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West side’s story: A new push to hear voices of CMS resegregation

People fill out an alternative CMS student assignment survey at Monday’s District 2 meeting at West Charlotte High.
People fill out an alternative CMS student assignment survey at Monday’s District 2 meeting at West Charlotte High. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

For more than a year, activists, officials and parents have debated the future of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s resegregated schools.

The school board’s ongoing review of student assignment encompasses the entire district, but the heart of the challenge is what to do about the growing number of schools populated mostly by students of color from low-income homes.

The people living with that challenge have been largely absent from public meetings that have drawn throngs from suburban schools. When the district’s online poll about busing, boundaries and neighborhood schools drew a relatively weak showing from the areas where some of the most challenged schools are located, board member Thelma Byers-Bailey mounted a new push to capture those voices.

We want a piece of the American dream, too.

Lafonda General, parent of a West Charlotte High student

Like other board members, she’s holding meetings to discuss student assignment in her district, which covers west and southwest Charlotte. At a Monday meeting at West Charlotte High, she added a new approach: A one-page paper survey with new questions geared toward that audience.

For instance, parents were asked their views about “schools filled with kids who have the same skin color and come from the same family background” and whether low-income students do better in schools with middle-class and wealthy students.

“I know we have voices that care,” Byers-Bailey said Tuesday. “I wanted to be sure those voices are heard.”

In recent weeks the dominant voice in student assignment talks has come from the south suburbs, where parents are speaking up for successful neighborhood schools that already have ethnic diversity, with strong Asian representation. District 6, which encompasses the southeast suburbs, produced three times as many responses to the CMS online survey as Byers-Bailey’s District 2, even though District 2 has about 900 more registered voters.

When District 6 representative Paul Bailey held a student assignment forum in Matthews last month, about 1,000 people showed up.

Monday’s meeting in the heart of west Charlotte’s historic black community drew about 60, a mix of parents, teachers and activists. It opened with a series of video clips featuring James Ford, a former Garinger High history teacher who was last year’s N.C. Teacher of the Year and now works for the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

Ford traced the history of “separate but equal” schools to the issues facing CMS today, working in his own history of being bused in another state to get a superior education in a mostly white school.

“Separate was never equal,” he says. “As long as the two groups of people were kept separate, then we know inherently they were not going to be treated the same.”

He talked about how comfortable neighborhood schools can be, but how they limit opportunities if students don’t meet peers from other backgrounds: “You’re not preparing them for the world. You’re preparing them for their neighborhood.”

Ford advised parents to look at things such as teacher vacancies, access to high-level courses and amenities such as field trips to determine whether their kids are getting an equal opportunity, and urged them to make their voices heard.

The way things are now, it’s not working. It needs to be more diverse.

Wesley Fisher, parent of a Bruns Academy student

The group at West Charlotte spent most of the time in small group discussions, as participants have at other district forums on assignment. They talked about a range of issues, from concern about teachers who can’t control student behavior to frustration over the school board’s 2010 closing of middle schools in mostly black neighborhoods. The students were reassigned to preK-8 schools with very high poverty levels, which have struggled with discipline issues and low test scores ever since.

Wesley Fisher has a child at Bruns Academy, one of those schools. He spoke at a recent school board hearing and attended Byers-Bailey’s meeting.

“The way things are now, it’s not working,” he said. “It needs to be more diverse.”

But Fisher acknowledged that won’t be easy. He plans to move his own child to a magnet school, and he said white families who live in the Bruns zone have already fled. “It’s an uphill battle,” he said.

Lafonda General, parent of a student at West Charlotte High, said CMS has stacked the deck against the school by drawing boundaries that put apartment complexes and rental homes in the zone while sending nearby neighborhoods that cater to middle-class homeowners to other high schools.

“We’re here to fight for West Charlotte,” she said. “It’s not about busing. It’s not about opening new magnet programs. Give us the resources to be successful where we are. Put the neighborhoods back in the schools.”

Byers-Bailey said she’ll tally her survey results over next week’s spring break. She plans to offer it again at a similar meeting at West Mecklenburg High, then add the results to the masses of meeting notes and constituent emails that board members are reviewing as they move toward decisions for 2017-18.

Views on CMS

Thelma Byers-Bailey’s survey asked parents to check yes, no or unsure on 22 statements, including:

▪ Low-income children often do better in school when they attend school with middle-class or wealthy students.

▪ My child attends a school filled with kids who have the same skin color and come from similar family backgrounds.

▪ Schools filled with children of color from low-income families are just as successful as other CMS schools.

▪ If I had to choose between my child attending a school that is close to home or attending a school with a diverse mixture of students, I would choose the school that is closest to home.

▪ If my child could have more opportunity and possibly be more successful at a different school, I would want my child to change schools even if it means attending school in a different neighborhood.

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