The Missing Racial Context of "Energizing East": The Persistence of School Segregation in Duplin County

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On December 8th, EdNC posted an article titled “Wallace Elementary: Growing greatness in Duplin County.”  The article is the second in EdNC’s Energizing East series, which highlights STEM education practices in counties across eastern North Carolina.  While teachers and administrators are engaged in important work to advance STEM education across the region, it is a disservice to the students, families, teachers, and administrators in those counties featured in this series to focus on these schools without providing the context of racial and economic segregation that exists in these districts.  It is even a greater disservice to ignore the fact that this persistent segregation is the direct result of decisions by local school boards, and undermines the educational outcomes these innovative programs are designed to improve.

There is no doubt that EdNC’s description of Wallace Elementary as a “hive of activity” is correct.  However, while the buzz in and around the school’s STEM lab is a testament to the commitment of teachers and administrators, they are working in the shadow of a “Schools Facility Plan” adopted by the Duplin County Board of Education in 2014 that exemplifies the school district’s decades-long refusal to address the racial segregation its own policies have created and maintained.

Wallace Elementary is one of four elementary schools in Duplin County that are currently being converted to from K-5 to K-8 facilities.  The elementary school conversion is limited to the predominantly African American, Kenan and Wallace-Rose Hill High attendance areas.  Three predominantly non-white middle schools (all of which, the Energizing East article suggests, recently were provided new STEM classrooms and equipment) will close at the end of this school year.  And despite years of promises and plans to build a new, centralized middle school that would draw a diverse student population, students from these middle schools will now be reassigned to the four retrofitted and highly segregated elementary schools, thereby increasing segregation in Duplin County.  In 2014, community members filed a federal civil rights complaint under Title VI of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964, challenging  discriminatory impact of the facilities plan.

In Duplin County, school segregation persists despite the fact that the district has one of the more diverse student bodies in North Carolina (it is one of only two districts in the state in which Latino students are the predominant demographic group).  Existing school segregation is attributable to the district’s maintenance of its four high school attendance areas.  The Kenan and Wallace-Rose Hill attendance areas, where just 19% and 24% of students are white, serve most of the western half of the county.  East Duplin and North Duplin, where 50% and 39% of students are white, account for the remainder.  Not surprisingly, the racially isolated schools in the Kenan and Wallace-Rose Hill areas generally have lower student achievement, more inexperienced teachers, and higher teacher turnover rates.

The Duplin County school board has had ample opportunity to address school segregation, as it has been confronted with two related problems for nearly four decades: the need to replace aging facilities in the Kenan area and the need to consolidate inefficiently utilized schools.  Since 1979, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has repeatedly recommended that Duplin build new facilities in the Kenan area and move toward consolidated high schools, sending Kenan High students to school with students from either of the district’s predominantly white high schools, East Duplin High or North Duplin High.

The school board, however, has continually ignored these recommendations, instead doubling down on its commitment to the existing attendance areas despite evidence of growing racial segregation and imbalances in the educational resources offered to students.  In 1993, the U.S. Department of Education intervened after an unofficial policy grouped white children together in classrooms at Warsaw Elementary, a predominantly African American school.  This illegal practice was the district’s response to concerns about white flight.  In the mid-1990s, the board declined to invest in new schools for the Kenan area, but built two new schools and renovated a third in predominantly white East and North Duplin.  Then again in the mid-2000s, opposition from white parents in East Duplin stalled out discussions of a consolidated high school (then set to combine the student populations of Kenan and East Duplin), even as the school board acknowledged the consolidated high school would be the most diverse in the county. 

While teachers and administrators continue the work of advancing STEM education in Duplin County and across eastern North Carolina, their efforts stand in stark contrast to the deliberate actions of many local school boards that preserve and increase school segregation.  The unaddressed educational impacts that often follow—decreased student performance, less access to experienced teachers and a diverse curriculum, lower quality facilities, and community divestment from schools—undercut the very effort at “growing greatness” that EdNC has highlighted.  Only the support of local school boards that are committed to increasing student diversity in their schools will allow these much needed STEM programs to achieve their true potential.

Posted by Brent J. Ducharme on Wed. January 4, 2017 4:26 PM
Categories: Education, Segregation
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