Charlotte Observer, August 21, 2006
By Peter Smolowitz
Pamela Grundy hoped she could still change a few minds.
It was early January, less than a month before parents had to apply for their kids’ seats in a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school. Grundy and her husband, Peter Wong, had made a choice that even they admit carries risk.
Their son, Parker, would go to nearby Shamrock Gardens Elementary. Most of their Plaza-Midwood neighbors avoid the school, worrying its low test scores and high poverty rate would leave their children unchallenged and unsafe.
In recent years, middle-class parents across Charlotte have been abandoning schools near uptown. At least in their neighborhood, Grundy and Wong wanted to help reverse that trend.
Grundy e-mailed her neighbors a link to an essay in which she and Wong explained the appeal of Shamrock’s new program for gifted students. They described their fears of resegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
“We want Parker Lee to have a good education. We also want him to grow up in a community where people from different backgrounds reach out to each other in meaningful ways.”
The e-mail invited parents to ask questions or share thoughts about schools they had visited.
No one replied.
The three families who had been considering Shamrock picked other schools.
They all felt the other options, because of foreign-language programs or educational philosophy, were better fits for their kids.
But all three did something that a year earlier would have been inconceivable. When they applied for some of Charlotte’s most coveted magnet programs, they listed Shamrock as their backup.
Grundy considered it a partial victory.
“Shamrock Gardens was a viable choice,” she said. “People felt good enough about the school, that they said, `I’ll put it down. I’ll send my kid there. And that’ll be fine.’ “
Grundy’s son is one of 15 kindergartners in Shamrock’s new program. All told, in grades K-3, the magnet enrollment is 52.
Principal Duane Wilson was pleased; he considered the number “realistic.” And he had reason to believe it would grow.
Idlewild Elementary, for example, launched the same program in 2002 for grades K-5. In all, 60 kids signed up. The principal, expecting far more, was crushed. But word spread. The next year enrollment tripled.
The following year, Idlewild had a waiting list.
Grundy kept recruiting. In March, she sent an e-mail to about 80 parents.
“If you know of anyone who isn’t satisfied with their school assignment,” she wrote, “please suggest that they take a look at Shamrock.”
Again, no one wrote back.
Meanwhile, Shamrock’s odds of attracting middle-class families from Plaza-Midwood next year have dropped. The parents of some half-dozen children at Parker’s preschool – who are a year behind him – decided to enroll in prekindergarten at Chantilly Montessori. A Chantilly parent had raved about that school, and the families want their kids together.
One of those mothers, Sally Fries, said she’d still look at Shamrock. But if she likes Chantilly, she’ll probably stay.
“I felt kind of bad for Pam and Peter,” Fries said. “It’s really sad that nobody is willing to take a gamble.”
Grundy and Wong acknowledge occasional doubts.
Their 5-year-old loves to make up stories with his cars and spaceships. They worry he could be stuck playing computer games while teachers focus on kids who need more help.
But they’ve volunteered at Shamrock for three years. They like the principal and his staff’s enthusiasm. Weekly tutoring and lunch visits have left them impressed with most students.
“When I go to the school, the doubt is less,” Wong said. “I get great confidence just being there.”
Grundy says she and her husband have not discussed alternatives. They’re focused only on making Shamrock work.
In time, she hopes Parker will appreciate diversity, as did some students bused in the 1970s who came to value the experience.
She wants him to believe that convictions aren’t enough. It’s how you act on them.
Signs indicate Shamrock is already improving. Test scores, though still low, are better. As part of the preparations to launch the gifted program, each teacher got training on ways to challenge students.
Last spring, Principal Wilson helped push for Shamrock’s first yearbook. About a half-dozen parents have volunteered to restart a parent-teacher group, he said. On Sept. 26, Grundy plans to join them at the first meeting.
In March, Grundy helped raise $800 to buy prizes for students who came every day of state tests, behaved well and tried their hardest. The Plaza-Midwood Neighborhood Association, she said, donated another $1,200 that will be used next year.
Grundy is convinced the gifted program will succeed.
But she wonders if Plaza-Midwood families will ever embrace their neighborhood school.
The first glimpse of some of Parker’s new classmates came May 9, when rising kindergartners and their parents visited Shamrock.
They met in the school library. Teachers reviewed immunization requirements, uniforms and other logistics. The kids learned a funny line dance from a kindergarten teacher whose grandchildren will enroll.
Grundy and Wong sat near the front. Behind them: a half-dozen Latino parents and their translator. No one else showed.
Still, Grundy left encouraged. Parker quickly started playing with the teacher’s grandson and granddaughter. Soon, the kids were sharing magazines, discussing “Star Wars” and whispering secrets.
Parker’s already making friends, Grundy thought.