school children

From left to right: Shambré Watkins, Gabrielle Hall, Jomar Darity, and Shamar Darity.

The Achievers Summer Reading Program

school children
From left to right: Shambré Watkins, Gabrielle Hall, Jomar Darity, and Shamar Darity.
By Sarah Williams –

The Power to Achieve

Asheville and Buncombe County Schools have faced major achievement gaps between white and minority students for decades. Both systems have long attempted to address that gap through a variety of programs and policies, but little has changed. The gap narrowed over a period of years, then increased again, then narrowed, and has now grown again—to the point that it is currently the worst in the entire state, according to an analysis by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

Now a program outside the school systems is tackling the problem again, this time in the form of The Achievers Summer Reading Program, sponsored by the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. The 2019 program kicked off on June 29 at Brown Temple CME Church, under the theme “The Power to Achieve.”

Students enrolled in the program, their parents, and interested community members are all actively involved. Mrs. Shambra Hall, an Asheville City Schools Achiever and a kindergarten teacher at Hall Fletcher Elementary School, addressed parents at the kickoff on ways to engage their children in their reading.

Research has long shown that, on average, middle-income students experience slight gains in reading performance during summer vacation. This is in large part because middle-income families buy books (print and eBook versions) on a regular basis; have books, magazines, and newspapers in their homes; have and use library cards; and in general encourage their children’s reading. Lower-income students often lack many or most of these advantages. As a result, minority and low-income students experience about a two-month loss in reading achievement each summer. Summer reading will help students minimize this loss and thereby help close the gap.

The current gap was analyzed by the Youth Justice Project, an arm of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, which based its report on data from the NC Department of Public Instruction. As the Asheville-based weekly Mountain Xpress recently reported about the SCSJ’s research: “Step into any Asheville City Schools classroom, and chances are you can guess students’ academic proficiency simply by looking at the color of their skin. The achievement gap between black and white students isn’t unique to Asheville, but the painful truth is that it’s worse here than in any of the state’s 114 other school districts. Regardless of economic status, about 80 percent of the system’s white students achieve grade-level proficiency; less than 30 percent of black students meet the same benchmark.”

Retired Asheville City Schools teacher Eula Shaw, who is active in the Achievement program, said, “It was distressing to learn that the achievement gap between white and black students in Asheville is the greatest in the state.”

Some of her former students have agreed to write the stories that reflected their own experiences and achievements. They hope their different narratives and voices will help the public address the achievement gap—and each of them plans to pursue publication in order to create dialogue in the community.

Three of them shared their stories at “The Power to Achieve Event.”

Cherrisse Hall started her career working at The Bank of America. She later moved to Charlotte to work at Wachovia Bank, which later was purchased by Wells Fargo. She learned many skills that would allow her career to advance to her current job in the largest business group within the company, Wholesale Banking.

Shermonica Darity grew up in the public housing development Klondyke Homes. She depended on her mother, grandmother, and older sister to care for her and to meet her needs. She started working at the age of fifteen.

“Always remember, no matter what your past looks like, it’s never too late to rewrite your future.” She continued, “I grew up seeing first hand that nothing is just handed to you. It takes hard work to accomplish the things you desire. I give my all to everything I do.

“Years later I finally attended college. While in nursing school, my husband died. I was ready to quit and give up. One of my instructors inspired me to stay in school but take a less stressful course of study. I completed my associate in science (medical assisting) and received a certificate in Medical Office Administration. Now, as a mother of twin boys, I have shown them and they know that education is everything.”

Stephon Hall was born in Asheville where he and his twin brother and younger sister were raised by their father, Mr. Samuel Hall. He and his siblings grew up in Livingston Heights.

After graduating from high school, Stephon stayed close to home, attending Western Carolina University, where he pursued an undergraduate degree in business administration and law. He graduated in 2004.

His professional career began in Asheville where he worked as Program Director for nonprofit organizations such as STEAM Asheville and Big Brothers–Big Sisters of WNC. During the Great Recession, between 2009 and 2010, he moved to Charlotte, where his experience led him to pursue a career in banking with Wells Fargo. He started as a personal phone banker and is now a client service manager and business banking relationship manager.

Ms. Shaw noted, “With the turnover of superintendents, principals, and teachers in the Asheville City Schools, the one constant is the parent. Each one has an important role to play. We are encouraging parents to play their role in The Achievers Summer Reading Program by encouraging them to do some or all of the following: read to them, listen, ask questions, and sign their log validating that they have read.

She continued, “The parents of the players on the baseball team, Mountainboy Havoc, coached by Jermaine Williams, are enthusiastically on board to partner with their children to help them become better readers. They will not let the negative image of failure created by constant references to the achievement gap lower their expectations but will press forward toward set goals whether “flying, running, walking or crawling.”

There are as many success stories that go untold as there are those shared. The Achievers program is working hard both to increase the number of successes, and to make sure they are told and heard.