District Educator Works to Close the Achievement Gap for Black Students

E3 Camp Founder Anissa McClendon at the November 2022 STEAM Fair speaks with East Chapel Hill High School senior Pristine Onuoha, the winner of last year’s national Genes in Space STEM competition. Photo courtesy of Anissa McClendon.


By Kylie Marsh

Growing up, Anissa McClendon attended Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools (CHCCS), learning not just from teachers and textbooks, but also from experiences.

“I always tutored some of my classmates, or if anybody in our neighborhood needed some help, they’d always come to me,” she said. “In school, and in a lot of my higher up classes, I was the only Black kid,” McClendon said.

So, it may have been fate that she ended up teaching in the same school district after a short stint pursuing sports medicine. Today, McClendon has been teaching in the district for over 20 years with students from kindergarten to eighth grade. She currently serves as a teacher’s assistant in a dual language class of English and Chinese.

Over the years, she observed that students who looked like her weren’t getting access to as many opportunities for higher academic achievement as their White or Asian counterparts.

“As time goes on, it’s just like, ‘Oh, that’s why that happened to me,’ and it wasn’t about your education, but it was more about your color,” she said. Though schools have been integrated for decades, statistics show inequality between Black and White students persists.

Much has been written about the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school district’s achievement gap—the disparity of achievement between Black and White students puts it at the second largest gap in the U.S. This is despite the district’s ranking as the best in the state and national score cards rating CHCCS as one of the country’s top-performing districts.

One of McClendon’s hypotheses as to the cause of the disparity, now dubbed the “opportunity gap” by the district, is a lack of exposure to more challenging coursework and possibilities.

This is not an uncommon sentiment. Community groups like the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chapter of the NAACP and grassroots organization Campaign for Racial Equity in Our Schools have publicly criticized the same thing. In its 2015 report to the local school district, “Excellence with Equity: The Schools Our Children Deserve,” the latter group identified “advising by guidance counselors that limits post-graduation opportunities for students of color” and “in-school segregation by race that emanates from tracking and other differential opportunities” as two of many causes fueling the gap.

E3 Camp: what students—and adults–learn

McClendon was working at a middle school when she came up with the idea of creating an extracurricular program with a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) to address the lack of opportunities and exposure to options for Black students.

“We have to reach these kids because they have so much potential,” she said.

The program she initiated is E3 Camp—Empowering Excellence thru Exploration—and its first series was held in July 2018 with 17 middle and high school students attending. Last year’s camp supported 26 students.

This past November, the camp scored a big win with its Chapel Hill Black STEAM Fair: One hundred African American children, ages 10-17, participated in an exposition where students presented science projects that they designed themselves to the public—one of them being Pristine Onuoha, who won the national Genes in Space STEM competition, which sends experiments to the International Space Station (ISS) for implementation. The fair also featured 25 experts and organizations to present STEAM topics to the students.

The children weren’t the only ones learning at the STEAM fair.

A mother goes over instructions at a water property station at the E3 Camp November 2022 STEAM Fair. The task was to find out how many drops of water can cover the top of a penny. Photo by Randee Haven-O’Donnell, courtesy of Anissa McClendon.

McClendon described a situation that taught her that Black students are falling through the cracks and not being engaged properly—even by Black guidance counselors—as noted in the racial equity report previously mentioned.

She invited one of the course planning counselors, a Black woman, to the STEAM fair. One of her campers who had been in the E3 program for two years had never met the counselor before.

“The [student’s] father’s was asking, ‘What kind of program is this?’” McClendon said. Had she not gathered the three of them together at the fair, who knows what opportunities the student would have missed?

The encounter confirmed in McClendon’s mind the need for both students and adults to gain exposure to each other in productive ways that promote equitable opportunities for Black youth.

“The ones that need attention aren’t getting noticed for the ones who do get that attention for negative things,” McClendon said. She sees guidance and career counselors as allies in the quest for greater equity, rattling off suggestions from the top of her head that focused on not waiting for a student to come to the adults.

“You need to be seeking kids out and engaging them,” she said. “Go out and talk to kids, hand out flyers, send info to the email. Sometimes it’s just a disconnect.”

The mission of McClendon’s camp is that kind of outreach, to get students familiar with what career opportunities are available to them so they can envision their futures and map out their academic plans. It also strives to change the students’ mindsets about what they can achieve if they push themselves.

“The main thing when I was thinking about the camp was math and science because our kids were always in these low math classes and they were not successful in science,” she said. “That was really the beginning.”

In the early stages of setting up her camp, McClendon met a student who was in a biotechnology program at Durham Technical Community College, pursuing a two-year certificate.

“She said kids can get a certificate in 15 months through [the student’s] program and step out and make $70,000,” McClendon said. “I said, ‘Why is no one telling people about these opportunities?’”

With donations from like-minded community members, churches, volunteers, and the help of retired educators, E3 Camp continues to grow. A former student of McClendon’s, now a lawyer, helped her acquire E3’s 501(c)(3) nonprofit status to create a path to grant funding.

Students produced science exhibits and experiments, as well as visited other table presentations, at the E3 Camp STEAM Fair last November. Here, a student engages in a lesson on lungs. Photo by Randee Haven-O’Donnell, courtesy of Anissa McClendon.

“That first session of it (E3 Camp), we saw how much of an impact it had for these kids,” she said. “They were like, ‘Hey we’re coming back next week!’”

The camp accomplishes its goals by inviting guest speakers to talk about their careers and give small lessons and demonstrations, combined with field trips to relevant institutions like the North Carolina Aquarium and Morehead Planetarium.

“I try to have at least 70% of the presenters be African American,” McClendon said. “We try to throw out at least 25 to 30 different topics.” The long list of topics includes coding, circuitry, biotech, cybersecurity, drones and solar, she said, to name a few. Some guests have been “speech pathologists, plumbers, radiation therapists” and more.

“We have a black female that does dentistry, and the kids were like, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve never seen a Black person in dentistry,’” McClendon said to show one example of the importance to “… let them know you can do this field.”

Adults learn through the E3 Camp events, too. McClendon shared a quote from Kate Finlayson, a somatic educator and presenter at the 2022 STEAM Fair: “I had the opportunity to meet amazing and diverse young people—curious, inquisitive, creative—as well as some parents who were also willing to learn with their kids!  I loved listening to them talk about their interests and dreams as I shared my passion of discovering  human anatomy through movement.”

Kate Finlayson, a STEAM Fair presenter and a student do a little Nia dancing as part of a lesson about human anatomy. Photo courtesy of Anissa McClendon.

At this year’s E3 Camp in July, McClendon hopes to host up to 35 students and says she is already receiving a lot of emails asking about the upcoming program.

“The ultimate goal is for all these kids to get all this exposure, for them to say, ‘You know what? I might be able to do that,’” McClendon said.

From the Civil Rights past, an eye toward future equity

McClendon often sees her campers surprised, fascinated and proud of their identity during the camp. In addition to the STEAM topics, the students learn about the history of their own community’s accomplishments at the local level, including a start to every morning with a “Black history moment.”

In one case, campers were learning about the Chapel Hill Nine, a group of high school students who held a sit-in as a nonviolent protest of the racist segregation of a drug store in Chapel Hill. They were arrested for their act of courage.

One of those original protesters came to speak to the students—and he happened to be the grandfather of one of the E3 campers. It was the first time that the young camper had been told about the story.

McClendon wants to teach the kids: “Don’t be ashamed of anything that has happened—good and bad.”

The camp does more than just the education itself. Everything is free, thanks to the donations and grant money, including breakfast, lunch and an afternoon snack. In addition, the students are provided with an estimated $900 worth of school supplies to last them an entire year, including a TI-84 calculator and USB drive.

So far, the camp has made a difference in student performance.

“Four [of our] kids are in 9th grade, and they are on track in their math and science classes, which is wonderful,” said McClendon.

Some of the past E3 campers also continue to work with the program as volunteers. One of them just got accepted to UNC to study biology this fall.

“We have kids that have that leadership role. You gotta give them the small opportunities so they can get comfortable with it,” said McClendon.

McClendon has big ideas for seeing improved equity for Black students, from adding more sessions of E3 camp to one day having a building for activities every week. For the schools, she hopes not only to see greater counselor outreach, but also district superintendents meeting more to share ideas about equity and funding.

For her own part, McClendon—recognized as a Hometown Hero and frequently attends students’ other activities on her own time to support them—has a simple message for those who want to close the achievement gap and see Black students excel:

“A lot of times, I tell people, we underestimate the kids. We really do. If I can save three along my way, I’m doing what I need to do,” said McClendon.

Correction: This article was updated March 17, 2023, to correct the name of E3 Camp, which at times had the “E” and “3” inverted, as well as to correct the link to E3 Camp.

A former TLR correspondent from Durham, Kylie Marsh returns to writing for the paper, albeit from new digs in Charlotte. Her work has also appeared in QCity Metro. As a graduate of NYU, she writes about local issues of class, race and inequality. When not freelancing, Kylie is organizing for the rights of workers, women and the homeless in Charlotte. 

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