“Many things we need can wait. The child cannot.
Now is the time his bones are formed, his mind developed.
To him we cannot say tomorrow, his name is today.”

Gabriela Mistral

Concentrations of poverty:  it is a problem that is hardly unique to our community.  Indeed, the issue is being wrestled with in communities all across our country.

As Elizabeth Kneebone of the Brookings Institute noted, the clustering and concentration of poverty has “erod(ed) the brief progress made against concentrated poverty during the late 1990s…. The challenges of poor neighborhoods—including worse health outcomes, higher crime rates, failing schools, and fewer job opportunities—make it that much harder for individuals and families to escape poverty and often perpetuate and entrench poverty across generations. These factors affect not only the residents and communities touched by concentrated disadvantage, but also the regions they inhabit and the ability of those metro areas to grow in inclusive and sustainable ways.”

photo 1Our community is evaluating how to correct the educational, health, and economic problems created by the concentrations of poverty we have created in more than a third of our public schools.  After 13 years of experimentation with the “neighborhood schools” plan of student assignment, our community has learned that we have found the most expensive and least effective way to teach far too many of our children.

The issue is in front of the current Board of Education, and it is a factor in the Board of Education, Mayoral, and City Council races that will be decided this fall. The topic is in the news, and  is the subject of meetings held weekly by many groups, including the Opportunity Task Force, MeckMin, and OneMECK. Almost everybody agrees that somebody should do something, but the fingers point in many directions and every solution seems to involve more consultants and focus groups than leadership.

As Robert Putnam, the author of Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, has said, a community can deal with concentrations of poverty in public schools in three ways: move money, move children, or move families.

In the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, we began by moving children. The Swann desegregation order compelled us to bus children of all races to achieve a balance that reflected the general population of children. Black children still spent most of the time on the buses. As magnet programs developed near the center city, some of the busing became voluntary and involved more white children.

When the Swann order ended and we began a race-neutral student assignment plan, we created a pattern which persists today: busing more children more miles for their neighborhood assignments and for choice than we ever did under Swann. All that busing serves a pupil assignment plan that has resulted in more schools with higher concentrations of poverty.  Some school populations are virtually 100% economically disadvantaged students.

All of the evidence shows that children do not learn as well when they are socioeconomically isolated.  We know this. So how has our community chosen to counter this problem?

We have moved money.  We have bought programs like Project L.I.F.T., reduced class sizes, and provided incentives for experienced administrators and teachers with advanced degrees to commit their services to these schools. The money and the heroic efforts of the school personnel have not been wasted; more of our children in schools with high concentrations of poverty have achieved better results.

But the money is a finger in a failing dike.  Children in these schools continue to falter under the trauma of poverty that they bring to school with them every day: homelessness, hunger, insecurity, and lack of access to even the basic resources that create a foundation for learning. There is not enough money, even in our wealthy community, to provide our poor children with fundamental education, health, and economic opportunities when we concentrate and isolate them as we have.

So our discussion this fall has turned to moving families: adopting public policies that will reduce concentrations of poverty in neighborhoods so we can continue to have our neighborhood schools without isolation by socio-economic status and race. The Board of Education has turned to City officials for help and City officials have started to talk.

In the long run, perhaps housing policy really can create a broader community that is more integrated, and the possibility should be explored, but the child cannot wait. We have already sent one entire generation of students through K-12 with increasing concentrations of poverty.  Even if we find the perfect housing policy, how many more generations of children will we fail to protect from the harm of this current course?

Only the Board of Education, with funding from the State and the County Commission, has the power to act now to reverse this destructive pattern. And the solution does not lie in the reports of more consultants or in the responses of more focus groups. That will be money and time wasted. The solution lies in what Amy Hawn Nelson has called “the success we chose to reject:” moving children. The reality of demographics and distance mean that we cannot create a perfect balance, but we can certainly make it more likely that investment we will continue to have to make will shore up the dike.

There are still plenty of CMS staff members working today who remember how to do this: to draw attendance boundaries to create a better balance of socioeconomic status for each school; to supplement the boundary adjustments by concentrating magnet schools in less-affluent areas near the center city to draw pupils from more affluent areas; to reserve seats in low-poverty schools for children from high-poverty neighborhoods; to provide transportation – voluntary as much as possible and by assignment as much as necessary – to effect the plan; and to communicate how it will work and why it is the best way to improve education, health, and prosperity for all of our children.

The Board of Education has the power to make these changes today, so the child will not have to wait. We should expect the Board of Education to do their job: to show the leadership needed to create effective policy, to enable and empower CMS staff to build a plan, and to bring the community along with them to do what we all already know is the best choice for all of our children.

Bob Simmons is the executive director of Council for Children’s Rights.

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