Multiracial, muti-class group for quality education

by Jordan Green

With a Feb. 21 vote by the Guilford County School Board to redraw school attendance lines fresh in the public consciousness, African-American community leaders in east Greensboro and white community leaders in northwest Greensboro have launched an effort to bring parents together across color and class lines to improve public education in the district.

The board’s decision to redraw attendance lines for three High Point high schools and the middle and elementary schools that feed them as a means of creating more socio-economic balance has prompted angry protests from white parents, some of whom promised to transfer their children to private schools. The backlash was so great that the expected flight to private schools was even noted by a local FM Oldies-format radio personality ‘— not a usual source for public affairs programming.

Tensions among parents between the competing principles of neighborhood schools versus socioeconomic diversity are equally strong in Greensboro, community leaders say, although no attendance areas in that city have been redrawn in such dramatic fashion as in High Point. And many educational leaders appear to be worn down from the fight, with two advocates for socio-economic diversity, High Point representative Susan Mendenhall and Greensboro representative Marti Sykes declining to run for reelection. In four out of five open seats, three incumbents and one newcomer are running unopposed, such is the thanklessness of the job.

Parents organized by the Pulpit Forum, a group of African-American pastors, first met at New Light Baptist Church on Feb. 23. Rev. Cardes Brown, the church’s pastor and a leader of the effort, said the group ‘—’ now named the Community Education Organization ‘—’ is concerned about high rates of discipline and suspensions for black students, as well as about budget and appropriations priorities by the school district and the state.

Although the first meeting drew mainly from east Greensboro, Brown said the group aims to develop a broad base of participation. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Guilford Educational Alliance, the union that represents teachers in the county, are two organizations that have joined the coalition.

‘“Our efforts are not just for any particular area,’” Brown said. ‘“It’s for all the children in several communities that are working to improve the educational system.’”

The African-American pastors have found a partner in Terrina Picarello, a Summerfield marriage and family therapist who serves as the health and safety chair for the Guilford County Council of PTAs, or parent-teacher associations. Picarello hails from the northwest corner of the county, an area whose schools skew more white and affluent than the district as a whole.

‘“We’re trying to recruit everybody,’” she said. ‘“It’s going to be multicultural, multi-class; all faiths, all economic levels. I’m going to organize the yuppies up here to get to that meeting.’”

Picarello said the bitterness among parents over redistricting has had a paralyzing effect.

‘“Different parent groups are pitted against each other, and that is not working,’” she said. ‘“We want everybody to come to the table instead of everybody being in their own corner. We can’t just say the board of education and [Superintendent] Terry Grier are responsible for this. This is a huge school system, and they can’t be everywhere at once.’”

Brown said he believes the organization will have to address the divide over neighborhood versus diverse schools, noting that each model has pitfalls and that parents within both white and black communities hold a range of views on the two models.

‘“In the more affluent communities where you might have a certain economic strata a lot of times it becomes very segregated,’” he said. ‘“We’ve got to look at all the pitfalls and then come up with the best possible educational system for all our children.’”

He indicated he harbors some skepticism about the drive toward neighborhood schools.

‘“We really have to make sure there is equality of opportunity for everyone,’” he said. ‘“Unless you’re planning on staying within your neighborhood forever you’re going to have to move out and become infused with many personalities and people.’”

Having attended parent meetings throughout the district, Picarello said she is confident that Guilford County’s diverse education constituencies will find they share many of the same concerns.

‘“When kids in class are being disruptive in class nobody does anything,’” she said. ‘“I hear that from every single pocket. They feel like their kids aren’t safe. The kids feel like they’re not going to tell because there aren’t going to be any consequences anyway.

‘“Another issue is that at every school we have kids that are struggling academically,’” she added. ‘“We are all concerned, and [we ask ourselves], ‘What can we do to bring them up?””

Brown suggested that what binds parents from across the district is the notion that society is only as strong as its weakest link.

‘“In order that we survive we are going to have to coalesce,’” Brown said. ‘“When people have very little, when they are pressed against the wall, all us are affected in that society. No one’s safe in that society. We know here is a mutual need to give everybody an opportunity to maximize their potential. Those who have much recognize that the distribution of wealth has to be more shared in order that we will be able to be part of a safe and sound society.’”

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