I returned last month to my childhood hometown for what turned out to be a bittersweet reunion with my memories.
Charlotte is nothing close to the place where I recall growing up and coming of age some 40 years ago, which is both a good and a bad thing.
For all that is on the upswing in the Queen City, there is something rotting at its core. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have lumbered backward, segregating once again by race and class, producing separate and unequal outcomes for the district’s more than 144,000 students in 164 schools.
Last month, I jumped at an invitation to speak with a couple hundred people who gathered at Caldwell Presbyterian Church for a panel discussion to rally public support for ending the schools’ unequal outcomes for students.
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The community forum came about in response to a recent school board decision to revise its student assignment plan with the goal of leveling off the concentrations of poverty that plague some schools, mostly those in the black neighborhoods at the inner core of Charlotte. The board seems flummoxed over how to do that.
Busing has always been a nasty word in Charlotte, even when I was a student back in the early 1970s. Unpopular court orders led to busing plans for school desegregation, upending generations of separate and unequal education for black and white students. It was a turbulent time in the city’s history, but the busing effort worked to equalize the resources available in all schools. In effect, when white kids were bused in, schools in black neighborhoods received the same level of supplies, teaching instruction, and resources as the white schools across the district.
Of course, it wasn’t easy. Parents objected to the loss of neighborhood schools, which were segregated by race and class. Black kids, like me, bore the brunt of long bus rides across the county to previously all-white schools. Acrimonious school board meetings and school yard fist fights were as much annual rites of passage as dogwoods blooming in the spring.
I didn’t enjoy my time at Garinger High. But I also learned a great deal, far more than I would have in an all-black school with inferior resources. Indeed, as horrible as that experience seemed at the time, it prepared me for life in the multicultural world that I have known all my adult life.
Now, more than 15 years after a federal court decision that ended busing, Charlotte’s schools are more segregated than at any time since a 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision that led to desegregation of Charlotte schools.
Simply stated, the numbers show that Charlotte has too many schools with large numbers of poor kids. Anyone who knows anything about public education understands that high-poverty schools correlate positively with poor student achievement and outcomes.
Nostalgia floods my memories of Charlotte. I recall my school years as rough and tumble but a period of growing pains that offered me an opportunity for later success in career and life. I want that for every student who now attends my hometown’s schools.
Over the coming weeks and months, as civic leaders gather in Charlotte’s churches, board rooms, and community centers, the entire community has an opportunity to chart a promising future that can stand up favorably with the city’s brilliant skyline.
I’m hoping that my old hometown will rally together, summon the will, and finish the difficult task of providing equitable education for all of its students.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. This is extracted from a piece he wrote for its website.