Saturday, January 29, 2011

Good isn't enough in CMS crisis

It’s hard to say no to Anniah Grace.

She was the most precious of the three dozen public speakers Tuesday night at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Board of Education meeting. Her head barely peeking above the lectern, she pleaded for Bright Beginnings, a threatened pre-kindergarten program from which she graduated.

“I have one dollar to give you,” she said to the board. “It is small, but I will not have dessert tomorrow.”

In her words and in her presence was the reason we develop initiatives like Bright Beginnings – to give as many of these beautiful children as possible a chance to overcome disadvantages they don’t control or understand.

Or, as school board Chairperson Eric Davis asked: “How much do we value our children who are the least prepared and the youngest?”

It’s the question CMS officials and school board members face as they contemplate cutting $10 million from Bright Beginnings, a program that helps more than 3,200 of those 4-year-olds. School board officials, scheduled to vote on the matter Tuesday, instead delayed their decision until Feb. 8 in the face of an outcry from the community.

But CMS officials and board members are clear: There’s no $10 million under the socks in a budgetary drawer somewhere. They’ve known for a while what some of us are still struggling to grasp: Sometimes you can’t afford to care as much as you want.

is no different from than most school systems; we pay significantly more per student in low-income, low-performing schools. Most of us agree that’s a good thing, in principle, because it benefits all of us to give our community’s children a shot at success.

But budgets are a finite thing, and the dollars we add to a struggling school are often dollars that come from another place. So CMS tries to find a sweet spot, both monetary and political, because you can only Robin Hood so much before you start losing the support and the attendance of the people who see their schools getting smaller portions.

In 1998, when Bright Beginnings was born, our schools were financially freer to try programs and see what worked for low-income students. But now that money is tight, we’re having to take a sterner look at those initiatives, and with Bright Beginnings, we’re not entirely sure what we’re getting.

Studies on similar pre-K programs show what common sense tells us, that children like Anniah Grace show better kindergarten readiness and emotional growth than their low-income peers who don’t take pre-K. But other studies show that by the time most of these low-income children reach middle school, the gains they receive from public school pre-K programs seem to be wiped out.

That’s likely true for largely the same reasons the children needed these programs initially – the support from home often wasn’t enough to sustain the early growth.

Which brings us back to the same question: How much do we value the youngest and least prepared? Is it enough to keep a program we don’t know is working long-term – if it comes at the expense of more Anniah Graces in other, proven programs?

Make no mistake about that. Every substantial option that’s left to CMS will come at the expense of children. We’re now at the budgetary precipice – not only in CMS, but in county and state budgets – where the harsh cuts remaining will land hardest on the poor. It’s not good enough to be a good program, as Bright Beginnings surely is.

Maybe, before Feb. 8, someone in the community comes up with the money CMS doesn’t have. But for now, there are no sweet spots – just the sour reality that our money is running out before our hearts are ready.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Lost and Found: A ring with a story to tell

What do you call it when everything aligns to go your way?

A few months ago, Joanne Casalbore lost her wedding ring. She woke up on a Wednesday morning and didn’t find it in either of the two places she usually sets it down. She looked around, wrote down all the places she’d been, then made calls. Nothing. Panic settled into despair.

Joanne had worn that ring for 33 years, since the day her husband-to-be gave it to her. It was Nov. 11, 1977, she says, without hesitating. She was heading from New Jersey to New York City for work, and he handed it to her before she left. “It’s not very romantic,” she says, but it was their moment, and she remembers it vividly, and so does he.

She later would have the diamond reset into a platinum wedding band. And now, that ring was gone.

“I felt so empty,” she says. “And nothing, nothing could take that emptiness away.”

By mid-November – almost a month after the ring was lost – Joanne’s adult daughter, Ali, persuaded her parents to contemplate a replacement. One Saturday morning, Joanne and her husband, Carl, reluctantly headed out toward a jewelry store in SouthPark, near where Joanne works. But, as Joanne notes: “My husband is a man, and he turned in the wrong parking lot.” That parking lot was another jeweler’s – Donald Haack Diamonds and Fine Gems.

Joanne and Carl decided to go inside, where they were greeted by saleswoman Sara Wilkinson. Joanne told Sara about the lost ring, and Sara considered directing the couple to another salesperson who specialized in insurance claims. But Joanne was clearly upset, and Sara didn’t want her to feel passed around.

The couple and the saleswoman spent more than an hour looking at diamonds and mountings. Joanne seemed to gravitate toward something completely unlike the ring she’d lost. “It’s so different. It’s so different,” Carl said, gently. A couple of times, Joanne stopped the whole process to cry.

Says Sara: “Your wedding ring to me represents all the joys and tears of your marriage. You could see that all on her face.”

Joanne and Carl narrowed things down to a couple of mounts and diamonds, then went home to think about it. They also considered trying to recreate the ring, and they kept in touch with Sara about that possibility. No one was in a rush.

At the end of the month, Sara received another phone call. A friend, Jackie Sherard, had something to show her. “I found something, and I’m pretty sure it’s real,” she said, after coming into the jeweler. She placed an unusual ring on Sara’s desk. “Oh my God,” Sara said.

The next day, Joanne came in with an appraisal of the lost ring. Sara had left a cautious phone message, and Joanne was skeptical, but then she watched Sara’s eyes as she looked at the photo on the appraisal.

“You have the ring,” Joanne said, more declaration than question. Sara pulled out a small cloth bag. She pulled the ring out of the bag. She placed it in Joanne’s hand. There was screaming and jumping and, all across the office, crying.

“I still shake thinking about it,” Joanne says.

Jackie, it turned out, had found the ring in an uptown parking garage – the same garage where Joanne’s son parks his car. Joanne, who lives uptown, usually parks her car in a different garage, but she had used her son’s spot on one day. She’d forgotten about that, so she’d never made the call to the same property manager Jackie called when she found the ring.

All of which makes the ring reunion even more unlikely. The Casalbores and Sara Wilkinson have thought about that often in the days since. What if Carl hadn’t turned into the wrong parking lot that Saturday morning? What if Sara had handed them off to the other saleswoman? What if someone other than her friend Jackie had noticed something shiny on a parking garage floor in uptown?

“It’s great,” says Jackie, who never hesitated to reunite the ring with its owner. “A miracle,” says Joanne, who thanked her with a gift and a hug. Says Sara, the saleswoman: “Amazing.”

What do you call it when everything aligns to go your way? It happens more often than most of us probably want to admit, in big ways and small. We get green lights all the way home, or we happen upon the right moment, the right conversation. The right person.

That’s harder to remember in times like these, when the stack of bad things in our lives seems to tower over the stack of good. Or maybe it’s just human nature to see it like that.

Because when everything lines up to go our way, we call it serendipity.

And when everything doesn’t, we call it life.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Civil discourse can still take a stand on bigotry

Jennifer Roberts wants you and me to honor Bill James’ opinions.

That’s what she said Tuesday night, near the beginning of a Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners meeting at which Roberts and her fellow commissioners voted on a resolution pledging their support for diversity and tolerance in our community.

The resolution was drawn up in response to James, a District 6 commissioner who last month called homosexuals “sexual predators” in an e-mail to his colleagues, then happily affirmed his remarks in subsequent communications and on his web site.

This is the same Bill James, of course, who has compared illegal immigrants to drug dealers and prostitutes, the one who also said that urban blacks “live in a moral sewer.” If nothing else, his broad brush doesn’t discriminate.

All of which needs to be respected – even honored, said Roberts, who explained to commissioners and gathered citizens that she teaches her children to separate actions and people. As if the voicing of opinions is somehow an involuntary act, like sneezing.

But that respect is what’s necessary, Roberts said, “to keep the discourse a civil discourse.”

Maybe it’s time to get a just a bit less civil.

What did politeness accomplish Tuesday night? We got a thoughtfully worded resolution that opposed, in principle, speech that could hurt others. We also saw several members of Charlotte’s gay community speak eloquently on the issue and remind everyone, with their presence, that there’s pain at the other end of the arrows people fling.

But then, after all that, James mocked the night and his fellow commissioners. He told everyone he had no problem with the resolution because he wasn’t named in it – and besides, “it won’t really accomplish anything.” Then, to prove his point, he brought up the sexual predator thing all over again.

A couple of caveats here: Civility is important, of course, and none of us should devolve into name-calling, nastiness or violence. And Roberts is correct, somewhat, about opinions – James has a right to believe and say that he believes homosexuality is immoral.

But when James declares that homosexual acts run counter to North Carolina’s Crimes Against Nature laws, as he did Tuesday, might one of his colleagues note that the U.S. Supreme Court trumped the law eight years ago by ruling that states can’t arrest adults for what they consent to do privately in their bedroom?

And when James holds up a 23-year-old study that showed 86 percent of men who molest boys say they were homosexual, might one of his colleagues note that the American Psychological Association, in a study of more recent research, concluded that homosexual men are no more likely to abuse children as heterosexual men are? James, avid researcher that he seems to be, surely would find this information handy.

But other than Dumont Clarke reading an email from a local therapist about heterosexual predators, no one challenged what James presented as facts. Yes, it’s easier to be affirmative instead of confrontational, easier to declare the good things we believe instead of condemning the bad things someone says. I understand, too, the commissioners’ reluctance Tuesday to square up and tackle James’ remarks, which have received nationwide play. No one wants the next snapshot of Charlotte to be public officials getting muddy at a public meeting.

But that’s the thing with bigotry: There’s always a good reason not to confront it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a county commissioner or the racist uncle at the holiday table. It’s easier – for all of us – to look away at that moment, to shrug inside, because nothing we might say would change the behavior, right?

That’s what commissioners did Tuesday night. One, Republican Karen Bentley, managed to call James remarks “out of line.” Another, Vilma Leake, lamented James’ history of inflammatory behavior. But they concluded, ultimately, that a formal censure wouldn’t stop Bill James from being Bill James.

Maybe they’re right. Maybe, too, this was a topic that never should have reached the agenda of a board meeting. But it did, and Tuesday was an opportunity to make it worthwhile. It was a chance to send a different message to the gay kid who gets called a slur or worse, to the two women who were told last month at a Charlotte bar that “We don’t want to serve lesbians here.”

And also, send a message to the people on the giving end of that bile, the ones who don’t merely disagree with someone’s behavior, but demonize it.

That’s what Bill James did last month – and again Tuesday. And once again, his colleagues sat civilly quiet, content to raise their hands for what they think is right, but not point their finger at what they know is wrong.