The seven teens piled into their teachers’ cars were jittery as they drove toward uptown Charlotte.
The Garinger High students had spent hours preparing. They stayed after school and came in on weekends, fueled by honey buns and Cheetos that debate teacher Hillary Hollowood bought with her own money.
But how could they not be nervous? They were about to speak to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, on live television, about issues that divide the community.
For months, as the board discussed changes to student assignment and sign-toting parents packed meetings, the teens had heard adults discuss what to do about schools like theirs, schools that get stuck with labels such as “high poverty” and “low performing.”
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Now the students – four Hispanic, two black and one white, ages 16 and 17 – wanted their turn. They would describe life in a school where many parents don’t speak English and don’t have cars. They would lace those stories with facts gleaned from hours of research, trying to show the world that they’re intelligent young adults with solutions to complex problems.
With a board vote just two weeks away, they hoped their stories could still shape decisions about their community and their school.
“It was pretty surreal for us. When we were walking up there, we were all shaking,” said 17-year-old Sydney Rodriguez.
When experts talk about breaking the link between poverty and failure, they talk about the need for teachers to forge meaningful relationships with their students. They say complex assignments with real-life significance must replace drills designed to bump up test scores.
The way Hollowood, a 26-year-old Teach For America recruit, got her students ready to speak to the school board is a case study in how that works.
Hear our voices
Evelyn Valdez, a 17-year-old senior, went first at the Oct. 25 meeting. The first 30 seconds of her 2-minute speech were delivered in rapid-fire Spanish. Then she switched to English.
“Did you feel uncomfortable, or worried that you were missing out on important information?” she asked the board.
That, she said, is how many Garinger parents feel when trying to keep up with policy discussions in English. “How would you feel,” Valdez asked, “if your child’s education was dependent on what I just said?”
Hollowood and the other students were watching the board react. They could see comprehension, even hear sounds of acknowledgment.
The students began to realize they could give a voice to east Charlotte, an international community where families who don’t feel confident in the halls of power often go unheard.
Garinger relies heavily on young teachers. Teach For America finds and trains promising, idealistic people willing to take on assignments in hard-to-staff schools. Most of them didn’t major in education but want to spend a two-year stint teaching, often before moving to other jobs in education or public policy.
Garinger Principal Kelly Gwaltney knows she can’t keep many of those teachers, but believes the passion of people like Hollowood makes the arrangement worthwhile.
Hollowood majored in history and rhetorical studies at UNC Chapel Hill and went to work for a real estate appraisal office. Coaching a soccer team inspired her to work with teens, so she applied to TFA and landed at Garinger last year, teaching history and speech/debate.
This year, the first assignment she gave her speech and debate class was to research a community problem and propose a solution. Not surprisingly, many students focused on education.
Living the debate
As the students prepared their speeches, the school board was moving toward a first round of decisions in a student assignment review that aimed to reduce concentrations of poverty and disadvantage at schools like Garinger.
Staff and consultants were hashing out a new system that would map Mecklenburg County into blocks of high, medium and low socioeconomic status, using those labels to shape the 2017 magnet lottery. The plan called for expanding the menu of magnets and giving priority to students who want to leave the district’s lowest-scoring schools.
Earlier in the year, board members had agreed that schools like Garinger, where the vast majority of students come from low-income homes, are at an academic disadvantage.
At public hearings in the spring, some suburban parents voiced fear that their children might be sent to schools where they believed families didn’t care as much about education as they did.
Garinger students knew that made them feel lousy, but they weren’t sure how to talk about it.
Hollowood coached them. They read CMS documents, mastered the vocabulary and studied the concepts. Hollowood urged them to tell their own stories while looking up facts to bolster their views.
About 30 students gave speeches for class. Seven were so gung-ho they decided to work up presentations for the school board.
That meant coming in after hours. Few have cars, so they took city buses, walked or got a ride from their teacher.
Hollowood wasn’t about to let them settle for a first draft, or a second. “I was hard on them,” she recalls, grinning. “They hated me a bit.”
Ready to speak
By late October, their theme had emerged. They supported the board’s push for diversity, but they worried that schools like Garinger could end up worse off.
They wanted people to understand that just because parents don’t turn out for meetings doesn’t mean they don’t care. They hoped to convince the board that they could be just as successful as students from wealthier neighborhoods, but it takes more support.
They had their two-minute speeches lined up in sequence. After Valdez set the stage with her remarks in Spanish, Estephani Cruz talked about her mother, who doesn’t speak English and works two jobs.
“How are you going to make the enrollment process equitable ... to the non-English speaking parents who want their children to pursue their dreams?” Cruz asked.
Daniela Ramirez added that many families lack the internet access needed to participate in a magnet lottery, or the transportation to get to meetings. She urged CMS to work with houses of faith to reach such families.
Isabel Pratt and Tinya Little said letting students transfer to magnets might help some individuals but could leave Garinger and schools like it stripped of its best students. Instead, they said, their school and others in east Charlotte need to attract middle-class families and strong scholars.
Rodriguez and Gwendolyn Love said they don’t want programs to train students for a trade. They said they and their classmates want to go to four-year colleges and become professionals.
“They have the drive,” Love said. “They have the passion.”
A college-prep magnet, she said, would give them the skills.
Kudos rolled in almost immediately. Hollowood replayed the meeting video for anyone who would hold still.
Their principal loved the message her students had sent.
“What we know at Garinger is our kids are resilient,” Gwaltney said. “They took the ball and they ran with it. That was their thoughts, their research, 100 percent.”
The students were thrilled.
“We all love Garinger. We want it to be seen as a better place,” said Pratt, 17. “It just felt nice to have people who were going to listen.”
When Hollowood showed the video to her speech and debate class, more students wanted to take part. There would be one more public hearing before the board voted on Nov. 9.
Some students weren’t ready to speak in public, but used artistic skills to create signs.
Some decided they were ready to try.
Carlos Figueroa Marin hadn’t been able to take part the first time because he has to hurry home after school to watch his 10-year-old sister. This time he walked to school for a Sunday prep session, and told the board about his aspirations to attend a four-year college and become a teacher.
Asnina Maingua, born in Kenya to Somali parents, told the board CMS should provide translators for all the languages spoken by CMS families, not just Spanish.
Liana Cruz, the youngest speaker at 15, talked about the preponderance of refugees, single-parent homes and low-rent apartments in the Garinger zone. “Students from east Charlotte have different sets of needs than students in other areas of CMS.,” she said. “In the race to attain an excellent education, many students start a mile ahead of students from east Charlotte.”
Some came back for a second round. Love, 17, talked about the importance of extracurricular activities for college-bound students. She suggested that CMS pay for after-hours transportation so classmates who don’t have cars can participate.
To drive her point home, Love noted the contrast between her school and a counterpart in south Charlotte.
“At Garinger we have 281 parking spaces reserved for students, but just 20 students currently have the means to provide their own transportation,” she said, “whereas Ardrey Kell currently has a wait list for 533 parking spaces solely for junior and senior students.”
At the Nov. 9 meeting, Hollowood also spoke. She wanted the board and the public to understand how students like hers can shine, and why that requires extra support.
Hollowood talked about making two-hour drives to pick up or drop off students, and about spending more than $200 for snacks and supplies while her kids worked on their speeches.
“If you’re wondering how I managed this on a teacher’s salary, feel free to stop by Heist Brewery this weekend and ask for my station and we can discuss it,” she said, citing a weekend job she uses to boost her pay.
Hollowood concluded: “This is what it takes for our kids to succeed: Not equality but equity. When you give them time, resources and opportunity, they can be, as one email I read claimed, mesmerizing.”
On Nov. 9, the board voted unanimously on its magnet plan. Some of the students’ requests, such as translators and outreach to families that lack home computers and cars, were already included. Some, such as more and better magnet programs in east Charlotte, will be part of next steps, said school board Chair Mary McCray.
“We heard them loud and clear,” McCray said. “Those are our future board members.”
CMS is now ramping up a second phase of student assignment decisions, expected to be even more controversial than the first. This time the board will look at boundaries and feeder patterns for neighborhood schools.
The students of Garinger will be watching – and speaking.