Recent research indicates that African American and Latinx students are more likely to receive lower grades, score lower on standardized tests, drop out of high school and less likely to enter and complete college than whites. The question is why? Is it socioeconomics? Poor funding of minority-majority schools? Lack of preschool education? Institutional racism? Discipline methods?

This was the topic that host Barbara Hamm Lee posed to a panel of guests recently on Another View, and it’s the topic of an upcoming Race: Let’s Talk About It town hall presented by WHRO Public Media taking place on Feb. 10.

The guests agreed that many factors—including race, poverty and parental involvement—contribute to the education gap between non-white and white students.

“We know that race and poverty is interconnected in the U.S.,” explained Jimmeka Anderson, a doctoral student in the Urban Education program at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, “so that is reflected in the communities when we see high poverty schools, where 90 percent of the kids are on free and reduced lunch, those schools are predominantly hallways filled with Black and Hispanic kids. And so, there's this linkage here that it's hard to separate because it's been so intertwined historically in the U.S.”

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“I actually just did a history project with students on the education of Blacks in Charlotte and we created this online exhibition for people to actually see the shifts and changes that have happened,” she said. “And one of the main things that we discovered is of course, resegregation has happened in schools. Schools are now racially divided more than they were before when they first got segregated. But most importantly, it's economically divided.”

Educators also often struggle to secure the resources they need to help students excel inside and outside the classroom.

“When educators talk about things that they need in their classroom, that should be an expectation and not an option,” said Dr. James Fedderman, president of the Virginia Education Association (VEA), the largest union for educators in the Commonwealth. “Educators struggle to get basic supplies to provide a meaningful learning opportunity for their children that they are entrusted to teach in the environments where they are expected to work.”

Additionally, he has found that teachers are unprepared for issues they face in the classroom. When students are dealing with hunger or domestic violence at home, it is nearly impossible to concentrate on school work.

“We're working with colleges and universities to ensure that the teacher prep programs are robust and it's really giving those student teachers an in-depth look at the possible scenarios they could experience once that classroom door shuts and they're ultimately the person in charge,” he said.

Another contributing factor, Fedderman said, is that schools sometimes have a bad reputation among educators. “Our schools are a true reflection of the communities in which they reside and just as communities get bad names, so do schools. When they receive bad names, it makes staffing that much more difficult.”

What role are parents playing in this education gap? The panelists agreed that though times have changed, and some parents could emphasize the benefits of education more, most parents do realize the value of an education and want their children to pursue the highest amount of education they can. The problem some parents face, panelists said, isn’t a lack of desire to help their children but a lack of confidence if they were not well educated themselves.

“I know even with Hispanic populations and some of the youth that I've served, some of those parents, they may not have finished high school or do not feel confident or competent to take on the task of really understanding some of the things that their children are learning in school,” Anderson explained. “And so, they're kind of removed because they don't feel like they're equipped to intervene in their child's education.”

How can communities tackle this divide between white and non-white students?

Panelist Judge Eileen Olds, a former Juvenile and Domestic Relations judge for the city of Chesapeake, said it will take the whole community to create positive change. “It's the duty of the community, and of the school, not to let children fall through the cracks and get so far out,” she said.

When Olds worked in the city of Chesapeake, she saw a connection between students who were truant—missing many days of school during the year—and those who later appeared before her in court for criminal activity. In 2000, she created a Truancy Court that used early identifiers and interventions for students who were missing large amounts of school, and it has continued to provide positive results.

Panelists agreed current educational models aren’t working to address the educational divide. “I really think that we need to dismantle the structures in place, but by doing so, that's going to take policy reform and so many things on the educational level,” Anderson said.

Fedderman advocates for moving to a “community schools model.”

“When you embrace the community schools model, you're giving those students the wraparound services that will mitigate them not being in school during the summer. It will keep the community school open so that the students have a resource, the things that we're doing now in the midst of COVID like ensuring that students are able to take food home, ensuring that students have the Chromebooks and all of those different technology devices to continue their education, these are models that should be in place anyway,” he said.

“When you have the community schools model, you're actually bringing in resources from your community such as your community services boards, such as your social services, such as the Boys and Girls Club, the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, all of those people, all of those organizations truly come in to make this learning experience more enriched for the students and the takeaway is that the students want to be in school versus being in the community where they will not have to be a participant in Judge Olds' court because truancy is not an issue.”

Recently, WHRO Public Media received a grant from Virginia Humanities to explore the issues surrounding equitable education for black students, and this episode of Another View was the first of these conversations. The organization also wants to hear from the community and create a dialogue to discuss these issues and how residents can work together toward change.

To join this important community conversation, register to attend our upcoming town hall taking place on Feb. 10 at 6:30 p.m.

Listen to the full episode of Another View.

About Beneath the Surface:

Beneath the Surface is a collaboration between Virginia Humanities and the Hampton Roads Community Foundation exploring the many ways that race has shaped and continues to shape this region and its communities.

Throughout the year producers from Another View and reporters from the WHRO Newsroom have been exploring unequal access to basic public services—like education—for certain demographics, and how it affects the local community. Read and listen to our ongoing coverage of this topic in our multiplatform series Beneath the Surface.

Explore more reporting that has been done as a part of this initiative.

This program has been made possible, in part, by the Hampton Roads Community Foundation and Virginia Humanities.

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