With an upcoming Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education election that will decide three of the nine seats on a board that will handle student assignment reform over the next year, concerns about a school system that seems to be re-segregating itself have come to the forefront.
At a recent board meeting, residents addressed board members about their concerns during a public forum, voicing worry that students are caught up in "bubbles" of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, in which their opportunities to grow and learn to work with each other are stifled.
Katie Hughes, a Huntersville resident and parent of a 10-month old boy who will enter CMS in a few years, spoke to the board about her hopes CMS will begin making changes now, to better his experience when he enters the system.
"I don't want my son to go to a school where everyone around him is from the same socioeconomic background," Hughes said. "I want him to grow up in a school where he does group work with other students who don't look like him, whose parents make more money and less money than my husband and I do. He has to learn to be familiar with and get along with kids who aren't from his same social class, because he's not from a society where everyone is in the same class."
Many board members and candidates have recognized the need for more diverse schools in CMS. A plan drafted and introduced by Superintendent Ann Clark at the board's October meeting called for an expansion of magnet programs in CMS as one way to cultivate a natural diversity in schools.
Along with increasing the amount of seats available in existing magnet programs, Clark would like to explore a return of neighborhood bus stops. She said that option could cost as much as $6 million, but will help close the gap of exceptional children and English-as-second-language students that aren't represented enough in magnet schools, many times because working parents cannot bring kids to the shuttle stops currently in use by CMS buses.
One option also up for discussion at upcoming meetings will be creating new school assignment boundaries based on diversity; drawing boundaries based on limiting the poverty levels at each school to within 10 percent of the district average and taking into account factors including race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status.
At the October meeting, Justin Perry, an addiction specialist who also serves on the leadership team of the school advocacy group OneMECK, warned board members that the proximity-based student assignment plan currently implemented in CMS harms not only those in schools with high concentrations of poverty but, in his experience, kids in affluent suburban schools where heroin and prescription pill addictions have become epidemic as "material wealth has created a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids."
Perry, whose children attend Walter G. Byers Elementary School near Uptown, said he was taking a break from his usual speeches advocating for children in high-poverty schools to speak up for the "silent, unrecognized and often dismissed voice of children who are suffering and dying in the highly segregated silos of white affluence.
"These children are suffering in isolation just as much as their black and brown counterparts in poverty," Perry said. "I'm here to advocate for children whose parents care immensely for them, just like those concentrated in poverty, but don't realize that the things like drugs they think they're protecting their kids from, they're actually subjecting their kids to by placing them in hyper-segregated affluent educational and environmental bubbles."
OneMECK has urged the school board to hire a consultant to help them with prioritizing diversity throughout the student assignment process.
Kim Muhic, a teacher at Oakdale Elementary School in northwest Charlotte, said she's had a different experience than many of the speakers at the October meeting. She said she feared any efforts to force diversity would lead to busing and an end to parent involvement.
"My parents come and take notes during math class, they come and eat lunch with me and my students, all my kids have been to my home for cookouts, they are a part of my family, we are a part of theirs," Muhich said. "My parents are extraordinarily involved and my worry is that if we start busing kids across town we are going to lose that."
Speaking after the meeting, Perry said OneMECK is focused on pushing for alternatives to busing.
"CMS buses more now than we ever did at the height of segregation. Anything that mentions busing is more fear mongering language to steer folks away," he said. "We are not trying to do things the way we did before. That's why we want to bring in consultants to look at things such as school pairings, appropriate use of partial magnets; look at what sort of programs do you have in schools that really attract people where there is more of an organic diversity."
While OneMECK addressed those currently sitting on the school board, an unrelated advocacy group called O.N.E. Charlotte was getting proactive in regards to the upcoming board election.
On Oct. 15, the group hosted five candidates, including incumbents, who committed to prioritizing five areas of importance to community members if elected. Two other candidates committed to these guiding principles via video and two did not participate.
The priorities put forth by O.N.E. Charlotte include teacher retention, recruitment and staffing; building post-secondary relationships and increasing vocational opportunities; literacy and early childhood education; student assignment and rezoning; and gathering public input before selecting the next superintendent.
Some parents have voiced concern recently that the board will offer interim Superintendent Ann Clark the full-time job before taking public input into consideration or carrying out an extensive national search, despite an article included in Clark's short-term employment agreement that "the Board agrees that it will not consider Clark for nor offer Clark the Long-Term Position."
Emails circulated by CMS parent Colette Forrest blamed Clark for being "the architect" of a vote to close 10 largely African-American schools in 2010. About 30 people stood behind Forrest holding signs supporting her speech urging the board to implement a process to select a new superintendent immediately at the board's October meeting.
At the O.N.E. Charlotte event, organizers focused on the work ahead, asking candidates to commit to working with them to help curb inequity in CMS by focusing on the above listed priorities.
Larry Bumgarner, who was one of two candidates along with Amelia Stinson-Wesley who did not participate in the commitment forum, said he doesn't dislike O.N.E. Charlotte or any other community group, but he didn't feel comfortable pledging allegiance to a single organization, especially considering that a meeting between him and the group before the forum was cancelled.
"I don't know what their agenda is or how they're going to go about it," Bumgarner said. "For me to go and say this is what I'll focus on, I'm not going to do that."
During an introduction for the O.N.E. Charlotte forum, Stefanie Carter-Dodson, a teacher at Southwest Middle School, emphasized that, except the demand that board members consider public input in making a choice for superintendent, the other commitments were broad ways to start a discussion between elected officials and residents.
"We need an unequivocal commitment from our candidates that they will work with us to make sure the community has a voice in selecting the superintendent. That is clear as day," Carter-Dodson said. "On other priorities, when a candidate commits with a yes, we expect it to be the beginning of a partnership between our elected officials and the community to resolve or improve inequity. These commitments are just the first step in a continued dialogue."
Carter-Dodson also stated that O.N.E. Charlotte is not calling for the removal or replacement of Clark as superintendent, but just for a promise that the parents and other members of the community will be heard on the issue.
As far as the new student assignment plan, people are sure to be upset whichever way it goes. For Perry, the answer lies in educating parents just as much as it is in educating children.
"Parents threatening to go to go to another isolated, affluent county; private school; or charter school to avoid diversity are only accelerating their kids displeasure in most cases," Perry said. "Avoiding diversity is misguided. What we should do is educate them and ourselves as to why it makes sense to pursue and not avoid diversity. Let's be honest about what a good school is; it's not simply about having the lowest number of economically disadvantaged kids, and highest test scores as some parents mistakenly think."
He said he has often warned parents about the dangers of so-called "good" schools.
"I help them see that being in diverse schools actually increases their child's likelihood of overcoming social and economic challenges, while also increasing their career aspirations, cultural competence, and making them less of an easy target for the drug cartels who are flooding our affluent and isolated suburbs with black tar heroin."
Hughes said she supports OneMECK's platform, urging the board to bring in a consultant with an eye on integrating schools naturally. She said her educative experience attending diverse schools like West Charlotte helped her thrive later at North Carolina State and Princeton universities and doesn't want people on either side of the socioeconomic spectrum to miss that experience.
"It helps when you work with people who you don't think you have as much in common with, but also, you are making a conscious choice that you don't want to be where you are right now and want to dream higher," Hughes said. "Maybe you meet people who dream bigger than you ever thought you could. That's something that I saw happen multiple times growing up."