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CHCCS High School Students Attend Equity Day

Small groups of students from all four CHCCS high schools traveled to North Carolina State University early last Monday morning, September 24, for a day-long symposium on Student Equity. Angelo Marra from Phoenix Academy said he had never attended a large conference like this one, and he was nervous about what to expect. But he said from the luxury bus he boarded soon after dawn to the breakfast of hot biscuits and pastries, he knew he was in for a good experience. By 8:30, more than 250 students from dozens of area high schools settled in to hear from keynote speaker, Sonny Kelly, and then participate in interactive sessions on subjects related to race, achievement and change.

“I had a wonderful experience at the Equity Day event!” said Melissa DeLuna Morena, a junior at Chapel Hill High. “I learned that race shouldn't be a factor that invalidates us from succeeding, but instead that we all have potential to become someone in life, and that we should never tolerate or let the negative words of others bear us down.”

The event represented a collaboration among five area school districts that originally comprised the Triangle High Five, established in 2004 to improve student outcomes and graduation rates. Five Triangle businesses, including SAS and the News and Observer, contributed half a million dollars to support the initiative. Although the organization has recently been dissolved, the collective commitment to student success endures. As advertised by the planning team, Student Equity Day was designed to raise awareness of equity issues and motivate students to be socially active.

CHCCS students at High Five Equity Day Diane Villwock, executive director of assessment and research, said, “For a first time event, the planning team was extremely pleased at the turnout and level of student engagement. The important work will continue at each school when students implement their equity action plans.”

Educators from the participating districts led the six breakout sessions, and many sessions were standing room only. Kelvin Bullock, from Durham Public Schools, presented an overview of “Racial Disparities in Triangle Schools,” during which he shared the sobering statistics on academic achievement and disciplinary actions as divided among racial groups in North Carolina. Lorie Clark of Blue Ribbon Mentor Advocate and Youth Leadership Institute noted that students often aren’t aware of the specific scores and disciplinary gaps, and she said that several mentioned how eye-opening it was to see those statistics in Bullock’s PowerPoint presentation.

Evon Barnes, English and AVID teacher at East Chapel Hill High, brought three students to the event. “Students need to understand the role played by socioeconomics, and race, in determining their future, and the future of students around them. The sessions, and the work completed at each school after the sessions, will play a paramount role in the future of our schools, and communities. This program definitely sparked an interest in my students, and a concern, about people who need more than what school systems often offer.”

“Participating in High Five Day in Raleigh was a very constructive experience,” said Zia Cuthbertson, a senior at East.  “Each speaker was fluent in engaging with their audience and passionate about their topics. The integration of poetry, comedy, and laughter gave way to speaking on serious topics regarding inequality and injustice.” Culbertson composed a poem from a prompt given by Bullock, and she shared it with the large group to much applause and validation. “(Kelly) said that these topics would be uncomfortable but sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone. This is exactly what High Five Day allows students to do. You are thrown into a mix with only a few students you know and all the others are complete strangers, but you have to speak. They come from different backgrounds, and they've conquered different obstacles and different adversities, and they are not YOU. A goal of High Five Day is to make it acknowledged and accepted that race is not a defining factor to who you are, but is a social construct that together we can deconstruct. My key takeaway from High Five Day was to make your presence known, because if you don't, why are you even here?”

Jermaine Powell Equity Day One particularly popular session was “I Hope You Fail: School to Prison Pipeline,” led by Jermaine Porter of Durham Public Schools. Both Marra and Phoenix classmate Citlali Salinas remarked on the power of Porter’s presentation, and the lively discussion generated by his questions for students, like what kinds of suspensions should be abandoned? Marra said, “I was intrigued hearing kids going through the same things we do.” But he said that he and Salinas shared a table with an alternative high school from another district, and they were surprised by the differences in incidents of fighting and strict punishments. The Phoenix students were proud of the way their school was positively distinguished in comparison. They are now working on a report to share with Principal John Williams, and then with the rest of PAHS.

Kelly, the keynote speaker from the University of North Carolina Department of Communications, encouraged the assembled students to embrace their inherent abilities to teach and heal. “Our words have the power to set people free. Your words can and will change the world. Take this message back to your schools, but remember that not everyone knows the language yet.”