We must act now on high-poverty schools

The text below was submitted to the Charlotte Observer, an edited version was published in the Observer on August 8, 2015.

From Barry Sherman, a social worker at Bruns Academy:

Barry Sherman
Barry Sherman

The time is now for our community to rally behind CMS in the creation of a pupil assignment plan that promotes fair, equal and excellent educational opportunity for all children.

I wear several hats. I am a concerned citizen. I am a long-time CMS school social worker currently assigned to Bruns Academy. I am a member of the Opportunity Task Force that was recently launched to address Charlotte’s challenges with upward mobility. I am also part of the rapidly expanding “OneMECK Coalition,” a group of Mecklenburg County individuals and organizations who have come together to address the racial and class segregation that is keeping our community from reaching its full potential.

While my comments are a mingled expression of these various roles, the unifying factor is my deep concern for our community – especially the children we are charged with educating.

As my school social work career progresses, I find myself evermore committed to the work of CMS and evermore passionate in my advocacy for public education.

On the other hand, my concern and sense of urgency are also growing more intense. Of particular concern to me are the national trends resulting in an increasingly two-tiered system of education. The re-segregation of our schools – especially the socioeconomic segregation that places extreme concentrations of poverty under one schoolhouse roof – is particularly devastating in its impact on students and teachers.

In my work with the Opportunity Task Force, I recently heard Mayor Clodfelter speak about Charlotte’s “unsustainable contradiction” – the “tale of two cities” that increasingly defines the reality of our community. CMS, like urban school districts across our nation, finds itself at the very center of such contradiction.

As a citizen who has dedicated his life to serving children and families in high needs schools, I’d like to share a bit of my hard-earned perspective.

First, teachers and staff are NOT the problem at high-poverty schools. My God-daughter attends a school in the SouthPark area. The center of gravity at a school like hers quite naturally constellates around academic achievement, good behavior and positive social relations.

At high-poverty schools, because of the highly-skewed challenges that accompany an extreme concentration of poverty, we have to work each and every day to manufacture a center of gravity that allows learning to occur. This is one of the first ways in which inequity rears its ugly head. On a daily basis, the “starting line” for learning is tragically pushed back at high-poverty schools.

Second, there is no amount of money, professional development for teachers, or infusions of classroom technology, etc. that will fix high-poverty schools. School-based interventions alone cannot solve the problem. Painting and remodeling a house is futile if a rotting foundation is left untreated.

Third, while there might not be anything magical about sitting children of color next to white children in a classroom, something quite incredible most definitely occurs when poor children are given access to a middle-class learning environment.

Fourth, it’s not just poor children of color I’m concerned about. Diverse, mixed-income learning environments benefit all children. I recently heard john a. powell point out that given the ever-increasing diversity in the world, any child educated in a segregated school is being mis-educated.

I say again: the time is now for our entire community to step up, accept our shared responsibility and support the CMS Board of Education in taking on the very difficult and highly sensitive challenge of a reimagined pupil assignment plan. The time is now to move beyond our divisiveness and find the common ground that will allow us to do what’s best for all children and, in turn, move our community one-step closer to world-class greatness.