Civil Liberties

Numbers Game

North Carolina educrats may shut down the successful Healthy Start charter school because it enrolls "too many" blacks.


Too many blacks. That's the rap against North Carolina's Healthy Start Academy, the first of 34 charter schools launched last year in the Tar Heel State. In just one year, the school on Durham's Liberty Street has wowed the parents of its 170 kindergarten-through-second-grade students with soaring test scores and 98 percent attendance.

The educational establishment is not amused. One hundred sixty-eight of Healthy Start's kids are black. Only two are white. Healthy Start's 98.8 percent black student body violates a Democrat-sponsored clause in the charter school law requiring that each school "reasonably reflect the racial and ethnic composition" of the district it serves. By this racial calculus, Healthy Start should be 55 percent white, rather than 1.2 percent. Although the school is in a nearly all-black neighborhood, and its staff has not discriminated against anyone, state officials could use this law to shut down Healthy Start and 13 other "insufficiently diverse" charter schools. The student bodies of 12 of these schools are more than 85 percent black, while only the Megellan Charter School in Raleigh is considered "too white," given its 90 percent Caucasian student body.

"We have encouraged the State Board of Education to enforce the law," says John Wilson, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Educators, the state's chief teachers union. "I think kids need to learn to share the experiences and cultures of all children in their communities," he adds, "and I think if a school ends up segregated, yes, it should be closed down."

While Healthy Start may not "celebrate diversity," it clearly values academic achievement. At a June 17 meeting for pupils and parents, Headmaster Thomas Williams unveiled his students' scores on the standardized Iowa Basic Test of Educational Skills. Last fall, Healthy Start's second graders scored at the 34th percentile on the exam. By May, they had climbed to the 75th percentile. First graders rose from the 21st to the 32nd percentile. Healthy Start's kindergarteners, meanwhile, rocketed from the 42nd percentile last October to the 99th percentile among 5 million students tested nationwide.

"When I announced these scores at an assembly, moms were crying," Williams recalls by phone. "Grandmas and grandpas were crying and yelling. Theirs were kids who never heard anything good from schools."

Lynette Cradle, a black parent, attended the event but didn't find Williams's announcement quite so startling. "I really wasn't surprised because of the volume of homework that came home with them every day," says the self-described stay-at-home mom. Her second grader, Jasmine, became the school's spelling bee champion at age 7. Five-year-old John Jr. just graduated kindergarten.

He is "reading things that I didn't think he would be able to read yet," Cradle says. "He's very in tune with what's going on. He talks about the ozone layer and Monica Lewinsky. They go from current events to colors and the months of the year. It's like a well-rounded education."

Thomas Williams–a blunt, straight-talking man–says Healthy Start belies left-liberal educational theories that attempt to explain why poor, minority children supposedly cannot learn in public schools. "We fly in the face of all the bureaucratic excuses," the headmaster says. "Seventy percent of our kids are on welfare. Of the 170 kids, 168 of them are black. A hundred and twenty don't have daddies. They are brought up by their mothers alone. They came to us far below grade level. So they have all the excuses for failure, don't they? In public school, they'd be put in a corner. `He's black. He's poor, so he has to fail.'

"Here we have proved that the excuses don't work," Williams continues. "The kids succeed. We have a strict discipline code. The kids wear uniforms. If they don't have daddies, we say to them: `OK: 2 + 2 = 4. Do you understand that?' We hold up a lantern of expectations. We say: `It's this high. Reach it.' And they do."

Healthy Start's students are making Olympic-class educational strides despite Spartan conditions. "We're in a church basement," Williams explains. Recess takes places in the parking lot of the United Church of Christ. Aside from this exercise period, "these kids don't get any natural light," Williams says. "We have 10 rooms divided by paper-thin walls. No public school would operate in this joint."

Indeed, Healthy Start's results compared to its budget capsize the argument that all a school needs in order to create bright students is yet another sandbox full of cash. Though they receive state funds, the independence, flexibility, and accountability that charters enjoy let them do more with less.

According to the John Locke Foundation, a free market think tank based in Raleigh, the Durham public schools spend an average of $8,000 per student annually. Healthy Start budgets $5,200 per pupil while providing an additional 24 days of classes each year. In news that should make the teachers unions nervous, Healthy Start's instructors are the best paid in Durham, starting at $30,000 for certified personnel, versus $22,000 for their public school counterparts. What Healthy Start lacks in counselors and psychologists, it pays in higher salaries for its nine certified teachers, four teacher's assistants, and four additional teachers who man the school's Opportunity Room and Skills Center. Both slower and faster children are given extra attention in these facilities.

Money aside, Healthy Start's teachers discuss the school with pride. "The thing I find most encouraging about this school is the leadership as well as the population that we are serving," says Helen Eagleson, 36. She is a first-grade teacher who previously taught in the Durham public schools. "A lot of the kids at Forest View [her last public school assignment] were from a higher income bracket. Parents could afford to put their kids into tutoring programs. I am working with kids now many of whom were given up on. Here I think we're making a real impact."

Eagleson specifically recalls one very quiet student. "She would never talk. Other kids told me, `She's shy. She's really quiet.' By the end of the school year, she was talking, carrying on conversations and introducing visitors to other people. Because you have people who care about these children, they feel that and respond. In the public schools, they're put in the corner or left out in the hallway. Here, every child is given individual time and made to feel important….Social and emotional growth is what I see here in the students as well as academic growth."

"When I got here, the students didn't know the alphabet and barely could write their names," says Jerry Broadhurst, 31, Healthy Start's lead teacher and instructor of a first-grade class. "To see their growth shows the importance of having the teachers and the parents working together. That has been consistent."

Because parents choose to send their children to Healthy Start, a higher-than-usual degree of parental involvement can be expected. Parents voted to exclude sex education from classrooms. In addition to the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge curriculum, students study the three Rs as well as respect and responsibility through The Children's Book of Virtues and parent-approved Disney movies.

Other teachers express outrage and bewilderment at the fledgling campus's potential plight. "To say that they could close our doors down because we're not racially balanced is ridiculous," says Letisha Judd, a 26-year-old second-grade teacher. "As long as the school is performing and providing students with the education that they need, I don't know why we have to be racially balanced." She adds a simple fact: "We're open to the public. We cannot force people to bring their children here."

Indeed, Healthy Start has advertised in white neighborhood newspapers, posted flyers in white churches, and mailed literature to white homes. If white parents won't enroll their kids in a school in a tough, black neighborhood, Healthy Start can't force them.

Healthy Start's appeals have not gone totally unanswered, however. Christine Jonsdotter, 41, is the mother of Michael, one of Healthy Start's two white students. Although she and her husband live 15 minutes away in an affluent Raleigh community, they chose not to send their first grader to the local public elementary campus. "I didn't feel comfortable putting him in a large public school system," Jonsdotter tells me. "I wanted a smaller-school setting with more emphasis on character development, not just academics." She adds that at Healthy Start, "They teach manners. They teach kids to be kind to each other."

Jonsdotter says that in just four months at Healthy Start, Michael has overcome many of his reading difficulties. She is "totally appalled" that the school's racial makeup could place it in jeopardy. "There's been nothing but an outpouring of love from that school," she says. "When my kid walked in there, the kids ran up and hugged him."

Hugs, shmugs, say North Carolina's educrats. This sort of progress pales in comparison to the overwhelming blackness of some charter schools. "This wasn't supposed to happen," State Board of Education member Jane Norwood declared at a spring board meeting. "This is not the intent of having charter schools," she continued, waving overhead a sheet full of numbers on the racial makeup of charters. As Julius Chambers, a civil rights attorney and chancellor of North Carolina Central University, told the Greensboro News & Record: "I don't think we should be creating havens for black students or for white students."

E.S. Simpson, a former superintendent of the Johnson County Schools, wrote the Raleigh News and Observer in a near-panic: "Are charters being used to re-segregate the races? To segregate the poor from the rich? To establish a class system?"

Teachers union leader John Wilson sees all this as a matter of creeping Jim Crowism. Never mind that parents are free to send or not send their children to places like Healthy Start. "I think resegregation is wrong anywhere," he says. "If there are children of other ethnicities, then the school board should cause the makeup of schools to be reflective of that." And just what is Wilson's recipe for reflectivity? Busing, "both mandatory and voluntary." He helpfully adds: "Busing is not a bad word. It's a mechanism for creating a society of children that learn to work together."

Wilson says he and the North Carolina Association of Educators "will wait to see what good faith effort" the charters are making "to achieve racial parity….If we see they are not, we will check with our legal counsel to see if there is any action we can take on behalf of the taxpayers of North Carolina."

A state shutdown of Healthy Start and other "excessively black" charters "will happen over my cold, dead political body," says Kay Daly, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Foundation for Individual Rights. Daly calls Healthy Start "the first lifeboat that came along. Now they are threatening to torpedo the lifeboat and send the kids back to the killing fields that are the Durham Public Schools."

The NCFIR plans to ask a federal judge to prevent North Carolina officials from closing charter schools under the state racial diversity mandate. Foundation attorney Jack Daly notes that "undiverse" public schools do not get padlocked; the racial rules apply only to charter schools. More important, NCFIR plans to argue that students should be treated equally as Americans under the Constitution's 14th Amendment rather than as components of racial categories.

Oddly enough, all this tumult revolves around a universe of just 4,600 students at 34 schools, reports the Spectator, a free weekly newspaper distributed in the Raleigh-Durham area. Thirty-one new charter schools could add an additional 7,500 students. Compare those 12,100 current and potential pupils to North Carolina's total enrollment of 1.7 million. The magnitude of the charter schools' threat to the status quo is remarkable given their modest size.

Critics predicted that establishing charters would encourage white flight from traditional public schools. That never occurred. Instead, blacks are fleeing the educational plantations for emancipated charter schools. Their success stories are highlighting the public schools' failure to educate their captive student bodies. It would be an especially bitter irony if the masters of the old system used the race card to keep black children shackled in ignorance.

Deroy Murdock is a New York-based MSNBC columnist and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Fairfax, Virginia.