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OPINION: Stop Calling Our Schools ‘Bad’

Let’s be more nuanced, specific and intentional with our words

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students participate in Inner Explorer
It’s lottery enrollment season at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Pictured: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students participate in Inner Explorer programming. (Photo courtesy of GreenLight Fund)

It’s lottery enrollment season for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) — that exceedingly fraught time of year when thousands of families cast lots as computers generate and spit out semi-random assignment lists that will determine their child’s educational fate. 

It is also the time of year when questions about schools pop up in local Facebook mom groups. These posts run the gamut in tone and tenor.  

Some are overwhelmed: “Tell me everything I need to know about the CMS lottery. I know it’s a sensitive topic, so please feel free to DM… I’m new to Charlotte and am so confused.”

Some are premature: “My daughter just turned 3, and I am so behind on starting the school search process…”

Some are painstakingly thorough: “Let’s talk about school choice. I’d love to hear why you picked the school you chose. Am especially curious about: school leadership, communication with parents, curriculum, diversity, homework policies, extracurriculars, safety measures, class sizes, PTA, testing, the school building itself, access to resources in general.”

And some are outright panicked: “I’m really struggling with this whole school thing. Our kid isn’t school-aged yet, but it should be a real consideration if we move, right? Do you pick your neighborhood based on the schools? What if we’re impacted by rezoning? What if the elementary school seems great but the middle school is bad? Can you even trust ratings on GreatSchools? Are there any areas in Charlotte with a great elementary school with an 1800+ square foot house under $500k??”

I empathize with the anxiety present in that last poster’s litany of questions. Despite holding a graduate degree in education and multiple years of experience teaching in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, enrolling my oldest proved stressful — such that I sought advice from several former colleagues throughout the process. 

But the use of the words “great” and “bad” in that post prompts some questions of my own.  

What makes a school “great?” Standardized test scores? Small classes? A well-resourced PTA? A socioeconomically diverse student body? Earning an A on the deeply flawed school performance grading system that lawmakers developed years ago? 

And still more questions: Are the “great” schools actually great for everyone, or just a subset of students? What is a school, but the people — the students, teachers, staff — who compose it? Are we actually thinking, and in some cases, saying, that people at “bad” schools are themselves “bad?” 

Some might say this last assertion is a leap, but after half a decade of teaching at a “bad” school, I know that teachers and students do indeed internalize implicit messages about their self-worth when society at large tells them their school is “bad.” 

The logic: The school where I teach/attend is “failing.” I am part of that school, therefore I must be a failure. It takes a toll.

My own children would be astounded to learn that people consider their school to be “bad.” My kids seem to be thriving socially and academically, and extracurriculars at their school are helping them build new, meaningful skills. 

More importantly, they are part of a caring community; they love their teachers and classmates. They look forward to school. That their school is deemed anything less than desirable is ludicrous. 

But on paper, their school ticks the boxes of a stereotypical “bad” one. The state has given it a D rating three years in a row. It’s located in a high-poverty neighborhood. They have larger than average class sizes and a datapoint that holds varying meaning in most circles: Less than 6% of the students there are white. 

The reality is that using these broad and sweeping labels of “great” schools and “bad” schools, even informally, has seismic effects. As the panicked post above suggests, school reputation, whether accurate or not, can profoundly impact housing patterns. 

The perceptions people hold about specific schools shape the real estate market, and with it, the socioeconomic diversity of neighborhoods, city zoning regulations, racial segregation patterns, and various other factors. 

Learn more: CMS Struggles to Confront Youth Mental Health Crisis

Neighborhoods with “great” schools attract affluent families. Housing prices go up. Lower-income families are pushed out. The cycle continues.

My mom, my first and favorite teacher, always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” I’m not suggesting parents lie about their experiences. And I’m not trying to guilt parents into using inauthentic politically correct speech. I’m simply nudging them to be more mindful of the impact of their words. 

When you speak about schools in our community, you are speaking about children and teachers in our community — each one precious and brilliant in their own unique ways. Let’s be more nuanced and purposeful with our words when talking about our schools.

Of course, words alone will not fix centuries-old patterns of systemic injustice. Educational equity will not be achieved through individual conversations or subtle rephrasing on Facebook posts. I wish it were that simple. The challenges facing our schools are structural and demand systems-level change. 

I don’t have a list of solutions for those big-picture challenges, but today I’m zooming in with a blessedly straightforward call to action: Don’t bash our schools through passive-aggressive language. 

Now that should be an easy A, right?

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