How the odds are stacked
against select Gaston students
By Nick Dumont
Every student faces adversity from kindergarten to graduation, but their background plays a large part in determining how many more obstacles they will face than their peers.
A Gazette investigation of statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights has found a gap in educational opportunity at public schools in Gaston County. A student's chance at success in school is largely affected by their income status and race. Before some of the children are assigned seats, or pick up their pencil for the first time, they already face odds that are stacked against them.
When gauging opportunity in a school, it’s wise to look in the cafeteria before the classroom.
At most Gaston County schools, parents are tasked with paying for their child’s meals, which, during the 2017-18 year, amounted to $1.20 for breakfast and $2.80 for lunch.
That’s four dollars for a day’s nutrition. It sounds manageable, but it adds up. Four dollars stretches to $20 for a week and $80 for a month. Families with multiple children could see hundreds of dollars from each paycheck go to school meal plans. This is an impossible ask for some parents who are struggling to pay bills, mortgages and loans.
The majority of households in Gaston County need help to keep their children fed. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) offers free and reduced-price meals (FRPL) to families with a lower income level, and at 43 of Gaston County’s 55 public schools, over 50% of students qualified for the program in 2016.
What’s more, around one out of every three schools received the USDA’s Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which offers students universal free breakfast and lunch at schools in high-poverty areas.
Seeing how many students need subsidization to eat is an indicator of the county’s overall socioeconomics, and pinpoints which schools have the most economically privileged and disadvantaged student bodies.
Gaston County is home to a range of communities, from rural towns to urban cities to Charlotte suburbs, with diverse families and children.
Local schools’ student bodies should reflect the area’s racial demographics, and in some respects they do. But the most revealing insights are found where the ethnicities of county students and residents diverge.
The most striking disparity is between the amount of white and nonwhite students in private and public schools. The average private school has a student body that’s 79% white – compared to 73% white for the county’s demographics. Meanwhile, public school enrollment is only 61% white.
This means white children are disproportionately more likely to attend private school than nonwhite children. Asian, black, Hispanic and multiracial students are represented two times more at public schools than private schools.
It’s difficult to parse the difference in the overall quality of education between private and public schools. However, there is a tool to compare public schools to each other: The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI) publishes annual grades to measure how well students are learning at each public school in the county.
The grades highlight a marked imbalance between the 14 schools with minority-majority student bodies – which are less than 51% white – and the district’s 41 white-majority schools.
|Students||SPG*||Reading SPG||Math SPG|
So not only do nonwhite students receive fewer opportunities for private education, but at schools that are minority-majority, learning scores are far below average. Their reading, math and overall school performance grades qualify for a “D” letter grade, whereas every other school averages scores that are double-digits higher and earn a “C” letter grade.
In addition, of these 14 schools that are minority-majority, 11 qualify for the aforementioned CEP free meal program, given to the nation’s neediest schools. And at the three others, seven of every 10 students receive discounted breakfast and lunch.
White-majority and <50% FRPL
White-majority and >50% FRPL
White-majority and CEP
Minority-majority and >50% FRPL
Minority-majority and CEP
There is a clear correlation between minority-majority schools and economically disadvantaged schools. It’s worth exploring whether these students receive the same educational opportunities as their peers in the county.
Every state has a “Gifted and Talented” program – where overperforming students are placed into more challenging courses – though they often adopt different names for it. In North Carolina, it’s called “Academically & Intellectually Gifted” (AIG).
The state distributes AIG funds to each county – for the 2015-16 fiscal year in which the Gazette studied for this investigation, North Carolina allocated $79.6 million toward AIG programs. The Gaston County Schools district received $1.6 million from the state and an additional $39,986 through local funding.
Each county then outlines how its own AIG program will operate, starting with how kids will be recognized. For Gaston County Schools, the identification process begins in kindergarten and continues through 12th grade.
There are several paths for student qualification. The most straightforward is scoring high enough on aptitude or achievement tests, which leads to automatic admission. The alternate route is a composite score of standardized testing marks, cumulative grades and a teacher checklist gauging students’ learning, leadership, motivation and creativity.
In recent years, North Carolina’s schools have seen fewer low-income students admitted into advanced classes than expected. A joint study conducted by The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer discovered that for every three low-income students with qualifying math scores who were labeled gifted, there were two additional gifted students whose family income didn’t qualify them for free or reduced-price lunch.
A Gazette analysis shows there’s a sizable void in Gaston County between AIG programs at low-income and high-income schools. A child who attends a school where fewer than two out of every three students qualify for federal lunch subsidies is over four times more likely to be named gifted than a peer at a low-income school.
At high schools specifically, lower-income students are about half as likely to be enrolled in an Advanced Placement (AP) course. This is especially significant as it has a direct correlation with college admission and credits.
Schools where more than 66% of students qualify for reduced-price lunch
Schools where fewer than 66% of students qualify for reduced-price lunch
The opportunity gap isn’t just determined by income level. For every 100 students at Gaston County Schools, around 61 will be white. However, in the area’s AIG programs, around 82 of every 100 kids will be white. The number of minority students qualified as gifted is half of what it should be, compared to the overall student body.
Black and Hispanic students are inordinately affected. Black representation in the AIG programs is nearly a quarter of what it should be, and Hispanic participation is twice as low as expected.
Conversely, white and Asian students are admitted into special classes disproportionally more.
As some kids take on gifted courses, others are advised to repeat grades. The most common years for retention – holding a student back – at Gaston County Schools are kindergarten through 2nd grade and 9th through 12th.
In the 2015-16 school year, the district retained nearly 1,000 total students between these seven grades.
And, as is the case with AIG enrollment, the students who were held back aren’t representative of the study body’s demographics.
At elementary schools and high schools where fewer than two out of every three students qualify for reduced-price lunch, one out of every 101 students repeated their grade.
By comparison, one out of every 41 students were retained at schools where more than two out of every three students qualify for reduced-price lunch.
In short, kids at lower-income schools are twice as likely to be held back.
This figure excludes Warlick Academy and Webb Street School, two alternative schools in Gaston County. If they were included, however, that disparity would be even more lopsided.
Nonwhite students can't crack gifted programs as often as their white peers do, but are more frequently held back to repeat grades: Nonwhite students comprised just 39% of the overall student body, but made up 53% of retained students in 2016.
These numbers aren't entirely surprising, given the facts so far. When minority-majority schools have performance scores that are double-digits lower than white-majority schools, and minority students don't have the same access to AIG classes, retention rates tend to stray askew. That, however, does not make it less discouraging.
From elementary to high schools, the strictest form of punishment for students, excluding expulsion, is a suspension from class. More specifically, either an in-school or out-of-school suspension.
The demographics of students suspended should align with the demographics of the entire student body. Or at least come close. But in 2016, the racial makeup of students suspended by Gaston County Schools was a disturbing mirror-like reversal of the schools' overall racial compositions.
Somehow, nonwhite students comprise only 39% of all students, but comprise 60% of students handed out-of-school suspensions. (And, just for reference, 59% of in-school suspensions.)
Suspensions for black students are especially lopsided. Around 21% of all students are black, and 61% of students are white. Yet, 42% of all suspensions were levied on black students, as opposed to 41% for white students.
Unfortunately, this is a widespread trend extending beyond Gaston County. Back in 2010, Duke University conducted a study about school suspension, noticed this alarming inequality, and reached the following conclusions: “African-American students are more frequently suspended because of subjective disciplinary actions and are more likely to be disciplined more severely for minor misconduct...There is no conclusive evidence that these findings are because African-American students engage in more school misconduct or violent behaviors.“
This is a nuanced issue that is difficult to pin down and solve because of the subjectivity involved. But ultimately, it's yet another factor in the equation of educational opportunity. It's markedly demonstrated through statistics that students of specific races and income levels don't have equal access to private schooling, aren't labeled gifted and talented as often as their peers, are held back to repeat grades, and are disciplined more often and more severely. It lends the appearance of a system that favors some students and confines others.
But that's not the entire picture. There are some schools with a minimal opportunity gap, and other schools that are trying to bridge the gap with initiatives like the Composer program, an alternative course for students who don't qualify for AIG. And there are dedicated teachers who strive to make classrooms more inclusive and supportive.
It will be interesting to compare the aforementioned data to the 2018 numbers when they are eventually released. There will likely still be a void, but hopefully one that's diminishing.
To examine the most recent statistics, visit the comparison table from the Gazette investigation for an overview of how local elementary, middle and high schools stack up. The page also provides access to individual school profiles for specific information, from AIG and retention demographics to student discipline.