Britney Dockery wants to be a pilot.
Over the past four years, Dockery’s done everything she can to make that happen. She entered the admissions lottery for Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, but landed at Harding University High School instead. She joined her school’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council. She walked to the library after school every day during her freshman year to do homework because she didn’t have internet access at home. She used her free time to watch lectures on YouTube, because her teachers often failed to cover their subjects properly during school hours. She eventually got a job at that library, where she now works 20-plus hours each week on top of school and extracurriculars.
Now a senior, Dockery has received four college acceptance letters. She’s waiting on more. And looking back on her time at Harding, she still wishes she’d done things differently.
“If I knew how much better other schools were compared to my school, I would have tried harder to get into one of those schools, or even would catch a Lyft or the bus to one of those schools,” she told Queen City Nerve. “It would have been worth it for them opportunities. It really would have.”
Dockery and her fellow youth council members work with elected officials and other community stakeholders to provide student perspectives on county issues, especially those relating to education. Most high schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) are represented on the council, and as Dockery has become more involved in the group and networked with more students from other schools, she’s realized how much Harding and other high-poverty schools lack in comparison to their more affluent counterparts.
Parent-run booster clubs, Advanced Placement (AP) class options, chances to network professionally, diverse extracurricular activities, quality teachers (who stick around), high expectations of students — Dockery said she missed out on those opportunities at Harding, where vying for success felt like swimming upstream.
“It’s like the whole school body is just centered around, ‘We’re a low-performance school, we’re a low-grade school, and we’re just going to stay like that,” she said. “Expectations are set really low.”
Dockery recalled a conversation with a student from Mallard Creek High School who claimed it was hard to fail at her school. By contrast, in Dockery’s experience, failure seemed like the default path at Harding.
“If you’re struggling, that’s just kind of it,” Dockery said. “You can’t help yourself.”
Harding, where students of low socioeconomic status (SES) made up 93.3 percent of the student body in the 2018-19 school year, was just one of 25 CMS schools whose student bodies comprised at least 90 percent low-SES students. Socioeconomic and racial segregation pervades in the district, and students on both sides of the fence suffer as a result.
Students in integrated schools tend to perform better than those in segregated environments. They boast higher average test scores. They’re more likely to attend college and less likely to drop out. Integrated schools also close racial achievement gaps more quickly while promoting creativity, critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
But according to University of North Carolina sociology professor Roslyn Mickelson, the benefits of integration stretch far beyond cognitive measures.
“If you go to a diverse school and you learn that all white people are not hateful and stupid, or you learn that all Latinos are not this stereotype or that stereotype, and that blacks feel the same love and pain and anger that your community feels, it changes the students’ capacity to pass it on to the next generation,” Mickelson said. “What we find then is youth who attend desegregated schools are less likely to have racial prejudice.”
The way segregation remains prevalent in CMS, however, many students miss out on those benefits. Garinger High School senior Mirna Peralta told Queen City Nerve she wished schools like hers were more racially and socioeconomically balanced, because it would provide her and her peers with more diverse perspectives.
“We can learn from their experiences,” she said, “and from learning from their experiences, we’ll become more well-rounded people. We’ll know more about the world. And once we go out into the real world, with our jobs and stuff, there won’t be as much of an issue when we meet people from different backgrounds.”
Dockery added that without such diversity, kids end up basing their opinions on media-promoted stereotypes.
“If you segregate into a community where you can’t even meet the other person, the media’s the only thing you’ve got,” she said.
Moreover, she said, students in homogenous, high-poverty schools completely miss out on professional networking opportunities.
“It’s impossible to network if you’re in a segregated school district. Impossible,” Dockery reiterated. “The students, if we’re all poor, what are we going to network about? Poorness?”
Teacher retention repercussions
The South sees the nation’s highest total teacher turnover rates — 16 percent on average, as of August 2017. On top of that, turnover rates are 50 percent higher in high-poverty schools, according to a 2017 teacher turnover report from the Learning Policy Institute. Teachers in schools with the highest concentrations of students of color turn over at a 70-percent higher rate than those in other schools.
In other words: High-poverty, racially imbalanced schools in the South cannot keep their teachers. And moreover, they often fail to hire properly credentialed, experienced teachers in the first place. This doesn’t get past the students, either — both Peralta and Dockery said their schools’ inexperienced educators and low teacher retention rates created roadblocks for their own success.
“Whenever we do get a good teacher, they leave very fast,” Dockery said. “Every year, every semester, some teacher is leaving and coming in. It’s crazy.”
These high teacher turnover rates are due in part to organizations like Teach for America, which only place their inexperienced, uncredentialed teachers in Title I schools — schools in which at least 38.75 percent of students meet federal poverty measurement guidelines. Peralta said these hiring practices and retention patterns detract from her and her peers’ quality of education.
“In my opinion, we don’t get a good enough education compared to other students in more wealthy schools, like Myers Park [High School] or AK [Ardrey Kell High School],” Peralta said. “When some of us go off to college, we’re not prepared at all, basically. It’s an even bigger jump than with other students because of the quality of education here.”
Two sides of the same coin
According to Mickelson, the advantages of integration benefit students on both sides of the issue.
“Going to a segregated, white, rich school is less optimal than going to a diverse school,” she said. “A nonacademic outcome of schooling is you make relationships with people, and if you go to [school with] people who are just like you, your relationships are going to be limited to people who are like you or are from your neighborhood or church only. But if you go to a diverse school, it is much broader.”
Myers Park junior Emma-Katherine Bowers, who serves as co-vice president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Youth Council, agreed. Bowers attended Waddell Language Academy — a relatively socioeconomically balanced magnet school — for elementary and middle school before moving on to Myers Park, where most students are high-SES and white.
Bowers said she was initially concerned about the racial and socioeconomic imbalance at Myers Park, and though she’s had a generally positive experience there, she believes that she and her peers would benefit from a more integrated experience.
“It can be a limiting factor on all sides when people don’t have an understanding of people who are different from them,” she said. “You’re growing up and you’re developing an identity and opinions on the world. I think that it’s so important while you’re young to be exposed to more than just a small section of our community.”
Still, not all students agree that integration would benefit them. Roberto Moreira, senior and student body president at Garinger, said he thought segregation — and racial segregation in particular — may promote student learning.
“The honest facts are that students feel more safe around people that look similar to them, and they feel better around them,” Moreira said. “If you force them to split into different groups, and you force them to be different, and you force them to look at new ideas, they’re just going to feel intimidated by that and they might not enjoy it as much.”
He called efforts for racial desegregation in schools “a waste of time,” and said CMS should focus on ensuring each school offers the same resources and quality education, regardless of its students’ racial makeup.
“Let’s not focus on changing the races around, let’s just focus on giving them the same opportunity,” Moreira said. “You saying that they need more white people or they need more black people in a certain group is saying that a specific race is relying on another race to make it look better. How about we just make all races equal, and just essentially make them have the same opportunities?”
A lack of awareness
Dockery said that from her perspective, kids in high-poverty schools rarely realize the full extent of their disadvantages. Likewise, Bowers said students at more affluent schools often overlook their privilege, not knowing about the lack of resources at other schools in their own district. When Dockery and Bowers met through the youth council and began collaborating to raise awareness about inequity at CMS, they surprised each other.
“There are a lot of incredible, wonderful people at Myers Park, but most of them that I’m around — especially in our IB program, and AP as well — very much live in a bubble,” Bowers said. “A lot of people are not aware of the privilege they have and the resources that Myers Park has and the course offerings that Myers Park has.”
By that same token, Dockery said she was unaware of everything Harding lacked until her senior year, when she began working more with students from other schools with better resources.
“We’re so segregated, we don’t even know how disadvantaged we are,” she said. “If everybody at my school, all the parents and teachers, knew how much less we have compared to other schools, we would be raising hell.”
Bowers added that in order for integration efforts to make any tangible difference, they would have to start early on — long before kids become aware of the discrepancies segregation causes.
“I don’t believe that people are born understanding segregation,” she said. “If our schools are more diverse at a young age, I think that’s something that’s vital to building a community that’s more unified, that’s stronger, that has more empathy and understands each other.”
Remedies for a divided district
CMS is far from curing its long-standing segregation issue, but the district’s Board of Education is taking a step in that direction by working to create a new equity policy. As of March 2019, the policy draft calls for staff to measure and suggest solutions for major areas of inequity in CMS — including pupil assignment. CMS’s current neighborhood-based pupil assignment policy shoulders most of the responsibility for segregation in the district, since housing patterns in Charlotte are already so segregated.
“The way we do neighborhood schooling is a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Bowers said. “We’re not going to achieve more diversity in our schools if we’re continuing to district them solely by their neighborhoods. I think that bringing back some version of the busing system, whatever form that might take — I think that’s something that should be explored.”
The “busing system” refers to CMS’s pupil assignment policy of the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, which — under court order as a result of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education — achieved district-wide racial balance by busing students between schools in predominantly white and black neighborhoods. Another Supreme Court case in 1999 abolished this assignment system, after which CMS re-segregated and race-based pupil assignment was declared unconstitutional.
Still, school districts may constitutionally implement SES-based pupil assignment policies. With the exception of some magnet school lottery systems, CMS does not take advantage of this — but resulting actions from the district’s forthcoming equity policy could theoretically explore that option, according to Board of Education District 4 representative Carol Sawyer.
“The report asks for staff to let us know the status of socioeconomic status balance in our schools, and make recommendations on how to improve that,” Sawyer said.
Hypothetically, staff could recommend that the district consider socioeconomic status in its pupil assignment policy, she said.
CMS’s old busing system historically got flack for imposing long bus rides on students, but both Bowers and Dockery said they would happily take long bus rides for the sake of integration and its benefits. Bowers, who typically rode the bus 90 minutes to and from Waddell, spoke from personal experience.
“That hour-and-a-half-long bus ride, I did those for most of my life. They are worth it,” she said. “From where I am now, from my experiences and understanding through the youth council and generally my own life and friends, I really would be willing to do that, because I really believe in how important that is. And redistribution of resources follows that.”
For the sake of those resources, Dockery agreed without question that she’d take long bus rides.
“I wouldn’t care about busing an hour or 45 minutes if I was going to get more AP classes, IB classes, have a higher chance of graduation and have more opportunities just to be successful overall,” she said. “That hour on a bus beats hours studying for a lesson that you weren’t taught right because your teacher barely had any training on the topic, or the curriculum isn’t of much quality, so you’re going to YouTube.”
She added: “CMS is inherently unequal because we’re separated.”