Wednesday, November 18, 2009


When Shamrock school was built, someone planted a row of dogwoods along one side. They were beautiful. An old photo on the school office wall shows them in their spring finery, their white clouds of bloom spreading in glorious display despite the ravages of water stains and fading ink.

Now only one tree remains, its trunk splotched with green lichen, age-brittled branches twisting tentatively upward.

Its companions died off one by one and were cut down, leaving a row of ragged stumps that lie concealed beneath the tenacious mix of grass and weeds that covers most of the school grounds. When students aren't careful, they trip over the remains.

Our school's landscape tells a gritty story of hope and decay, of efforts made and then abandoned, of survival.

In early spring, just beyond the school athletic fields, flashes of pink appear behind a blowsy hedge of wildly grown grey privet bushes. Someone, at some point, planted a long row of tulip magnolias, fronted by a contrasting row of privet. But once the privet was no longer pruned (if it was ever pruned at all), it bounded well beyond its role in the landscaping plan. The showcase magnolias now struggle to be seen.

At the heart of the school, in one of the inner courtyards, butterfly bushes, lavender and sweet shrub fight their own battles against the choking mass of weeds that sweeps in waves across the landscape every spring. Not so many years ago, the school's science teacher got a grant to turn the courtyard into a wildlife habitat. She and her students planted cover and food bushes, purchased bird feeders, put in a pond. A plaque marking their efforts still hangs on the side wall. But as soon as the teacher left the school, the weeds took over. Now they reign supreme, threatened only by the CMS landscapers, who show up periodically to mow them – and everything else – down.

For some years now, the care of most of the school's plants has been delegated to a district-hired landscaping company, whose employees descend upon the school at unpredictable intervals. They have two basic techniques: mow and ball. Anything that looks unruly gets mowed to the ground. Shrubs are snipped into shapes that are more or less round. The boxwoods that line parts of the school parking lot end up looking like a jumble of irregular green marbles, each a slightly different size.

A few plants have survived the onslaught of weeds, mowers and clippers. A tall, shapely magnolia rises from its courtyard to tower over the rooftops. Out front, in summer, a chaste tree puts out spires of blue-purple blooms that draw bees from all through the neighborhood. A line of thriving white azaleas swells against one office wall, their magnificence diminished only slightly by gaps left behind by long-deceased companions.

Most of the survivors, though, are ancient, prickly holly bushes, scattered across the grounds in patterns that can no longer be discerned. Decades of ball-shaped trimming have kept them relatively short – six feet at most. But their close-cropped branches harbor trunks worthy of the far larger plants that they aspire to be, a foot across or more, of iron-hard wood.

Where to start? Countless children's songs and rhymes link raising kids to growing gardens, usually with hefty doses of sunshine and good cheer. But as any gardener (or parent) knows, raising anything is hard work, full of sore joints, setbacks and frustration. We have a long slog ahead.

One thing's for sure: we can't simply root it all out and start clean. First, we don't have the money. Second, parts of the landscape still matter to people. At one side of the wildlife habitat, for instance, a Japanese maple clings unhappily to life in far more sun that it deserves. But it was planted in memory of a student who passed away some years before. It can't just be put out of its misery. Struggling plots of lavender, lamb's ears, mint, even morning glories all have their supporters.

So we start by cleaning or, in a phrase I've always loved, "beautification." The word has an old-fashioned ring, and what we're doing seem thoroughly old-fashioned, a scene that has been played over and over again in schools throughout the world.

In a series of "school beautification" days, parents converge to rake leaves, pull out weeds, trim back shrubs. There are whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Africans. We grunt, laugh and have fun. We clean the pond, and discover a toad at the bottom, the last amphibian survivor of the wildlife habitat project. We take a chainsaw to one of the hollies, but the holly wins.

Our early efforts have little staying power. The weeds return. More leaves fall. The pond clouds once more with green slime, and we never see the toad again.

Two pieces, though, endure, at least for now.

At one side of the school, we pulled out a group of ragged boxwoods that once spelled SGE above a bed of weed-infested stones. We replaced them with letters made from railroad ties we salvaged from the remains of an unsuccessful effort to build a playground pathway. The ties, painted bright green, are less elegant than topiary, but also far less work. So far, they have resisted the weeds.

In front, in beds that lead out to the street, we threw out layers of cosmos and zinnia seeds, along with a few sunflowers. That summer they bloomed red and pink and orange and yellow, too thick to give the weeds much of a chance. Birds and butterflies began to visit. We've planted them again each spring. People have always cared about the school. But now it's started to once more look like someone does.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Test Scores, Busing and Resegregation

I've gotten a good deal of e-mail from in Raleigh during the past few weeks – the result of the article on school resegregation that I published in the News and Observer.

This week, many Wake County residents have been looking at recently released state test scores, on which Mecklenburg County's low income and African American students scored better than their Wake County counterparts.

Some folks in Raleigh are currently pointing to these numbers as evidence that Wake County's economically integrated schools have no advantages over Mecklenburg County's more segregated ones. I don't agree. Here's how I explained my thoughts to one e-mail correspondent.

Dear Sir,

Thank you for taking your time to share your experiences with me. I appreciate it very much.

It has been interesting to watch discussions over the statewide test scores. In my opinion, however, it is quite problematic to base decisions about the pros and cons of busing vs. economic resegregation on district-wide test scores. Here are a couple of examples.

Last year my son's school, Shamrock Gardens, had a poverty rate of 90 percent. On our end-of-grade tests, 64 percent of our free and reduced lunch students scored at or above grade level.

Myers Park Traditional is a magnet school in one of Charlotte's most prestigious neighborhoods. Last year, its poverty rate was 23 percent. On end-of-grade tests, 59 percent of its FRL students scored at or above grade level.

One might conclude from this set of numbers that students in poverty would be better off at a high-poverty school such as Shamrock than a low-poverty school such as Myers Park.

But that is only two schools. Shamrock is currently one of the better-performing high-poverty schools. FRL kids at Myers Park Traditional have tended to have unusually low scores for a low-poverty school.

Another pair of elementary schools suggests a alternate story. At Villa Heights, with 22 percent poverty, 89 percent of FRL students were at grade level or above. At Allenbrook, with 89 percent poverty, only 39 percent of FRL students were at grade level or above. School by school, different circumstances produce different results.

My reasons for opposing economic resegregation are based on my own experience of the challenges that high-poverty schools face. These are numerous and varied, but for the moment I'm going to focus on parents.

I believe the best way to ensure that a school functions well over a long period of time is to have a stable, involved base of middle-class parents – black, white and other. They are the ones with the time, skills and resources not only to provide enrichment opportunities, but also to promote academic excellence through a focus on essentials such as principal and teacher quality. Myers Park has been fortunate to have such a base over many years.

A high-poverty school such as Shamrock lives a more precarious existence.

Only a few years ago, we were pegged as one of the lowest-performing schools in the state, the result of some poorly performing principals and general neglect from the system.

A capable principal, a dedicated staff and a hefty infusion of resources have helped turn us around for the moment. But if we lose any of these things, it would be very easy for us to slide backwards. This has certainly happened to plenty of other CMS schools. I don't believe that a school can simply rely on the system to provide what its students need.

Our parents care about their kids, and most of them do what they can to help them succeed. But few have a clear vision of the level of excellence required to get to college and beyond, because very few of them have been there themselves. They tend to trust their children's schools rather than push them. Even were they to push, they would have a hard time matching the social and political influence that middle-class parents wield.

High-poverty schools also have difficulty providing the same level of enrichment activities as low-poverty schools do. Last year, Myers Park's PTA income was around $100,000. We at Shamrock took in $5,000.

While some of Myers Park's funds went to instructional materials that we get through Title I and other supplemental programs, much of its PTA's time and energy went into extras such as field trips, Odyssey of the Mind, enhanced chess instruction and other enrichment activities. We at Shamrock simply cannot hope to match those efforts.

Given these and other factors, I believe that a school system is much more likely to succeed at providing excellent educational opportunities to all students if it works on improving instruction at economically integrated schools, rather than reverting to economically segregated schools.



Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Election Day

It is just after 6 a.m., and already cars are gathering in the chill of Shamrock's tiny front parking lot. Signs in varying shades of red, white and blue cluster near the entrance, placed there sometime during the long pre-election night. Another November Tuesday, another day to vote.

Although I usually work the Shamrock Gardens poll for school board candidates, our representative is unopposed this year. So I'm going to work it for our PTA. We're not running for anything. But we need support.

Precinct 44 has 1,600 registered voters. As many as 400 may walk through the doors today. Although they all live in Shamrock's attendance area, almost none have children at the school. For most, this is the one day out of the year they come to Shamrock. And many of them, unlike our parents, have money they could give. (Most of our parents live and vote in a neighboring precinct, just on the other side of Shamrock Drive).

Instead of election signs, I have a board with pictures of our projects and our kids. Instead of candidate cards, I have volunteer sheets and slim green donation flyers.

My spiel is simple. The PTA has swell projects: our T-shirt program, our butterfly and vegetable gardens, our parent dinners, other things. But because our parents have so little money, we can't finance our work with school-based fundraisers. We have to reach outside. And while these voters don't have children here, we are their neighborhood school. We do have that.

People come by in a steady stream – mostly twos and threes, rarely a big rush. As the sky lightens, school buses start to arrive, along with the distant chattering of kids headed for breakfast or for class. Two boys appear at the front doors, bearing triangles of folded red, white and blue cloth. There's not much wind, so the flags they hoist lie limp against the pole.

As the morning stretches on, it becomes clear that working a poll for the PTA is pretty much like working it for a candidate. Some people who stop to talk are genuinely interested. Others politely pretend to be. Still others brush by quickly, armed with stony "don't speak to me" stares.

The voters are predominantly white (the precinct is 76 percent Caucasian), but they vary in many ways. Some drive Porsches or Mercedes; others come in battered pickups. I meet people who went to Shamrock in the 1950s, when it was a brand-new school full of the neighborhood's kids. I meet two women who were PTA presidents long before me. I meet young couples who have recently moved in.

I've brought my trowel and two bags of daffodil bulbs to plant in our front gardens. In between voters, I dig holes. Sometimes I miss a voter or two, but the daffodil bulbs are firm, they feel good in my hand and I know that they will bloom.

Other poll workers come and go, working for one candidate or another. The day started cold, but by the afternoon the sun shines hot. I shed layer after layer, and seek the shade.

There are a few awkward moments, especially with the families we have tried and failed to recruit. One bright, happy little girl stops to chat, blithely explaining that she could have come to Shamrock, but did not. Her father chimes in that their decision was "close." His voice is cheerful, as though almost coming to Shamrock actually meant something.

What do I say? I can't tell a child how much I wish her parents had decided to be part of the solution, not the problem. I can't tell a child that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. So the conversation runs on until the girl and her sister skip off, and I can go back to planting bulbs.

As time goes on, my spiel improves. I hate to ask for money, but I am getting better at it. As I hand out the flyers I began to tell people in a mock-serious voice that we have no costly overhead or fancy executive salaries at the Shamrock PTA – referencing a recent scandal over nonprofit executive pay. The inevitable laugh softens the request, at least for me.

Just before school lets out, the boys return to lower the flags and fold them once again. Kids fill the sidewalk for a while, waiting for rides and after school events. Then they move on, and we are back to voters and poll workers.

As evening starts to fall, the stream of voters picks up a bit. Peter and Parker show up at five. The polls will be open until 7:30. But I've been talking all day, and I'm tired. So we greet a few more people, gather our flyers, and head home.

It has been a good day. The bulbs are in the ground. I have three $100 checks in my back pocket. I've handed out nearly 100 donation flyers, and a few volunteer forms. In the spring, our front gardens will be filled with yellow daffodils. We'll see what happens with the rest.