Start with racial insults shouted when drunk students got out of hand at a football game between two of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s majority white suburban high schools.
Throw in an accusation of white privilege leveled by a faculty member at mostly black West Charlotte High.
The surprising result: the West Kell project, which has students and faculty at West Charlotte and south suburban Ardrey Kell buzzing with excitement.
On Dec. 11, as they prepared for a meeting at West Charlotte, student leaders at both schools worried that their counterparts might judge them by stereotypes – snobs and racists, thugs and failures.
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After spending two hours together on Dec. 12, both groups had found common ground – including frustration with the way they believe they’re labeled by the public – and were eager to build a lasting partnership.
“I thought our differences would be more of a divide,” said Ardrey Kell sophomore William Daniels, “but it turned out our differences were superficial and it was easy to relate to them.”
“I’ve really just been around the same people, black people, my whole life,” said West Charlotte student body president Morgan Harris. “I loved it because they’re just like me.”
Students and faculty at both schools know the context for their project. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has garnered national attention for the way its schools – once a model of desegregation, with West Charlotte as its flagship – have separated along the same lines of race and income as its neighborhoods. A recent student assignment revamp, designed to break up concentrations of wealth and poverty, generated two years of controversy while making little difference at neighborhood schools. Charlotte’s business and civic leaders have pegged such isolation as a barrier to breaking cycles of poverty.
West Charlotte Principal Timisha Barnes-Jones had already been talking with business and community leaders about the challenge. Some of her kids had met with students from the private Providence Day School.
But West Kell – a moniker cooked up by about three dozen students from the two schools – has them all thinking about blazing a trail for adults and teens across Mecklenburg County.
A moment of shame
Ardrey Kell opened a decade ago to serve the booming Ballantyne area of south Charlotte. The area is a magnet for families who value good schools and can afford homes that ensure such assignments. The high school is perennially among the top performers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
The tensions that led to West Kell began with a dark moment in September. Some Ardrey Kell students showed up intoxicated and rowdy for a football game with rival Hough High, a mostly white school in the north suburbs. Ardrey Kell Principal David Switzer cleared the student section, disciplined the offenders and sent home a message to parents: “We had a significant number of students who were intoxicated, high on drugs, cussing at other students, spitting and throwing items at our band, chanting inappropriate cuss words, shouting racial comments towards other students, vaping, and physically abusing their peers.”
That brought media coverage, which in turn sparked a storm of public commentary. A parent was quoted dismissing the episode as “silly behavior.”
West Charlotte technology facilitator Kevin Poirier fired off a Facebook post that inflamed the debate. “If my students at West Charlotte did this, guess what ... the news story wouldn’t look like this,” Poirier wrote. “This is what White Privilege looks like.”
Separately, students and faculty at both schools were grappling with stigma, stereotypes and the frustration of being defined by their worst moments.
West Charlotte has long felt the sting of being judged on the students who fail exams, get in trouble or drop out, and even on people who commit crimes in the surrounding neighborhood.
Switzer and the leadership class at Ardrey Kell say they were dismayed by the misbehavior of their students and took responsibility for dealing with it. But they also felt like they were being labeled as a bunch of spoiled rich kids by people who didn’t know the full story.
After Poirier’s Facebook post, Switzer called Barnes-Jones. She, Poirer and another administrator went to the southern school to talk face to face.
“We mutually agreed that this was a prime time to put kids from opposite sides of the city together to demystify identity,” Barnes-Jones recalls.
What they expected
It took awhile to find a time when two groups of busy students could meet. As the Dec. 12 meeting neared, both groups had some anxiety.
Andrea Houpt, a junior at Kell, said her group had talked about the “white privilege” label.
“We weren’t going over there to show them we weren’t privileged, because we are,” she said. “We were going over there to show them the ideas behind the word ‘privilege’ is not necessarily what we are. We’re not snobby. We’re very nice people. We know we’re lucky and we accept that.”
At West Charlotte, senior Tre Mathis says he thought of Ardrey Kell as “a really rich school, a school of high quality, pretty much the opposite of what they would say West Charlotte is.”
“A lot of kids here, they’ve never seen a white person, they don’t know how to talk to white people,” says Harris, smiling as she recalls her nervousness. “Do I have to think of a greeting to say to them? Do I say ‘bonjour’ or do I say ‘wassup,’ you know?”
Do I say ‘bon jour’ or do I say ‘wassup,’ you know?
West Charlotte student body president Morgan Harris, on preparing to meet Ardrey Kell students
West Charlotte has about 1,500 students, and only about two dozen are white. Everyone gets free breakfast and lunch because the poverty level is so high. In contrast, Ardrey Kell’s poverty level is below 10 percent.
The West Charlotte hosts had made welcoming signs and headed to the bus lot to greet their visitors, but couldn’t find anyone. They dashed through the halls asking if anyone had seen a bunch of white students. When they discovered the Ardrey Kell group was already in a classroom, Harris sat down and started talking to someone she assumed was from her school.
First surprise: The black student introduced herself. She was from Ardrey Kell.
Ardrey Kell is, indeed, among a handful of majority white high schools in CMS. It’s also huge, with about 3,200 students. That includes about 600 Asians, 375 African-Americans and 300 Hispanics. Daniels, one of the black students, said the perception that Kell is all white makes him feel invisible: “Though the white people may be a majority it’s still a nice melting pot and a nice mixture of people.”
There was a surprise for the Ardrey Kell students, too, when they met the person who posted about white privilege: Poirier is white.
Some of the school differences were obvious at a glance. Ardrey Kell is one big building. West Charlotte has 15, sprawling like a college campus.
West Charlotte students carry cellphones and earbuds that they can pull out during class changes and lunch. Ardrey Kell bans such devices during the school day. Harris marveled at hearing that Kell teachers take students’ phones for three days if they see them in class: “That’s kind of steep!”
Different but the same
Students compared notes on an average day. Ardrey Kell students talked about the intense academic competition. They described sitting on the floor to eat lunch because their school has more students than cafeteria seats.
West Charlotte students talked about the way their teachers and counselors support them. When Mathis mentioned the acronym for the federal financial aid form, he was stunned when counterparts seemed puzzled: “It was a shock when they said they didn’t know what FAFSA was,” he said afterward, as he and his classmates speculated on how much money you’d need to pay for college without aid.
Likewise, talk about after-school jobs sparked some reflection about neighborhood differences. Several Ardrey Kell students talked about working at Harris Teeter. Some of the West Charlotte students noted later that you don’t find the upscale grocery stores in their neighborhood. “Everything has to be cheap because we’re supposedly supposed to be really, really broke and poor,” Mathis said.
Houpt and Christina Alsbrooks bonded over talk about their theater programs. They exchanged numbers and have vowed to bring friends to each other’s plays: A musical version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at Ardrey Kell and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In The Heights” at West Charlotte.
One of the most powerful moments came when Paula Cook, an assistant principal at West Charlotte, asked students to line up based on answers to a series of questions: Do you live in a single-parent home? Do you plan to go to college? Do you have friends who use drugs? Are you scared about your future?
Both groups had students answering “yes” to each question. That drove home how much they have in common.
Hope and sadness
As the Ardrey Kell students went to their bus, their new West Charlotte friends came along, talking, dancing and pledging to stay in touch.
Almost a week later, administrators and students at both schools were visibly excited when they talked about the bonds built that day. There are plans for a visit to Ardrey Kell, and for a bus tour where both groups will learn about Charlotte’s history and geography.
Over and over, the teens marvel at how much alike they are under the surface. Everyone struggles. Everyone dreams.
But at West Charlotte there’s a tinge of frustration, too. They see photos on their walls of a time when black and white, rich and poor, mingled in their halls.
This is a conversation that not only we should be having, that everybody should be having. This goes way beyond high school students.
West Charlotte student Christina Alsbrooks
The exchange “made me realize just how badly segregated our schools are,” Alsbrooks said. “It’s really sad. ... I just feel it’s not preparing you for the real world, because the whole world is not black and the whole world is not white.”
CMS leaders talk a lot about equity, pumping millions of dollars into high-poverty schools to provide extra help. But Harris says the visit left her skeptical.
“I’ve been here four years and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a class that had enough books for everybody,” she said. “We’ve always had to share. And I talked to the student body president at their school and he talked to me about how they never had that problem.”
West Kell can’t fix all that. But both groups believe they’re moving in the right direction.
“While this might have started on kind of weird footing, I think this has potential to go leaps and bounds ahead of what we already achieved,” says Ardrey Kell student body president Jackson Dumas.
His sister is a freshman at Ardrey Kell. He imagines coming back when she’s a senior – and a part of West Kell.