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In Franklin County, Federal Court Orders Keep Schools Desegregated

History teacher Karla Albertson goes over civil rights cases with her students at Louisburg High School in Franklin County.
Reema Khrais
History teacher Karla Albertson goes over civil rights cases with her students at Louisburg High School in Franklin County.

Over the last couple of decades, many of North Carolina’s public schools have become increasingly segregated. But in Franklin County, it’s a different story.

The district stands out as having some of the most racially balanced schools in the state—a bright spot in a system working to overcome several challenges.

At Louisburg High School, history teacher Karla Albertson goes over landmark Supreme Court Cases with her students. They discuss Brown v. Board of Education, a case that declared segregated schools unconstitutional.

Now, a question for the class:

“Why would that [segregated schools] not be OK?” Albertson asks her students “Other than kind of a moral issue that clearly we believe now.”

Latiya, a junior, raises her hand.

“Blacks, they had to walk a long way to get to their schools, and whites, they just had to take a bus and it was like right there,” she answers.

Students explain differences in transportation, teacher pay and school lunches. Then, one student, Jaden, comments on the state of schools in Franklin County today. 

“Our county, or schools, are still under a court order, they’ve been under it for a few years to even out the races in the schools,” he explains.

Franklin County’s public schools have been under court desegregation orders since the sixties. It’s what helps keep their schools desegregated at a time when many of North Carolina’s districts are moving away from policies that promote racially diverse schools.

The orders require racial enrollment numbers at each school to be within 15 percentage points of the district's average for minority students. 

One way the school system accomplishes this is through a method called "Majority to Minority" transfers. Students who attend a school where their racial group is above the district average can transfer to a school where there are fewer students of their race. 

So far this school year, the district has made about 175 majority to minority transfers in a system of about 8,500 students. 

Minorities Underrepresented in Gifted Programs 

Dana Thompson Dorsey, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill's School of Education, studies school desegregation and says research shows racially balanced schools lead to positive outcomes.

“White and students of color benefit academically and socially from being surrounded by people who are of different races, ethnicities, and socioeconomic backgrounds,” she explains.  

Still, Thompson Dorsey says plenty of schools in North Carolina are technically, and legally, desegregated, but not high-performing.

“I don’t know if that necessarily has anything to do with desegregation itself, or just public education in North Carolina,” she notes.

In Franklin County, seven of its 16 schools are considered low-performing. 

“That’s our main focus now is to make sure our low-performing schools are brought up to average and above average,” says Elizabeth Keith, vice-chair of the Franklin County School Board.

District officials say the school system is working on multiple strategies to better monitor student progress and intervene.

One thing Keith says she'd like to see is more minority students in advanced classes. White students make up about half of the student population, but last year they made up about 77 percent of students in academically gifted programs.

Across North Carolina, you see similar trends: minority students are underrepresented in gifted programs.

“I’d like them to be encouraged and sort of geared toward taking those higher-level courses because that’s going to make the difference as well,” Keith says.

District officials say they're rolling out a plan next year that will help identify more students for gifted programs without relying so heavily on grades or test scores as indicators.   

Funding Challenges

To help big goals like that happen, the school system recently brought on Superintendent Pascal Mubenga. His resume is promising—he used to work for the state, helping to turn around low-performing schools.

“I think number one you change the culture of the place, make sure you rise expectations for all staff, students, as well as parental involvement,” Mubenga explains.

Mubenga says there are two ingredients for success: quality principals and quality teachers. But there’s a problem.

“The struggle that we have in Franklin county schools, we'll have these graduates, they'll come to us for two to three years, then they get experience, they move, they leave us, they go to Wake County,” he says.

Wake County is southwest of Franklin and it offers its teachers a bigger pay supplements. Last year, Wake teachers made an average of about $3,300 more per year than those in Franklin.

“And those challenges are still around, and I think probably going to get harder, as some of our teachers are going to other places, they’re going out-of-state due to  pay,” Mubenga says.

Across North Carolina, school leaders argue the state needs to increase its funding for public schools. That point was unintentionally made in Ms. Albertson’s history class when one student commented about the differences between white and black schools decades ago.

“The blacks, they didn’t really have textbooks that were like good. They used to old textbooks. And whites they had good, quality textbooks,” says one student.

"Even in our educationally de-funded world today, we all have these same textbooks that are old and are falling apart,” replies Albertson. 

Reema Khrais joined WUNC in 2013 to cover education in pre-kindergarten through high school. Previously, she won the prestigious Joan B. Kroc Fellowship. For the fellowship, she spent a year at NPR where she reported nationally, produced on Weekends on All Things Considered and edited on the digital desk. She also spent some time at New York Public Radio as an education reporter, covering the overhaul of vocational schools, the contentious closures of city schools and age-old high school rivalries.
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