Last week letter “grades” for North Carolina schools were released, and once again, they proved to be an accurate measure of demographics. Concentrate the most disadvantaged children in the same schools and don’t be surprised when those schools get a “failing” grade.
The same is true everywhere. Children living in poverty – no matter what race or ethnicity, no matter whether urban or rural, no matter the size of the school or district – struggle academically compared to their wealthier peers.
Unlike Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the district where I teach is small and rural. The largest city is more rightly called a town, with a handful of stoplights and a population less than 8,000. The school district, one of four in York County, is the largest in physical size but with the fewest financial supports – a caveat for those who favor breaking CMS into multiple smaller districts. Most of our students are the children of farmers, retail workers, small business owners, fast food restaurant cooks. A few have parents who are lawyers, teachers, doctors, or clergy, but most – 74 percent by the last count – qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
There’s only one public high school in the district, with little competition from private or charter schools. All of our students – country kids and city children, white collar and blue collar, all races – sit side by side in the same classes. They sit side by side in the stands and root for the same team. When they sing the alma mater at school assemblies, they link hands and belt out in unison, “We are one; we are many. Different people, yet the same. Each difference makes us stronger, each friendship is our gain!”
It wasn’t always harmonious in York. The area holds the dubious distinction of being rife with Klan activity during Reconstruction. One of my ancestors was sentenced in 1871 to a year in prison for his participation. Federal troops were stationed here until 1877.
Such a divided community didn’t start to heal for a century. Until 1976, the district had three high schools – one for the students on the far western edge of the county, one for the white students in town, and one for the African American students.
With forced desegregation, the three schools became one comprehensive high school, an uneasy transition that included a lost year of instruction because of race riots.
When I came in 1982, the school still had three mascots, one from each of the former segregated high schools. A few years later, the board and the principal put together a ballot of new mascot names and colors, and students voted to become the Cougars. Alumni from the three former schools objected at first, but eventually they accepted the change.
After a failed bond referendum in 2003, the community finally pulled together four years later and passed one to build what might be the most beautiful high school in the state. From the road it looks like a college campus – stately columns and a cupola, a sprawling complex of practice fields lush and green. It’s a point of pride for parents who struggle to make a living wage despite working long hours, whose children sometimes come to school shoeless and without a winter coat and who depend on the breakfast and lunches they eat there.
Our students are learning, but it started outside our school.
And maybe that’s the real lesson for Charlotte – that when the community comes together as people who celebrate their differences but are united in common purpose, all children can receive a quality public education.
Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.