Two separate English classes, with two separate teachers, took place in the same room during the same period. The students were learning close to the same curriculum, but half of the students were designated “honors” and half of them “standard.”
Just a month before, the picture had been different. At the start of the 2011 school year, all of those students were in the same class, a mix of students from the honors and standard programs. It was an initiative spearheaded by teachers both at Carrboro High School and at East Chapel Hill High School to create better discussions and improve student learning by making classrooms more diverse.
“It worked really well for over a year, with the approval of the principal (of CHS) and the then-superintendent of schools,” said Christine Mayfield, who was an English teacher at the time. “It created an environment where everyone was together, discussing issues together.”
But these mixed classes conflicted with a school board decision in 2010 that students at different levels could not be mixed in the same classes because it would create difficulty for teachers trying to split instruction between groups of students, according to an article in the Daily Tar Heel.
“(The schools) hired extra people to resegregate the classes,” Mayfield said. “They pulled out the standard kids, who were mostly minorities, because there were fewer of them and had them in separate classes — they ended up being mostly small classes, mostly composed of people of color.”
Kelly Batten, principal of CHS at the time the classes were shut down, declined to comment for this story. Current administration at CHS declined to comment, as the school’s administration has changed since 2011.
Hanna Peterman, a freshman at CHS at the time, said there weren’t any problems with the classes until they were separated.
“When you’re in class with both standard and honors credit people, you don’t know who’s who, and there’s more diversity, socio-economic and racial,” she said.
“When they split up classes, it alienated people.”
Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools is not the only school system struggling to find lasting policies and practices that meet the goal of integrating students without causing a firestorm of complaints. Over the course of its history, North Carolina has been a hot spot of forward thinking when it comes to getting students of all races together in classrooms.
Greensboro was the first Southern town to stand in support of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case calling for desegregation. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District was the site of the famous case in 1971 that forced hesitant schools to make moves toward integration by busing their students across the county. Wake County became a national role model in 2000 when it pioneered assigning students to schools based on their family income.
But the state has not stayed ahead of the game. A 2014 report from the University of California revealed rapid backpedaling in North Carolina toward levels of segregation not unlike what schools looked like in the ’50s and ’60s.
“Over the last two decades, the share of intensely segregated schools — those that enroll less than 10 percent white students — has tripled,” the report states. “In 2010, intensely segregated schools accounted for 10 percent of the state’s schools, up from only 3 percent in 1989.”
Jennifer Ayscue, a UNC alumna and a primary author of the UCLA report, said North Carolina is a microcosm of the racial divide in schools that exists nationwide.
“In the 1980s, the South was the most desegregated region in the country, and North Carolina was part of that,” she said. “We were doing really well. That’s why it’s particularly disappointing and concerning to see these reversals.”
Across the state, the reasons for resegregation have a common thread: More and more often, school districts are opting to send kids to the schools nearest their homes rather than busing them across the county. As a result, residential segregation carries over into the school system.
School assignment is more flexible in small towns like Chapel Hill and Carrboro, where the farthest school from a child’s house might only be a 15-minute drive away, said Todd LoFrese, assistant superintendent for CHCCS.
“It’s a challenge in some places with long bus rides for kids,” he said.
North Carolina school districts started prioritizing neighborhood schools and parental school choice when the courts began declaring districts integrated around the turn of the century, which meant those districts were no longer under a strictly monitored court order to integrate.
Scott McCully, executive director of student placement for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district, said this has meant student assignment plans that focus on diversity have become more difficult to develop since the early 2000s. And because the use of socio-economic data in student assignment plans — such as free and reduced lunch data — is restricted, he said districts with limited budgets have their hands tied.
Fast-growing districts like CMS, which has a growing population of low-income students, are already straining their resources to accommodate their student population in any way they can, he said.
Shelby Dawkins-Law, a UNC graduate student in the School of Education, researches school segregation and has talked to students across the state who attend segregated schools.
“One (white) student was saying how she attended school in Wake County, and it never occurred to her that people had different goals and plans after graduation,” Dawkins-Law said.
“She was editor of the school newspaper, and people hadn’t turned in what college they were going to. As she was asking people where they were going, they looked at her like she was crazy. That was the first time she realized not everyone goes to college.”
Mayfield, who now teaches in Chatham County Schools, noted CHCCS has a more extreme wealth disparity than many districts, giving it a specific kind of problem.
“(Segregation) denies everybody a plurality of discussion,” she said. “That’s more true in school systems like CHCCS, where there are a lot of white kids that have had a lot of privilege, and at the same time, there are a lot of people of color that haven’t — you don’t have a ton in the middle. It’s a less toxic dynamic when you have some kids in the middle.”
The UNC Center for Civil Rights published a 2011 report on school segregation in Halifax County, N.C., where a group of parents recently filed a lawsuit against the county alleging segregation in the schools there harmed their children.
In their complaint, the parents describe classrooms where black students had a substitute teacher for an entire year in core-curriculum classes like math and science, did not have access to basic, adequate bathroom facilities and were suspended at much higher rates than students in the adjacent, mostly white district.
Elizabeth Haddix, an author on the initial report, said that statewide, schools that have a significant non-white population or low-income population get stigmatized as bad schools.
“That’s an unfortunate mentality to have when what we know from educational research is that to get a good education, you need to have students from different backgrounds in the same room, able to compete with one another,” she said.
Mayfield has taught in schools all over the country. She’s noticed the privilege of white students carries weight everywhere.
“Even if it’s not state money, the rich white schools are going to have PTAs that raise a lot of money. It’s just going to be a lot of amenities,” she said.
Widening achievement gaps and racial divides are not problems schools are powerless to solve, though, Ayscue said.
“I think people really aren’t as aware — they think desegregation is something that we tried a long time ago and it didn’t work, or it got better and we don’t need to do it now,” Ayscue said.
“The real truth of the matter is, we didn’t really try it for a sustained period of time — at most, it was one or two decades, and during that period it was working, but we shifted our focus to this more standards-based accountability system.”
The administration at CHS has changed in the years since mixed classes were shut down, but since the school board maintains the same policy, standard and honors English students are still taught in different classrooms. Chatham County, where Mayfield now teaches, faces similar problems that separate different races.
“Segregation hurts everyone in different ways,” Mayfield said.