Lack of diversity in schools may be affecting city population

Bryant Cooper

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bcooper3@unca.edu

Information from consultant of Asheville City school district indicates a decrease in the population of black students. Dwight B. Mullen, a retired UNC Asheville professor and representative from State of Black Asheville says the number has dropped drastically since 2010.

“It has actually decreased in the Asheville City Schools,” Mullen said. “It was once pretty close to 40 percent African-American, but now it’s right around 20 percent.”

In 2010 the population of black students in Asheville City Schools rested at 42 percent according to Mullen. Mullen said the exodus of African-Americans from Asheville may be a reason for the decreased population of students of color. 

According to Asheville citizen Jacob Dagenhardt, the isolation some young minority students  felt led to some of his childhood friends leaving the city after graduation. He said although he may not experience those feelings, they resonate  with the minorities in Asheville City schools. 

“I know it made them feel weird sometimes,” Dagenhardt said. “One of my friends would get really excited about being able to connect with other black kids while growing up.”

While the outlook for growth of the black population within the city does not look continues to decline,  Mullen predicts the Latinx community will see growth in the next few years.. 

“It is the only population in the city that has decreased in the last 10 years,” Mullen said. “At the beginning of the last census in 2010 it was right at 13.4 percent.”

Mullen says those percentages could continue to get lower. According to a chart provided by the Director of Communications Ashley-Michelle Thublin, the black student population in the Asheville City school district sits at 19 percent.

“It was just over 13 percent,” Mullen said. “Now I would not be surprised for the 2020 census if it’s in the single digits. It’s a significant decline.”

The difference in those numbers give Asheville High graduate Nicole Williams a reason to reflect on the classroom environment during her time in the school district. Now living in Arizona, Williams said her high school experience was mostly white. 

“My experience with those schools was fine, not too bad or too good,” Williams said. “In terms of race, both schools were definitely predominantly white. Considering how white Asheville is in general that’s no surprise. However, compared to what you’d see just walking around town, the schools were pretty diverse.”

Williams said she experiences more awareness about race and population size with age. 

“Since I grew up there and most cities I had ever visited outside of Asheville were also mostly white, it’s not something I noticed until I was a little older,” Williams said. “Now it’s something I always see whenever I go anywhere. Everytime I return to Asheville it’s immediately noticeable just how white it is and how discomforting how much whiter it has been getting over the years.”

Williams said the  decline in diversity impacted her experience in the Asheville City Schools she attended. She says it is one of the reasons that she soon sought a way out of Asheville after graduation.

“I definitely don’t believe I had ever really found my place in school which had somewhat to do with race for sure,” Williams said. “Since it’s mostly white, it’s easy for people to ignore the lack of support for other races or feel that there is support based on the few minorities they come in contact with on a regular basis. There are definitely a decent amount of nonwhite people in asheville, but I rarely saw them outside of school.”

Mullen said the lack of diversity within all the Asheville school districts and the population of the city might  instigate challenges, such as the achievement gap. In addition, Mullen said teacher compensation and cultural backgrounds of teachers plays a role in the disparities seen in academics and discipline.

“I’m not willing to say that color doesn’t matter, race matters, it does matter,” Mullen said. “It you were to achieve your ideal, it doesn’t relieve white teachers of also being culturally competent.”

Mullen said measures put in place by Asheville City Schools and Intern Superintendent Bobbie Short presents steps to address the challenges within the schools.  

Short said that the district strives to implement training that would help bridge the gap of cultural differences between teachers and students and increase understanding. 

“The cultural competence is not something that comes by genes,” Mullen said. “You have to train for it and that training is what I think Dr. Bobbie Short is talking about doing. That’s a really good thing.”

Mullen said  training for teachers is important, but cautions them to hold teachers accountable to implementing their training. Mullen said increasing the amount of black teachers could lead to promising results. 

“We’re very intentional and very focused in terms of the equity issue,” Short said. “Making sure that we have a plan and everyone knows what our vision is and our ultimate mission and working toward that.”

While the schools are working to solve this issue, simultaneously the presence of the black community is steadily falling.

“Both in terms of the white population growing and the black population declining,” Mullen said. “In the Asheville City schools, it’s a direct reflection of the demographics.”

Mullen said the school’s demographics and the diversity of the classrooms do not have the same meaning and implications. 

“The demographics of the school are not necessarily the demographics of the classroom,” Mullen said. “If you start at the highschools you’ll see that there are certain tracks that are predominantly black and certain tracks that are predominantly white.”

Depending on the set up of the specific classrooms, the students could be mostly white or mostly black. Students can become systematically divided within the classrooms according to Mullen. 

“AP and honors are overwhelmingly disproportionately white,” Mullen said. “While classes that are not necessarily built for the college bound kids are overwhelmingly black.”

Through her experience in Asheville City Schools, Williams made a similar observation about the demographics inside the classroom. Williams says that she is not aware of the achievement gap for the school district, but notices a distinct separation in the classrooms.

“Honors and AP classes were almost always completely white,” Williams said. “When you walked into a standard class there would be an influx of black students as well as other minorities.”

Mullen said time is necessary for these changes to take place and produce any level of equity or assistance needed to overcome academic and discipline disparities. Short says the schools do not expect change over night, but want current implementations to be a good foundation.

“When you enact policies, for them to become systemic and institutionalized it takes a good deal of time to change the culture of a working environment,” Mullen said.

In order to combat the overall growth of the population  and the simultaneous decline of the black population in Asheville, Mullen said homeschooling and charter schools operated by the black communities present a viable solution. 

“A number of districts in the state like Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and now its happening here in Asheville, are responding with applications to open black charter schools,” Mullen said. “That’s another approach. The community is taking it upon themselves to educate their own children.”

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