Sunday, October 18, 2009

Wake County

Many school activists in Charlotte have been saddened by the news that Wake County's recent school board elections may bring an end to the county's busing program.

That might seem odd, since what happens at the other end of the state doesn't directly affect our children or our schools.

But for many of us, the Wake County vote recalls the heartbreak of watching Charlotte's quick slide from the achievements of desegregation to a system of separate and unequal schools.

For me, this loss comes home in the story of West Charlotte High School, which I’ve spent the past decade or so researching.

Historically black West Charlotte desegregated with stunning success on many levels, becoming one of the state's top high schools, as well as Charlotte’s desegregation flagship. Today, in contrast, the student body is 99 percent minority, and almost entirely poor. The school and its students have struggled mightily to climb out of a deep dive in academic achievement.

When I interview West Charlotte graduates from the desegregation era, their eyes light up as they recount the ways that black and white students learned to overcome stereotypes, respect each other, and work together. They don't describe West Charlotte as a trouble-free paradise. But many view their high school experience as one of the most important of their lives. (To hear directly from some of these graduates, go to

In contrast, I was recently on a panel with some present-day West Charlotte students. Race wasn’t a real issue at the school, the students said, because everyone was pretty much the same. It mainly came up when they dealt with other schools, and had to fight the many stereotypes that others held about a student body that was predominantly black and poor.

The students still spoke of their school with warm affection. But while their predecessors' words brimmed over with enthusiasm, theirs carried the weight of struggle.

Some of busing's critics say they are not concerned about resegregation, because an end to busing would "put the focus on education."

But as these two groups of West Charlotte students make crystal clear, the lessons students learn at school go far beyond the classroom. As Charlotte's schools have pulled apart, many lessons in inter-racial interaction and human understanding have fallen through the cracks. Even if resegregated schools offered equal academic opportunities – which they decidedly do not – much would still be lost.

Imagining a similar change in Raleigh thus feels like being in a movie where you goes back in time, but cannot change anything, and have to watch the same tragedy unfold once more. It isn't just about my child – or anyone's child. It's about a whole idea of how to build a strong community, where people understand each other and everyone belongs. Losing that – anywhere – hurts.

(You can access a column I wrote for the Raleigh News and Observer about the Wake election at The above image is from the News and Observer web site.

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