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Then and Now: Segregation in CMS Still Pervades

[The following is the first in a three-part series on segregation in schools. Read part 2  and part 3]

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been failing its students for decades. That’s the premise behind the district’s recent discussions about equity: CMS has tolerated high concentrations of poverty in its schools for too long, creating social and disciplinary challenges for its students and erecting barriers to their academic success.

As the CMS Board of Education’s policy committee drafts an equity policy to measure and address these issues, the same question keeps cropping up: Should the policy focus on historically underserved students or the student body as a whole?

At a Feb. 14 meeting, policy committee members likened their debate to a larger, national discord between the Black Lives Matter movement and the “all lives matter” pushback.

Ericka Ellis-Stewart
Ericka Ellis-Stewart (Photo by Lifetouch Photography)

“I think the policy needs to be very clear to the community that this board is not looking to do business as usual,” committee member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said at the meeting. “I am very much a believer that a rising tide lifts all boats, and so I think that in focusing on that subset of kids, it’s not saying we’re not going to do anything for anybody else — it’s saying that we recognize that we have not done enough.”

Ellis-Stewart added that any policy would have to focus on long-neglected populations of students in order to properly address the “pockets of hyper-segregation” at CMS.

“There is a bridge between the ‘Black Lives Matter’ and the ‘all lives matter,’” Ellis-Stewart said. “But I think you have to be able to focus to figure out how do you help the least of these, so that we can all have a bigger, brighter tomorrow?”

These pockets of hyper-segregation, as Ellis-Stewart called them, are prevalent at CMS. According to CMS, in the 2017-18 school year, for example, students of a lower socioeconomic status composed at least 90 percent of the student bodies at 25 of the district’s 176 schools. Few schools in CMS boast racially balanced student populations, and those on the wrong side of the district’s segregation issue receive fewer and lower-quality resources.

But the culture and effects of segregation at CMS extend far beyond the reach of any five-page equity policy. They dig and tangle into the United States’ history with segregation, integration and re-segregation at public schools — in which CMS has played a long and involved role.

Past to present

First, let’s take a trip through time for a quick history lesson. In 1957, Dorothy Counts made the historic walk down Irwin Avenue to Harding High School as one of four black students in Charlotte to integrate all-white schools that day. She was surrounded by white students and parents, spit on and harassed all the way to school.

Dorothy Counts walking to Harding High School in 1957
Dorothy Counts walking to Harding High School in 1957 has since become an iconic image. (Photo by Don Sturkey/Charlotte Observer)

Counts’ effort was a heroic one — she rightfully remains an icon of the desegregation movement in Charlotte, the South and throughout the country — but not long-lived. She would leave Harding High School later that year, unable to learn in an environment where she faced verbal assault and the threat of physical assault daily. Her experience would be a symbolic precursor of the CMS struggle with segregation, taking one step forward and two steps back.

Nearly 15 years after Counts’ courageous walk — and nearly two decades after Brown v. Board of Education declared racial segregation unconstitutional — school systems across the country had failed to integrate.

CMS, like many districts at the time, relied on busing patterns that perpetuated segregation, which is why in 1971, Vera and Darius Swann couldn’t send their 6-year-old son to Seversville Elementary School, the school closest to their home.

The NAACP sued CMS on behalf of the Swanns, and on April 20, 1971, the Supreme Court upheld that CMS had a constitutional obligation to eliminate its racially identifiable schools in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education.

That case led the country’s public schools in a fresh wave of integration efforts. CMS implemented new pupil assignment and transportation systems, busing students between schools in predominantly white and black neighborhoods to achieve racial balance. The system proved effective, and districts across the country adopted similar integration methods.

The busing plan garnered some criticism for imposing long commutes on school-aged children, but overall, Charlotte’s schools benefited.

South Mecklenburg being integrated in 1971
South Mecklenburg was integrated in 1971. (Photo by Don Sturkey/UNC Library)

Justin Perry, co-chair of grassroots organization OneMECK, advocates for integration in Charlotte’s residential areas and school system. Perry grew up a black student in CMS during the district’s integration heyday, attending Irwin Avenue Elementary, Piedmont Middle and West Charlotte High schools.

Perry told Queen City Nerve that at an integrated West Charlotte, he accessed varied class offerings, experienced teachers and — most importantly — the opportunity to learn alongside students from different backgrounds.

“We were all driven to succeed, but our understanding was if your peers weren’t succeeding as well, then we’re not succeeding,” Perry said of his high school experience. “You’re not going to get a diverse perspective from a couple of trainings, or one summer abroad. You have to be in the midst with different people on a regular basis.”

But shortly after Perry’s 1999 high school graduation, things changed.

That year, white CMS parent William Capacchione joined six other white families to challenge the district’s use of race in pupil assignment, claiming it unconstitutional. Despite efforts from the NAACP and CMS school board members, presiding Judge Robert Potter deemed CMS “unitary” and lifted desegregation orders from the Swann case.

In 2002, CMS implemented a new, race-neutral pupil assignment plan, which designated students to schools based on proximity. In 2006, CMS revised its vision statement to exclude the word “integrated.” In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court barred school districts from voluntarily using race in student assignment plans. By 2010, CMS was nearly as segregated as it was when the 1971 Swann case first arose.

Now, schools like Garinger and West Charlotte — only two decades removed from the well-rounded, integrated environment Perry knew as a high-school student — represent some of Charlotte’s highest-poverty schools, falling victim to cyclical segregation and a resulting lack of resources.

The state of segregation

Perry described two relevant forms of segregation: racial and socioeconomic.

“The racial segregation absolutely matters,” he said. “The economic segregation is crippling. And then when you deal with them both on top of each other, it’s just a setup. It’s almost a caste system in a way. And unfortunately, kids are often getting a kind of second-class experience.”

And that’s exactly what’s happening at CMS.

The district’s “neighborhood-based” student assignment plan doesn’t always make sense, and according to CMS Board of Education District 4 representative Carol Sawyer, families from affluent areas tend to pressure the school board to keep their neighborhoods together during pupil reassignment.

Carol Sawyer
Carol Sawyer

“Neighborhoods tend to be racially and economically isolated,” Sawyer told Queen City Nerve. “So if you insist that your entire neighborhood attend one school, that prevents integration, or makes it harder.”

Still, affluent families hold a lot of power over the school board, Sawyer said. And when the board reviews and revises its student assignment plan — every six years, and most recently for the 2017-18 school year — those families leverage that power.

“They appear in matching T-shirts, well-organized, and they lobby,” Sawyer said, recounting that parents often threaten to pull their kids out of the district and place them in charter or private schools if they don’t receive their desired school assignments.

She added that while she’s never heard a parent explicitly mention socioeconomic or racial factors when lobbying for school boundary assignments, she’s also never heard one advocate for their child to attend a lower-wealth school, or a school with more students of color — even if it’s closer to their home.

“If they’re assigned to a school that’s really close, but it’s high-poverty, they’ll make the argument that, ‘Oh, you have to cross a busy street,’ or, ‘It doesn’t keep our whole neighborhood together,’” Sawyer said. “No one ever says, ‘I don’t want to go to that school because it’s got poor kids in it.”

A Gerrymandered District

The result: gerrymandering, and perpetuated segregation. CMS’s school assignment boundaries might theoretically depend on proximity, but the maps and numbers tell a different story.

Take CMS’s high school assignment boundaries, for example: Harding University High School’s assignment area sits just north of South Mecklenburg High School’s, with the exception of an odd hook cutting into South Mecklenburg High School’s territory. That hook traces South Boulevard to where it meets East Hebron Street, assigning the area northeast of the intersection to Harding.

High school students living in the South Boulevard-East Hebron hook might travel more than 11 miles by car to Harding, their assigned school — though they may live less than three miles by car from South Meck. The area within that hook sits in the 28273 zip code, where the average home value is $210,700, according to Zillow. But cross South Boulevard into South Meck territory, and you enter the 28210 zip code — where the average home value jumps to $340,500.

Exterior of South Meck High School
South Meck High School (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Now look at the socioeconomic makeup of Harding versus South Meck. Harding represents one of CMS’s most socioeconomically imbalanced schools, with some of the district’s lowest performance scores.

In the 2017-18 school year, CMS’s overall student population distributed quite evenly among socioeconomic status categories, with 35.35 percent of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, 35.25 percent in the middle and 29.15 percent at high socioeconomic status. At Harding, however, that distribution sat at 93.38 percent, 6.02 percent and 0.54 percent, respectively.

By contrast, the students at South Meck — which boasts above-average performance levels, compared to both the district and the state — represent a much more even socioeconomic distribution: 35.15 percent, 36.48 percent and 28.37 percent, respectively.

From a numbers perspective, this particular school boundary at the South Boulevard-East Hebron hook seems to divide by wealth rather than proximity to either Harding or South Meck — and it’s not the only such boundary in CMS.

And according to Sawyer, these gerrymandered pupil assignment patterns won’t change anytime soon.

“If we could convince these people that instead of just sending charity to the schools, they would send their children, and they would advocate for integrated schools, we would have a stronger school district,” Sawyer said.

But when asked if that goal was possible, she answered: “It hasn’t shown to be. Our history says that this only happens under court order.”

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