Civil rights advocate seeks school redistricting

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SMITHFIELD — A civil rights advocate says Johnston County Public Schools must do more to promote racial and socioeconomic equality throughout the school system.

Mark Dorosin of the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights addressed operational effectiveness at Smithfield-Selma schools compared to other schools in the district during the Smithfield City Council’s Nov. 6 meeting.

“We need to make sure Johnston County schools are diverse and inclusive,” said Dorosin. “We’ve seen the impact of poverty and segregation within school districts. What our report shows is the opportunity for the school system to prioritize demographics in the selection of new school sites.”

Dorosin said Smithfield Middle School has the lowest white population of Johnston schools and the highest percentage of free and reduced lunch students. Smithfield-Selma High School, according to the demographic study, has the widest student performance gap between black and white students. It also has the lowest graduation rate and highest dropout rate of all Johnston County schools.

“When you draw attendance areas that aren’t racially diverse, and you have an open transfer policy, you get a situation where schools become more racially segregated,” said Dorosin. “There is a higher percentage of whites leaving Smithfield-Selma. The departure of white students is creating this disparity.”

Dorosin said the community should make it a priority to redraw school districts in a way that’s more equitably balanced.

“If JCPS redrew the eight existing school districts to crate more racially equal districts, Smithfield-Selma would go from 64 percent to less than 50 percent of minorities,” said Dorosin.

Councilman Emery Ashley said his family members are products of Smithfield-Selma and he’s concerned about the economic diversity.

“I’m proud of Smithfield-Selma,” said Ashley. “What can we do to enhance the educational opportunities for the economically disadvantaged? We need to meet their needs where they need to be met. If we can figure out that piece of the puzzle, we can figure out how to help the disadvantaged.”

Ashley said he appreciated Dorosin’s presentation and hard work.

“My children had the support at home,” said Ashley. “Some of the kids in classes with my children didn’t. We need to find a way to equalize that.”

“A lot of research indicates that when a school has a large percentage of economically disadvantaged students, more resources need to go into those schools,” said Dorosin. “Economically disadvantaged students do better in schools that aren’t 60 percent free or reduced lunch.”

Dorosin said decisions on where to build new schools also plays a critical role in the demographic makeup of the students who attend those schools.

“Often, school siting decisions merely follow redevelopment patterns,” said Dorosin. “This has been the model in JCPS for nearly all of the new schools constructed in the last 15 years, which have been in the northern and western portion of the county.”

Dorosin said while that approach might reduce transportation costs and time, “it further entrenches segregative housing patterns and fails to recognize that school siting decisions can both help and drive economic development in communities and enhance opportunities for attracting a diverse student body.”

According to U.S. Census data, students at Cleveland Middle School are 68 percent white, 14 percent black and 11 percent Hispanic, compared to Selma Middle School whose student population is 12 percent white, 32 percent black and 54 percent Hispanic.

On the high school level, census data shows Princeton High School is 72 percent white, 10 percent black and 15 percent Hispanic. By comparison, Smithfield-Selma is 30 percent white, 28 percent black and 39 percent Hispanic.

A study of end-of-grade testing scores for eighth-graders reveals that 58 percent of students are proficient for their grade level. In comparison, Cleveland Middle School students rank 72 percent while Selma Middle students rank 34 percent.

On the high school level, the county’s total score is 64 percent proficient. Cleveland High ranks 72 percent proficent and Smithfield-Selma ranks 46 percent proficient. Only South Johnston High’s test scores ranked lower, with 42 percent of students ranked proficient based on their EOG scores.

Graduation rates for Clayton High and Cleveland High top 95 percent while Smithfield-Selma and West Johnston rank lowest at 88 percent.

“Johnston County’s schools are significantly out of balance in relation to racial and socioeconomic demographics,” said Dorosin. “We see that Princeton, Corinth Holders and Smithfield-Selma are the most out balance.”

Dorsosin said growth isn’t the sole reason.

“What accounts for these disparities?” said Dorosin. “The district’s transfer policy allows some students to choose a school other than their assigned ‘home’ school. This group is more likely to be those who are higher income and more likely to be white. This is reflected in the racial and ethnic balance and imbalance of the county’s schools.”