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Education

New School Year, New Name, New Vision At Charlotte's Julius Chambers High

Chambers gym.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
The volleyball team practices in a gym that's been repainted to reflect the new name of Julius L. Chambers High School.

Wednesday's start of a new school year in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has special meaning at Julius Chambers High, where leaders hope a new name comes to symbolize racial equity, academic renewal and community pride.

The teens and families who streamed into the school for freshman open house Friday were greeted by a new mural at the front entrance, a freshly repainted gym and lots of spirit gear carrying the school’s new name.

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Ann Doss Helms
A teacher helps ninth-graders find their classes at Friday's open house at Julius Chambers High.

But several of the first freshmen at Chambers High drew a blank when asked what they know about the school's namesake.

"I heard it was, like, named after somebody but I don’t really know too much about it," said one.

"He’s a person, right?" said another.

Ninth-grader Tatyanna Neftelberg did have an inkling: "I remember that he was a lawyer, right?"

He was indeed. Chambers, who died in 2013, represented families who sued to desegregate Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in the 1960s, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. His success led to groundbreaking change in 1971, when students were bused to schools outside their neighborhoods.

Erik Turner Chambers.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Julius Chambers High Principal Erik Turner.

Principal Erik Turner understands that students tend to ignore the historic figures behind school names. But he’s out to change that. This year, Chambers High launches a new public safety, law and justice program.

"It’s imperative that we center ourselves in his work around social justice, around equity and around academic excellence," Turner said.

There’s a plan to bring the ninth-graders up to speed on Julius Chambers and the man whose name the school bore for the last 24 years.

"We have a freshman seminar class that we’re starting this year where we teach about the history of Julius Chambers, and also the history of Zebulon B. Vance, and why it was necessary to change," Turner said.

Vance was a governor of North Carolina in the late 19th century. The high school opened in 1997 as part of a “Governor’s Village” cluster of schools in northeast Charlotte, near UNC Charlotte. The name wasn’t controversial then.

But Vance was also a Confederate officer and slaveholder. Amid the racial upheaval that followed George Floyd’s murder by police in 2020, CMS Superintendent Earnest Winston announced that name had to go. The majority of students there are Black, with a strong Hispanic representation as well.

Isaiah Cromwell Chambers High.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Isaiah Cromwell (right), who chairs the history department at Julius Chambers High, talks to ninth-graders at Friday's open house.

Isaiah Cromwell teaches African American studies and chairs the history department at Julius Chambers High. He taught for six years at Vance High and says the name change is fitting.

"Julius Chambers, his legacy and him as an individual, is very important to what we have today in CMS," Cromwell said. "He is not only a local hero but he’s a national icon and a civil rights hero."

Cromwell is eager to craft a course that helps ninth-graders understand that history. And he wants the new identity to go beyond symbolism and spark a culture change, "a shift in thinking and a shift in how we just operate and carry ourselves in this institution."

He says Vance High was known mostly as an athletic powerhouse. He wants Chambers to symbolize academic excellence. One step in that direction: This year the school is adding the Cambridge program, a rigorous international curriculum that’s sometimes compared with the International Baccalaureate magnet program.

"So we’re not on an island," Cromwell said. "This is going to be a collective effort to change the perception not only of the high school but also our community here in the northeast Charlotte region."

On the first day back the freshmen and the faculty will be focused on basics like making sure students have a class schedule and can navigate class changes on a big campus.

There’s plenty of time in the coming weeks to start building a legacy.

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