By Cash Michaels
EDITOR - This is part 7 of a multi-part look at Walnut Creek Elementary School, and the other high poverty schools that the conservative-led Wake County School Board will be creating in Southeast Raleigh as it moves forward with its controversial neighborhood schools policy. Studies consistently show black and Hispanic students are relegated to poor instruction, a lack of resources and a second-rate education in high poverty, racially identifiable schools. The property values in neighborhoods with high poverty schools also suffer, as families move away.
The Carolinian examines the question, “Will all or any of this happen in Wake County?”
At last week’s US Dept. of Education Office of Civil Rights public hearing into the NCNAACP’s racial bias complaint against the Wake School Board, over 30 people spoke, many of whom were parents.
But the first parent to speak, an African-American mother named Susan Perry Cole, shared her experience with sending her child to, “… a racially identifiable, low wealth, poor academically achieving school in a nearby county.”
Ms. Perry, per her firsthand experience, told federal investigators that many of the children who are forced to attend high poverty neighborhood schools are high achievers.
Her son, she said, was one of them.
But because the majority of his class was low-achievers, Perry said the teacher, who was straight out of college and “ill-prepared to teach,” apologized to her, saying that she had to devote a majority of her time to them, not her son.
“Thus, my son was acting out too to get some attention,” Perry told the OCR hearing.
There was little administrative support to control discipline in the classroom, and as a result, Perry’s son’s teacher, “…lost control of the classroom, and never regained it.”
Ms. Perry went on to say that the quality of faculty at that school was inadequate. Faculty vacancies extended “right up until the end of the school year,” she said.
High poverty schools don’t attract high quality principals, Perry adds, and as a result, because the principal “sets the tone of the school, you can see it as soon as you enter.”
Perry decried what would happen in Wake County if the Republican-led board’s neighborhood school plan comes into fruition.
“What happens here will affect other neighboring counties,” she warned.
Now meet Charlotte parent Pamela Grundy
Grundy has lived in Charlotte since 1992. A resident of the eclectic Plaza - Midwood neighborhood, one mile northeast of uptown Charlotte, Grundy sends her son to Shamrock Gardens Elementary School, a neighborhood school.
She calls Shamrock Gardens a “small, wonderful and very nurturing school where the teachers and kids really look after each other.”
But that doesn’t mean Shamrock Gardens doesn’t have its challenges.
For starters, the elementary school’s student population is 89 percent free-and-reduced lunch, and 94 percent black and Hispanic.
Grundy’s young son is one of the handful of white students who attend Shamrock Gardens.
“It’s a school that deals particularly with the economic challenges, and with kids who come in needing a lot of help, needing a lot of attention because their parents don’t have the things at home that a lot of middle-class parents, such as [myself] have,” Grundy says.
The reason why Shamrock Gardens Elementary is a case study is because it sits right on the fault line of two economically distinct neighborhoods.
On one side are some of the richest homes in Mecklenburg County, many valued at $330,000 and above.
On the other side of the high poverty school, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city with black and Hispanic children.
When the lines were redrawn so that the poor children were reassigned to what had once been a public school with rich white children, those parents took their kids out and sent them to private schools, leaving the vacuum for poor children.
Only a handful of well-to-do white families still send their children to Shamrock Gardens, because they believe in diversity.
Pam Grundy’s family is one of them.
Indeed the story of Shamrock Gardens, and how Pamela Grundy, a white mother, came to deliberately send her son to the high poverty school, and become its PTA president, is one of the reasons why The Carolinian newspaper joined Patty Williams of Great Schools in Wake Coalition last October, in a trip to the Queen City to interview parents, former school administrators and others about Charlotte’s experience with neighborhood schools.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Public School System (CMS), has employed a neighborhood schools policy for a decade now after it was forced to end its socioeconomic diversity policy by federal court order. The result has been a high number of high poverty schools like Shamrock Gardens Elementary, a high degree of low performing schools, and so many tens of millions spent to prop up those schools that CMS now has to close ten of them, layoff hundreds of employees and teachers for the third year in a row (The Charlotte Observer reported today that CMS has just sent out over 730 layoff notices), and now plead with its county commission board for $55 million more just to compensate for anticipated drastic cuts from the state.
The Carolinian and Great Schools in Wake set out to document what went wrong in CMS for a series of articles, and an online video on YouTube titled, “Costs and Consequences: What’s at Stake in Wake,” to better inform Wake County taxpayers about what to expect once the Republican-led Wake County School Board fully implemented its neighborhood schools policy.
Though Wake Supt. Anthony Tata has yet to formally present a final version of his student assignment plan to the board, the board has already created a $25 million super-high poverty school, Walnut Creek Elementary, in Southeast Raleigh, scheduled to open in August.
The student population there will be 81 percent free-and-reduced lunch, over 95 percent black and Hispanic, and over 50 percent low-performing.
Education experts say such high poverty schools present unique and compounded challenges because many of the children come from low-income backgrounds and, depending on the neighborhood, very complex lives where alcoholism, crime, drug and sexual abuse may be factors in their homes.
Teachers in high poverty schools, because of the tremendous stress of dealing with their special populations, usually burn out after a year or two, experts say. And now that the Republican-led NC General Assembly is planning to sharply cut funding to the state’s public schools, that means class sizes will increase, fewer teachers will be hired, and teacher assistants from grades 2-12 will be eliminated, making the situation in high poverty schools even worse.
For Pam Grundy in Charlotte, even before expected budget cuts, the high poverty school experience at Shamrock Gardens offered significant challenges for parents.
As the PTA president, Grundy says she’s had to fight to get advanced curriculum work in the Shamrock Gardens, despite its high poverty status. As a result of her efforts, her son is in a partial magnet program, there is a Science Olympiad, special after-school and other programs.
But Grundy laments it’s not “nearly enough” compared to other CMS standard schools.
“Our kids are really smart and have s lot of abilities, but the challenge is to get the organization together that really allows them to shine,” she says, noting that special programs like Science Olympiad requires lots of hands-on work by parents, but many of the parents of F&R students didn’t finish school or don’t have a college degree or education, thus restricting their ability to help their children with advanced work in the classroom.
As a result, those children weren’t able to reach the levels they should.
Grundy’s husband is an architect. He was able to do what other parents at Shamrock Gardens weren’t. It was testament to the fact, says Grundy, that middle-class parents, through their time, connections, and yes, money, “bring so much to a school,” namely a baseline of support low-income parents whose are trapped in a high poverty neighborhood school, can’t.