Asheville government, schools, nonprofits launch effort to address achievement gap

Parking was at a premium outside the Stephens-Lee Recreation Center just before noon on March 20. Prominent members of the intersecting worlds of black Asheville, local government, business and nonprofits jockeyed for spots as they streamed in for a lunch meeting, the second session of a new effort to address the Asheville City Schools’ catastrophic racial achievement gap. The initiative, which doesn’t yet have a formal name, grew out of a Jan. 22 joint meeting of Asheville City Council and the Board of Education.

Only 12 percent of the city’s African-American students in grades three to eight score as “proficient” or higher on end-of-grade exams, compared with 73 percent of white students.

Inside Stephens-Lee, the networking was in full force. About 30 placards marked spots at the table for invited participants, while a handful of community members sat around the edges of the room. Hugs and smiles gave way to a more serious mood as Asheville City Board of Education Chair Shaunda Sandford welcomed the group, which she said aims to tackle the achievement gap “not just necessarily as a school system, but as a community.”

Asheville City Manager Debra Campbell recapped some of the takeaways from the group’s first meeting on Feb. 12. She asked for input on the group’s purpose — “Collaborative effort to eliminate the opportunity gap that exists between black and white youths in the Asheville community by addressing racial inequities” — its goals and who should take part.