Workable Solutions

Charlotte Observer, May 2, 2017

In the spring of 1971, at the end of Charlotte’s first, turbulent year of full-scale school desegregation, editors of West Charlotte High School’s yearbook offered a sober but hopeful vision of the work required to emerge from Jim Crow segregation and build a new, more equitable city.

“Realizing that to change things for the better, everyone must do something, we, the staff of the W.C. Lion, would like to make a suggestion,” they wrote. “COME TOGETHER. . . . . At first glance, that may seem simple enough, but it is really a tremendous task. It means giving of oneself, sharing with others, investigating the problems of our society . . . and finding workable solutions.”

Today, we again face the challenge of building a new city, a better, fairer place than the one where we currently live.

The demise of Jim Crow and the achievements of school desegregation proved just a start. Even as court rulings and individual action ended legal segregation, economic shifts widened income gaps. These growing divides were embodied in the urban landscape, isolating many lower-income families in high-poverty communities with limited opportunities.

Knitting a stronger community fabric that brings more residents together and spreads opportunity more evenly will require shifts in economic, housing and school assignment policies. It will also take personal commitment from economically and racially diverse groups of people who are willing to work steadily together on projects that directly benefit everyone involved, such as a neighborhood where they all live or a school that all their children attend.

As the school board’s reassignment proposal demonstrates, those of us living near the center city have the greatest opportunity to do that rewarding work.

Building a racially and economically integrated school can be a remarkable endeavor. A diverse group that works effectively together pushes everyone, helps everyone, and creates a tremendous sense of achievement.

In the years I’ve spent researching the history of West Charlotte High School, I’ve listened to countless compelling stories about the lessons West Charlotte students learned from each other during desegregation. I could relate to many of them – the six years my family spent at high-poverty Shamrock Gardens Elementary involved both hard work and profound satisfaction. We wouldn’t trade anything for our time there.

As the West Charlotte yearbook editors made clear, however, this is no easy task, intellectually or emotionally. It requires steadfast commitment from a broad range of people who are willing to listen to and learn from each other, to investigate our city’s shortcomings from multiple perspectives, and to devise solutions that work for more than just a fortunate few.

In the case of schools, success depends not only on parents, but on teachers, administrators and district officials who are ready to do the work and provide the support required to bring together families from multiple backgrounds, and to fashion dynamic programs that build on diverse strengths. It cannot be business-as-usual with a different mix of students.

I urge those families who now have the chance to play a larger role in this essential project to examine their new school assignments carefully, consider the many opportunities along with the very real challenges, and determine what it will take to ensure that CMS supports and funds the changes that will be needed to help reconfigured schools succeed. It can be done, and the rewards are worth the effort.