Seven to Watch: Once a child of CMS integration, Justin Perry now hopes to save it

Almost every aspect of Justin Perry’s life has been shaped by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. In the coming year, he hopes to shape the district’s future.

The 35-year-old therapist says his experience with integrated public schools in the 1980s and ’90s was transformative – not least because he met his future wife in second grade.

Now the Perrys have a 2-year-old son, Gray. Their Plaza-Midwood home is zoned for Walter G. Byers School, one of the district’s most resegregated and low-performing schools.

As co-chair of OneMeck, a fledgling group pushing to increase diversity in CMS, Perry hopes to help rally Mecklenburg County around restoring integration – not just for Gray but for thousands of children consigned to struggling schools.

The school board plans to chart significant changes to student assignment in 2016. In recent months diversity advocates have been influential in defining the challenges.

Now comes the tough part: For the board, hashing out a real plan. For Perry and OneMeck, trying to win over skeptics who believe changes that promote diversity will undermine successful schools and fuel flight from CMS.

“It’s often set up as ‘Do you want neighborhood schools or do you want diversity?’ And we’re like: Yes,” Perry said. “Let’s look at how do we do both of those things.”

Perry doesn’t claim there are easy solutions. It’s one reason he and OneMeck co-chair Barry Sherman, a social worker at CMS’ Bruns Academy, have called on the school board to hire a consultant.

The most important thing, Perry says, is to build consensus around the mission: “How do we create a system that really makes education the great equalizer?”

A special community

Perry attended the CMS “open” schools, a predecessor of the magnet program that defined the district’s desegregation efforts in the 1990s.

He entered Irwin Avenue Elementary in 1986, joining children from around the city whose parents had applied for seats and students assigned from neighborhoods near uptown Charlotte. Perry, who is African-American, mingled with kids of various races and nationalities whose family backgrounds ranged from poverty to wealth. Among the lifelong friends he made was his future wife, Lee Bush, who is white.

Perry says Irwin’s teachers created a strong sense of community, set high standards for all children and enforced an ethos of looking out for each other. Many former classmates from disadvantaged homes have gone on to success, Perry says, fueling his belief that diverse settings can offset the hardships of poverty.

“We were really pushed to learn together,” he said. “I often tell people that at Irwin it wasn’t just desegregated. It was actually integrated.”

Many of the students moved together to Piedmont Open Middle School. Perry remembers geometry teacher David Butler as one of the stars, who pushed students to set goals and meet them.

“I never got that A that I signed up for,” he says, “but we always worked really hard, so when we took that geometry test from the state we kind of blew it away.”

Lion Pride

Perry and Butler both moved on to West Charlotte High, a formerly all-black high school that became a national showcase for CMS desegregation in the 1970s. By the time Perry arrived in the mid-1990s, racial tension among faculty and parents was setting the stage for painful change.

But Perry says it was still a place where black and white students embraced “Lion Pride” and a tradition of civic activism. His sophomore year, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks visited West Charlotte.

In January 1997, Butler died in a house fire while trying to save his family. Perry and classmates who had known Butler at Piedmont and West Charlotte lobbied the school board to put his name on one of two new schools that would open that fall. The result is Butler High in Matthews.

Also in 1997, a white parent sued CMS because his daughter was denied admission to a magnet school, based on race. Attorneys for the Swann family, whose lawsuit had led to the 1970 desegregation order, joined the case in support of maintaining a desegregation plan.

As Perry and his class moved toward their 1999 graduation, the suit worked its way through the courts, eventually leading to a ruling that ended race-based assignment in CMS. Perry was part of a student protest at the courthouse.

“We were saying then, as teenagers, that overturning (the Swann case) would lead to the schools becoming really segregated again,” Perry recalls.

Life moves on

Perry and Bush both went to UNC-Chapel Hill. He earned degrees in psychology, sociology and social work, then became a therapist specializing in addiction and other mental health issues. Perry and Bush married and became parents.

CMS, meanwhile, emerged from the court battle with a race-neutral assignment plan that combined neighborhood schools and magnets. Enrollment reflected housing patterns, with low-poverty, mostly white schools concentrated in the suburbs.

A broad band of schools across the middle of Mecklenburg County saw white enrollment plummet and poverty levels soar, often accompanied by plunging test scores and graduation rates. West Charlotte High became an emblem of resegregation: Today it’s 85 percent black and 1 percent white, with the vast majority of students coming from low-income homes.

The school board tinkered with student assignment over the years. When the board announced in 2015 that it would begin one of its periodic reviews, some education advocates insisted it was time to get serious about reversing the racial and economic isolation that characterizes schools like West Charlotte.

This summer Carol Sawyer, a longtime activist whose daughter graduated from CMS, posted a social-media call for people interested in working for school diversity to meet at her house. Perry was among about 30 who showed up.

“I was like, man, here’s a chance to actually do something,” he said.

Sawyer and Sherman were struck by the depth of personal experience Perry brought to the group, as well as his passion for researching the issues and his willingness to speak up.

In addition to his own history, Perry is now looking at his son’s future. The Perry home is on the edge of the Byers zone, which also includes the Salvation Army shelter for homeless women and children. Like West Charlotte, the K-8 school serves mostly black and impoverished students. And despite a barrage of aid, from year-round school to teacher recruitment bonuses, most students still fail reading and math exams.

Well-educated, middle-class parents like the Perrys can generally avoid such schools. They often apply for magnets or charter schools, perhaps move to a better zone or pay for private school. But as far as Perry is concerned, that’s not the answer.

Sherman remembers Perry saying that resegregated schools are “the civil rights issue of my generation.”

Sawyer was also impressed: “He’s not looking for a solution that makes his son’s school better. He’s looking for a solution that makes all schools better.”

Risks to affluent kids?

By the end of 2015 diversity proponents were gaining ground. Forums to discuss resegregation were drawing hundreds, and board members agree that breaking up concentrations of poverty has to be a high priority.

But pushback has emerged too. Jeremy Stephenson – like Perry, a parent with a child about to enter school – campaigned for the school board partly on the premise that OneMeck’s talk of diversity would translate to long bus rides, disruption of successful schools and widespread abandonment of CMS.

Stephenson recalls meeting Perry at an event to discuss diversity. He says he told Perry that his own involvement had started with a quest to get his neighborhood rezoned from East Mecklenburg High to the closer Providence High.

As Stephenson recalls, Perry’s reply was something like, “Why would you want to go to Providence?” Providence is one of the district’s lowest poverty – and highest performing – schools, and Perry talked about the risk of drug addiction, depression and suicide at such schools.

Stephenson was unconvinced. The fact that Providence offers strong academics close to home is what matters, he said.

But the perils of concentrated affluence are a key part of Perry’s message. He says he sees wealthy youth struggling with addiction and other ills in his practice and has read about heroin use and overdoses in Mecklenburg’s suburbs.

Poverty, Perry says, creates “a rat race of survival.”

“On the flip side, the concentration of affluence is a completely different rat race – hypercompetitive, lots of times socially disconnected, and often unrecognized because everyone just assumes everything is perfect in their life,” Perry said. “More balanced schools, it’s not just healthier for poor kids. It’s actually healthy for kids who are concentrated in this affluent bubble as well.”

Chance to innovate

In the coming months, Perry and other OneMeck leaders say they not only hope to share their research and ideas but to connect with people who have different views.

The group has held meetings in communities such as Westerly Heights and Seversville, where the neighborhood schools have high concentrations of poverty. The goal, they say, is not to dictate a plan but to spark discussion.

In 2016, they say, they’ll consider meeting sites that encourage participation from suburban families and others who might be wary of change.

At the last meeting of 2015, OneMeck reached beyond its network of supporters and invited the public to a presentation on the latest demographic trends in CMS. About 50 turned out, including several first-timers.

One of them was Justin Stone, a south Charlotte father of a 7-month-old child. He said he’s wary of busing, but came because he shares a sense of urgency about the importance of good schools. “Let’s make a better, united Charlotte,” he said.

That’s the kind of connection OneMeck hopes to develop. Perry said Charlotte thrived in decades past because the city united in the face of the challenge that court-ordered busing posed.

“As we lift each other up, we all benefit,” he said. “That’s how this city grew. We have the opportunity to be innovative again.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

Justin Perry

Age: 35

Career: Social worker and addiction specialist.

Family: He and wife Lee Bush Perry have a 2-year-old son, Gray.

Background: Graduated from West Charlotte High in 1999. Has bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology and a master’s in social work from UNC Chapel Hill.

Why he'll make news in 2016: As co-chair of OneMeck and a future Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parent, he hopes to unite the community around the potentially divisive topic of student assignment changes, with a goal of increasing diversity and breaking up high concentrations of poverty in schools.

Recommended reading: Perry says Madeline Levine’s book “The Price of Privilege” lays out his case that concentrations of affluence can be harmful to students.

Learn more: OneMeck will host a discussion on how housing policies affect school diversity from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the University City YMCA, 8100 Old Mallard Creek Rd. Details: www.onemeck.org

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