When Ja’Kala Barber moved up from Ranson Middle School to North Mecklenburg High, the first thing she noticed were the white faces.
“I remember I counted,” she said. “It was like wow, there’s five!”
That kind of experience, from a 17-year-old African-American who attended a middle school that’s 97 percent nonwhite, is the kind local organizers want to make sure the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board hears.
Parents have weighed in by the hundreds as the board delves into student assignment, looking for ways to break up concentrations of poverty and improve low-performing schools without disrupting successful schools or alienating families who are satisfied.
Students For Education Reform, a New York-based nonprofit group that mobilizes youths for educational justice, is rallying Charlotte high school students and recent graduates to add their voices to the discourse. Kayla Romero, a former Ranson social studies teacher, is leading the effort, which included several students speaking at a recent public hearing on assignment goals.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council, a local nonprofit, is also helping dozens of students from CMS, private and charter schools study the assignment issues and advise elected officials.
Everything about student assignment is controversial: Even the board’s decision to include students in a recent opinion poll drew protests from some parents who said teens were unprepared to weigh in on the issues. Leaders of both groups say they’re making sure teens and young adults have information to bolster their personal insights.
SFER, which grew out of a Princeton University student club, starts with certain premises about what constitutes educational justice: high standards for all students, access to great teachers at all schools, school discipline systems that reduce suspensions and don’t criminalize students, and “quality school choices” with strong accountability systems.
In some states that means promoting access to charter schools, which are run by independent boards, says Romero. In North Carolina, charters seem to face many of the same challenges and advantages as magnet schools run by school districts, she said.
The Charlotte SFER group, which includes about a dozen students from CMS high schools and Central Piedmont Community College, started by studying a consultant’s report on CMS magnet schools this summer, Romero said. That study raised questions about diversity, transportation and equal access to strong programs.
The group decided to focus on magnet access, launching a #MagnetizeNC campaign that was discussed at a national SFER conference at CPCC last weekend. The students concluded that many families, especially those that speak Spanish at home, don’t know much about their options.
“I didn’t even know that we had so many choices,” said Barber, who has been in International Baccalaureate magnet programs since middle school. She got into Davidson IB, a now-closed majority white school in the north suburbs, but her family couldn’t make the transportation work. So she enrolled in the IB program at Ranson in north Charlotte, where white faces were scarce.
That’s why the mix in North Meck’s IB program was so striking. Had she gone to her assigned school, West Charlotte High, she said it might never have occurred to her that racial separation wasn’t the norm.
“Diversity is the first step toward creating a better school system. That would just help everyone in the future connect with other types of people,” she said.
Barber came to the Feb. 9 public hearing but had lost her voice and couldn’t speak. She was stung when she heard some suburban parents characterize urban schools as places where families don’t value education like they do. Maybe, Barber speculated, that’s what happens when you never get to know people who are different.
Steveen Vargas, a 19-year-old CPCC student who was born in Ecuador and graduated from Fort Mill High School, told the school board he attended a majority black high school and a majority Hispanic one, both in New Jersey, before his family moved South and he landed in a school that was more than 90 percent white. He ran out of time before finishing his story, but said that “I realized that there is a culture of repression toward minorities.”
In an interview later, he said Fort Mill High was “one of the best schools I’ve ever attended,” and wants to make sure his younger sister, who is now in CMS, has that kind of opportunity.
Mayra Arteaga, a 20-year-old CPCC student who graduated from East Mecklenburg High in 2014, has been working with Charlotte’s Spanish-language media and district officials to help more Latino families learn about magnets. She attended the IB magnet at East Meck, a racially and economically diverse school, and has already built a record of educational activism that includes Voces de Latinos at East Meck and Janeen Bryant’s school board campaign last fall.
“People believe it should be the voices of parents,” Arteaga said. “Often you hear the concept of naive students.”
Amy Farrell, adviser to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council, says about 100 students have taken part in this year’s program, which has focused on student assignment. The teens haven’t spoken publicly but expect to in the coming months.
The council is an offshoot of the nonprofit Generation Nation, a youth civics group. CMS, the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County government are council partners, with staff and elected officials helping students learn about local issues.
Farrell says even the participants who attend private or charter schools are passionate about the quest to craft a better CMS assignment plan.
“When you hear adults talk, it’s frequently, ‘How does it impact me? How does it impact my family? How does it impact my property values?’” Farrell said. Students, she said, are more likely to talk about how changes would affect everyone.
“They see it’s really important,” she said, “but they’re not thinking about themselves.”
Students For Education Reform: www.studentsforedreform.org. North Carolina program coordinator Kayla Romero, firstname.lastname@example.org or 719-250-3967.