SILER CITY — Margaret Grayson is a school social worker at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, on the west side of Chatham County. Her work is marked by her observant, empathetic personality …
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SILER CITY — Margaret Grayson is a school social worker at Jordan-Matthews High School in Siler City, on the west side of Chatham County. Her work is marked by her observant, empathetic personality and a desire to hear about students’ experiences.
“I love hearing kids’ stories,” she says one Monday morning this fall, sitting behind a desk in her sunlit cinderblock office. “That’s my favorite part about the job, and I’m a pretty good listener, so I can bring that to my work.”
But lately, one of those stories weighs on her.
Edward, as we’ll call him, is a senior at J-M. He lives alone with his 20-year-old sister. His parents live in El Salvador.
While he completes his high school coursework with the hopes of graduating this spring, Edward helps pay the bills by working almost full-time at Mountaire Farms, a poultry processing plant in town. His tight schedule, packed with high school coursework and long shifts at the processing plant, makes it hard for him to attend all of his classes.
“We try to adjust his schedule so that he can leave after third block,” Grayson says. “But we even worked it out so that he can leave 10 or 15 minutes early from his third block class and go get a box lunch. Instead of taking the time to eat lunch he gets a box lunch, and then he can head on home to get ready. He has to get ready for work, put on all his equipment and everything.”
Some 30 miles from Grayson’s office at J-M, on the other side of Chatham County, lies one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the state. A quick real estate search for Governor’s Club properties reveals some homes are valued in the high $2 million range. A $38,000 fee buys access to a 27-hole golf course, tennis courts, pools and members-only events.
Throughout the more-than-700 square miles that make up central North Carolina, educational achievement and success look vastly different, and according to the data, Eastern Chatham is more advantaged.
In a report from the Economic Policy Institute that ranked the nation’s 3,061 counties by an indicator of economic inequality, Chatham came in at 581 from the top. Simply tracing a finger along N.C. Hwy 87. N/U.S. Hwy. 501 on a map, according to Chatham officials in the 2018 annual community assessment, reveals several “statistically significant differences” between the eastern and western halves of the county. In issues like internet access, in-home safety features like smoke detectors and levels of home ownership, the east rises above the west. And, of the community assessment survey participants who said they had trouble accessing healthcare, almost 50 percent of Western Chathamites reported cost as a factor. Only 17.7 percent of residents on the east side reported the same thing.
School testing data from the state’s Department of Public Instruction, pulled specifically from the state biology end-of-course (EOC) test for the 2018-2019 school year, tells the story of Chatham’s inequality as evidenced on school grounds. Percent grade level proficiency rates show how the schools stacked up, from the lowest rate of 42.5 percent, at Jordan-Matthews High School, to 85.7 percent, at Chatham Charter High.
To understand that ranking a little better, here are all six Chatham County high schools from east to west:
• Northwood High School, noted by the yellow bar in the graphic accompanying this story, is located in the northeast corner of the county, in Pittsboro. A total of 652 students took the Biology EOC test there.
• Chatham Central High School, the red bar, is a bit farther west, in Bear Creek. Out of the non-charter public schools in the county, it had the smallest pool of Biology EOC test-takers: 246.
• Jordan-Matthews High School, the blue bar, is situated in Siler City. Compared to the rest of the reporting high schools, it demonstrates the smallest portion of test-takers who achieved grade-level proficiency in the N.C. Biology EOC test. A total of 456 students took the Biology EOC exam at J.M. High.
• Chatham Charter High School is just northwest of J.M. High, represented by the purple bar. Out of the 98 students who took Biology EOC, 85.7 percent met the proficiency benchmark. Chatham Charter and J-M are only separated by a nine-minute drive, but the percentage change is drastic.
Two schools are not included on the graph above:
• Woods Charter High School is located in the Northeast corner of the county near the Briar Chapel Housing Development. Though 45 students took the Biology EOC, the DPI data didn’t include a number for grade level percent proficiency, so it doesn’t appear on the graph above. The school report card for Woods Charter notes a grade level proficiency score above 90 percent for the Biology EOC.
• The newly minted Chatham School of Science and Engineering has no publicly available test scores thus far. CSSE is an early college program in Siler City that only admits 35 students per year.
Both economic and demographic variances mark the divide in widespread Chatham County. The student population of J-M is 51 percent Hispanic and only 29 percent white, an anomaly among the county’s high schools. While proficiency rates are lower in general at J-M on the Biology EOC, it boasts higher success for English Learning Students (ELS) in those same test scores than the predominantly white Northwood High. Out of the 17 reported ELS students taking the test at Northwood High, the school reported that no ELS students reached grade level proficiency in their scores. Predominantly white Northwood High and J-M are the only two schools who reported that any ELS students took the test.
Jordan-Matthews junior Kevin Manzanarez is not an English Learning Student. In fact, his A.P. Spanish course is one of his most stressful classes. But he, like Edward, has held a part-time job. Some of his shifts at a local McDonald’s last school year ended at 1 in the morning.
“And so I’d come home pretty late, around 2 a.m.,” he says. “Do my work and then go to sleep until 4. Wake up around 6 and go to school.”
He says late nights affect his performance in coursework.
“I get super drowsy by the second block and I just can’t stay awake,” Manzanarez says. “And so I just kind of like deal with it and because of that I pay less attention in class and I don’t learn anything. And when I’m at home, I’m supposed to know what we did. Just like, my mind goes blank and I can’t really think. And I just don’t do the homework and just go to sleep. The next day they graded it and I got a zero because of it. Same goes on and on every day.”
Paul Cuadros is a professor of journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill and longtime coach of a former championship-winning soccer team at J-M. At a forum on inequality in the county, he said that people in Western Chatham county feel “neglected” and as if they lack “a voice.”
“If you want to see where that inequality is, all you have to do is visit some of these neighborhoods,” he said at a recent Chatham socioeconomic inequality forum. “It starts with the mobile home parks.”
In a county right at the heart of the state lies a clear pattern of economic and educational inequality. Test score performance, especially, shows clear disparity in academic prowess — and, thus, college and career readiness — between Chatham’s high schools. But that’s not stopping Edward. He’s still hard at work.
“This is a student who smiles through it all,” Grayson says. “He’s resilient and strong and smiles through it all.”
Adrianne Cleven is a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill and a reporter with the Our Chatham project of the Reese News Labs at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.