I conducted my first oral history interview about West Charlotte High School on May 12, 1998. It was the start of a long journey.
In 1998, West Charlotte was an integrated school, a national model for what hard work and determination had accomplished during the segregated and integrated eras. A few short years later, however, the end of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s busing plan turned West Charlotte into the poorest, least integrated, lowest-performing high school in the system. The entire community was forced to confront hard questions about the meaning of an accomplishment that did not last. I did not know what to do.
The end of integration also affected me directly. The neighborhood where my husband and I lived was assigned to a high-poverty elementary school – Shamrock Gardens Elementary. Most of our neighbors avoided the school, opting instead for magnet, charter, or private schools. But it seemed untenable to write about desegregation’s accomplishments while personally contributing to its demise. In addition, my study of West Charlotte’s history had given me an expansive understanding of the strengths of schools where children came from many different backgrounds.
Our son started kindergarten at Shamrock in the fall of 2006, and we set about working to ensure that he and his classmates had the same educational opportunities as students in the county’s wealthiest and most successful schools. It was one of the best decisions we ever made. Our efforts gave us first-hand exposure to the strengths and challenges of schools that serve low-income children of color, the power parents can wield, the limits of even the best school’s influence over students’ lives, and especially the many shortcomings of a “data-driven” approach to schooling.
I started a blog about our experiences and became an active participant in district-wide politics. In the end, the work of staff, students, parents and community made Shamrock a model for how reintegration could benefit all of a school’s students. It was an intensely gratifying endeavor. Not until Parker moved on to middle school did I turn back to West Charlotte and begin to write.
In the meantime, I pursued several other projects. While at U.N.C. Chapel Hill, I had written my dissertation on the culture of school sports in North Carolina. That project led to other sports work, including a co-written history of U.S. women’s basketball, a college sports history textbook and an eighth-grade North Carolina history textbook. I am currently working on a history of North Carolina aimed at adults, and on a book about the Pauli Murray Project in Durham, a wide-ranging endeavor that seeks to carry on the legacy of one of North Carolina’s most visionary residents.