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Next step for achieving equity — dismantle high-poverty public schools

By the Coalition for Equity In Public Education

The School Choice application season for children starting kindergarten for the 2021-22 school year in Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools will end April 23.

Also this year, district staff are preparing the first major review of its Student Assignment Plan, since School Choice was implemented in 1995.

School Choice impacts every resident in our community, not only those with school-aged children. According to research from Winston-Salem State University, Forsyth County is one of the worst in the country for economic mobility. Despite overall strong economic growth, our poorest residents are continually left behind. A study of our public school assignment process revealed a correlating factor: “generations of poor academic mobility.” The problem may begin with school assignment.

The way the current system works, students are guaranteed a seat in their residential school. Students can also apply to other schools in their residential choice zone and will be given a seat in their top choice school if available, or they can apply to a county-wide magnet school. The promise is that everyone has equal access to the best schools. However, the choice system is complicated, and typically only the most networked parents secure the best opportunities.

Is it worth the trouble to navigate what can be a complex, competitive maze? Yes. Making a good choice early in elementary school can determine a child’s access to educational opportunity for the rest of their public school career. Parents who send a child to their residential school simply by default may have chosen” the riskiest option of all, because elementary schools in Forsyth County are profoundly unequal in the opportunities they offer. Nearly half of elementary schools in Forsyth County have earned school performance grades of D or F from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Every residential choice zone has at least one low-performing elementary school where poverty is concentrated, teacher turnover is high, and academic targets are set so low that the majority of students remain behind by a grade level or more, even as the school celebrates “meeting growth.” 

While students can still excel in these schools, many families learn too late that their child never received proper academic foundations for opportunities such as magnet or honors-track courses once they transition to middle school. Then, upon entering high school, students might suddenly discover doors that are open to others, but closed to them. Once again, it all goes back to the track they were placed on in elementary school. Immobility in our community can start as early as kindergarten.

Over the past month, the “Coalition for Equity In Public Education” has been meeting with members of the WS/FC School Board’s School Choice committee. Most acknowledged choice has segregated our schools and expressed a willingness to modify School Assignment to address the problem. However, these school board members were reluctant to stop the practice of concentrating poverty, even though they acknowledged an existing framework was in place for designated high-poverty schools. The focus of these high-poverty schools is to provide “wraparound services” — non-academic supports aimed at serving needs typical of Economically Disadvantaged Students (EDS).

It is well established that segregating children to serve needs unrelated to individual academic ability does not advance equity. Instead, it restricts access to academic opportunities offered to their peers. Test scores show that all students, not just EDS, benefit from more diverse classrooms. In terms of equity, concentrating poverty is a huge move in the opposite direction and makes it increasingly certain that those who lag behind — stay behind.

If equity is to be achieved in WS/FCS, the “Coalition for Equity In Public Education” believes a primary step is eliminating high concentrations of poverty in our public schools by establishing a limit on the percentage of Economically Disadvantage Students enrolled at any one school in the district. While the Coalition believes a 55% maximum is appropriate for all schools, it is most critical at the elementary level. The many benefits of adopting this standard include fostering more integrated learning environments, improving academic outcomes, advancing greater social and emotional learning, and serving the greater good of our county and community.

Parents enrolling their children in the WS/FCS district may have a difficult choice to make in the weeks ahead — a choice that will have a lasting impact. The responsibility however for dismantling an inequitable, unjust, and prejudiced system is up to WS/FCS district leadership. Ultimately, School Assignment is the district’s choice, not parents’. This year, the choice that matters most will be the one made by our school board.