It was the night before school started in August 1991 and I couldn’t sleep. In just a few hours I would realize one of my dreams — I would become a West Charlotte Lion. It was a dream I developed as a flipping through the pages of my mom’s, aunts’, and cousin’s West Charlotte yearbooks. The yearbooks told a unique story, one of how integration builds community, a story of how people of different races and socio-economic statuses could genuinely support each other and succeed. It was a story that was being shared in Charlotte and nationally.
West Charlotte during those years was a national model for integration. It was being studied by school systems around the country for it’s ability to bring residents of predominately white Myers Park and residents of historically black Beatties Ford Road together with success in academics and race relations.
As I peeled through the pages of those yearbooks I wasn’t aware that we were on the national stage for integration, but what I did know is there was something special happening at 2219 Senior Drive. I had a front seat to the amazing community that was West Charlotte because of my family history and because I lived just a few blocks from the school.
When I was out and about with my mother and she would run into a classmate I would hear the many wonderful stories about their high school experiences. Attending games with my cousin I would witness alumni from years past, who had no children or grandchildren at West Charlotte, sitting in the stand rooting for their team. I would hear them shout, “Lion Pride is nation wide.” It was this type of love, pride and community that I longed to be a part of as a Lion.
These experiences taught me that West Charlotte was more than just a school. It was a community institution that had a history of brining the community together. It had a legacy of excellence and I wanted to be a part of this legacy because, for me, West Charlotte represented everything I loved – my community and my family.
It’s for this reason that it is hard for me to witness the West Charlotte of today.
Today, West Charlotte is more than 80 percent African American, with some reports noting their African American population to be nearly 99 percent. The majority of the students are identified as receiving free or reduced lunch, meaning they are economically disadvantaged. In recent years graduation rate at the high school dipped close to 50 percent, promoting community members to take action through the Project L.I.F.T. program. Through this program the graduation rate has increased; however, the graduation rate is still lower than the state average. The culture of the school has changed as well.
Today’s students don’t exhibit the same sense of pride as former students. About two years ago, I spoke with a group of students at the school. I opened my talk with a question, “Where’s the Lion pride?” The response? “On the wall behind you.” I was devastated. Never had I ever experienced such a lack of pride in the school or community. Additionally, the alumni support that existed at the school has declined as well. Alumni speak of the school as what it used to be, naming all the current problems, but rarely driving down LaSalle to help offer a hand in solving them. This was not what happened when I was there.
I can’t help but to wonder if this lack of pride – from both current students and alumni – is in any way tied to the lack of diversity that exists today.
In 1997, a local parent sued the school system when his daughter was denied acceptance into a magnet program because of her race. The court case, which made it all the way to the court of appeals, ended when Judge Robert D. Potter declared the mandate of a unitary system had been met and lifted the court order on mandatory busing by race or ethnicity. In 2002, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rolled out the School Choice Plan, which in essence created neighborhood schools and disrupted the diversity that busing offered.
I often wonder if it was this re-segregation that killed the Lion pride? My answer of late has been yes – especially after following Nikole Hannah-Jones’ reports on school segregation and how they impact academic outcomes for minority students. After researching school segregation in many parts of the country and the efforts to change the decline in academic outcomes for minority students in segregation school systems, Nikole has found one program that is scalable and proves to help change academic outcomes for minority students. That program? Integration.
It is for this reason I strongly support integration of schools as a way to improve academic outcomes for minority students. Critics would have you believe that integration isn’t needed because minority students won’t become smarter because they are sitting next to a white student, or that they won’t become smarter because they know a student who is more affluent than their family. I disagree. I say racially and economically diverse schools help students understand world dynamic, economics, political science and how to love those that aren’t like you. It gives poor kids an awareness that there is a life outside of the hood and allows more privileged students to better understand poverty. It puts these students together in classes where they can start to map out solutions on how to change the world – and where they can develop friendships that last a lifetime.
As a community we are currently evaluating how to improve the quality of K-12 education for all students. I challenge the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board to review the data that suggests integration works for ALL students and to consider a school assignment plan that puts socioeconomics at the center, much like the one in place in Wake County. This new structure would allow us to offer much needed diversity in our schools and to reap the benefits of integration. Integration taught the students at West Charlotte a love for humanity and that only two colors mattered – maroon and gold.
(Photo credits: Headshot is by Gwen Keahey Photography. The football game picture is from Curt Peters.)