School is back, and so are all of my memories, regrets and appreciations, having growing up in one of the most impressive school systems and one of the most educated towns in the southeast. “Chapelboro” was a smaller place back then, with only one high school, two ‘junior’ highs, and not a laptop or cellphone in sight. With new technologies, changing demographics, lots more schools, and even more to do and consider in and out of the classroom, young people experience student life in a very different way than I did.
But some things haven’t changed much, including the level of socio-economic and academic disparity between white students and students of color, specifically African American and Latino students. And spaces, places, and civic engagement opportunities in both Chapel Hill and Carrboro remain fairly limited, especially for teenagers. In some important ways these things are linked, and I’m interested in exploring this as a town.
What Do Young People Say?
When I ran for office last year, I conducted a non-scientific Survey for Kids to get a better handle on how young people experience Carrboro. (The full results are here.) While the sample size was pretty small and I did not ask about race or economic status, some key findings were interesting:
–When asked how adults other than those at home treat young people their age, nearly 50% of respondents said I think adults care about us, but they don’t pay enough attention to include us in community life.
–More than 60% of respondents agreed with the following statement: Adults treat young people differently depending on their age, gender, race, or the language they speak.
–A consistent theme was that Carrboro needs more things to do and more places to go. When given a list of options that would make Carrboro a better place for young people, the top three choices were:
- Safer ways to ride bikes in town, or to skate or skateboard
- Volunteer or internship opportunities
- More parks, playgrounds or playing fields
I’ve had several subsequent conversations with advocates for children and youth, particularly those in middle and high school, and they are quick to echo the survey results, especially the final point. There is not enough for kids to “do” in our towns, especially not kids with limited family resources or support systems.
The Role of Town Government
We all know that the largest proportion of our collective public resources goes to the schools: roughly half of Orange County property taxes. If you live in Carrboro or Chapel Hill, an additional 12% of your property taxes are assessed by the city schools.
As taxpayers, voters and elected official, adults expect a lot for that school money, creating a very large silo effect when it comes to thinking about our youth. But outside of school funding, adults make plenty of long-term development and resource allocation decisions for our towns that have lasting impacts for youth. The schools don’t invest in downtown, design our parks, sponsor concerts and events in public spaces, or prioritize our grantmaking for human services. Town government does. And these are just some of the valuable tools at our disposal to affect the lives of our children.
5 Things We Can Do
When young people can participate and thrive in our civic, social and cultural life, they are more likely to stay in and succeed in school, and to seek higher education or vocational opportunities. That makes our families and community stronger. So here’s my take on just five things we can do in Carrboro to better support young people and their parents, make this a great place to live at any age, and reduce disparate academic and social outcomes for children of color and those in poverty.
- Support Food Programs for the Hungry
A huge indicator of economic inequity is the proportion of children who receive free or reduced lunch in public schools. 2015 data is not yet posted, but last year 24% of children systemwide qualified for free and reduced lunch—or about 2,500 kids. (For perspective, that’s enough children to fill almost every seat in every school in Carrboro!) Carrboro Elementary had among the greatest proportion of qualified students at 32%, just behind Northside Elementary.
If one in four of our children can’t afford lunch in school, their parents or guardians are struggling to feed them at home, too. Studies show that hungry kids can’t learn as well as kids that can eat when and how much they need to. Studies also show that adults who are hungry can’t take care of their kids as well as those who are not.
In my opinion, the number one thing we can do to support kids and families is to support programs that feed them. In both its out-of-agency funding and other policymaking, the Town of Carrboro should support the hunger relief sponsored by PORCH, TABLE, and the IFC, including its efforts to relocate the Community Kitchen to headquarters in Carrboro. Access to healthy food should never be a barrier to success for children and their adult family members.
- Develop Spaces and Places for Young People
While Carrboro has some spaces that offer programming for young people, including the ArtsCenter, the Century Center, and parks and mini-parks, we need more places for kids with different needs and interests to hang out. I’m particularly interested in spaces and enterprises run by youth, programmed by youth, or simply supervised in a way that best supports diverse youth, especially middle and high schoolers. The Youth Community Project is showing potential as a hub for youth-run programs. There also are two immediate opportunities for the Town to help make good spaces happen.
The first is finding a suitable location for the Southern Branch of the Orange County Library in Carrboro, which county officials have pledged to do. As important as location is creating and supporting programs that encourage kids and their parents to use the library, including adequate operating hours, staffing patterns, and spaces designed specifically for young people. Locking in a site has been difficult enough, but so is Carrboro’s development review process. The Town can prepare now by ensuring it has the capacity in place to inform the building site design and absorb and move along related permit applications at a satisfying pace for taxpayers.
The second is the final design of Martin Luther King, Jr. Park on Hillsborough Road, which the Town’s Recreation and Parks Department and the Recreation and Parks Commission has been working on for some time. The Board of Aldermen will receive an update on the process and some recommendations at our September 1st meeting. There has been some discussion about whether the park should be a place for passive recreation only, but I hope the recommendation that comes to the Board includes ample active, creative recreational opportunities suitable for young people of all ages and backgrounds. I won’t support any plan that doesn’t.
- Promote Leadership Development
Carrboro Recreation and Parks offers a number of programs just for teens, including a Carrboro Youth Council that helps to inform certain events and initiatives led by the department. I support all of these programs, but I am particularly interested in seeing the Council elevated in the public eye and with the Board of Aldermen. The Council does not have the same “clout” as other citizen advisory boards, and to my knowledge the Aldermen have never invited recommendations or true conversation with the Youth Council to help ensure our decisions include their input. Let’s put them on equal footing with other Advisory Boards in their direct access to the Board of Aldermen and demonstrate that civic input from young people is just as important as that of adults. I think we can find ways to do this without asking too much of the young people that have volunteered to serve.
Let’s also make sure the Council represents the diversity of youth in our town racially, by neighborhood, by school, and so on, and ensure that the curricula and tools available to staff and other mentors help develop leadership skills that are transferrable to other aspects of life. Finally, I’d like to consider whether youth representation on other Advisory Boards – even the Board of Aldermen — might be possible, and to adopt best practices for training and utilizing young leadership in primarily adult decision-making bodies.
- Offer Employment and Training Opportunities
Many municipalities, including Chapel Hill, set aside funding for summer youth employment programs, usually funded with federal block grant dollars targeted to families earning 80% or less of area median income. Carrboro does not receive any of these kinds of funds directly, and finding alternative funds is challenging. Luckily, Carrboro youth can participate in Chapel Hill’s program, but I’d like us to examine ways to expand summer work opportunities, unpaid internships paired with work readiness curricula, and responsible volunteer opportunities within our Town limits. It’s not just about the spending money – it’s about helping young people who lack social capital to gain work skills, develop healthy connections with adults, and learn about and contribute to our community in new ways. With a burgeoning Carrboro Business Alliance, lots of great non-profits, and some willingness to devote a little more budget to youth, we can do this.
- Elect Carrboro Representation to the School Board
While the data hasn’t been presented in formal ways (but hopefully will be soon), hearsay has it that schools in Carrboro, while not populated exclusively by children who live in Carrboro, have slightly higher levels of academic disparity than schools in Chapel Hill. I’d like to see some actual data, and I’ll ask for it when we meet with the School Board this fall, but the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP and its education allies have been conducting their own analysis of academic disparity this summer. Results will be presented as part of a community-wide forum on equity in the school system on September 26th (I’ll post details as I get them.)
In the meantime, take heed, Carrboro voters—this one is in your court! Only one of the eight candidates running for the four open slots on the CHCCS School Board lives in Carrboro, although others certainly have lived here in the past. Carrboro needs representation in a big way, and former Alderwoman Joal Broun wants to help fill that gap. Check her out as well as all the other candidates at multiple candidate forums sponsored by such organizations as the League of Women Voters, Orange County Democrats, NAACP, Orange Politics, and more.
There are certainly more than five things that Town government and residents can do to support our diverse young people and help them all succeed, regardless of their resources. Email me if you want to talk about your own ideas, or if you think I should write about a particular youth-oriented issue. I want to hear from you! (Bethany.firstname.lastname@example.org)