Op-Ed: We must do better by Charlotte children. Delay the school board vote

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As the school board prepares to vote on new assignment boundaries and feeder patterns, I’ve struggled to determine exactly where I stand on this issue.

The best way to describe my position is at the intersection of a lot of different perspectives.

I wear many different hats. I am the proud parent of two students who attend Morehead STEM Academy (one of the schools most directly impacted by this plan).

I’m a former CMS teacher at a high-poverty high school, a person of faith who believes in the moral imperative to do justice, and I’m the co-chair of the Leading on Opportunity Council tasked with implementing recommendations from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force.

These various identities converge and clash in some ways while trying to strike a balance.

As a Morehead parent, I’m actually comfortable with the merging of Alexander, Morehead, and Martin. The prospect of mixing “magnet” and “neighborhood” kids doesn’t disturb me. Further, I don’t think the notion of “dulling other pencils to sharpen others” is accurate or productive. However, many fellow parents raised legitimate concerns during the information session about ensuring the fidelity of the STEM component and whether the most high-need students will truly benefit from the arrangement. These are valid questions that deserve thoughtful answers.

[Agenda story: 3 brutal choices the school board is going to have to make]

As an urban educator, I’m all too familiar with the injurious effect concentrations of poverty have on the learning process. I’ve been a vocal proponent for taking steps to desegregate our schools, while acknowledging this is not a cure-all for achieving equity.

As a believer, my faith drives my worldview. The mandate to make the crooked way straight and love my neighbor as myself inspires even my policy positions.

Lastly, as co-chair of the Leading on Opportunity Council, I realize the entire effort spawned after learning the poorest in our city are less likely to mobilize upward than anywhere else in the country. School quality and segregation are major factors. The task force report called on CMS to break up concentrations of poverty in schools while also challenging other institutions in the community to concentrate on systemic and structural change.

With that said, I don’t personally feel this student assignment plan will help shift the opportunity structure in our city.

It is not the bold or visionary approach I was anticipating, but it does take a modest and incremental step. The plan doesn’t do anything wrong, so much as not doing enough right.

I love the school pairings and have been encouraged by the many courageous parents who’ve voiced their willingness to give things a try, despite initial discomfort.

[Agenda story: Dilworth, Cotswold elementary schools to be “paired” with low-income schools under CMS proposal]

Still, it falls short of disrupting the most impoverished pockets of the city and leaves the more affluent edges relatively untouched. Even with the socioeconomic diversity of 74 schools being impacted, it is not entirely clear to what degree.

The school board has much to consider, with the growing fear of a mass exodus out of CMS into the expanding charter and private school sector. This most likely explains the conservatism of the plan.

However, it could be argued that this train is already on the tracks at the state and federal level, irrespective of what the district decides on Wednesday night. Parents considering sticking it out want to hear what tangible steps will be taken to ensure the improvement of lower-performing schools to which their students are assigned.

Belying all of this is the fact the public still doesn’t know the current state of “Equitable Educational Opportunities” within the district since the mandated annual report has not been made available for several years. How will the community know what sort of interventions are necessary to truly create equity, beyond merely reassigning students?

My mind is split along two paths.

Either vote to adopt the modest changes that take a small step in the direction of increased SES diversity, or delay the plan to better engage the community on ways to improve it. I’m inclined to embrace the latter.

Given that each change will be voted on separately, my fear is concessions will fall along predictable lines, further exposing the race and class divisions within the city. We need to recapture the audacious desire to do better in Charlotte espoused after the unrest in September.

Delay the vote, commit to a more courageous plan, engage the community, and return to a vote TOGETHER!

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James E. Ford
2014 North Carolina Teacher of the Year. Educator. Activist. Minister. Artist.