bottom along," she added.

Less than 1 percent of students enrolled in honors and AP courses in the school system are black or Latino/Hispanic, the NAACP says.

In particular, protestors pointed to a school system policy they say required a teacher's recommendation to take an honors class.

In a news conference following the NAACP rally, school board Chairman Mike Kelley said that any student can register for an honors course and that the teacher recommendation hasn't been a requirement for years. Some schools still use it, though, he said.

"Unfortunately, that has been the practice, so that came to light during some of this discussion," Kelley said. "That was a practice that was not sanctioned by the school board nor the administration, and it will be stopped."

Superintendent Neil Pederson says closing the achievement gap is the system's highest priority and that a lot of strategies are being implemented to try to do that. The district has seen more progress, though, in elementary and middle schools than in high schools.

"I wouldn't say adding honors was a strategy for closing the achievement gap but enhancing the rigor in some or our courses," Pederson said.

The perception that no minority students are in honors courses is a misconception, he said. For example about 25 percent of black students are in ninth grade Honors English, he said.

"My goal would be to see all our students choosing to be in honors classes," he added.

One way to help close the gap among high school students, Pederson said, is to re-write standard course curriculum.

"I look at this as a challenge and an opportunity to rethink the courses that perhaps most of our students are in and make them more engaging," he said.

Spencer McKinnon, a sophomore at Carrboro High School, is enrolled in Honors English II, a foreign literature class, and plans to take more advanced courses in his junior and senior year.

He said he had no trouble getting into the class and thinks students have access to honors courses but that some just are not interested.

"I think it's more of not wanting to get in, because it's more of a work ethic. If you work really hard to get into an honors class, then it's not much of a complication," he said. "I definitely think it's more of a want, not a can't."