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Opinion: CMS Continues to Fail Its Students Through Segregation

It's deeper than Ardrey Kell

On Monday, CMS announced the suspension of Ardrey Kell principal David Switzer as the district investigates allegations of racism made against him. Last week, following an incident in which unknown suspects vandalized a Black Lives Matter mural on the school rock, a petition calling for him to resign gained momentum, as well as a counter-petition calling for him to stay on. This month’s incidents are just the latest in a string of racism issues the school has caught heat for in recent years. But as recent CMS grad Cecilia Whalen argues in this letter to the editor, the race issue at CMS goes deeper than Ardrey Kell. 

Students at Ardrey Kell High School recently painted their school rock in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Shortly thereafter, the rock was vandalized with red paint which x-ed out the memorials to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other victims of recent police violence.

Fortunately, a large number of Ardrey Kell students condemned this racist act. On June 8, they gathered to repaint the rock in an act of solidarity. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was there to record the effort and quickly posted a video on social media of the re-painting with the following caption:

“Earlier today, the Ardrey Kell family came together to continue their fight against racism. Students, staff, and district leadership helped re-paint the school rock after it was vandalized over the weekend. This is truly an example that we can come together and stand up for what is right. By working together, we will continue to defeat hate and racism.”

I had to read the caption twice because I was confused by the school district’s wording, particularly the word “continue,” in the sentence “continue to defeat hate and racism.” The word “continue” implies that work in “defeating hate and racism” is being done; the word “continue” implies that “defeating hate and racism” is a characteristic of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools system, as if, when one should be asked “quick, name the top five things that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools does consistently!” one would answer “Why, they defeat hate and racism, of course;” as if they had somehow proven that “defeating hate and racism” was their métier.

South Mecklenburg High School was segregated in 1971. (Photo by Don Sturkey/Charlotte Observer)

This is not true. In fact, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools is the most segregated school system in the state of North Carolina, and it goes far beyond Ardrey Kell. We have schools that are 99% minority and 83% Black such as West Charlotte High School, and schools that are 70% white and 9% Black such as Providence High School. While the city of Charlotte is about 35% Black (45% white, 13% Latinx, etc.), one CMS school, Providence Spring Elementary, has just a 4% Black population. That means that out of a total population of 904 students, there are only 36 Black students at Providence Spring Elementary. In CMS, however, Providence Spring is not an anomaly.

My alma mater, the IB magnet East Mecklenburg High School, is about 80% minority, 20% white, and, while it certainly has its faults, it was and remains, in my unbiased opinion, the greatest high school in Charlotte because of its diversity (the student population represents over 50 different countries, and 60 different languages). East Meck was my home school, but a lot of my friends — most, in fact — went to East on lottery, meaning they had different home schools. While my friends attended East, most of their siblings attended their home school, usually Garinger High School (96% minority) or Cochrane Collegiate Academy (98% minority). Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are so segregated that when my friends – all of them minorities — decided to go to East, their siblings asked them why they decided to go to “the white school.” East Meck is only 20% white and yet whiter than any school they had been to before.

I was — and still am — most of my friends’ first and only white friend. At first, several of them later told me, they were suspicious of me (and rightfully so). They thought I would be uptight or snobbish or mean to them. Who could blame them? They hadn’t hardly interacted with white people their entire lives: not in their neighborhoods and certainly not in their schools. The white people they had come into contact with or heard of were those arresting people who looked like them, or trying to oust them out of the country, or making fun of them for how they looked or spoke.

There were white teachers — good and bad — but teachers are different from students. The only white people at their schools were the authority and thus were assumed to be superior. It wasn’t until the age of 14 — FOURTEEN — that my friends actually came into contact with a white person of their own age who attended their same school, knew their same teachers and subjects, and could actually be their friend. I sure am lucky that they gave me a chance. I don’t know if I were in their shoes, if I could do the same.

In 1971, the historic Swann v. School Board case in Charlotte integrated schools with busing. Charlotte became the model city for how to successfully, if controversially, integrate public schools. In 1996, however, the school board started to back off of busing (due to protests by mostly white families), and by 2000, the schools rapidly began to resegregate. By 2010, Arthur Griffin, former chairperson of the school board from 2000, said in a WCNC article, “We just went further toward Jim Crow.” The system was officially re-segregated.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students in 1973, after the Swann vs. Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education ruling forced the district to implement busing. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Since then, the school board has addressed the issue in a lukewarm manner. In 2016, it looked as if there might be a significant change when the school board planned student reassignment; however, once again, they chickened out under the pressure of mainly white parents chanting “Bikes before buses” and “Save our neighborhood schools!” Thus, in 2020 — 50 years after the Swann family went all the way to the Supreme Court just for their Black child to be accepted into a white school — Charlotte’s segregated public schools are the disgrace of the state.

My high school friends and I have since graduated and are going into our third year of college. Three of them are my roommates. Besides my family, they have had the greatest impact on my life. It is our similarities that may have allowed us to become friends — the fact that we attended the same school and such — but it is our diversity that has allowed us to become sisters. They have allowed me the opportunity to understand what it means to be strong, patient, generous, compassionate and beautiful in the face of racism, xenophobia, and ignorance, not to mention life, itself. They have taught me what it means to be awake. Without them – thus, without the unique environment that is East Meck – I would be living like a sleepwalker.

But most kids in the CMS school system have never had the opportunity for the life-changing and soul-strengthening relationships that we have had, and it seems they never will. Though there are many wonderful teachers and administrators working on the ground level to address systematic inequalities, and recent steps by the CMS system — such as suspending Ardrey Kell principal David Switzer amid allegations of racism — have hinted towards serious acknowledgement of racism. The fact is, however, that the segregated CMS system itself perpetuates racism and prevents any kind of sustainable progress. This is a tragedy, an embarrassment, and frankly, a sin. CMS is failing its students.

So, on Instagram, CMS says, “we will continue to defeat hate and racism.” But they have hardly begun the fight. We all know that in order to improve society, we must start with the youth. So, while we’re all having these conversations about “what needs to be done,” let’s start by integrating our schools.

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  1. You are so right. I was a white student in the 11th grade at South Mecklenburg high school in 1971. That was the year CMS was under court ordered Integration.. I moved from the all white suburbs of Atlanta. My first encounter with African-Americans, in a meaningful way, was at South Mecklenburg high school, and went on to graduate from West Mecklenburg. The integration of the schools allowed me as an individual and a and a student an education and an inter-action with the culture of my community and nation. These many years later, I am A teacher at CMS schools. I’ve only been teaching for six years, and when I start looking at schools to teach at and looking at the statistics of race and poverty etc., I was absolutely floored to see that the high school I graduated from, West Mecklenburg, was agin segregated, over 90% African-American, and even more disturbing, is over 80% of its students qualified for subsidized lunches. I taught and Audrey Kell for my first 2 1/2 years, I saw the white privilege among the students and lack of diversity and support for our diverse students. Now a teacher at Alexander Graham, a much more diverse school, I continue to see the benefits to the students in the community of a truly segregated, more equal school. The concept of separate but equal has never worked, and will never work. CMS should re-Integrate it’s school system.

  2. I totally agree with this, as a black student at cms who is now entering high school i was so disappointed when i find out i couldn’t go to a school of my choice, i wanted to go to a high school that was diverse and had a good education but the home school I’m supposed to go to isnt really that great in my opinion, if I wanted to go to the school of my choice they wouldn’t provide a bus for me even though it’s the same distance as my home school, my dad cant drive me there because he has to go to work early in the morning, cms should do better with their schools and listen to their students

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