Sunday, November 13, 2011

At Harding, a protest rings familiar

Shortly before last week's election, a group of Harding High School parents met with Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board chair Eric Davis about concerns they had with their school. The group was small - just a few parents, Davis says - but they came carrying worries from the larger Harding community.

Those concerns touched on safety issues this school year, the first since Harding's magnet program was eliminated while hundreds of students were added from now-closed Waddell High. But the parents' primary worry was academic - many of those new students, who come from low-income minority homes, were below grade level, demanding attention from teachers that inevitably held back the progress of Harding's traditionally higher-achieving students.

The concerns mirrored those that many Harding parents have voiced since CMS contemplated the change to Harding a year ago. Those parents, almost all of them black, predicted then that academics would suffer, and they are rightfully worried now.

And if they were white, they would be called racist for saying so.

For more than 40 years, CMS has struggled with the gap between its best and worst performing students, and for all that time the tug between the two has been splayed against the backdrop of race. It's suburban whites not wanting their kids in classrooms with urban blacks, people say. It's west Charlotte vs. south Charlotte.

But the worries that you hear at Harding? They're the same that many parents expressed when Charlotte decided to bus schoolchildren across town to achieve integration in the 1960s and beyond, and they're the same we've heard each time school officials have considered redrawing districts.

Did some white parents simply not want their child in a school with blacks? Certainly, especially 40 years ago. But for most, and more recently, it's been a simple calculation: their children might suffer from being in schools where students didn't perform as well. When given a choice of a classroom that was surging ahead or one that was catching up, which do you think most parents preferred?

Racist, they've been called.

Can we stop that now?

Harding's parents might argue that their case is different. CMS, they say, has gutted an historically strong program that was a model of how low-income and minority students could thrive. But the argument rings familiar, no matter the color of the anger: We had a good thing going. Then you forced new kids on us.

Know this: The goal here isn't to play gotcha with Harding's parents. They are justifiably mournful about a very real loss, and they rightfully want their children in a place that offers the best chance to excel.

In that, they share common ground with parents across our county - an understanding that children need help to overcome the socioeconomic disadvantages forced upon them, but an awareness that providing that help often comes with consequences to others.

It's not racist - at Harding or anywhere - to worry about those consequences. Is it selfish? Of course. But every good parent is - at least a little.

Last week, voters elected two new members to the CMS school board, including Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who also was one of the parents in that meeting with board chair Davis. Ellis-Stewart, whose son transferred from Harding to the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, did not return a call last week.

The new board will face the same challenges as the last - providing the best education to all its students, with resources that aren't growing as fast as the student population, and with that achievement gap still glaring back at them.

The differences are real, and the challenges are formidable. Perhaps we can ask together what we're going to do about it.

And maybe this time, at least, we can do so without the labels.