Town needs school assist

November 29, 2013 

Years ago, we could tell a school by the names on its honor roll. Massengills went to Four Oaks schools, Barefoots to Meadow, Peedins to Pine Level.

But then Johnston County began to change. The migrant workers who had traditionally left after the harvest began to put down roots, enticed by better-paying jobs in other industries. Those migrants who landed construction jobs were building homes for Johnston’s other newcomers – families lured here from other states by jobs in the fast-growing Triangle.

Over time, the names that had dominated school honor rolls were in the minority, replaced by Hernandez and Ramirez, Luciano and Ivarone.

We personally welcome the diversity newcomers have brought to Johnston County, but we wonder if other longtime Johnston residents feel the same. Indeed, the numbers suggest some parents are fleeing schools with large numbers of newcomers, especially Latino newcomers.

In Smithfield, whites make up 56.93 percent of the population, down from 62.66 percent in 2000, according to census numbers. But whites make up just 39.1 percent of the student population at South Smithfield Elementary School and just 43.9 percent of the study body at West Smithfield Elementary. Those numbers suggests some white parents in Smithfield are sending their children to schools elsewhere.

This is no criticism of those Smithfield parents. We’re advocates of school choice, so if a Smithfield parent thinks his child can get a better education elsewhere, then more power to him.

But what’s good for the individual student might not be good for Smithfield or other towns, like Selma, where the numbers also suggest some white flight. It’s no secret that families and employers judge a town partly on its schools, and Smithfield’s schools don’t measure up. This past year, just 21.3 percent of West Smithfield Elementary students performed at or above grade level on year-end tests in reading and math; just 34.3 percent of South Smithfield students did so. The numbers were just as discouraging at Smithfield Middle, with 34.2 percent of students at grade level; and Smithfield-Selma High School, 23.1 percent. No doubt, those scores would have been better had more-affluent families not fled Smithfield schools.

We don’t expect those Smithfield parents to suddenly reverse course and enroll their children in Smithfield schools, though they should acknowledge their role in those scores. But we do expect school leaders to make every effort to make Smithfield schools better. Ditto for schools in other towns whose affluent students have left because they could afford to.

A town, of course, is more than its schools, and Smithfield, for one, has problems beyond its low-performing schools. But good schools are as beneficial to a town as they are to its children, and for Smithfield to do better, its schools will have to get better, too.

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