Charlotte: Confronting Segregation in the New South
This summer, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education and a hired group of consultants will begin a yearlong review of the district’s student assignment plan. In other words, the school board will look at where 146,000 students attend schools across this countywide district that encompasses both the city and its suburbs, and next year, after months of consideration, potentially send many in new directions.
In some cities, this review would be a formality. But Charlotte, North Carolina, is not any other city. For a time in the 1970s and ’80s, it was a place in America that educators, legislators, and scholars would visit if they wanted to see successful, court-ordered school integration in action. A generation of kids grew up crossing neighborhood boundaries, believing that integrated schools were the natural order of things. “We were fish in water,” says Charlotte native Amy Hawn Nelson (Baltimore ’01), a researcher at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte who wrote her dissertation on this “invisibility” of integration.
But in the 20 years since a federal court released Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) from its integration mandate, schools have dramatically re-segregated, by rich and poor as much as by race. This remains one of the highest-performing urban districts in the nation, in part because its countywide boundaries make it more socioeconomically diverse than most. But academic outcomes in its most impoverished schools have plummeted. In 2005, a North Carolina Superior Court judge characterized the conditions at Charlotte’s lowest-performing high schools as “academic genocide.”
Whether or not Charlotte’s storied history of integration can (or should) repeat itself is a raging local debate today. Over the past year, the school board’s looming student assignment decision—recently postponed from November 2016 to summer 2017—has grown from a procedural obligation into a referendum on Charlotte’s future, vigorously covered by the local newspaper and Charlotte magazine, with pro-integration ground troops (including many Teach For America alumni) pushing for Charlotte to reclaim its status as that rare American school system that resists separating kids by race and class.
The debate has grown especially contentious since February, when the school board formally adopted five goals for the new student assignment plan, including to “reduce the number of schools with high concentrations of poor and high-needs children.” School board meetings have filled to capacity, with some opponents of large-scale rezoning wearing “#NOforcedbusing” T-shirts. Suburban communities have threatened to secede from the county district.
Meanwhile, high school and college students active in Students for Education Reform, led locally by Kayla Romero (Charlotte ’11), have also become fixtures at school board meetings. Lyana Moua, a junior at West Charlotte High School, testified at a February board meeting that “all scholars deserve to have access to the same education, from north to south and east to west.”
Charlotte schools in the 1970s and ’80s were no utopia—the test-score gap between white and black students persisted, with students often segregated within schools through academic tracking. But the height of Charlotte’s desegregation efforts during the early 1980s was also the period when schools best served both white and black students, according to test scores. Many studies also credit the integration years with social benefits like reducing racial stereotyping among graduates.
“Charlotte has been all the way through a cycle of organizing and advocacy on behalf of students [before], and it came to fruition and a good outcome. And we can do that again,” says Janeen Bryant (Charlotte ’04), a regional director for Leadership for Educational Equity who mounted an unsuccessful run for the board of education last fall. “It won’t be fun, but we can do it.”
1954 Legal school segregation is ruled unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education.
1963 The local NAACP begins to organize parents to legally challenge Charlotte’s segregated schools.
1965 Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education is filed, with the district sued for denying six-yearold James Swann admission to an integrated school. The case is decided in favor of the district.
1969 Swann is reopened by the NAACP on appeal. The federal appeals court rules in favor of the plaintiffs. The district is ordered to create a racially balanced student assignment plan, which all but mandates busing.
1970 The Charlotte board of education appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the fall, schools open under a mandatory busing-for-desegregation plan.
1971 The Supreme Court holds that Charlotte must use a student assignment plan to desegregate its schools, busing students as necessary.
1992 The district revises its desegregation plan and shifts from widespread busing to a magnet school model.
1997 William Capacchione sues the district after his daughter is denied admission to a magnet school twice, allegedly because she is white.
1998 The judge in the Capacchione case reactivates the Swann case and consolidates the two suits.
1999 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is declared “unitary” by the Capacchione/Swann judge and must stop considering race in student assignment plans. The district appeals the decision, loses.
2002 Magnet schools remain, but all other Charlotte-Mecklenburg students are assigned to neighborhood schools.
The First Time
“I’ve never seen a place that’s as in love with its own growth as Charlotte.” The quotation, attributed to Scott Dodd of the Charlotte Observer, is emblazoned in big block letters across a wall in Charlotte’s Levine Museum of the New South, which documents the city’s ascent from sleepy mill town to national financial center over the past century.
Since 1940, Charlotte’s population has grown by more than 600 percent. From 2010 to 2013, it was second only to Austin, Texas, as America’s fastest growing metropolis. It’s also grown more diverse, with the number of Latino residents increasing from 7,000 to 112,000 between 1990 and 2010; Asian American numbers have increased significantly, too.
Charlotte’s meteoric rise has had a profound effect on the city’s self-image, says Kamille Bostick (Charlotte ’08), the vice president of education at the Levine Museum. Against the 20th century context of a South clinging to its antebellum racial and social hierarchy, Charlotte has prided itself on being more progressive, even if that progressivism was often reactive. In 1963, when segregated lunch counter sit-ins brought national media attention to nearby Greensboro, Charlotte’s chamber of commerce convened an emergency meeting and unanimously passed a resolution to voluntarily desegregate the city’s public accommodations “to keep Charlotte out of the headlines of The New York Times,” according to journalist Frye Gaillard’s account in his book The Dream Long Deferred.
Similarly, beginning in 1957, thanks to pressure from civil rights activists including the local NAACP, Charlotte voluntarily “integrated” some white schools by enrolling a handful of black students, staying a step ahead of much of the South without dismantling its still-segregated system. (One of those students, Dorothy Counts-Scoggins—who still visits schools in her seventies to talk to students about Charlotte’s fight for integration—famously withdrew after four days due to extreme mistreatment from students, parents, and teachers.)
True integration would not arrive until it was mandated by a court order in 1970 in response to a case brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund on behalf of ten families, including Darius and Vera Swann and their six-year-old son James. The Swanns had recently returned to North Carolina after eleven years as missionaries in India. James had never known the pain of American racial segregation, and his parents fought to keep it that way. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that Charlotte was required to “employ bus transportation as one tool” to ensure schools were recognizably desegregated.
The next few years saw racial tension and white flight. By 1973, each of Charlotte’s 10 high schools had been closed at least once due to fighting between white and black students. By 1975, private school enrollment had more than tripled in Mecklenburg County.
But during this same period, integration was starting to work, thanks to Charlotte’s spirit of progressivism, or at least resigned pragmatism.
Black students initially bore a disproportionate burden of busing, driven long distances across city and suburbs to attend schools in predominantly white neighborhoods. But within a few years, the assignment plan had been revised multiple times and approached balance.
West Charlotte High School, formerly (and again today) one of the poorest and most segregated schools in the district, was notably assigned white students from Eastover and Myers Park, two of the city’s most affluent communities. It became a national media favorite as proof that integration could work. In 1974, West Charlotte even welcomed students from Boston, a city where busing had been plagued by violence, on an exchange trip intended to showcase its benefits.
A year before Swann took effect, Jeanne Brayboy became one of the first black teachers to integrate the staff of a white school in CMS. Brayboy, who retired in 1993 after 40 years teaching music, says she sometimes got the cold shoulder from colleagues. But she “never really felt any antagonism from students,” which she credits to their impressionable ages. “The earlier students learn to live together, the better it is,” says Brayboy, who, at age 86, remains active in community affairs. “It’s hard to change attitudes when folks are grown, or half-grown.”
Hard, but not impossible. In 1970, with desegregation imminent and tempers high, all three open school board seats went to busing opponents. By 1972, the next three open seats went to pro-integration candidates backed by a group of influential businessmen. With the exception of one re-elected candidate in 1976, no anti-busing candidate would be elected to the school board until 1988.
Even President Ronald Reagan was met with “chilly silence” in Charlotte, according to the Observer, when an otherwise well-received 1984 campaign speech condemned busing as a “social experiment that nobody wants.”
“Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s proudest achievement of the past 20 years is not the city’s impressive skyline or its strong, growing economy,” an editorial in the paper declared the day after the speech. “Its proudest achievement is its fully integrated public school system.”
Ultimately, that “impressive skyline” and “strong, growing economy” would indirectly contribute to the end of that “fully integrated public school system.”
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Charlotte attracted newcomers from all over the country. Most did not grow up with integrated schools and did not understand why their children should not by rights attend schools in the more affluent neighborhoods where they had bought homes. New arrivals settled in the northern and southern parts of Mecklenburg County, and these concentrations of white wealth so far removed from urban Charlotte proved a challenge to integrate without longer bus rides than ever.
In 1992, the board of education responded to community pressure and largely replaced busing with magnet schools, a voluntary integration method. Continuing a trend that started in the ’80s, racial imbalance in Charlotte schools rose slightly.
Finally, in 1997, the district was sued by a group of parents seeking to overturn its desegregation mandate. Prominent local leaders and the district itself fought against the suit, but a judge ruled in 1999 that CMS had reached “unitary” status and must stop considering race in student assignment.
“When the litigation ruled the way it did, everyone knew what was going to happen,” says John Tate, who served on the CMS board of education from 1990-97, then spent 12 years on the state board of education before retiring in 2015. “You’d have to have been an idiot, in my view, not to know that poverty was going to be concentrated, race was going to be concentrated,” as soon as the court order allowed schools to re-segregate. “It was a recipe for disaster.”
When Juliet Flip moved to Charlotte from Newark, New Jersey, in 1998, she found, to her pleasant surprise, that the schools were “just better.” So much better, she enrolled her older son for a second year of first grade.
Eighteen years later, Flip’s faith has withered. She’s spent the past year doggedly trying to find a way for her younger son, 15-year-old Twan, to avoid attending the once-integrated, now re-segregated and struggling West Charlotte High School.
An athlete who’s being scouted by college football recruiters, Twan has always been calm, mature, hard working. His maturity became more pronounced in fifth grade when his 20-year-old brother—the one his mother had held back—was shot and killed at the end of a spiral that began in high school. (Three years later, his alleged killer was shot to death at age 20 by two other young men.)
“If I had to bus him or drive him wherever he had to go,” Flip said, she was determined Twan would not go to a low-performing, segregated high school.
Last summer Twan sat for an interview and entrance exam at the $20,000-a-year Charlotte Country Day School. Meaghan Loftus (Charlotte ’08), Twan’s principal at Ashley Park PreK-8 School, wrote a letter of recommendation, telling the private school that his test scores did not reflect his abilities. “Do not punish him for being in a failing school,” she argued.
She concedes how painful it was to support removing one of her best students from CMS generally and school-turnaround effort Project LIFT in particular. West Charlotte is Project LIFT’s only high school. Loftus says of its new principal, “She’s the right person for the work, and she’s doing amazing work. We all just need time to do it.” But she also respects Twan and his mother for making a different choice, “especially given what happened to his brother,” she said.
Three weeks later, Twan’s mother posted an update on Facebook: “It is official: He will be attending Charlotte Country Day starting in the 2016-2017 school year. Praise God.”
According to the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, 1 in 50 black students attended a hyper-segregated CMS school in 1989 (with a minority student population of 90-100 percent). By 2010, 1 in 3 did.
In 2014, economists from Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley, published a study ranking the United States’ 50 largest cities by intergenerational mobility, defined as “the probability that a child reaches the top quintile of the national income distribution starting from a family in the bottom quintile.” Charlotte was ranked 50 out of 50.
The study shocked and embarrassed civic leaders, and is now frequently cited in school-integration debates. The last-place ranking “plays with our sense of self,” says Kamille Bostick of the Levine Museum. “Are our beautiful towers built on sand?”
For Amy Hawn Nelson—she’s the “fish in water” who wrote her dissertation on Charlotte’s integration and now runs the Institute for Social Capital at UNC Charlotte—her awakening came years earlier. The first time she fully realized her integrated Charlotte schooling had been exceptional was when she began teaching in Baltimore as a corps member and all but one of her students was black.
When Hawn Nelson began reading integration experts like the Civil Rights Project’s Gary Orfield, she was surprised to see desegregation framed as “a radical, political act.” She says, “In my life, there was nothing radical or political about it at all. It was what you did.” It’s also the future she wants for her 2-year-old daughter.
Hawn Nelson has been researching desegregation for almost a decade, but says interest in her topic has soared in the two years since the Harvard/Berkeley study was published. “Before that, everyone just patted me on the head like, ‘Oh, that’s nice,’” she says, as if school integration were a unicorn, beautiful and imaginary.
No one dismisses Hawn Nelson these days, though many try to discredit her data-driven criticism of segregated schools. “I go where the data leads me,” she says. “The data is clear on very little. The only thing I take a stand on publicly is that segregation harms.”
Segregated non-white schools, Hawn Nelson says, are disproportionately burdened by inadequate facilities and access to rigorous coursework and extracurricular activities, lower academic performance, and all the familiar ills. Yet, she notes, modern education reform is by and large focused on making segregated schools work better, not reducing segregation as a primary objective or improvement strategy.
Charlotte is no exception. In 2012, it launched Project LIFT (Leadership & Investment for Transformation), a five-year public/private partnership charged with turning around nine of Charlotte’s lowest-performing schools, with the help of fresh talent, continually evolving strategy, and $55 million in donations from Charlotte’s business community. Teach For America is a “critical talent partner,” with alumni principals heading three of its schools.
Project LIFT has drawn acclaim for its commitment to learning from results, doubling down on what works and discarding what doesn’t. But four years in, only one of LIFT’s nine schools had more than half its students test on grade level in 2015, and its five-year student proficiency goals are unlikely to be met. Still, the CMS board recently voted to extend LIFT’s commitment through a sixth year.
Meaghan Loftus (Charlotte ’08) is in her first year as principal at Ashley Park PreK – 8 School, a Project LIFT school on Charlotte’s west side. She acknowledges the slow progress, but questions whether an inevitably disruptive change in student assignment is the best way forward.
Loftus spent much of her first year coaching, winnowing, and recruiting the staff she needs to serve her high-need students, of whom 89 percent are black and 93 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. “I get protective over what would happen to some of my children if they were bused to a school where that specialized talent wasn’t there,” Loftus says. “We can’t have a conversation about student assignment if we’re not going to have a conversation about how that changes staff and the way you train them.”
Then Loftus hedges. She’s compelled by the research that supports integration, and the possibilities excite her. “But most days, I honestly don’t think about it,” she says, instead keeping her focus on her school while she waits for the board’s decision.
Katharine Bonasera (Charlotte ’07) is principal at Allenbrook Elementary (73 percent black, 95 percent free or reduced lunch), eight minutes northwest of Ashley Park. She also worries that the district may not be capable of creating schools that are integrated and high quality and culturally responsive in their pedagogy and equipped with the support and resources that disadvantaged students need. That’s a lot of “ands.” Without knowing how a new student assignment plan would be implemented, Bonasera says the steady progress she’s seen as a Project LIFT principal seems a safer bet.
But as she walked a reporter around Allenbrook’s lively but visibly aging campus, she dryly joked about being home to the oldest portable school trailer in all of CMS and an outdoor infestation of carpenter bees so large you feel a breeze when they fly past. “It’s OK,” she said, “they don’t sting.”
Less easy to brush off is Allenbrook’s history of false starts and fleeting progress. The school was featured in a 2000 episode of This American Life as an early success story for the brand of education reform that would inspire No Child Left Behind. At the time, Allenbrook had recently made “remarkable gains” on test scores and was being heralded as one of the accountability movement’s first “turnarounds.”
“Honestly, it makes me sick to my stomach when I listen to it,” Bonasera says. “That was 16 years ago, and the school has never ‘turned around.’” For Bonasera, like so many others in Charlotte, the way forward is up for debate, but Charlotte’s highest-need students can’t afford another 16 years like the last ones.
When the CMS board of education made a commitment in 2010 to review its student assignment plan every six years, it couldn’t have predicted the confluence of factors that would come into play this year: not just the Harvard/Berkeley mobility study, but also the way America’s post-Ferguson reckoning with systemic racism has prompted a national reconsideration of school integration. Charlotte has also seen the emergence of a circle of integration advocates who were once bused themselves.
“A narrative has developed of: ‘Well, busing already failed once.’ Actually, it didn’t. Nothing failed,” says Justin Perry, who graduated from West Charlotte High School in 1999, the year CMS was declared unitary. Now a co-chair of the pro-integration advocacy group OneMECK, he says integration was “a large reason why the city has grown and the suburbs are as well developed as they are now. It’s because the system we had was working.”
Janeen Bryant, who was bused for her entire K-12 career growing up in Greenville, South Carolina, sometimes finds herself baffled by the intensity of public outrage the word “busing” elicits. “I’m still not sure why people get so angsty about this bus ride,” Bryant says, laughing but completely serious. “I’m like, I just did my homework…What were you doing on the bus?”
Bryant took heat during her unsuccessful run for school board for being too focused on integration and the student assignment plan review. “We have to be able to name a thing. If we’re re-segregating, we should be able to talk about it,” Bryant says.
Amy Hawn Nelson, for her part, has spent the past year touring the city and walking disparate audiences through a 60-slide presentation on the effects of desegregation. On a Thursday night in March, Hawn Nelson went through those meticulously researched slides at an event sponsored by Black Lives Matter Charlotte at Greater Mt. Moriah Primitive Church in Uptown Charlotte. The event’s moderator, Tiffany Capers (who directs public affairs for Teach For America–Charlotte), opened the night with a news clip from 1970 about white protests over school desegregation. Capers noted how the anti-integration rhetoric hadn’t changed much, then polled the 100 or so audience members for reactions.
“Are you surprised, disappointed, dismayed?” Capers asked.
From the back of the room, an older man responded, “Reminded.”
Debating the Evidence
Sitting near the front of the hall, typing rapid notes on a laptop throughout Hawn Nelson’s remarks, was Sean Strain, a member of CMS Families United for Public Education. His is one of several community groups that have emerged as voices of opposition to any new student assignment plan that would prioritize integration over the preservation of neighborhood schools.
The group published a 22-page report in March with multiple recommendations for the board of education. A few overlapped with Hawn Nelson’s suggestions, like strategically locating magnet schools to make access more equitable.
But CMS Families United rejects claims that integrated schools improve (or, at worst, maintain) outcomes for all students, not just disadvantaged ones. They interpret CMS school-level achievement data to show that students perform better in mixed-income schools than low-income schools, but also better in high-income than mixed-income schools.
Strain says “there’s a penalty to be paid” when students are moved from high-income to mixed- or low-income environments. He argues that targeted interventions in high-poverty schools are better suited to the needs of “less fortunate kids.”
However, the data Strain cites cannot reliably tell what effect attending high-, mixed-, or low-income CMS schools would have on individual students. It can only prove that lower average proficiency is correlated with attending lower-income schools, not that it is caused by attending them.
That correlation vs. causation distinction is the reason why it’s difficult to measure school integration’s effects on test scores. Studies must control for a large number of factors in order to isolate the effects of integration, and that requires the use of student performance data with a higher level of detail than what’s often collected.
But in 2015, the U.S. Department of Education published a study that (unlike the CMS data) was able to control for student socioeconomic status and other student, teacher, and school characteristics. It found that “white student achievement in schools with the highest black student density did not differ from white student achievement in schools with the lowest density.” But black student achievement did differ. It was lower in schools with the highest density of black students. Integrating schools improved the performance of black students without negatively impacting white students.
That aligns with an earlier survey of research published by the National Academy of Education in 2007. In academic language too dry to make for a school-board-hearing rallying cry, researchers concluded that “[i]n summary, the research evidence supports the conclusion that the overall academic and social effects of increased racial diversity are likely to be positive. Racial diversity per se does not guarantee such positive outcomes, but it provides the necessary conditions under which other educational policies can facilitate improved academic achievement, improved intergroup relations, and positive long-term outcomes.”
In late April, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education approved (by a vote of eight to one) a contract with Alves Educational Consultants Group to help draft a new student assignment plan over the next year. The group includes Richard Kahlenberg of The Century Foundation, John Brittain of Howard University, and Michael Alves, who has been called “the godfather of controlled choice”—a student assignment strategy that takes into account parental preference but also prioritizes socioeconomic diversity within schools.
The student assignment decision will span two phases over two years: First, this November, the board will vote on its magnet programs and lottery priorities, with any adopted changes taking effect in the 2017-18 school year. Second, next summer, the board will vote on school attendance boundaries and busing options. Any adopted changes there will go into effect in the 2018-19 school year.
So what might actually change? A return to a comprehensive busing plan a la Swann will not happen. A draft of guiding principles for student assignment released by the board at its April 12 meeting indicates that assigning students to schools close to home will remain a priority.
But those guiding principles also nod to strategies supported by integration advocates, such as constructing attendance boundaries with an eye for socioeconomic diversity, strategically locating magnet schools throughout the county, and giving disadvantaged students priority in magnet lotteries.
No one knows how either phase of the student assignment review will reflect these guidelines, which could be interpreted as supporting sweeping changes in magnet enrollment and student assignment or almost none at all.
Regardless of how the board acts, the debate has awakened a serious reconsideration of the value and legacy of Charlotte’s not-too-distant past. Once, Charlotte was the city that made busing work. It may yet become the city that makes what comes after busing work, too.
Last summer’s This American Life series “The Problem We All Live With,” reported by Nikole Hannah-Jones and Chana Joffe-Walt, is the most acclaimed and prominent recent example of journalism about school integration. Some others that informed our reporting were:
- The Dream Long Deferred by Frye Gaillard: a history of Charlotte’s school desegregation from the 1950s-70s.
- “The Fall of the Lions” by Lisa Rab, in Charlotte magazine: a profile of West Charlotte High School.
- The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial by Susan Eaton: the story behind Sheff v. O’Neill and its implementation in Hartford.
Nationally, advocacy and research groups working to advance the dialogue around school integration include:
- One Nation Indivisible, co-created and -directed by Gina Chirichigno
- The University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights
- The Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles at UCLA
Those organizations are three of the dozens of members of the National Coalition on School Diversity, which hosts in-depth, downloadable policy and research briefs on school integration on its site School-Diversity.org.
About the Author
Tim Kennedy (Mississippi ’11) is the former editorial manager of One Day. He joined the magazine in 2013 after teaching English in Marianna, Arkansas.