The State of Education in Halifax County - A Five-Month Update

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The Center began working in Halifax County in 2008 on a range of community inclusion issues. Lincoln Heights, an excluded community on the outskirts of the City of Roanoke Rapids, worked with the Center to stop the City from locating a solid waste transfer station in their neighborhood, which has been the site of several previous municipal waste facilities. The community’s engagement and advocacy also helped bring public attention to other exclusion based impacts issues affecting Lincoln Heights, including denial of access to municipal services and electoral power in local government.

As we continued to work with communities across the county on a range of issues, one theme consistently emerged among residents throughout Halifax County: "Something is very wrong with the schools in this county." Halifax remains one the few counties in the state that has three separate schools districts; two almost 100% African-American, the other over 70% White. The Center spent much of last year researching the history of districts in the county, collecting data on the districts’ current student achievement and educational resources, and analyzing school desegregation and education finance lawsuits that have focused on Halifax over the last forty years.

The resulting report, "Unless Our Children Begin to Learn Together . . . The State of Education in Halifax County,"released in May 2011, is a compelling case study that highlights the most significant impediment to genuine education reform and progress in Halifax County: the enduring manifestation of de jure segregation inherent in the continued maintenance of three separate and unequal public school systems. The report also discusses educational reforms tailored to the needs of a rural, low-wealth county that can help ensure a constitutionally compliant education for all children in Halifax County.

Following the release of the report, community groups invited the Center to eight "Community Conversations" throughout the county, where parents, teachers, and community leaders could discuss the report and the future of education in Halifax County. Participants expressed appreciation for the report’s penetrating look at the history of the three districts through the school desegregation era, the racialized nature of the Roanoke Rapids’ district boundaries, and the comprehensive comparison of student achievement factors and common challenges among the three districts. Many expressed surprise at the 2009-10 data showing that the predominantly White Roanoke Rapids Graded School District (RRGSD) had comparable graduation rates and a higher drop-out rate than the two almost all-Black districts, Halifax County Public Schools (HCPS) and Weldon City Schools (WCS). Community members, including teachers from HCPS, also commented on the lack of educational resources in the county district, pointing out that RRGSD does not share these deficits. See NC school quality data from theNC Dept. of Education(NC School Report Cards;NC School Statistical Profile)

The RRGSD boundaries are both over and under inclusive, undercutting city lines to exclude several majority-Black neighborhoods, while simultaneously reaching beyond municipal boundaries to include majority-White neighborhoods. Weldon City School district boundaries also stretch beyond city lines to counteract the effects of a declining school age population. Both districts charge a supplemental tax to residents of the school districts.

Many residents emphasized that the stigma of subordination and otherness inherent in the continuing legacy of the segregated districts could be eliminated by dissolving the racialized school district boundaries. There is also great hope that collaboration among the districts can ensure that every child in Halifax County achieves a constitutionally-compliant education.

In September, Center attorneys presented the report to the Halifax County Commissioners and the Halifax County School Board. One of the White commissioners told Center representatives that he believed the report was based on "preconceived opinion," rather than facts, and that he opposed unifying the districts because he refused to "send two C/C+ school districts down the tubes to a failing district (referring to HCPS)." This position is particularly troubling given that the county commissioners are the only elected officials that represent the all of the county’s citizens, and the only body with the unilateral power to address educational inequities across all three districts. The Center urged the Board of Commissioners to embrace its responsibility to ensure a sound basic education for all children attending public school in the county.

Moving forward

Political power systems and long-maintained divisions appear to pose the greatest obstacles to meaningful educational reform in Halifax County. The increasing numbers of community members that are using the Center’s report as a catalyst for change make very real the possibility that these obstacles may be overcome. Statutory procedures give the county the opportunity to tailor a district consolidation plan to the unique needs of the county and, to facilitate cooperation and collaboration between the three districts that can improve education quality throughout Halifax County.

Posted by Taiyyaba A. Qureshi on Sat. October 22, 2011 8:10 PM
Categories: Education, Halifax County, Leandro, Segregation
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