Hundreds attend forum on racial, economic isolation in CMS

Amy Hawn Nelson, director of social research for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute.
Amy Hawn Nelson, director of social research for the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute. UNCC Urban Institute

Hundreds turned out Monday to talk about the faith community’s role in reducing the chance that students are consigned to public schools where most students are poor, nonwhite and struggling academically.

As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools delves into student-assignment policies, speakers with expertise in the district’s history, demographics and challenges said it’s not only poor and minority students who benefit from diversity, but middle-class and white students as well.

“We’re talking about equality of opportunity, giving every child an equal chance to succeed,” said James Ford, a recent N.C. Teacher of the Year who now works for the Public School Forum of North Carolina. “We’re going to make sure that isolation is no longer a factor for students of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.”

The forum was a follow-up to a May presentation that drew more than 200 people to UNC Charlotte Center City to hear about the district’s history of desegregation and what many call the resegregation of CMS.

The Rev. John Cleghorn, pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church in uptown Charlotte, convened Monday’s gathering to talk about how the faith community can engage. Sandra Conway, a longtime education activist and consultant, helped organize the event.

“Historically, faith has had a lot of power in this,” she said. “And we have a lot of power in the pews.”

The sanctuary at Caldwell, which seats about 300, got an overflow crowd for the 5 p.m. session. Because there was also strong interest from people who have been taking part in MeckMin’s summer series of weekly talks about race, that group scheduled a second session with the panelists starting at 7 p.m.

The talks were scheduled to end this month, but the interfaith group has now scheduled September talks focused on educational equity and hopes to lead ongoing faith-based efforts to improve education.

The speakers

▪ Amy Hawn Nelson, director of social research for the UNCC Urban Institute and co-author of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte,” published this year.

Nelson comparing CMS with the racially torn St. Louis area: “Like St. Louis, our children’s neighborhood is becoming their academic destiny. ... Unlike St. Louis County, we have the ability to have diverse schools.”

▪ Frye Gaillard, former Observer education reporter and author of the “The Dream Long Deferred,” a history of CMS desegregation initially published in 1988.

Gaillard on the role of churches in desegregation: “The faith community in that crucial time in Charlotte-Mecklenburg underscored that we have to come together for the common good.”

▪ Sam Fulwood III, a journalist who has written extensively about race and public policy and is currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He is a CMS graduate and a former Observer reporter.

Fulwood on being a student who was bused for desegregation in the 1970s: “The children were the ones who had to be forced into the schools to desegregate, because the grown-ups wouldn’t do it themselves. I think it was a necessary choice at the time.”

The back story

CMS got national attention for its court-ordered busing plan to desegregate schools in the early 1970s.

In the late 1990s, white families sued to get the desegregation order lifted, saying race-based magnet assignment discriminated against their children. The plaintiffs prevailed after a court battle that exposed deep rifts in Mecklenburg County, and in 2002 a race-neutral “choice plan” took effect.

Since then a growing number of schools have seen white and middle-class enrollment dwindle or disappear.

Why now?

The school board has embarked on a review of student assignment, with a goal of making changes for 2017-18. A majority of members say they believe CMS needs to do something to counteract the concentrations of poverty that hinder educational opportunities for some students.

Stay engaged

▪ MeckMin will lead talks on educational equity in September and coordinate efforts to get the faith community engaged in student assignment. or 704-565-5455.

▪ Keep up with the CMS student assignment review at; select “2017-18 Student Assignment Review” under Spotlight at the bottom of the page.

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