Charlotte Observer, August 20, 2006
By Peter Smolowitz
Pamela Grundy is taking a risk with her son.
Parker is an imaginative, articulate 5-year-old. But this week, he’ll start kindergarten at one of Charlotte’s most struggling schools, Shamrock Gardens Elementary.
It’s the closest school to his home in Plaza-Midwood, a desirable streetcar-era neighborhood east of uptown that is bordered by some of the city’s poorest communities.
Middle-class families – white and black – avoid Shamrock for its high poverty rate. The school also has test scores so chronically low that parents can demand transfers for their children. Even affluent students in such classrooms typically lag behind their peers.
A year ago, Grundy and her husband, Peter Wong, chose the school. Then they began recruiting neighbors.
If even a few of the families sent their kids to Shamrock, Grundy thought, they could help reverse the school’s image. And a coming change to the school might be her best chance.
This week, Shamrock launches a magnet program for gifted students. Similar efforts have led middle-class parents to pick high-poverty schools, confident their kids will be pushed to excel.
Until 2002, the county used busing to maintain racial balance at its schools. When the courts shelved busing, and it was replaced by neighborhood schools, magnets became the district’s key integration tool.
That approach leaves parents with a choice, and, for some, a painful moral dilemma: Do we risk our children’s education in hopes of bettering a struggling neighborhood school? Or do we find the best school and risk appearing elitist or even racist?
“It’s very disturbing. We wrestled with it all year, and we continue to wrestle with it,” says Dorne Pentes, a Plaza-Midwood father whom Grundy lobbied.
As a boy growing up in Charlotte, Pentes was bused to schools for racial reasons. It helped him understand different backgrounds, he said, and probably made him more humane.
But today, a year before his daughter starts kindergarten, he doesn’t think the responsibility for promoting integration should fall to people such as Grundy.
“It’s completely insane that this woman has to take on this crusade to help her child get a balanced education,” he says. “That’s the job of the school system.”
Grundy worried that powerful undercurrents of class and race could complicate the choice of schools. So when she first met with other parents, she was careful not to appear strident. Her neighbors smiled when she joked that if they didn’t choose Shamrock, it wouldn’t mean they were scum.
But she believed that if she could recruit them, it would be a sign that the city’s legacy of integration has endured.
If she failed, friends warned, she might jeopardize the start of her only child’s education.
Grundy’s quest started in a neighbor’s living room.
It was October. Grundy set up the meeting. Nine families attended. She brought ginger cookies, and the host served drinks.
The parents sat in a circle, introducing themselves and sharing their children’s names and ages. Then Grundy passed out a colored map and a list of CMS schools where they could apply.
She hoped they would at least consider Shamrock.
Some of the parents didn’t know Grundy well. Some were acquaintances from the nearby church preschool. Grundy can sound professorial, even self-righteous at times. But with this group, her low-pressure approach quickly earned respect.
She started by talking about the complicated process of student assignment. She seemed self-assured, the result of her training as a historian and her hours of research.
But she also sounded like a friend. Picking Shamrock, Grundy told the other parents, would be a tough decision. She vowed to respect whatever choice they made.
As parents asked questions, some seemed grateful for Grundy’s efforts. Others were dubious.
If the school’s gifted program “falls on its face,” one father asked, will CMS stay committed?
The district wants this to work, Grundy answered. It wants middle-class families in high-poverty schools.
Another parent asked, what’s Shamrock really like?
Grundy and Wong, who volunteer at the school, told them it has a good principal and the reigning CMS teacher of the year. They tried to quell fears about safety.
“Nobody is running through the halls with knives and guns,” Wong said. “These are kids.”
One of the fathers remained skeptical. When he spoke, he seemed to sum up every doubt in the room.
Why take the risk?
Is trying to change a school worth gambling something as precious as a child’s education?
All eyes turned to Grundy.
She said she wants her son to see what kind of world he’ll inherit. She hopes a healthier Shamrock will help the neighborhood. And if no parents are willing to be the first to send their kids to the school, it will never change.
“The payoff is potentially very broad,” Grundy said, “and the risk is, we think, reasonable.”
Grundy recalled the one thing a former Shamrock principal said is missing from the school – an “infusion of energy.” Shamrock has no parent-teacher group to donate time or money.
“We’re the kind of people,” she said, “who have that energy.”
The meeting lasted more than two hours. At the end, one mother thanked Grundy. “This is a huge step in the right direction,” Sally Fries said.
Whether the neighbors would take the bigger step wouldn’t be known for months.
Over the past three years, Grundy’s voice has grown stronger in the debate over the future of public schools.
During important public hearings, she’s usually in the audience – tall, glasses, often dressed in fleece or jeans.
The author and former Davidson College lecturer has become one of the most vocal critics of a business-backed task force pushing CMS reforms. She says the proposals are aimed too much at middle-class parents.
She believes the community needs more leaders like those of a generation ago who were willing to send their kids to integrated schools.
Today, Grundy fears, her community has become too accepting of resegregation.
But many others say CMS has more pressing needs, such as severe suburban crowding. They applaud Grundy’s passion. They can also find it polarizing. She drew critics when she co-wrote an open letter to the new superintendent suggesting he live in a struggling urban school zone like Shamrock’s.
One detractor was Sharon Starks, a task force member who wrote in the Observer that the house hunt should not be politicized.
Grundy has a “good heart,” Starks said. But she doesn’t help the countywide system if her advocacy for poor schools doesn’t make room for the needs of others.
After growing up as a doctor’s daughter in New York and California, Grundy attended Yale. Her first job was as a reporter at a small newspaper in Alabama, where she learned more about the civil rights struggle. While there, she wrote an oral history, “You Always Think of Home,” about a poor, rural county. With it, she hoped to rebut perceptions that its residents were backward.
Wong, Grundy’s husband, became an architect after deciding in college that he wouldn’t find enough meaning in dentistry. For their first date in 1993, he took Grundy to the now closed McDonald’s Cafeteria, a social and political hub for Charlotte’s black community. He knew she’d appreciate that glimpse of the city’s pulse.
He owned land in Plaza-Midwood. Grundy, now 44, liked the intimate homes and old gardens. Wong, 48, liked the sense of history.
He designed their home with a distinctive yellow metal roof, a tribute to the tin roofs of the Piedmont’s old mill houses.
They never considered the schools. Soon, they started hearing horror stories.
In the mid-1990s, Shamrock’s faculty had to take medicine to teach in rooms that had mold and mildew. Test scores sank so low in 1997, the state ordered the principal suspended and sent in a team to evaluate teachers and help plan lessons.
Conditions have improved. But middle-class concerns remain. And they cross racial lines.
Take Loretta Jackson. She’s black, and she chose Elizabeth Traditional over Shamrock for the same reasons as white parents: higher test scores and better discipline.
In 1999, Joann McKnight, a Plaza-Midwood mother, chose Shamrock for her son’s kindergarten. She even put a sign in her yard to tout the decision. On the day before classes, McKnight went to an open house. Her son wore church clothes to make an impression.
Shamrock made the bigger impression. Another child and father, who were white, weren’t wearing shirts, she said.
After one day of classes, she moved her son to another school.
In November, Shamrock Principal Duane Wilson held two tours. Almost half of the families from Grundy’s living-room meeting attended.
That they were even considering Shamrock would have been unthinkable a year ago.
Wilson, 54, moved to Charlotte in 2003 to be closer to his grandchildren. He had spent 20 years as an elementary school principal in Oklahoma, mostly in high-poverty urban schools. Later, he became superintendent of a rural district and then a state administrator.
But in Charlotte, he was happy to be back walking the hallways. He started as an assistant principal at Marie G. Davis Middle before moving to Shamrock in April 2005. He had missed the students. And he missed the gratification of seeing them succeed – especially the ones who often face greater challenges.
Some Plaza-Midwood parents quickly warmed to Wilson as he showed them his school. They loved his pledge that classes would be limited to 15 kids – two-thirds the size of classes at other schools.
The students also impressed them. The parents liked the uniforms of collared shirts and tan or navy pants. They liked how the children waited in line.
“They’re so sweet,” one neighbor told Grundy.
But the debut of the gifted program was still more than nine months away. The parents couldn’t see it in action. Some key questions couldn’t be answered.
At the same time, the parents were touring other schools, such as Elizabeth Traditional and Smith Academy of International Languages. There, they saw more people they knew. They got a better sense of what their kids’ kindergarten would be like.
In the end, they still had the same question about Shamrock:
Is it right for my child?
“I would love for this school to work. I would love to walk my kids down there,” said Hope Young, who lives two doors from Shamrock. “I feel a little guilty. I usually consider myself a risk-taker. But when you’re a parent, you become a little more conservative.”
By Thanksgiving, three families, including Young’s, were still considering Shamrock. They discussed schools on playgrounds, at ballet classes, or in grocery stores. They worried that any choice would affect their children for a decade or more.
“We want the comfort of knowing we found the right place, and I’m just not sure there is a right place,” Bill Marquardt, said at the time. “It’s almost overwhelming.”
In early January, parents started applying for schools. Up to then, Grundy had limited her lobbying. Now, she tried to revive the discussion.
She e-mailed neighbors, explaining why she and her husband had chosen Shamrock. She invited responses.
Then she waited.