By Angela Lindsay
Charlotte is booming. Just last year, Forbes ranked it among the fastest-growing cities in the nation. Yet, for all of its world-class progress, the Queen City has found itself ranked at the bottom of an analysis on economic mobility in 50 of America’s largest cities.
A 2014 study, called the Equality of Opportunity Project (EOP), conducted by a team of researchers from Harvard, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, found that children born into the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution in Charlotte had just a 4.4 percent chance of making it to the top 20 percent of the income distribution. A local opportunity task force was formed in 2015 to address these results. The group’s research revealed a city clearly segregated along the lines of wealth and poverty. Reality such as this can undoubtedly affect the educational experience of Charlotte-area schoolchildren. With this in mind, local private and independent schools are making strident efforts to pursue diversity and encourage inclusion to combat the effects of the city’s stagnant income distribution cycle.
“From the research, we know that economic mobility is impacted disproportionately by a combination of high-quality education and the ability to gain what the opportunity task force report described as ‘social capital’ before the age of 10,” explains Tom Franz, head of school at Trinity Episcopal School. “According to that (EOP) report, many children who grow up in high poverty do not have relationships or experiences that help them (realize) their opportunities beyond their circumstances.”
Many studies have shown that education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty, including one by ChildrenInternational.org, which states that “education is one of the most powerful ways to reduce poverty and improve health, gender equality, peace and stability.” But first, students must actually have access to a high-quality education.
Trinity is committed to providing that opportunity, including providing assistance for children from all backgrounds to be able to afford the cost of its tuition. Twenty-six percent of Trinity students receive financial aid, with families paying between $500 and $18,520 to attend. The school’s five-year goal, Franz says, is to increase that percentage to 33 percent of the student body by meeting 100 percent of a family’s need.
“Trinity Episcopal School has been committed to embracing diversity since our founding in 2000,” he adds. “We are a private school with a public purpose, seeking to impact and transform the lives of all children, by creating a community of people from a variety of backgrounds where everyone belongs.”
There are also many ways that the Fletcher School may positively influence the city’s support of children, regardless of income, race or ethnicity, according to Lindsey Field, director of advancement.
“Through the school’s Rankin Institute —the outreach arm of the Fletcher School, we will continue to educate teachers—both public and private—on strategies to educate students with learning differences,” she explains. “We will continue to provide a Fletcher education to those who need it, regardless of ability to pay tuition and to welcome all students, faculty and staff regardless of race, color, age, sex, national origin, religion, creed, handicap or disability. Through our strategic planning process, we will continue to identify opportunities to lead, host dialogue and to better serve all students who might benefit from a Fletcher education.”
How we teach must reflect who we teach
While every child may not be born into an ideal social environment or financial situation, each has a fundamental right to a basic, sound education under the Constitution of the state of North Carolina. But not every child learns the same way. Failing to recognize this fact can lead to frustration and disinterest. According to Sonja L. Taylor, director of diversity and inclusion at Charlotte Latin, learning should be fun, which necessitates a customized approach to classroom instruction.
“How we teach must reflect who we teach, with careful consideration for students’ individual learning preferences, strengths and needs,” she says. “Inclusive teaching is differentiated and intentionally seeks to connect instructional strategies to how students demonstrate learning. The body of research supports differentiation as a culturally responsive teaching practice, because it increases student engagement and self-awareness, promotes creativity and provides many pathways for students to acquire and share knowledge.”
Taylor acknowledges that while each of us has biases, it is important to address them directly, particularly in school settings where she says the impact of bias has been shown to hinder student achievement, promote negative stereotypes, hurt students’ academic and social self-efficacy and foster exclusion.
“I am excited that our faculty professional development focus for the 2017-2018 school year is on increasing cultural competence,” she says. “Within this framework, our faculty will learn about best practice models for culturally competent teaching, which include anti-bias strategies such as cooperative learning via social action projects, using civil dialogue to build understanding, instructional scaffolding and self-reflection.”
Most recently at Charlotte Country Day School (CCDS), the AMAZE program has been used in the junior kindergarten and kindergarten classes. The AMAZE program “supports healthy identities, connected learning communities and respect across differences by working at the intersections of anti-bias education theory, diversity and inclusion and social emotional learning,” says Brian Wise, director of diversity planning at CCDS. The program will be expanded to first through fourth grades this coming school year.
“As an independent school, one core aspect of our mission is to know our children deeply, to be able to teach them deeply,” Wise says. “We believe if you know how your students learn, you can create a student-centered classroom and stretch them to get much further. In order to prepare students for the 21st century and an ever-changing global and complex world, we know that having a diversity of thought and instruction increases learning and more risk-taking for our students. By being at the learning edge, students can reach their potential and gain the richness that comes from allowing these kinds of creativity.”
A 2016 report by TheCenturyFoundation.org finds that students in integrated schools have higher average test scores and are less likely than others to drop out. Integrated schools also help to reduce racial achievement gaps while integrated classrooms encourage critical thinking, problem solving and creativity—skills important to instill in area private and independent schools.
“Learning differences are prevalent among all races, cultures, religions, genders and socioeconomic backgrounds,” says Field. “Many Fletcher students have felt, at one time or another, misunderstood or as if they did not belong within a traditional classroom setting or school environment. Our neuro–diverse students often times see and experience the world around them differently from others. It is imperative that they not only learn to celebrate and understand differences in themselves, but also in others. Promoting creative, inclusive, and diverse ways of learning allows students, faculty and staff representing diverse ways of thinking, cultures and experiences to instruct one another in the meaning and value of community. Building a culture that celebrates unique talents, perspectives and experiences enriches the lives of students and is essential in preparing them for future academic and life success.”
Any concerns regarding race, socioeconomic background, ethnicity or religion in the learning environment at Brisbane Academy Preparatory School are identified and addressed immediately, its head of school Christopher Crooks says:
“It is our intent to provide each scholar, family and staff member with a learning environment where everyone is treated and respected equally. We believe conscious awareness and active discussion among our staff, student, parents and community is required to prepare our scholars in responding to the ongoing issues they may face in the future. It is our intent to build self-esteem and confidence, as well as instill respect and compassion.”
Brisbane ensures this goal by maintaining classroom settings offering a 10:1 student to teacher ratio, which allows its instructors “to utilize every opportunity for scholars to share their family backgrounds and
history, especially those scholars interested in sharing unique cultural experiences such as foods, traditions, music, dance and more,” he says.
Connecting Across Campuses
Sometimes all it takes is a little exposure to increase awareness and dismantle barriers and biases. In an intentional approach to doing just that, Providence Day School currently has sustainable partnerships with other schools such as Bruns Academy, whose eighth grade students join Providence Day eighth graders several times throughout the school year “to explore identity, engage in cross-cultural dialogues and leadership training and perform service to the greater Charlotte community.”
“Cultivating cross-cultural, collaborative partnerships with other area schools is central to the work we do,” says Dr. Nadia Johnson, executive director of diversity and multicultural education at Providence Day. “At
Providence Day School, we define the concept of culturally responsive teaching as embracing methods of instruction that recognize the importance of cultural knowledge and awareness, lived experience and diverse learning styles to create a learning environment that fosters academic excellence.”
Research has shown the third grade to be a pivotal milestone in the lives of schoolchildren, and the third grade curriculum at the Fletcher School encompasses a cross-cultural collaboration with 80 other schools across the world. The global collaboration project, titled “If You Learned Here,” promotes curiosity, empathy and understanding through student-driven dialogue. Students at each participating school starts by writing pages for an eBook that links the schools together and provides a spark for student questions, Field says. Then the “crowd-sourced” student questions are answered individually by students around the world.
This year, Cannon School established an exchange with the Charlotte Islamic Academy (CIA) in an effort “to promote understanding and connection.” A group of 25 upper school students from Cannon spent a day with CIA students on their campus, observing and asking questions. In addition, Cannon’s fourth grade students became pen pals with fourth grade students at CIA.
“Our institution can help Charlotte … by continuing to invite, welcome and educate high- caliber students from diverse backgrounds and creating an environment of inclusion and equity on our campus,” says Michelle Zelaya, associate dean of students and upper school diversity coordinator at Cannon School. “The hope would be that the lessons learned here, and the sense of belonging and community we create, will have a ripple effect into different aspects of their lives.”
It is a sentiment shared by many private and independent schools, who wish for their students not only to be aware of the differences within their own communities, but also to be armed with the values learned from those experiences for whenever they enter national and international settings.
“We value diversity across the spectrum of human experience, as inherently valuable for the many benefits it brings to the community,” says Charlotte Preparatory head of school Eddie Mensah. “Our lives are enriched by multiple experiences and perspectives and the quality of thought—whether it be among faculty and staff, parents or student work groups— that is also improved. We also recognize that our students will inhabit a world that is ‘shrinking and linking,’ and that their future success will depend greatly on cultural dexterity and the ability to work effectively with others from many other backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.”