In a wooded back yard in Charlottes Plaza Midwood neighborhood, parents and teachers from Shamrock Gardens Elementary sip soft drinks while kids jostle for turns on a rope swing.
Its an end-of-school party like many others. But this one marks the culmination of an extraordinary effort to unite a neighborhood with its neighborhood school.
When the fifth-graders at the party started kindergarten in 2006, Shamrock had a long reputation as one of Charlotte-Mecklenburgs worst schools. Its students came from the low-income neighborhoods in the east Charlotte zone. Families with the means to buy in Plaza Midwood understood their children would go to private, charter or magnet schools.
The dynamic is familiar in Charlotte and many other cities, where affluence rubs elbows with poverty. Parents talk about teaming up to revive public schools, but few are willing to risk their childrens education.
Six years ago, the Observer wrote about Plaza Midwood families facing that dilemma. Pamela Grundy and Peter Wong decided to put their son, Parker, in Shamrock and tried to persuade neighbors to join them. Several weighed the option.
But only Parker went.
On Friday, Parker and his classmates will graduate from a changed school. Its off the failing lists. Gardens that were lost to weeds now blossom. Shamrock, with about 400 students, boasts an active PTA, rare in a school where the poverty level still tops 80 percent.
And for the last couple of years, Plaza Midwood families have helped fill a growing magnet there made successful by children who showed that low-income students could shine in accelerated classes.
I feel like were at a tipping point, said Eric Guckian, part of a wave of Plaza Midwood parents who enrolled children four years after the magnet debuted.
Dedicated teachers, CMS leaders and community partners helped bring about change. But all agree the driving force was Grundy, who vowed to put her ideals into action and never gave up.
We had six fabulous years at Shamrock, Grundy says. I never for a minute thought, Oh, I made the wrong decision.
Parker, now 11, agrees. As a 5-year-old, he says, he was vaguely aware of the attention and angst surrounding his enrollment.
I was kind of worried at first, he says, but I got here and it was good. I got a perfectly good education.
Shamrock Gardens was built in the mid-1950s. Forty years later, the building and its academic reputation were in shambles. One superintendent pulled a library book from the shelves and found a 1944 publication date, Grundy says.
There were efforts to turn things around strong principals, building renovations but setbacks kept coming.
When the state launched its school rating system in 1997, Shamrock was among the worst. Deb Murphy, who has taught at Shamrock for 17 years, remembers coming in and finding the principals office stripped bare. It was the first-ever state takeover of a failing school.
Test scores remained low. In 2001, the state ordered Shamrock to hold an extra week of school, hoping that would help kids catch up.
In 2006, CMS leaders agreed to put a magnet for gifted kids at Shamrock. They hired Duane Wilson, then an assistant principal at Marie G. Davis Middle School, to make it work.
Both were the right decisions, Shamrock faculty and families say today.
But as families made choices for 2006-07, the magnet and the principal were unknowns.
Grundy knocked on Plaza Midwood doors, trying to sell the school. She and her husband emailed an essay to neighbors, explaining how attending Shamrock could counteract resegregation of schools.
But when the numbers came in, there werent enough magnet students to fill a class. Wilson identified the strongest non-magnet students and rounded out the rosters.
Mixing neighborhood students with the handful whose parents chose the magnet turned out to be a good thing, Grundy says. The goal was never to import high-performing kids to bump up the numbers, she says, but to push all students to higher levels.
CMS provided staff who specialized in advanced learning.
Grundy and Wong became a link to parents who have time, money and connections, as Grundy puts it.
The combination started transforming Shamrock.
Grundy got a grant from Lowes to turn an overgrown courtyard into a butterfly garden that would help kids learn science while beautifying the school. Another grant, from Target, got the school library an upgrade. Programs such as Engineering is Elementary debuted with the magnet classes, then spread.
Grundy urged Plaza Midwood families to volunteer, even if they wouldnt send their children there. She also worked to engage families who were already there. She started a group for Spanish-speaking parents. The school launched dinners for families from each grade level to come to school and get acquainted.
As principal, Wilson strove to slow the loss of good teachers. He was thrilled when Shamrock logged a couple of years with no transfers.
A new wave
For years, Shamrocks test scores had been low enough that No Child Left Behind rules forced CMS to let families opt out.
In 2009, the scores nudged up enough to get Shamrock off the transfer-out list. That meant several Plaza Midwood families didnt get the magnet assignments they wanted in 2010.
Guckian, Sarah Gates and other parents of rising kindergartners talked it over. Shamrocks magnet, which uses techniques for teaching gifted kids even in the lowest grades, still had seats available. And the recession made private schools less appealing, Gates said.
Gates had been volunteering. She knew Shamrock was a welcoming place, with small classes and lots of individual attention.
Several families signed up. That year there were enough for two kindergarten magnet classes, and the numbers have kept growing.
It seems like its turned around, says Gates, who is now PTA president and helped get chess into the second-grade curriculum. Her son is finishing first grade now, and her daughter will start at Shamrock in August.
Guckian is executive director of the Charlotte office of New Leaders, a national group that recruits and trains urban principals. New Leaders rates schools on a scale of zero (chaotic) to three (effective for all kids). He says Shamrock is at Level 2.
I cant say were there yet at Shamrock, he says, but were moving in the right direction.
Challenges and victories
Wilson retired last year. Angela Grant, trained by New Leaders, took his place. She beams when she talks about moving ahead.
We are unique for a (high-poverty) school. We have lots of parental support, she says. Its amazing to feel that youre on the cusp of something phenomenal.
Parker Wong will move up to Randolph Middle, an International Baccalaureate magnet.
Grundy says she didnt consider putting her son into Eastway, the neighborhood middle school, and trying to replicate her work at Shamrock. Middle schools are bigger and tougher for parents to influence, she says. And she doesnt think CMS has done enough to meet parents halfway: I think Eastway and Garinger (High) have been neglected by CMS.
Shamrock is no longer one of the lowest-performing in CMS. But the school fell short of state targets for student growth last year, and only about two-thirds scored at grade level. This years scores havent been released.
Grundy has crusaded for lawmakers and educators to put less emphasis on standardized testing. Average results dont matter, she says, when you know each child is getting a good education.
At the year-end party Grundy and Wong hosted, Shiquita Weldon watched her daughter, Azariah Williams, join fifth-grade classmates in the back of a pickup, waiting to hop onto the rope swing.
Theyre little scientists and doctors and lawyers, Weldon said. This is the future.
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