What do you want to know
For 15 years, schools in New Hanover County have used a “neighborhood schools” policy to assign students to the school closest to their home. The policy aims to keep students closer to home and give communities a sense of ownership of the schools in their neighborhood.
But community advocates, education experts and local leaders all agree that the policy has re-segregated the school district and opened up huge equity and achievement gaps within the system. Under the policy, a student’s race and where they live strongly influence the type of education they receive.
For more than eight months, StarNews education and health reporter Sydney Hoover, regional investigative reporter Matthew Prensky and Wilmington, and New Hanover County reporter Emma Dill investigated racial segregation and inequality in the within schools in New Hanover County.
The team interviewed more than 60 people, poured over 16 years of state and federal data, and reviewed more than five decades of history to create the story of a school system that was forced into desegregation and is since reverted to Jim Crow-era politics, which cost a generation of black and Hispanic students the opportunity to receive a quality education.
A return to segregation: Neighborhood school policy is fueling inequality and erasing New Hanover’s progress
Here are five takeaways from StarNews’ investigation:
Two radically different worlds exist
While New Hanover County schools are a single school district, encompassing more than 40 schools, state data and stories from teachers, students, and community leaders describe a school system that is actually made up of from two radically different districts.
There is one in downtown Wilmington where many black and Hispanic students from the county are sent. Schools in this district have some of the least experienced teachers and resource and support services that are cracking under the immense needs of its students. For years, many of these schools have ranked among the worst public schools in all of North Carolina.
Alternatively, many suburban public schools in New Hanover County have consistently been ranked among the best in North Carolina. These schools are predominantly white, have some of the most experienced staff, and have not experienced the same decline as the county’s downtown schools after the district instituted its “neighborhood schools” policy in 2006 and 2010.
An endless cycle:An educator sees first-hand the inequalities caused by racial segregation in schools
‘Big divide’:How Wilmington’s Segregated Neighborhoods Contribute to Racial Imbalance in Schools
A student’s ethnicity, address matters
A student’s race and where they live play an important role in determining whether they will receive a quality education in New Hanover County. Today and in the past, race has governed where many county residents live, with most white residents living in the suburbs and many black residents still living near downtown Wilmington.
About half of all black elementary school-aged students attended one of five elementary schools in or near downtown Wilmington in 2019, according to state demographics. The rest attended one of 19 other elementary schools spread across New Hanover County.
Teachers at some schools recalled stories of students dropping out in second or third grade. Education experts told StarNews that academic disadvantage at such a young age can accumulate as a student progresses, creating an achievement gap in the school system.
A history of school re-segregation
Schools in New Hanover County have fought to desegregate for 17 years. The issue was so contentious in the county that after the order was issued by a federal judge, the school board released a statement asking residents to “obey the law, stay calm, and keep the kids in school.” .
But 12 years after schools in New Hanover County were released from their federal desegregation order, the school system was once again in hot water with the federal government over its level of racial segregation.
In 1995, a lawsuit was filed against the district by community leaders claiming its use of residential models discriminated against black students. The U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office ordered schools in New Hanover County to ensure that each of its students had between 15% and 50% black population, a standard of 23 out of 41 schools was in violation in 2019, according to state demographic data.
This federal order lasted until 1997, and in the years since, district leadership has made maintaining racial balance in the system a priority. That changed in 2006, and then again in 2010, when the school board voted to enact “neighborhood schools” at the New Hanover County elementary and middle school levels, effectively using a decades-old practice to resegregate the system.
Wilmington remains isolated
New Hanover County Schools, like many other school districts nationwide, use residential models to assign students to schools. However, because Wilmington remains segregated, the practice has resulted in the school district being re-segregated.
Wilmington, like many other cities in America, used racist housing policies and zoning rules to segregate neighborhoods in the 20th century. The city remains segregated today despite the outlawing of such practices and the passage of fair housing legislation during the Civil Rights era.
Solving the problem will be difficult
Solutions exist to correct racial segregation and inequities within schools in New Hanover County. Remedies such as redistricting, magnet schools and community investment can solve the problem, but as education experts say, it is a lack of political will, not a lack of solutions, that prevents the end of school segregation.
Community leaders, teachers and district leaders are divided on how to solve the problem. Some say the solution is desegregation, an idea sparked by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and imposed on New Hanover County in 1971.
Others, like Superintendent Charles Foust, vehemently oppose the idea that black students should be bussed to predominantly white schools to get a quality education. Many within this group believe that the district should invest in these schools to improve their academic performance rather than removing students from their neighborhood.
Education experts interviewed by StarNews say solving the problem will require a combination of solutions. Attempting to fix the problem using one solution, but none of the others, will not lead to a permanent solution, they say.