Race is a greater indicator of success than economic status in Lynchburg schools, officials said at a day-long school board retreat Thursday.

The administration introduced their “Promise” plan to combat the gap at the retreat, which also covered equity between the city’s two high schools, economic disadvantage in general, teacher retention and other board-selected topics.

“The variable of race actually has a bigger part of telling the story than the variable of poverty,” said Jay McClain, the assistant superintendent responsible for instruction.

McClain displayed data showing when controlled for economic disadvantage, white students showed pass rates about 20 points higher than black students of the same economic class.

Black students who were not economically disadvantaged had higher state exam pass rates than black students who were, and white students who were not disadvantaged had higher pass rates than white students who were, as most would expect. The pass rates were anywhere from 10 to 20 points higher.

But white students who were disadvantaged had higher pass rates than black students who were not, though by a much smaller margin.

“This is really, really important information. People have often tried to use … poverty as a proxy for race, like saying the reason why there are racial differences is because of poverty, and therefore ignoring the importance of race,” school board member Regina Dolan-Sewell said. “And you’ve got the numbers right here saying … poverty matters, but race matters separate from poverty.”

“They both matter a lot,” McClain replied.

“They both matter a lot but our teachers need to know this too,” Dolan-Sewell said.

The information was presented partly in relation to the division’s agreement with the Office of Civil Rights, which requires the schools to closely examine information about black students’ representation in advanced courses and disciplinary action. But the division has gone beyond those requirements and its own comprehensive plan to create the Promise Plan, officials said.

Referring to the definition of promise as “a declaration that something will or will not be done” or “an indication of future excellence or achievement,” administrators identified seven “strategy clusters” for implementation. Board members asked to hear presentations on the clusters one at a time at board meetings over the coming months, in addition to the overview Thursday.

Board members and administrators said repeatedly the division needs to embrace what the data shows, and acknowledging the problem is not an accusation, but a necessary step to solving it.

“We’ve got to be honest about both pieces of it,” Superintendent Scott Brabrand said, speaking of both race and economic disadvantage in the city. “It’s complicated … [but] first we’ve got to be able to talk about it, and then we’ve got to be able to do something about it based on what this data is.”

The presentation also broke down the number of black students in advanced courses and the number of disciplinary actions against black students.

Graduation data released by the state Department of Education in September showed the division’s average on-time graduation rate, 81 percent, was almost 10 points behind the state average of 90.5 percent. The gap between black and white students was more dramatic: white students graduate on time near the state average, at 89.2 percent, while only 71.6 percent of black students graduate in four years. About 74 percent of economically disadvantaged students in the city graduate on time.

“I’m trying to envision a more important slide that you could put up today and I don’t know if we can have one … this, I think, cuts to the bone of all of our reality,” board member Jenny Poore said of the presentation.

People in Lynchburg may feel it’s a multicultural place, she said, but still need to be aware of their own implicit bias.

“It’s not just poverty. Poverty’s huge, but this is so clear that it’s not just poverty, that…we are systemically funneling our children of color in a different direction,” she said. “You’re not guilty because you acknowledge it. … But if you don’t pay attention when you see a chart like this, then yeah, you are guilty.”

Brabrand said he had expected the data to be a conversation stopper.

“I think it’s clear the first step to solve complex stuff like this is trust. You wanted to see this data and you got the data. You asked to see it, and here it is,” he said. “Frankly, we’ve got to show it, and we’ve got to show this slide from here on out for the existence of the school system… It’s got to stay in constant focus. If it stays in constant focus, by leadership at this level, by the leadership at the administration level, we’ll see change.”

Ethel Reeves, director of engagement, equity and opportunity, said the division wants to schedule a community forum to follow up from meetings held last September.

“I could not have the conversations without your support,” she said to the board. “When you acknowledge an issue, it doesn’t mean you have to come to the defensive. And if you all will continue to help and look at data to support the initiatives, we are going to get this done. It started a long time ago, but we have to continue the conversation.

“Do I think that we have racist teachers and people who are ill of intent? No, I don’t. … I think the more we talk about it, the more we help our teachers, the more we drive home the fact that every child by name and by need has to make it to graduation and beyond, the more I think we’re going to see change.”

At the end of the day, board member James Coleman called the conversations “eye-opening” and thanked the administration for its transparency.

“There is more of an intentionality to get better than I think people in the community think,” he said.

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