Peter St. Onge

They rejected their neighborhood school for years. Now they want to embrace it - if others join them

A member of the audience holds up a sign during a CMS public hearing on student assignment guiding principles in April. Another student assignment hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.
A member of the audience holds up a sign during a CMS public hearing on student assignment guiding principles in April. Another student assignment hearing is scheduled for Tuesday. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

If there’s anything Will Johns wants people to know about the parents who live in Sedgefield, it’s this: They understand.

They get why their neighbors in Dilworth are unhappy with a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools proposal that will pair their successful elementary school with Sedgefield’s struggling elementary school.

They get why those Dilworth parents don’t want to send their kids across the creek that separates their neighborhoods to a school that offers less than what they have now.

They get it – because most of Sedgefield’s parents don’t send their kids to Sedgefield Elementary, either.

“We’re people just like them,” he says. “We understand.”

Johns is the president of the Sedgefield Neighborhood Association. It’s an old neighborhood that’s turned into a thriving community, with an influx of urban professionals who like the idea of living in South End near the blue line.

Sedgefield also is smack in the middle of the CMS student assignment drama, at least the part that most people are talking about. In part that’s because the proposal that involves Sedgefield also involves affluent Dilworth families being asked to sacrifice something, and folks like to pull out the popcorn for that kind of dynamic.

But there’s more to it than that. The Sedgefield-Dilworth proposal, perhaps more than any other in this student assignment plan, shows just how hard change is for CMS.

The proposal calls for the populations of the two schools to be combined, with K-2 students going to Sedgefield and grades 3-5 going to Dilworth. It’s a good, inventive plan that gets the diversity CMS wants – at least at two schools.

Johns, who’s leading the neighborhood’s push for the proposal, notes that because Dilworth Elementary has more than twice the number of students as Sedgefield, its students still would make up the vast majority of both combined schools. Add in the 40 or so Sedgefield neighborhood children who currently go elsewhere (and their active, engaged parents) and you have a stronger school than Dilworth parents are imagining right now.

That’s the case Sedgefield parents have been trying to make to their Dilworth neighbors at community meetings and other gatherings. “We feel like missionaries,” says Johns. “Like ‘Hi, here’s a pamphlet. We want to show you how normal we are.’ ”

But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment. If you’re a parent with a child currently at Sedgefield Elementary, you might be wondering where these excited neighborhood parents have been all this time.

Johns nods at this. His answer: Even with all of Sedgefield neighborhood’s kids attending, the old Sedgefield Elementary still wouldn’t have been as good as other options.

That’s true. And it’s hard. And it’s part of what makes diversity such a difficult thing for CMS to achieve.

The problem is this: Most parents – black or white – don’t just want what’s good for their child. They want the best possible situation. Johns has made the same kind of choices for his children, who’ve now graduated from high school.

In the case of Dilworth parents – or parents at any successful CMS school – it’s a tough sell that change is best for their child. So those parents will fight. Or – and this is what the district fears – those parents will leave.

Will Johns understands this, too, of course. The parents in his neighborhood have left their neighborhood school. They’d like to come back. They think it would be good for everyone.

“It’s all about taking a deep breath and a different look at things,” he says.

But: “It’s not easy.”

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