The Inclusion Project: New Hanover County Education Advocacy
In New Hanover County, public school officials continue to grapple with the tension between promoting racial and socio-economic diversity in schools and the political pressure of suburban parents who favor an assignment plan that emphasizes proximity, often referred to as a “neighborhood school” plan. That term can be misleading when only certain neighborhoods are prioritized, and ignores the reality that such assignment plans reinforce patterns of residential segregation and sacrifice the educational benefits of racially and socio-economically diverse schools. In its new report, the UNC Center for Civil Rights describes direct community-based, education advocacy in New Hanover County. The Inclusion Project grew out of the Center’s community-based advocacy focused on addressing structural inequities and promoting racial equity and inclusion. The project began in 2013 with the release of “The State of Exclusion” report, and includes a series of county profiles analyzing the continuing impacts of the legacy of racial segregation.
In 2006, New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) began the move toward a “neighborhood schools” student assignment model. In New Hanover, as in other communities that rely on such models, resulting attendance zones and school demographics duplicated patterns of residential segregation and deepened achievement disparities across the district. While the district did create a magnet program to try and diversify schools in the Wilmington area, relying exclusively on parental choice to promote diversity has failed. In a district where just 1 out of 5 students is African American, NHCS’s four magnet schools are 78%-86% African American.
A Spanish Immersion Program established in 2010 attracted students from across the district to Forest Hills Elementary. However, significant racial disparities resulted from the Immersion Program’s lack of a formal admission policy, the absence of outreach to African American and Latino neighborhoods, and the failure to provide district-wide transportation to students enrolled in the program. Last school year, students of color accounted for only 26% of those enrolled in the Spanish Immersion Program, less than half their representation at Forest Hills.
In early 2016, the Center for Civil Rights was contacted by African American and Latino parents whose children spent multiple years on the Immersion Program’s waitlist. The Center engaged NHCS’s school board attorney and proposed remedial measures to address the segregation in the Immersion Program, including targeted outreach and a weighted lottery admission policy. The district agreed to admit the Center’s clients to the Immersion Program and to revise the admission policy to address the disparities in enrollment.
NHCS has also moved the Spanish Immersion Program to Gregory Elementary, one of the district’s four racially isolated magnet schools, and has taken additional steps toward ensuring equitable access to the Immersion Program. Parental interest in the program increases the likelihood it will attract a diverse student body, but magnet programs alone cannot resolve the educational disparities created by NHCS’s current student assignment model, which underscore the importance of prioritizing educational equity and diversity in student assignment. As the NHCS Superintendent recently stated, “The long-term solution is to redraw the [attendance] lines to help balance the schools on socio-economic levels.”