America's education gap is not just between white and black—it is between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots,’ and a startling example of it is in Atlanta.
In a district of about 52,000 students, there is a lot to celebrate.
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Once rocked by a cheating scandal, Atlanta Public Schools have seen graduation rates jump more than 20 points to 80 percent in the past five years.
“The struggle is real. The lift is intense,” says Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Meria Carstarphen.
Still, Dr. Carstarphen tells The Atlanta Journal Constitution Editorial Board, more work is left to do—and socioeconomics matter.
“The last Census data said that the average white family made $167,087 a year [in median income], compared to the average black family [at $23,803],” Carstarphen says.
That income inequality exacerbates the achievement gap traditionally cataloged between white and non-white students, and it shows in test results. Take literacy, for example--the simple ability to read, write, and engage with language in meaningful communication.
The 2019 Georgia Milestones test assessment of English Language Arts finds students’ proficiency rate under 40%. The stunning gap between black and white students is almost 60 percent. Eighty percent of white students in APS are proficient and above; the number is 25.3 percent for black students—and the district is majority black.
“When you start pulling back poverty; when you pull back race, there’s the gap," says Carstarphen. "And we’ve closed the gap over five years. We’ve been chipping away at it, closing it, but that still means it’s sitting at 58.8 percent.”
The statistics showing improving ELA proficiency in APS indicates that Atlanta could be bucking the national trend in that area when it comes to the widening achievement gap. But the gap is staggering.
In fact, white students in APS are beating the nation, while their black classmates are lagging behind. The more affluent the family, the larger the academic achievement gap.
"White kids are 2.9 grade levels ahead of the average in America," says Carstarphen. "Our black kids are 1.5 [behind]. But when you take APS black kids and APS white kids and put them side by side, that means the gap in grade levels is [almost] 4.5 grade levels."
Carstarphen explains that the academic achievement gap is closely tied to inequity—not just in Atlanta, but nationwide.
“It is a sobering statement about the state of affairs for black and brown kids, compared to non-minority kids in America,” Carstarphen says.
Richer parents have more time and money to invest in their children, exposing them to more academically-enriching vocabularies and experiences. Atlanta's is a district where millionaire families live just a few miles from those in poverty, and the superintendent notes the stark differences.
“When you’re in the neighborhoods, walking, and I mean you’re in it, the living conditions for our kids and housing is appalling,” Carstarphen says, adding, “The mobility is like 30-40 percent; people chasing low rents, just trying to make ends meet.
“Food deserts is another piece to it. They don’t have access to transportation.”
Carstarphen points out that three of the poorest schools in Georgia are all in Atlanta: Boyd Elementary, Thomasville Heights, and Fain Elementary.
“It is why we didn’t close Thomasville Heights,” Carstarphen explains. “If I closed it and sent them somewhere else, those families would never see their kids.
“Never have an opportunity to go to PTA meetings and be involved in the school.”
Carstarphen believes the answer lies--in part--in investing in the communities themselves, not in a neighborhood already overflowing with development. She questions why tax abatements are given to developers who sometimes admit that they'll go ahead with a project whether they get the tax break or not, when the project in in question is, say, another fancy hotel in an area that already has five or 10 of them--while other neighborhoods saddled with low wages and few job opportunities sit untapped.
“Over here in south Atlanta, where we know there are no jobs, no investment, very little at best,” Carstarphen says, “We want to try to shift some of the resources to the very families who make up the majority of Atlanta Public Schools; the communities where they live. Get them a grocery store, help them with housing, get some job development down there. Maybe some transportation?”
Community investment creates opportunity, capital, resources, and training in disadvantaged and under-served communities. It is a way to start breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty. The superintendent recalls hearing a high-profile company in a development meeting discussing a potential opportunity for 5,000 jobs; she says there are 5,000 parents in Atlanta who would need them. Those worlds will never meet at this rate, she says, because kids and their families need the education and training to step into better-paying jobs.
"You have to be literate enough to at least learn the job," she states.
That could go a long way for families in Atlanta, which is the most unequal city in America when it comes to income disparity.
Carstarphen says, "The question that Atlanta has to ask itself, whether you're sitting in a school bus, on the school board, or in one of these board rooms: Do we have the moral courage to do the right thing for black kids, poor kids--and even white kids could be doing better in Atlanta--but for all of our kids? Are we willing to do that?"
For her part, Carstarphen looks forward to staying in Atlanta, if the school board renews her contract which is up in June 2020. The superintendent and the board this year have been working on policy to right years of "historic inequity" in APS.
"I'm committed. I want to see the job through for a city that I love."