Risk we took on a poor school was great choice

“Pamela Grundy is taking a risk with her son.”

Thus opened the 2006 Charlotte Observer article on our family’s decision to send our son Parker to Shamrock Gardens Elementary, a high-poverty, low-performing school that families in our well-off Plaza-Midwood neighborhood routinely avoided.

Ten years later, thanks to dedicated efforts by staff, parents and partners – and to strategic investments by CMS – that “risk” has paid off handsomely. Shamrock has become a thriving school with a far more balanced population. Its success has boosted its students and the neighborhoods around it.

As this community faces the problem of separate and unequal schools, my husband Peter and I believe that Shamrock’s story highlights what all children can gain from an economically and racially integrated education. Our own schooling followed a standard trajectory from middle-class, predominantly white suburban schools to the Ivy League. Shamrock was different. It was better.

In his six years at Shamrock, Parker had excellent teachers who taught a high-level curriculum. He also moved beyond the comforts and assumptions of his sheltered, middle-class neighborhood into a community made up of the many different people who inhabit the rapidly changing county where he lives.

Some Shamrock families had deep roots in Charlotte. Others had recently arrived from places such as Atlanta, Philadelphia and New York. Some had immigrated or come as refugees from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Liberia. Parents’ jobs included house painter, professor, janitor, IT specialist, lunch truck owner, gardener, bank teller, grocery story clerk, airport security officer, hospital orderly and nursing home attendant.

This cultural and economic variety meant that Shamrock’s students learned about life in many layers of the city’s social structure. Visits and sleepovers introduced Parker, an only child, to the joys and complications of large, extended families. Friends who came to our house marveled at the hundreds of books that line our shelves. We all shared and sampled new foods – sushi, pico de gallo, pound cake.

Perhaps most important, students navigated the ups and downs of school and life together: struggles with schoolwork, with health, with life at home – or life without a home – and with other challenges of growing up. Since no one group dominated, everyone belonged. While they had their share of disputes and disagreements, they came to care about each other across many of the boundaries that might have divided them.

We parents worked together in our own ways – building gardens, scheduling events, supporting teachers, raising funds. Differences in language, manners, work schedules and communication styles meant that we faced plenty of challenges. But we wanted our children and their school to thrive, and many of us made the effort year after year. In the process, we expanded our own worlds.

Our Shamrock experience also highlighted the often-untapped potential at high-poverty schools. When we first looked at the school, we worried about academics. We knew high-poverty schools were rarely able to provide the academic and enrichment opportunities offered by wealthier schools. Shamrock needed a significant academic jolt.

So we followed the example of Idlewild Elementary and persuaded CMS to put in a partial “gifted” magnet, with an advanced class at every grade and a trained coordinator who made sure our advanced curriculum matched any in the county.

Sometimes, a school-within-a-school simply creates another form of segregation. Not for us. The magnet drew few takers in its early years, and Shamrock’s staff filled the advanced classes with the highest-performing students from the school’s regular population. Parker’s classes always reflected the school’s racial, ethnic and economic mix. Some years, he was the only student who paid for lunch. Every year, he was surrounded by remarkable classmates who thrived on challenging work.

Over time, many of the magnet’s ideas and programs spread to the rest of the school. Staff turnover dropped, opportunities expanded and achievement rose across the board. Long-term Shamrock families often spoke of their delight in the improvements. Slowly, more families in the middle-class neighborhoods around the school began to enroll their children.

Shamrock was not a paradise. It was real life. Building a program and expanding parent involvement took a lot of work. The gap between the school’s top performers and its most struggling students remained stubbornly large. The school had its share of would-be bullies, conflicts arose and the occasional punch was thrown. The majority of cross-cultural interaction took place on school grounds. When the bell rang, students generally scattered back to their own communities.

But we would not trade anything for the years our family spent at the school. We took a risk, and helped to build a marvelous community that nurtured and taught our son in ways we never could have done. Choosing Shamrock is one of the best decisions that we have ever made.

Grundy is co-chair of MecklenburgACTS.org, a group that advocates for equity and excellence in schools.