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Docuseries On Equity, Race Reflects Issues CMS Officials Face

Gwendolyn Glenn
Charlotte screening of America to Me docuseries and panel discussion at One Bank of America Center

Two weeks ago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools received an award from the Council of Urban Boards of Education for its’ Breaking the Link Report, released earlier this year. The report looked at the disparities that exist between students of different races and economic status in terms of educational resources, achievement and academic opportunities. CMS officials are seeking ways to close those gaps and on Wednesday night, they participated in a conversation on race and equity that centered on the new docuseries “America to Me.”

Screenings for the 10-part docuseries are being held in ten cities to coincide with weekly new episodes on the Starz channel. Charlotte is city number eight. Over the course of one year, the series takes a hard look at the racial and equity gaps that exist at Oak Park High School in Chicago, through the eyes of students, their parents, teachers and administrators. Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said the Chicago school’s issues mirror many of the problems Charlotte faces regarding race and equity.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles says the docuseries mirrors many issues local school and other officials face regarding race and equity.

“We’ll see ourselves in this effort. We’ll see the joys and we’ll see our struggles of life, living in Charlotte and America today,” Lyles said.  “Let’s spread the wisdom of this film.”

The series takes viewers into the homes and communities of students, where they talk about their dreams, insecurities, triumphs and family issues. They also talk about their different races and race relations a lot in and equity in terms of access to opportunities and academic achievement.  

School officials take their experiences into consideration when developing plans to close the various gaps. During the panel discussion, author Pamela Grundy said that’s something CMS needs to do.

“When there is conflict in the community outside of schools, it’s more difficult for kids to work through that within schools,” Grundy said. “So if we’re going to talk about bringing down these gaps, we really need to be looking at not just the individual schools, but the community as a whole to help or hinder students and teachers being able to bring their whole selves to school.”

CMS’ Breaking the Link report showed that only 25 percent of students at low-income schools took college-level courses, compared to 61 percent in high-income schools. Part of the problem is that fewer advanced courses are offered at predominately minority and low-income schools, and these students are sometimes not steered to rigorous courses.

“I didn’t test into AP English,” said former Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxs, who graduated from West Charlotte High School in the late 1980s. “I signed up for AG English, which was a step below, but I still didn’t test into it. I ended up in the class and got an A, and it showed me that sometimes these arbitrary barriers to the highest levels of academics are really false.”

The CMS report also found that schools with high enrollments of low-income students and students of color often have less-experienced teachers and fewer resources. The district’s Chief Equity Officer Frank Barnes told the audience that has to change.

“If you can give those resources for a long enough duration with a great enough dosage, it could break the predictive link from your zip code, race or the concentration of poverty at your school,” Barnes said. “But until we talk about that type of gap along with the expectation gap and the opportunity gap, and attack it regularly and consistently, we are just giving lip service.”

Participant Media, a partner in the series, is making free educational guides for each episode available to schools nationwide. Anyone who signs up for a watch party will get a 10-week free pass so they can view the series on Starz.

Participant officials’ goal was to have 100 watch parties in screening cities, so residents could continue the conversation about race and equity when the show ended. So far, 54 are scheduled in Charlotte when America to Me airs on cable Sunday.