A parent voicing concern about test scores isn't unusual, but Colette Forrest's email grabbed my attention.
But Forrest was up in arms about a state report card showing that 67.5 percent of Irwin's black students and 54.5 percent of its Hispanic students had passed both reading and math exams last year, compared with more than 95 percent of white students.
"That is not acceptable!" Forrest wrote. She said she had raised the issue at a PTA meeting, volunteering to reach out to minority parents whose children are struggling and suggesting that the school recruit mentors from groups that have a record of helping such students.
Forrest said her own 6-year-old son is testing well above grade level. But she can't accept failure for his classmates: "I will do whatever I can for ALL the kids at Irwin, because it is NOT just about my African-American son, but ALL children MUST succeed and yes, especially his fellow African-American peers."
When I started covering education more than a decade ago, I was taken aback by what seemed to be a double standard: Scores that would barely rate as adequate for schools with mostly white and affluent students were celebrated for high poverty schools populated mostly by black and Hispanic ones. Now, for better or worse, I've internalized the reality that pervades public education across the country: Those gaps are so huge and so pervasive that it's hard not to celebrate even modest progress toward closing them. Superintendent Heath Morrison's staff recently rolled out goals for his five-year strategic plan. One is to get black students' pass rate on reading and math exams to within 22.5 percentage points of white students' rate by 2018. Last year that gap was 45.1 points.
By that standard, Irwin is a resounding success. Black students there are almost five times as likely to pass reading and math tests as black students across North Carolina. The black-white gap at Irwin is around 30 percentage points, but that's partly because white students did so well. Morrison hopes to get the districtwide gap down to that level in a couple of years.
Some people will tell you that certain types of kids from certain types of families just can't or won't excel.
Forrest isn't buying that. She says she's the child of unmarried teen parents, both of whom died before they turned 20. The grandmother who raised her hadn't finished middle school, Forrest says, but stressed the value of education. Forrest became her family's first college graduate.
"At 40 I had my first and only child," she writes, "and now my son and I know we are poised to excel because we know our strength and it is our job to strengthen others."
Here's what strikes me: She didn't write to public officials to say, "You're failing my child; what are you going to do about it?"
She said, "We're failing our children. What can we do about it?"
Imagine what might happen if more people asked that question.