Few areas have been as rocked by waves of budget cuts and school reform as District 2, which includes high-poverty urban schools in west Charlotte.
Four years ago, Thelma Byers-Bailey supported Richard McElraths bid to represent that district. But after he supported school closings that included her neighborhood elementary school, shes seeking to replace him.
We are still frustrated and upset, Byers-Bailey, president of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association, said of residents whose schools bore the brunt of budget-driven closings in 2011.
McElrath, a retired teacher who is seeking his second term on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, and Byers-Bailey, a retired lawyer making her first run for office, bring divergent views to a district that includes some of the citys most challenged schools.
McElrath wants the school board to push harder to make city and county officials break up income-segregated housing patterns that create neighborhoods that are rich in opportunities and neighborhoods that are the opposite. McElrath likes to describe them in terms of the food sold in low-income and affluent areas: fortified beer and wine communities and fresh fruit and vegetable communities.
Though he calls impoverished neighborhoods one of the biggest obstacles to successful public schools, he says CMS has made strides toward his other major goals: Getting better reading instruction for struggling adolescents and creating better workforce training for teens. There have been some steps forward, McElrath said.
Byers-Bailey focuses on improving conditions within struggling schools, by offering more magnet options, minority role models and programs to deal with underlying issues for students who create discipline problems. She supports Project LIFT, a $55 million public-private partnership promoting improvements at West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools, while McElrath has been skeptical.
Byers-Bailey says her career as an attorney has prepared her to be an advocate for families who felt shut out of school closings and other decisions the current board has made.
One thing both agree on: The diversity of District 2 poses challenges for whoever represents it. It ranges from high poverty schools in Charlottes historic African-American neighborhoods to more diverse, rapidly growing schools in southwest Charlotte.
Weve got the richest people and the poorest people, from Lake Wylie to Beatties Ford Road, McElrath said. Its impossible to please everyone.
Neighborhoods shape schools
McElrath spent more than 30 years as a classroom teacher. But his longtime passion has been trying to break up the housing patterns that he believes stack the odds against schools serving impoverished neighborhoods. He led the Mixed Income Housing Coalition, a group advocating for public policies that create opportunities for lower-income residents in new developments, and ran for Charlotte City Council and Mecklenburg County commissioner before winning a school board seat.
McElrath counts it a victory that the school boards 2013 legislative agenda included encouraging city and county officials to promote stable neighborhoods, affordable housing and job opportunities. But he says most of his colleagues have been too quick to leave housing issues to those bodies. When city and county policies damage educational opportunities, we need to fight, he said.
McElrath was an early and vigorous voice for providing better vocational options for students who arent college-bound, including hands-on internships that help students get jobs right out of high school. If you get up in the morning and youre not reporting to a teacher or reporting to a boss, youre going to jail, he likes to say.
McElrath was among five new members elected in 2009. That group faced its biggest challenge less than a year later, when then-Superintendent Peter Gorman proposed closing schools to save money and create new academic options.
Most of those closings landed in District 2. Waddell High was closed and converted to a K-8 language magnet. Harding High, a high-performing magnet, became a neighborhood school and took many of the struggling students from Waddell. Three middle schools were shuttered, with students reassigned to nearby elementary schools that were hastily converted to preK-8 schools.
The plans led to angry forums, street protests and arrests at school board meetings. Some westside residents said the board ignored their concerns while responding to complaints from wealthier communities.
McElrath says the creation of combined elementary/middle schools will ultimately help students. During his career as a middle-school math teacher, he says, he frequently encountered students who could do the math but couldnt solve story problems because they couldnt read well. Most middle schools lack reading teachers to help such students, he said, while the combined structure gives the older students access.
Mobilized by closing
Byers-Bailey grew up in a family of educators. Both parents taught, in CMS and nearby districts, and Walter G. Byers, one of the District 2 elementary schools that was converted to a preK-8, is named for her father.
Byers-Bailey agrees on the link between schools and neighborhoods. The Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Association had worked to support Lincoln Heights Elementary, pushing for better sidewalks to help students walk safely to school and working with CMS administration on hiring a new principal.
Gormans original plan for closings, consolidations and other changes called for Lincoln Heights to add middle-school students. But by the time the dust settled, the board voted to close the school. It has since reopened as an alternative school for students with severe behavioral and emotional disabilities.
We came away from that process feeling like our views didnt matter and we werent heard, says Byers-Bailey. Thats when she started thinking about a run for school board. You cant step on my toes and expect me not to holler. I want to have a voice on the board for those who have no voice: Our children.
Byers-Bailey says shed like to see Lincoln Heights converted to a magnet school. Magnets, she says, give families from all areas the option to choose not only specialized academic programs but a more diverse setting than neighborhood schools may offer.
As a newcomer, Byers-Bailey said shes visiting PTAs, neighborhood associations and churches to convince voters that District 2 needs a fresh approach: Weve got to find something different to do to get to the rest of these children (who arent succeeding), and weve got to pay for it.
Bonds and Project LIFT
McElrath voted to approve the contract that created Project LIFT, which gave a board of private donors an unprecedented voice in teacher hiring and educational strategy for the nine targeted schools. But he sparked controversy a few months later when he and Joyce Waddell, who is running unopposed in District 3, made unannounced visits to some of those schools asking skeptical questions.
He said at the time that he had reservations about a plan that made no effort to address the segregation of those schools. Today he says the effort, which will pump in $55 million in private money over five years, has value as an emergency intervention. But he says he still questions whether it will make a lasting difference for schools and neighborhoods.
I still dont know whats going to happen in five years, he said. Nobody has an answer.
Byers-Bailey, who has attended Project LIFT meetings on such changes as creating year-round schools, says she supports the effort: Theyre really making a positive impact.
She also says she supports the $290 million package of CMS bonds on the Nov. 5 ballot and believes District 2 will vote in favor.
McElrath, who opposed the last CMS bonds in 2007, voted to put the bonds on the ballot this year. But he chuckled when asked whether hell campaign for or against them. Im not going to take a stand, he said.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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