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Is what's right for your child right for all children?

Student assignment debate highlights parents' priorities

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In 2013, on the day I dropped my son Lucas off for his first day of school as a CMS student, President Barack Obama was also celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. As I left Lucas sitting on the rug in his Pre-K classroom, surrounded by his new brown, black and white classmates, I remembered Martin Luther King's dream of little black girls and boys joining hands with little white girls and boys as sisters and brothers.

"What incredible progress we've made," I thought. "Martin Luther King would be proud of my son's classroom."

It was a wonderful, hope-filled realization, but not a completely honest one. The thing is, Lucas attends a fantastic, diverse CMS magnet school. The months after I entered him in the magnet lottery – while I waited to hear whether or not he had been lucky enough to receive a spot at the school – were the most stressful time of my life. I needed Lucas to get into this magnet program because attending our neighborhood school was simply not an option. We are zoned for a low-performing, Title I school where more than 90 percent of the students are low-income children of color.

Sadly, that is the reality for too many Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Today, one in three CMS schools are segregated by poverty and 50 percent are segregated by race. School resegregation is a trend that began in the early 2000s, after the school district lost a long legal battle to maintain its court-ordered desegregation policies and instituted a race-neutral student assignment plan. This resegregation has devastating effects on educational outcomes, particularly for students of color. On the other hand, research shows that the achievement gap is significantly reduced in diverse schools and that diverse schools benefit all students, including whites.

For me, these aren't just abstract statistics. I graduated from CMS in 2000, before the new policy went into effect. That year, my high school was 50 percent white and 50 percent students of color. Today, it's 3 percent white and 97 percent students of color. For all the progress Charlotte has made over the last 15 years toward our aspiration of becoming a "world-class city," this feels like an enormous step backwards.

Now, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education is in the beginning stages of a process to review the district's student assignment policy, a process that already promises to be painful and full of controversy.

Dozens of parents showed up to the most recent school board meeting to express their concerns about possible changes, many of them fearing a return to busing. It should be noted that, as of this point, CMS has not put forth any proposals regarding student assignment and the possibility of busing is merely parental speculation. Yet, for these mostly white parents, their greatest worry is losing their neighborhood schools. In remarks to the board, some even threatened to pull their kids out of the school system altogether if they lost their home school assignment.

As a mother of color who believes my child's home school is unacceptable, these parents' attitudes are disheartening. How could they not care about the lack of academic opportunities for so many other children in our city?

Yet, as a mom who just wants the best for her child, I can understand where they're coming from. After all, I made the choice to not put my child in our neighborhood school because I want nothing but the best for him.

The thing is, while all parents want the best for their kids, not all have the luxury – or luck, as was my case with the magnet lottery – to make a choice about what that may be. That leaves thousands of kids at a huge disadvantage.

As we step into this student assignment process, I have no idea what the answers are. But I think that an initial step is that we, as a community, must acknowledge that these levels of segregation are not OK. We must do better for all our children.

This doesn't mean that we stop worrying about our own kids. It's fine to be concerned about how a new student assignment policy will impact our families. However, I'd like to propose the possibility that we strive to achieve the best for our kids and all kids at the same time.

Maybe wanting the best for our kids means more than ensuring they get to go to a good school. Maybe wanting the best for our kids means that we, as parents, become invested in the well-being of all kids in our community; that we dare to dream, like Martin Luther King did, about a world where all children can thrive.

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