Saturday, November 20, 2010

Through French eyes, a different view of Charlotte

Back in April, a group of Charlotte boys’ and girls’ high school basketball players traveled to Limoges, France, to play in a tournament of teams from Limoges’ sister cities. The Charlotte teams did us and James Naismith proud – affirming our basketball heritage by soundly beating each opponent on the way to both tournament titles.

The group also spent time touring Limoges, a city in west-central France with rich architecture that includes centuries-old chapels and ruins from the first century, when Limoges was a Roman settlement. This past week, we did our part in this cultural exchange, hosting a team of high school boys who spent seven days playing basketball and touring the area.

We know what some of you are thinking.

A week in France. A week in Charlotte.

Someone is clearly getting a better exchange rate here.

Alina MacNichol hears that sort of thing all the time. She’s executive director of Charlotte International Cabinet, a non-profit that promotes Charlotte as an international city. Her responsibilities include overseeing the visits of groups from sister cities, including Limoges.

Do people here sometimes smirk at her task of showing international visitors our culture? “Yes,” she said, before the question is finished.

So what does a professional try to show others about us?

That depends. If it’s a business group, they get a thorough walk around Uuptown and a drive to the University City area to the innovative Ben Craig Center for entrepreneurs. If it’s a cultural group, they head to the Charlotte Museum of History Charlotte History Museum and the Levine Museum of the New South.

As for teenage basketball players, well, that’s easy. Charlotte is helped by its abundant shopping and sports offerings, as well as the fact that teenagers universally think any place on Earth is more exciting than the place they live.

So instead of the Mint and Bechtler, it was Concord Mills and Carolina Place for the young men from Limoges. The group also got some history from the Levine Museum and civics from the Government Center. And yes, there was a spin around Charlotte Motor Speedway, as well as a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Limoges may have ruins, but we have wrecks.

The team was most excited, however, at getting to see a Charlotte Bobcats practice, where Michael Jordan was in attendance, watching from a balcony. The young men also got to shoot around before Saturday’s game at Time Warner Cable Arena Arena, thanks to Charlotte International Cabinet official Jerry Helms, who happened to be roommates 50 years ago at UNC Chapel Hill with Bobcats coach Larry Brown.

On Friday, before a day at Rocky River High School in Mint Hill, team members spoke about their week, about the glory of cheeseburgers, and cheerleaders, and about how Charlotte was not what they expected. “Everything is bigger,” said Enzo Chaume.

MacNichol hears a lot of that, too. Business groups, she says, are surprised at Charlotte’s diversified economy and hundreds of foreign-owned firms. Others marvel at the city’s liveability and how friendly the people are here.

“They’re surprised at the fact that we have so much that’s at a high level,” she said.

So maybe you think that’s exactly what MacNichol is supposed to say. But it’s what a lot of us heard and said about Charlotte, until the economy took the shine off the Uuptown towers. Now we have a high jobless rate, and we’re fighting over our schools, and the usual escape from all that, our NFL team, is delivering a new dose of grim each week.

But spend some time with a group of French teenage basketball players, and maybe you get a new look at the bigness they see – the buildings and opportunities, the distinct culture of wanting to be better. Despite all the things we aren’t, this is still a place that celebrates that culture, a place that for decades has been – and likely will be – capable of not only surprising others, but ourselves.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Our schools: Sharing the pain, or dismissing it?

A friend told me a story a few years back about a mother, whose child previously attended a Charlotte private school, getting a tour of Eastover Elementary.

It happened in the teeth of the recession, and the school change probably was the product of bigger changes. The mother quietly but politely listened to the tour guide talk about one of Charlotte’s finest public elementary schools, until finally she broke down.

She couldn’t believe, she explained, that her child had to go to Eastover.

It’s a story that’s prompted some combo of eye roll and smirk each time I’ve told it. It seems even more appalling if you saw much of Tuesday’s CMS school board meeting, at which the CMS board closed 10 Charlotte schools, most underfilled or underperforming, in one painful night.

If you did watch, you saw dozens of parents, angry and despairing, asking the school board to reconsider its decision. You saw students who should be worrying about grades and sports and dates, instead learning that the place they walked into that morning would be gone within a year.

It was sacrifice – 10 times over, a painful price of a budget crisis. It’s a story we’ve seen a lot the past three years, in schools and in so many places, and we’re still struggling with what it brings out in all of us.

We’ve become accustomed to a trajectory in our lives – or at least the expectation that our quality of life will improve if we do what we should be doing. It’s as American as anything else about us. We see it, too, in our schools, which have features and offerings that they didn’t have decades ago.

Cutting back on schools has been – and will be – a hard swallow. Any step backward is.

We’ve seen that play out two ways in Charlotte. In the past few months, parents of struggling, low-income schools have lashed out because those schools might close just as they were getting better. The response: To question why the pain is all theirs – and why it isn’t shared with more affluent suburban schools.

In the past few years, we’ve seen those affluent and suburban parents grow weary at overstuffed campuses yet reluctant to reopening talks about school zones. The response, from many: Find alternatives such as private schools and charter schools – or find their way into neighborhoods that are more insulated from change.

That clash of perspectives, of course, is decades old in cities like ours, and now there are more budget cuts coming. We’ll probably see the same approach CMS has used to this point, which is to give struggling schools as many resources as possible to improve, without hitting parents in other schools with enough pain to make them flee.

And for those who wonder what pain they’ve had, an example: At Myers Park High School, 175 classes this year have more than 35 students. At Ardrey Kell High in South Charlotte, it’s 137. At Harding High, it’s two. At West Charlotte, zero.

Tempting as it might be, the school board hasn’t trumpeted numbers like these, and that’s smart. Nobody wins when you start counting and comparing burdens, because inevitably, you start minimizing everyone else’s.

But there’s been a lot of that going around. It’s wrong to dismiss Tuesday’s anger by reasoning that the school closings were prudent, even if true, or that most of the affected students will likely end up in stronger schools.

It’s also wrong to assume that the richer you are, the less you feel the pain.

I thought Tuesday night about the mom on the Eastover tour, not because her sacrifice paled to those last week, but because she didn’t deserve my smirks or anyone else’s. She was, like any of us, a parent who wanted the best she could give her child, and she had constructed a life that offered just that, and now it was being changed.

We’ll be facing a lot of that change in the months to come. There are significant budget cuts on the way. Sacrifices. It would be nice if we could suffer them together.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A question about what government should be

After a week in which voters sent a message about what government shouldn’t be, here’s a story – and a question – about what government can do.

It begins with Anthony Shaheen, who is 23 years old and a Charlotte native. Last year, the Appalachian State grad took a job as an environmental educator for the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department. Last fall, he helped start an outdoor club at McClintock Middle School.

McClintock is a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Title 1 school, with at least three-quarters of its population qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. Each of the 25 boys and girls who joined Shaheen’s club were considered “at-risk” by the school system.

The idea behind the outdoor club was simple: Give the kids an appreciation of nature. In the first year, club members built and tended a school garden with plants native to North Carolina. They went on four field trips to the McDowell Nature Center, where Shaheen works.

On their first hike, a middle-schooler reached down for an acorn, then held it up. “What is this?” he asked.

“They were unaware,” Shaheen says. “I figured in Charlotte, there’s a lot of green space and they’d get a chance to stumble on those things. But they hadn’t had that opportunity.”

So the kids learned. Eagerly. They picked up salamanders and identified trees and fished. They felt wonder in their hands, breathed awe in the cool air of a campsite. And the more they learned, the more they wanted to.

Shaheen also saw bigger changes, measurable changes. Members of his club had a 5 percent decrease in documented misbehavior at McClintock. They had 40 percent fewer unexcused absences.

In part, the improvement came from kids knowing if they messed up, they’d lose participation in the club. But the behavior ran deeper than that. Shaheen remembers that at the beginning of the year, it took club members about 15 minutes to start losing focus. “By the end, you could put a fishing pole in their hand, and they would spend an entire hour content to cast,” he says.

The changes have been so transformative that Shaheen and his colleagues want to expand the club’s concept. Their idea: Take the land at Copperhead Island on Lake Wylie and turn it into a camp for at-risk kids. The county leases the property for $1 a year from Duke Energy. The park department would need, however, to build cabins and a mess hall; the cost could be about $200,000.

And this is the point where some of you say: Whoa.

Is it government’s role to build a camp for disadvantaged children, no matter how worthy the effort might be?

It’s the kind of debate we’ll be having often now, as lawmakers from Washington to Mecklenburg not only confront dire budget shortfalls, but quake at the thought of angering the already angry voter.

Make no mistake: The wave we saw on election night was not merely a tea party phenomenon. It was sustained by moderate voters who reacted to policies that felt less like short-term solutions to crisis than philosophical shifts on the role of government. A lot of Americans felt rightly squeamish about that. And so, we had Tuesday.

But the danger following any election is the pendulum swings too far. The Wild West recklessness of the Bush years resulted in the regulatory overreaching of the Obama administration. Now, it’s fashionable to want to go on a crash government diet.

In that climate, Shaheen and his colleagues have done a smart thing. With budgets getting slashed, they’ve solicited grants from the private sector to help fund programs, including the second year of McClintock’s outdoor club. Shaheen also has asked foundations and others about helping develop the Copperhead Island camp.

It would be a fine way to build a fine program – and not at all unprecedented. Our city and county are full of such public-private partnerships.

But, yes, they do include government. The reality is that sometimes, government has the best resources and willingness to serve us. The challenge, however, is not to lazily assume that’s always so.

Anthony Shaheen doesn’t really think in those terms. He was much more interested this week in talking about kids, not budgets. He defines his work by the impact it has and the successes he sees, not whom he works for.

When we look at his program, and others in this new era, we should judge them the same way.