My Convertible Life

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lessons Learned, But No Easy Answers (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1

I don't know if my students believed me or not -- some probably still thought that I'd rather be teaching a room full of little white brunette girls, but I think most of them understood my point. Most of us would be offended if someone accused us of only associating with "our own kind" because we'd assume they were calling us racist. But the truth is that we all do that, it just depends on whether we define our "kind" by politics or race or motherhood or economic status or favorite hobby or faith or whatever category fits at the moment.

During lunch with Shana, I was reminded of that classroom experience -- one of those ordinary days that took me off my lesson plans and into serious discussion for this young teacher and her students. It's so easy to stay in our "own communities," however we define them -- it's safe and comfortable and sometimes even important. And enjoying that comfortable space does not by definition make us racist or classist or any other-ist. But it's not an honest way to live a whole life.

My teaching career at West Charlotte lasted for only two jam-packed years, but the impact stays with me because those years took me out of that comfortable space into a place where I was constantly learning. From honest discussions with a whole class like that one about Mr. Lindner to personal conversations with students like Shana to defending my students in front of other faculty, West Charlotte changed me. The school has a rich history as one of the few black schools that stayed open during integration -- alumni from decades back still take pride in their time at WC.

West Charlotte's success was not because of its diversity. It was successful because the school was filled with administrators, teachers, students, parents and alumni who were committed to making it a great school -- but part of what attracted all those people to the school, part of what made everything work was its diversity.

No one claims that the school was perfect, but West Charlotte served as a national model for integration in the 1970s and 80s, avoiding the violence witnessed in other cities at the time and bringing together students who otherwise might never have crossed paths. Today, with the community-based assignment "choice" plan in place since 2002, West Charlotte's student body has become mostly black and mostly poor, and the school has endured significant and painful turn-over among teachers and administrators.

* * *

I'd invited Shana to lunch that day because I trusted her, trusted that she would be honest with me. I'm well aware that, as a white, middle-class woman who attended predominately white schools as a student, my voice can sound really different than hers in the discussion around issues of diversity in schools. What I found in our conversation was common ground.

"Being at West Charlotte affected who I am," Shana told me. "Even in middle school, I always made sure I had friends who didn't look like me. Now I want that for my kids -- it's important for them to have that in their schools." She shared stories about her two children -- her son has experienced greater diversity in his preschool and elementary school classes than his younger sister has at a different preschool. Shana already sees differences in their behavior and is disappointed for her daughter.

As moms, we both want our children to be close to home. Because Shana is a teacher, her son attends the school where she works -- but if she weren't teaching, she told me she would not want her son riding the bus across the county in the name of diversity. And yet we both agreed that sending our kids to schools "in their own communities," to borrow a phrase from Hansberry, wasn't the solution. From a practical teacher's perspective, we know that students in high-poverty schools won't get the resources they need over the long term. But through our vision as moms, it's something even bigger than funding: We want our children to learn from each other, to learn with each other, so that they can understand the world both as it is and as it could be.

Turns out that Shana didn't have the answers either -- and that became the profound lesson for me from our conversation over lunch. There is no silver bullet. There is no simple solution. And anyone who tells you there's an easy way to make all this work is either lying or fooling themselves.

Wake County's approach to maintaining diverse schools for the past few decades wasn't perfect. But moving to a system that isolates students into high-poverty schools is not the answer. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times -- it's NOT about having rich kids sitting next to poor kids or about white kids sitting next to black kids. It's NOT about finding that one brilliant school that defies the odds and turns into another Stand and Deliver movie to cheer about, while other schools collapse under the weight of those same challenges. It's NOT about spreading kids around in order to hide their poverty or their race or their test scores.

I believe in setting an entire school up for success instead of stacking the deck against everyone in the building. I believe in using our very limited resources in the most efficient and effective way possible to help all students achieve their best. I believe in the importance of a strong principal and empowered teachers in every school to give students the tools they need. I believe in making every single school in the district a safe and effective teaching and learning environment so that any parent would be happy at any school. And I believe that these things are not possible in a district divided into high-poverty and low-poverty schools.

This is not a partisan issue; this is a community issue. And on this issue, I do not define "my own community" as Lakemont or Midtown or North Raleigh -- my community is all of Wake County, including every one of the 140,000 school children within the district. It's not enough for my kids to be fine -- and I really do believe that they will be fine in spite of all this mess. The public schools -- and the board that sets the policies for those schools -- must work for all children.


  1. I wish that I could express myself on this topic as well as you do. Thank you for writing.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing. So much of this rings true.
    "I believe in making every single school in the district a safe and effective teaching and learning environment so that any parent would be happy at any school. And I believe that these things are not possible in a district divided into high-poverty and low-poverty schools."

    Yes. Exactly.


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