Why We Need Diversity in Charlotte Schools

Schools cannot solve all of society's injustices but should be part of the solution.

*Editor's note: The opinions and views expressed here are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Charlotte Parent magazine.

There is a crisis going on in our community. To ignore it is irresponsible, short-sighted and unjust. A growing body of research shows when students are separated based on socio-economic or racial groups, educational opportunities suffer. The burden is heaviest for students in poverty and disproportionately affects students of color, but they are not the only casualties. In its current re-segregated state, public education fails all of our children.

Our focus in Charlotte should be creating schools that promote the best education for all children, not just those who are lucky enough to live in the wealthiest areas of the city. As a community we need to ensure that all kids attend a “good” school with:

  • Equal access to broad academic and extracurricular opportunities
  • Well-maintained facilities and a safe environment
  • Quality teachers and few teacher vacancies
  • A racially, ethnically and socio-economically diverse population

A Lack of Interracial Trust

As our populations shift and the United States becomes a majority minority country, it is perhaps more urgent than ever that people from different backgrounds learn to live and work together. In fact, a 2015 US Census Bureau report estimates that “among those under age 18, the United States is already nearly a majority minority nation.” 

Currently, there are many schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School district where the racial balance is so skewed that students may have very little, if any, contact with students of different racial or ethnic backgrounds other than their own. This is a dangerous way to prepare our children for the future.

Respect and trust are built through shared experience, conversation, and opportunities to learn from one another. A diverse student body, as well as a comprehensive curriculum that values the experience and contributions of many different cultures, is not only enriching but necessary if we want to improve race relations.

At a recent panel discussion on the topic of school assignment, noted civil rights lawyer James Ferguson expressed it succinctly: “You've got to put children in school together, educate them together if you want them to live together.”

Closing the Achievement Gap at the Cost of the Opportunity Gap

Are we giving all of our students the tools they need to live the best life possible? According to recent studies, if you're born to a poor family, you have a lower chance of escaping the hardships of poverty in Charlotte than in other American cities. Charlotte ranked 50 out of the 50 among the United State's biggest cities for upward social mobility in a 2014 study by economists Raj Chetty of Stanford University and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard University.

Children in high poverty schools too often lack the opportunities available to kids in wealthier schools both in the classroom and through extracurricular activities. Teachers and administrators that are desperately trying to close the achievement gap in high-poverty schools prioritize reading and math at the expense of coursework deemed irrelevant by the state’s mandated end-of-grade exams.

Arts, physical education, history, science and world languages are often relegated to small portions of a student's experience and sometimes completely cut. Even recess is sometimes eliminated to make more time for academic pursuits or due to fear of what may happen if kids have too much free time on the playground. Some voices in the black community have also pointed out that K-8 schools, which have been used in a number of high-poverty areas in Charlotte, can have serious drawbacks; they tend to have fewer advanced classes and fewer extracurricular sports programs due to a reduced faculty and student population.

A well-rounded education includes variety. It’s what inspires students to continue learning, become engaged citizens, and opens doors to new opportunities.

Aggregating Challenges

Schools with a high concentration of poverty have a huge number of challenges they may need to address. Children from poor families are more likely to have parents working multiple jobs, could be dealing with homelessness, may be hungry, or lack early exposure to books and literacy activities. They could be living in unsafe conditions at home or in their neighborhoods. They may also be dealing with trauma that needs to be addressed.

Aggregating poverty overwhelms the resources of specific schools. Right now, we’re asking too much of our teachers working in high-poverty schools and we’re not supporting them adequately.

Proficiency among third-fifth graders on end-of-grade tests was 6 percent in West Charlotte's Revolution Park neighborhood, compared to 82 percent proficiency for third-fifth graders in the Myers Park neighborhood, per 2012-13 data from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.*

Teacher Recruitment and Retention

When pockets of extreme poverty exist, it affects many aspects of a student's education. Without question, there are dedicated, passionate teachers working from dawn to dusk trying to help their students succeed. But there are simply not enough of them. We are bleeding teachers to other better-paying states, as well as losing a generation of would-be teachers to more profitable industries.

Teaching under even the best conditions is a demanding career option. The lack of a pipeline of qualified teachers who want to make their career in a place like Charlotte means that more and more schools — especially those serving our most fragile populations — depend on young, inexperienced teachers who often burn out after a couple years in the system.

Ninety-eight percent of students in the Myers Park neighborhood graduate high school in four years compared to 31 percent of students in west Charlotte's Revolution Park neighborhood, per 2012-13 data from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.*

The Bottom Line

Schools cannot solve all of society's injustices, but they can be part of the solution. No child’s future should be limited by the zip code where he or she is born. Our greatest thinkers — the scientists who will find a cure for cancer, the greatest poet of our generation, the most effective politician — could all be students at one of Charlotte's schools right now. We owe it to them and to ourselves to provide them with the best opportunities to succeed.

Liz Rothaus Bertrand is the mother of two boys, one of whom is a current Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools student, and the other a future Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools student.

*Based on the 2015 Opportunity Mapping brief created by UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and Foundation for the Carolinas using data from from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Quality of Life Explorer.