CHARLOTTE, N.C. I don’t remember much about my first day of kindergarten at Cotswold Elementary School. But I know it was hectic.
What I was too young to realize at the time was Billingsville Elementary School had recently been converted into a magnet Montessori school. This transition left many children in the surrounding community of Grier Heights without a neighborhood school, so they came to Cotswold, the closest alternative school, on the first day.
The school was unprepared for the influx of students, and my class had well over the average number of students for kindergarten classes in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. My mother remembers the frustration of the teachers and administrators, including the assistant teacher and then the principal who later quit, but all I really remember was a lot of tears. For a painfully shy 5-year-old, it was incredibly overwhelming.
The school did the best it could to handle the situation, convincing one of the first-grade teachers to teach a combination class of kindergarten and first-grade students, absorbing some of the students from the existing two kindergarten classes, which were overcrowded.
But by this time, my parents were unnerved by their first venture in Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools and worried about the rest of the school year. They decided not to wait it out, and my mother got a job uptown teaching in the weekday school nursery at First Presbyterian Church. She applied for a work transfer so that I could attend Eastover Academy, which was outside of my school zone.
This situation is not unique to Cotswold, and many schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system have endured similar growing pains as the city’s population has boomed in the past two decades. As the nation’s second largest banking center after New York City, Charlotte is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation with a population of an estimated 751,087 people in 2011, according to the U.S. Census.
This growth has propelled the city’s development as a major metropolis, but it has also put a strain on the ever-expanding school district. With nearly 140,000 students and 159 schools, the school district is now among the top 20 largest in the United States.
The response of the school district to the spike in students hasn’t been perfect, but the administration and teachers are still leading the way for North Carolina. In 2011 the school system was awarded the Broad Prize for Urban Education from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, which is given to the large, urban school district that has shown the greatest student academic gains nationally.
Despite my rocky start in kindergarten, I had an incredible experience in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
After two and a half years at Eastover, I attended Elizabeth Traditional Elementary School after my brother’s name was selected in the lottery for the magnet school, automatically pulling me in as a sibling. I went on to Alexander Graham Middle School and Myers Park High School, then the largest high school in the state.
To address overcrowding at schools like Myers Park, the district has made some tough decisions. Officials decided to discontinue the nationally recognized International Baccalaureate magnet program a few years ago to ease the overcrowding, and, since then, my alma mater has dropped in school rankings on the national level and also on the local level.
The school district continues to face dilemmas to maintain school quality that attracts parents to the school system but also alleviate the stress on the resources and staff of certain schools. The difficulty has taken its toll on recent district leadership as seen in the turnover rate of Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools’ superintendents.
As Charlotte continues to grow so will the number of students attending its public schools. It’s up to the school board to maintain the excellence of high-performing schools and help those struggling to achieve those same goals.