Closing the Opportunity Gap in Vance County

Through a partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment, MDC is profiling eight North Carolina communities to learn how they are working to improve economic conditions in North Carolina and strengthening the systems and supports that boost people to higher rungs on the economic ladder. One focus area is a four-county region made up of Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties, where MDC held enlightening conversations with education leaders, community foundations, and workforce partners about at mobility, current and emerging living-wage employment opportunities, and patterns of postsecondary persistence. The new superintendent of Vance County Schools, Dr. Anthony Jackson, participated in those discussions. Jackson was featured last week in WUNC’s series on rural schools, Perils and Promise. In his interview with Leoneda Inge, Jackson spoke about how his personal experiences influence how he sees his students:

Coming from DC as an individual, growing up in what I considered somewhat of a desperate situation, in what people call the projects of Washington, D.C., I’ve learned that it’s truly about helping children close what we call the ‘opportunity gap.’  And having them understand that because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

Today, the opportunity gap in Vance—and surrounding counties—is stark. Parts of Granville and Franklin counties have become bedroom communities for the Research Triangle region of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill—part of the halo of one of the fastest growing metros in the U.S. The labor markets of the areas blend together, potentially creating more diverse job opportunities for residents. But Vance and Warren counties, while not impossibly far for determined commuters, retain their largely rural character. After centuries of economic structures that allowed few chances of upward mobility and wealth building for the majority of residents, particularly African Americans, the area continues to have high levels of inequality and poverty. Unemployment is high, and for those who do have jobs, median wages are low. Educational attainment, which was unnecessary for earlier manufacturing employment, is much lower than state and national averages: only 18 percent of adults in Vance County and 20 percent in Warren County have a two-year degree or higher.

In Vance County Schools, 91 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, and the 2013 graduation rate was 65 percent, much lower than the state average of 83 percent. In parts of the region, many affluent families have enrolled their children in private schools. In this environment, young people growing up in low-income families aren’t getting much positive reinforcement from the community. “Being poor doesn’t relegate you to being unsuccessful,” says Carolyn Paylor, executive director of Franklin-Granville-Vance Smart Start. Young people in the community need to know that their future matters and that the community wants them to succeed.

“Too many people seem paralyzed by past failures—we aren’t spending enough time lifting up current success stories,” says Dr. Jackson. In his view, this mindset is the first thing that needs to change. So, along with other leaders in the region, the superintendent is committed to changing the conversation about student success. “We are waiting for some magic bullet program, but it’s really about building the capacity of our parents, about teaching them how to advocate for their kids to get the most out of parent-teacher conferences,” he says. Since he started as superintendent, he looks around and sees students, parents, and teachers who are trying in spite of difficult circumstances—and he sees many who are succeeding. He wants to make sure all students receive the support they need, even those who don’t match what people imagine as a “typical” successful student.

To begin that shift toward more collective concern for community well-being and expanded aspirations, strategic improvements in the education-to-career continuum are being made. Several new programs to provide students with additional pathways to career success are underway: two career academies, one focused on medicine and another on fire and public safety, as well as an alternative high school for students who were not successful at the county’s other high schools. Vance-Granville Community College (VGCC) has partnered with the local school systems to establish early-college programs in each of the four counties. Students enroll at the start of high school and graduate with a two-year degree, or college credit, within five years. The community college also links to nearby four-year institutions to ensure students have an array of degree options and clear academic pathways; through a partnership with North Carolina Central University, students can complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice on the VGCC campus.

These pockets of innovation and excellence show what is possible for the future. But the region still needs strong collaborative leadership to organize around a vision for the future economy. Local leaders must continue their work to change the conversation about poverty and who is likely to succeed. “We can’t allow poverty to be an excuse for not providing opportunity,” says Dr. Jackson. Changing that mentality will take inclusive planning strategies so that the region’s people share ownership of a vision for educational and economic success.

Abby Parcell contributed to this post. 

Paying the Cost to Be the Boss: Tuition Rates, Pell Policy, and Postsecondary Access

We’ve all seen data that show education pays:

  • Median earnings for bachelor’s degree recipients working full time is $56,000–$21,000 more than the median earnings for high school graduates
  • Over 10 percent of high school graduates age 25 and older live in a household that relies on SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, compared to 2 percent for those with at least a bachelor’s degree
  • Employers provided health insurance to 55 percent of full-time workers with high school diplomas, 69 percent of those with bachelor’s degrees, and 73 percent of those with advanced degrees.
  • Educational attainment increases a person’s chances at economic mobility. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, only 10 percent of children born in the lowest quintile of the income distribution who get a four-year college degree remain in that quintile as adults, compared to 47 percent of those without a four-year degree.

But we also know that education costs—and these costs keep going up. On average, national tuition and fees for four-year institutions have gone up 40 percent over the last ten years. Tuition increases are also the norm for community colleges, with a near 30 percent average increase over the same time period. Southern institutions are no different than the rest of the nation: Louisiana’s two-year and four-year institutions had the highest average increases over the last five years, at 64 percent and 52 percent, respectively.

Five-Year Change in Inflation-Adjusted Tuition and Fees (2011-12 to 2015-16)

2-year Institutions 4-year Institutions
Alabama 15% 21%
Arkansas 23% 14%
Florida 6% 15%
Georgia 19% 31%
Kentucky 9% 16%
Louisiana 64% 52%
Mississippi 11% 23%
North Carolina 19% 20%
South Carolina 20% 7%
Tennessee 17% 30%
Texas 16% 8%
Virginia 22% 23%
West Virginia 38% 25%

Source: The College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2015

Our Southern flagship institutions are a part of this trend, too, making our most well-known state public universities less affordable for many students and their families.

2015-16 Tuition and Fees and Five-Year Change for Flagship Universities

2015-16 Tuition and Fees 5-Year Change (2011-12 to 2015-16)
University of Alabama $10,170 18%
University of Arkansas $8,522 15%
University of Florida $6,381 16%
University of Georgia $11,622 45%
University of Kentucky $10,936 16%
Louisiana State University $8,827 40%
University of Mississippi $7,444 25%
University of North Carolina $8,591 18%
University of South Carolina $11,482 7%
University of Tennessee $12,436 54%
University of Texas $9,830 -5%
University of Virginia $14,468 24%
University of West Virginia $7,632 29%

Source: The College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2015

Colleges are quick to point out that students do not actually pay the sticker price; most students receive some type of financial aid (scholarships, grants, or loans). For low-income students, that financial aid may come in the form of Pell grants. The Federal Pell Grant program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate students. For the 2015-16 academic year, the maximum Pell grant award is $5,730 and the average Pell grant award is $3,693. Except for the University of Florida, the average Pell award wouldn’t cover even half the costs for our Southern flagship institutions, making the possibility of attending these colleges unrealistic for some students. And while tuition costs are increasing, the Pell grant award isn’t. The maximum Pell grant award has decreased by $335 over the past five years.

For the 2013-14 academic year, there were nearly 8.7 million Pell recipients. Over 7 million of those Pell recipients came from families with incomes of $40,000 or less. Across the South, there were over 2.8 million Pell recipients, accounting for over $10 million in expenditures for Southern public, private, and proprietary institutions.

Pell has been considered the great equalizer in college affordability for low-income students. And the Obama administration is trying to make sure more students have access to an affordable education while also attempting to increase college completion rates. Last week, the Administration introduced two new proposals:

  1. Pell for Accelerated Completion would allow students to use Pell grants in the summer, making the program year-round. With the cost of tuition and fees, most students exhaust their Pell eligibility within the fall and spring semesters. This change would help students complete degrees faster by covering some of the costs of summer coursework. This program would add $1,915 to the Pell award for nearly 700,000 students.
  2. On-Track Pell Bonus would raise the maximum Pell grant award by $300 for students who take 15 credits per semester for the academic year. This initiative would help over 2.3 million students.

The US Department of Education press release states:

Today the Administration is calling for significant new investments in the federal Pell Grant program—the cornerstone of college affordability. The two new Pell proposals will help students to accelerate progress towards their degrees by attending school year-round and encourage students to take more credits per term, increasing their likelihood of on-time completion. In fiscal year 2017, these changes would mean an additional $2 billion in Pell Grants for students working toward their degrees.

The Obama administration faces an uphill battle in getting these proposals through Congress. But it is these types of innovative policy changes that could make a difference in postsecondary access and success for low-income students. As we move through this election cycle, pay attention to how presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional candidates talk about postsecondary costs and accessibility. It could make a difference for millions of Americans.

Poverty, Diversity, and the Preschool Classroom

We are at a critical moment in early education. According to A Better Start: Why Diversity in Preschool Classrooms Matters, the recent surge in early childhood initiatives and the increasing diversity within the population of young children have yet to translate to diversity within the classroom. In order for all children to succeed regardless of race and class, we must see these investments through into the future.

In North Carolina, 14 percent of non-Hispanic white children under 6 live in poverty, compared to 44 percent and 46 percent of black and Hispanic or Latino children (US Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey). Even the overall success of investments and efforts to improve early childhood education programming and access has not addressed participation rates and quality of services along the aforementioned lines of economic and racial segregation. More must be done to incorporate diversity and instill equity into learning environments.

Child Pov NC

Source: CLASP calculations of American Community Survey data

Children’s peers are increasingly diverse. As the Center for Public Education explains, “Trends in immigration and birth rates indicate that soon there will be no majority racial or ethnic group in the United States—no one group that makes up more than fifty percent of the total population.” Economic and racial segregation of neighborhoods and schools misrepresents the world these children will grow up in and it begins in U. S. preschools; only 17 percent of children are currently learning in racially and socioeconomically diverse classrooms.

Children, particularly children of color, are aware of—and thus affected by—race as early as age four. At this developmental stage, they ask questions to inform their own behaviors and learn from their environment to understand the way the world works, according to Louise Derman-Sparks. As A Better Start notes, “Children with disparate skills may learn from each other in the daily interactions and play activities that typically characterize the preschool day.” This kind of interaction enriches language and vocabulary development and, according to A Better Start¸ even promotes cross-cultural learning.   That’s why preschool is a significant supplement to the home environment of all children: though incoming math and language skills correlate to socioeconomic status (SES), children from low SES consistently perform better in math and language in the company of higher SES peers. A Better Start explains how classroom diversity can benefit higher SES, white students by reducing the prejudices and social isolation of children by race.

Getting that kind of head start on academic and social learning is a key foundation in an infrastructure of opportunity that works for children from day one. No matter how family demographics, ideologies, and resources may differ, parents share common values for their children. Providing families of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds access to the same high-quality early childhood education gives those children, full of potential, the opportunity to learn from each other rather than internalizing the “way the world works” through misleading cues like segregation.

MDC recently began work with the Kate B. Charitable Trust as the “activating agency” for Great Expectations, a major community-wide initiative of the Trust that aims to ensure that all young children in Forsyth County—with a special focus on those living in financially-disadvantaged families—meet age-appropriate developmental milestones in their first five years, enter kindergarten ready for school, and leave kindergarten fully ready for learning and life success.

The approach to Great Expectations centers on systems change with a strong commitment to creating ways to elevate the voices of low-SES parents and caregivers and parents/caregivers of color in the conversation about how to improve outcomes for their children. An improved system could increase availability and accessibility of high-quality child care classrooms for all families, regardless of SES and race. As more low-SES children and children of color enroll into childcare, more parents/caregivers will have the opportunity to share their vision for their child’s early education. Everyday experiences like story time and reading assignments could be transformed to show children their potential through stories from and about children from varying lifestyles and cultural backgrounds.

Through interactive exposure to diversity in play and in academic settings, children can turn their natural curiosity and sense of community into tools to form conceptions of equity—as they contextualize their identity with race and class. Doing so at an early age encourages the social responsibility and intuition children need to succeed and value the shared success of their peers—and that is essential to maintaining a productive and equitable society.

Poor Indicators: Testing Our Achievement Assumptions

On this blog and around the office at MDC we talk a lot about economic mobility and the lack of opportunity for upward mobility for many low-income young people. In one of our recent meetings on this topic, I mentioned that it is easy to falsely conflate the low-income student population with the low-achieving student population. Just as there are high-achieving wealthy students, there are also high-achieving, low-income students. A recent longitudinal study from the National Center for Educational Statistics found that high-achieving low-income students are as likely as affluent students with below average test scores to complete a college degree.

This conversation reminded me a study I read years ago about gifted students living in poverty. The authors of the study followed a young, gifted student named Jermaine who lived in a poor county in Alabama. In the study community, “Pine Grove,” all students are African-American and 98 percent of them are eligible for the federal free- or reduced-price lunch program. Jermaine’s school had a leaky roof, no gym, and no art or music rooms. The school district was consistently on the list of schools to be taken over by the state’s department of education. The names of the people and places studied were changed to protect the participants’ identities, but this study could be talking about any number of communities across Alabama. Alabama is the sixth poorest state in the nation; one in four children there lives in poverty.

The authors followed Jermaine for the span of three years, his 3rd– to 5th grade years. They reviewed a portfolio of Jermaine’s work, observed Jermaine in and out of school, and corresponded with Jermaine and his teacher, Teresa Beardsley. When the study first began, Jermaine lived with his mother, older brother and sister, and an aunt. His family lived in a house, but in his community, homes were inferior to trailers that came with central heat and air conditioning, furnishings, and appliances. Jermaine knew his family was considered to be in the lowest rung of the social circle in Pine Grove: other students had expensive sneakers, while Jermaine’ mom gets his sneakers from Bargaintown. Jermaine got teased a lot.

Jermaine’s performance in school was considered “remarkable”; he was creative, had an advanced vocabulary, and very high achievement scores. However, his intelligence was not cultivated at school; he was bored and became a discipline problem. Administrators and teachers alike described him as “bad”; someone to “keep an eye on.” His teacher, Ms. Beardsley, found that she often had to serve as an advocate for Jermaine.

His mother did not play an active role in his schooling, but he had two uncles from Detroit who brought him toys and paid for his uniforms when he needed them. Jermaine was supported by friends’ families and the football coach who, recognizing the young boy’s intelligence, made Jermaine his starting quarterback. Jermaine gained friends by sharing the books he received from his uncles and, of course, the acclaim that comes with being the school’s quarterback. He dreamt of becoming a lawyer, but explained that he wanted to be a Hollywood film producer first. We never find out if he achieves this dream.

Even though Jermaine’s school offered opportunities for athletics, they did not offer access to gifted and talented programs or other programs that could have nurtured Jermaine’s creativity. Study authors detailed that rural, gifted students face without access to these types of activities:

…within rural school districts acceptance of the status quo and resistance to change made it difficult to initiate new programs for gifted students. Along with limited financial resources for programs perceived as benefiting a few students, rural schools were unable to provide adequate specialized teachers, counselors, school psychologists, and curriculum specialists to assist in providing appropriate services for high-ability youngsters. (p. 202)

Inadequate funding for poor, rural school districts perpetuates the acceptance of the status quo. In July 2015, EdBuild released a map of student poverty rates for 13,000 school districts. They found in many cases, “school districts of dramatically different income levels are next-door neighbors, or even sit, island-like, within one another.” And in many Southern school districts, there is significant variation in student poverty rates between schools. A recent Urban Institute study examined concentration of poverty in schools and found that a student from a low-income family is six times as likely as one from a high-income family to attend a high-poverty school. The study also found that students of color are far more likely to attend high-poverty schools—in the case of black students, six times more likely than white students to attend high-poverty schools.

I’m glad that Jermaine’s story has remained with me all these years. It puts a face to all those data points. Jermaine is a creative, caring young man who wants to thrive despite his circumstances. As we try to figure out solutions to improve educational opportunity for low-income students, it’s important that we don’t forget there are thousands of other students like Jermaine. Poor students can be smart, too, but our educational system is still failing too many of them.

Creating Equitable Opportunity in Warren County, NC

Through a partnership with the John M. Belk Endowment, MDC is profiling eight North Carolina communities to learn how they are working to improve economic conditions in North Carolina and strengthen the systems and supports that boost people to higher rungs on the economic ladder. One focus area is a four-county region made up of Vance, Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties, where MDC has been holding enlightening conversations with education leaders, community foundations, and workforce partners about at mobility, current and emerging living-wage employment opportunities, and patterns of postsecondary persistence.

Even though MDC has roots in this area, like the Human Resources Development Program, the Rural Community College Initiative, and the Program for the Rural Carolinas our team has been fascinated to learn more about these counties. Coincidentally, two of our favorite news sources—CityLab and EdNC—have been talking about Warren County this month, and we want to share a little bit about what we’re learning about that county’s history of inequity and one way people there are building for a more equitable future.

Stretching along the Virginia border and the shores of Lake Kerr and Lake Gaston, Warren County remains distinctly rural despite I-85 running through it and its proximity to one of the state’s most economically dynamic metropolitan areas. The region’s economic history is archetypal North Carolina: tobacco and cotton farming, driven by slave-labor until the end of the Civil War. Tobacco and cotton are labor-intensive crops, and the soil in the area was well suited to their production. In 1860, 10,401 people in the county, or 66 percent of the total population, were enslaved African Americans. The slave population was twice that of the white population—the highest ratio in the state. When enslaved African Americans were freed at the end of the Civil War, many became sharecroppers in a system where land owners provided land and resources to croppers in exchange for a significant portion of the crop. The legacy of an agricultural economy, which created immense wealth for some by exploiting the labor of many others, and subsequent legalized segregation which barred African Americans from opportunity, presents unique challenges for broadening economic opportunity in the region today.

By the turn of the 20th century, Jim Crow laws were in full effect, and the legal, social, and economic rights of African Americans in the area were significantly constrained. The massive population shift of African Americans leaving the South, known as the Great Migration, was felt in Warren County: between 1950 and 1970, the African American population in the region decreased by 20 percent. While the prospect of jobs and upward mobility certainly pulled people to the North, many felt themselves pushed away from the communities they called home because of entrenched racism and legalized segregation.

After centuries of economic structures that allowed few chances at upward mobility and wealth building for the majority of residents, and particularly African Americans, the area continues to have high levels of inequality and poverty. Unemployment is high, and for those who do have jobs, median wages are low. Educational attainment, which was unnecessary for earlier agricultural and manufacturing employment, is much lower than state and national averages: only 20 percent of adults in Warren County have a two-year degree or higher. The area also faces significant health challenges. According to County Health Rankings, Warren County ranks 92nd in North Carolina (out of 100) in an index of health factors, including health behavior, access to care, and social and economic factors. One-fifth of people were uninsured in 2015, almost twice the national average (though that figure is down from one-quarter in 2013). Nearly a quarter of all people are food insecure, according to Feeding America.

Despite its challenges—or because of them—the area has a strong history of community organizing and activism, particularly civil rights organizing. In the 1970s, Floyd McKissick led the development of Soul City, a planned multi-racial community with an explicit mission of black empowerment, profiled here by Brentin Mock of CityLab. Ultimately, the economic downturn and political opposition prevented Soul City’s completion. “Oh, it was visionary, it was bold, it had the concept though not the financial backing as it turned out, to be a stimulus to turn around that kind of a rural area,” said Eva Clayton in a 1989 interview for the Southern Oral History Program. Clayton, who in 1992 was North Carolina’s first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, worked in the Soul City administration in the 1970s. While Soul City did not flourish into the thriving community that McKissick and others envisioned, the infrastructure continues to be used, and it created organizing energy that continued in the region, as Mock discussed in another article last week. For example, in the early 1980s, when the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources decided to build a PCB landfill in Warren County, the community responded with organized protests due to significant public health risks. Hundreds were arrested. Because the area was predominantly African American and low income, and the conditions at other sites would have been more environmentally responsible, the decision to locate the landfill there led Benjamin Chavis, who later became executive director of the NAACP, to start using the term “environmental racism.”

Today, local institutions and groups are still thinking creatively about how to broaden prosperity in the region and improve wellbeing. In an article this week for EdNC, Nation Hahn interviewed Gabriel Cummings, founder of Working Landscapes, an organization that is working to improve access to healthy food in Warren County. Cummings is thinking about more than just health; the organization also wants to improve local livelihoods:

When people think about farm-to-school work, they probably mostly think first about the benefits to children — health, education, etc. — and rightly so. But farm-to-school work can also be a powerful engine for economic development. In fact, that is why we got into it. We were interested in opening up new markets for small, local farmers. In Warren County and other rural counties of our region, the school system is the largest purchaser of food. However, the school system was not buying any food from local farmers, so it was having zero impact on the local agricultural economy. We set about changing that. Our farm-to-school supply chain is small, but already it has created employment both on and off the farm, and it has spurred capital investment through the redevelopment of a building in Warrenton that would otherwise be sitting empty. And that is just from chopped collards and cabbage!

Farming may have created many of this region’s long-standing inequities, but a new generation of leaders is thinking about how to turn the region’s history and assets into a more equitable future. Many of the challenges Warren County has faced are emblematic of Southern history. Reflecting on the story of a place—who started there, who left and why, who tried to reinvigorate it, who has benefited from opportunity, and who has been left behind by economic and social change—is essential work for all communities as they build an infrastructure of opportunity.