Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How we forget

From the late 1960s into the 1980s, Charlotte, North Carolina, created the most desegregated school system in the nation. An elaborate system of cross-town busing ensured that schools across the system were balanced racially and economically. Many Charlotteans believed that this inter-racial achievement played a major role in the city's growing prosperity during this era.

Charlotteans' pride in desegregation showed clearly in a once-famous moment in Charlotte's past, the day in 1984 that Ronald Reagan came to town. Reagan was tremendously popular in Charlotte, and the people who gathered to hear him cheered with gusto – until the moment he denounced school busing as "a social experiment that nobody wants." People who were there that day will tell you that the crowd went ice-cold at those words. Charlotteans were proud that their children were learning to live and work together. Even Ronald Reagan could not tell them otherwise.

Today, a decade after a federal judge ordered an end to busing for desegregation, the school landscape looks nothing like it did in 1984. High-poverty, high-minority schools cluster at the city's center. Low-poverty, largely white schools ring the suburban edges. In-between, parents fret about maintaining their schools' "diversity" – a word which has come to mean "a comfortable number of middle-class, white families." Far more students attend private school than did during busing's heyday.

As desegregation has waned in Charlotte, so has its memory. Many of the families who have moved to Charlotte in recent years have no idea that school desegregation was once considered one of the city's greatest achievements. Busing is most often invoked by critics who denounce it as a "failure" or as "social engineering." Memories of the sense of community, the openness of mind, the commitment to fairness that marked the busing era have largely faded from public view.

In the end, it seems, Ronald Reagan has prevailed. Today, the majority of parents – whether Democrats, Republicans or independents – subscribe to Reagan's vision of individual choice, regardless of the consequences for others. Parents with the money to choose their neighborhoods search out the "best" schools for their own children – generally those schools with low poverty rates and high test scores. Private wealth and resources now concentrate at those favored schools, leaving children in low-income neighborhoods with a far more restricted range of educational choices.

It makes me sad to see so many people who seem unwilling or unable to envision any alternative to these growing inequities. I think the loss of community memory plays a key role in this limited vision.

Peter and I believed that we could make a difference at Shamrock because we knew desegregation had worked in Charlotte in the past. We believed in the potential of Parker's classmates because North Carolina history is full of examples of working class communities where people seized on opportunities and accomplished remarkable things. Sadly, the history most people learn today – a history full of wars and laws and a bare handful of high-level leaders – barely hints at the possibilities that lie within all of us. How do we start to recover these other, more empowering memories?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How we got to Shamrock

In the spring of 2004, our son, Parker, was three years old, and it seemed time to start thinking about schools. But in Charlotte, in 2004, there were few easy choices.

From the late 1960s through 2001, Charlotte had desegregated its schools through an extensive busing plan. Then, however, a court order ended that plan. As parents scrambled to find new places for their children, the city's schools were rapidly resegregating, by class and race.

Our neighborhood's assigned school, Shamrock Gardens Elementary, was no exception. Few residents of our affluent neighborhood sent their children to the school. Instead, they left the neighborhood, placed their children in magnets, or paid for private academies. With a student body that was 90 percent poor and 90 percent minority, Shamrock became a classic example of a resegregated school.

As a historian, I had studied Charlotte's past. I believed – and still believe – that desegregating the schools was a stunning accomplishment. Peter and I were appalled by the speed with which it was slipping away. We did not want to be part of that trend.

We began to volunteer at Shamrock, and quickly came to love the staff and students. Working with a group of supporters, we convinced the school district to put a small gifted/enrichment program at the school, to ensure that advanced students would have the challenges they needed. Then we began to talk to neighbors.

It proved an uphill battle. People often lamented the way our neighborhood's children were scattered across magnet and private schools. But those other schools beckoned. There were language immersion programs. There was an all-gifted academy. There was a new private school right downtown. There was a brand-new public Montessori.

In the fall of 2006, neighborhood kids scattered as usual. Not one of Parker's friends started Shamrock with him.

Luckily, new friends were waiting.