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In Charlotte’s south suburbs, public schools fuel and reflect an Asian population boom

Principal Jigna Patel talks to students during her first week at Ballantyne Elementary School.
Ann Doss Helms
Principal Jigna Patel talks to students during her first week at Ballantyne Elementary School.

Principal Jigna Patel recently switched jobs, moving from Lake Wylie Elementary to Ballantyne Elementary. She’s had to learn a lot of new names and faces in a school with 1,000 students.

And she’s getting questions from parents that she never heard at her old school, things like “Where are you from?” and “What language do you speak?” That’s not because her Indian name and appearance seem exotic here, but because they’re familiar. At Ballantyne Elementary, there are more Asian students than Black, white or Latino children.

So when Patel says her family is from near Mumbai (her parents came to North Carolina in the 1970s) and she grew up speaking Gujarati, parents chime in with their own roots and language.

“The cultural piece, they’ll see that in me and so they’ll ask those questions,” she said a few days after starting her new job.

Small but growing population

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, a category that includes a wide range of ethnicities, cultures and experiences, account for about 4% of North Carolinians. But the numbers are growing rapidly, according to a recent study by UNC-Chapel Hill's Asian American Center and Carolina Demography.

It found that between 2010 and 2020, the AAPI population grew 35% nationwide, 46% in the Southeast and 64% in North Carolina.

Jimmy Patel-Nguyen
North Carolina Asian Americans Together
Jimmy Patel-Nguyen

“And then the Charlotte region jumped by 89%, or about 35,000 folks,” said Jimmy Patel-Nguyen, communications director for North Carolina Asian Americans Together. “And actually Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial demographic in the state.”

The largest subgroup of Asians are people from India, says Patel-Nguyen, whose parents came from Vietnam and who is married to an Indian woman. Even that is a diverse group, he says, including “Gujarati folks, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Bengali and a whole lot more.”

And most of those Indian Americans live in the suburbs of Raleigh, Charlotte and other urban areas, Patel-Nguyen says.

State Demographer Michael Cline explains: “Most Asian Indians are highly educated and work as physicians, engineers, professors, or similar professional positions. Nationally, since the 1970s, Asian Indian immigrants have migrated to and settled in neighborhoods to be near high tech service and manufacturing facilities, medical centers and universities. In addition, like most other folks, they settle in areas where they can connect with family, friends, and other immigrants and second and third generation Americans with whom they share much in common.”

Public schools both fuel and reflect that trend, says Patel-Nguyen. He says he has talked to Indian people who live in and around Charlotte: “They were saying areas like Ballantyne, Marvin, Concord, they’ve seen a significant number of Indian American families moving to that area specifically for the quality of those schools. … High-performing public schools are absolutely a draw for people coming into the area.”

Pattern plays out in CMS

Principal Patel has seen that in her own life. She was born and raised in Rockingham — “I definitely did not have teachers that looked like me” — before her family relocated to south Charlotte.

“You want your child to be in a good school. And it’s important that they are around peers that are like them. And so I think people have moved into this community and then it’s word of mouth within your own community,” she said.

Patel spent 13 years working at Lake Wylie Elementary in southwest Charlotte, the last six as principal. Lake Wylie is more typical of CMS as a whole: More than three-quarters of students there are Black or Latino, and poverty levels are high enough to qualify for federal Title I aid.

Jigna Patel talks with students at Lake Wylie Elementary, where she was principal for six years.
Ann Doss Helms
Jigna Patel talks with students at Lake Wylie Elementary, where she was principal for six years.

Patel’s work with Lake Wylie students and families earned her recognition this fall as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ southwest learning community’s contender for Principal of the Year.

“You have to put your heart out there, you know, and really get to know people on an individual level. And then they get to know you,” she said.

Her new assignment, which started Feb. 1, puts her closer to her own home and extended family. “I’m excited to be part of that community where you can see kids in the shopping center or at the park or other places,” she said.

Only 7% of CMS students are Asian, but at nine south suburban schools, including Ardrey Kell High and Community House Middle School, Asian enrollment tops 25%. At Ballantyne Elementary 36% are Asian, making it one of two schools in the district where Asian students are the largest racial group.

CMS has 184 schools and officials say Patel is one of three Asian principals.

Diversity is a plus

A.J. Shah, who has two children at Ballantyne Elementary, is among the Indian families drawn to the area by public schools. He and his wife lived in uptown Charlotte, but when their second child was born they decided to move.

“We looked at Waxhaw (and) Weddington but we really liked Mecklenburg County due to proximity and just the leadership and stuff,” he said. “We focused on the Ballantyne area because the schools are good. It has a good blend of schools, proximity and diversity.”

The diversity is important to Shah. He says apartments in the zone mean not everyone is wealthy. And while the strong Indian community is nice, he says he likes knowing his children have classmates who are Black, white and Latino.

“You have kids of other backgrounds at your house and they're very respectful,” he said. “If you tell them, like, ‘In this culture we like to take our shoes off,’ they’ll take their shoes off. Or they’re like ‘Oh, you guys don’t eat meat, you’re vegetarian?’ They’re like, ‘Cool.’ ”

A large Asian population also tends to boost test scores. On average, Asian students outperform all other racial groups in North Carolina and across the country. Shah says Indian families expect their kids to excel in school and graduate from college. He says many children, including his own, do academic work after school hours, through programs such as Kumon, Best Brains and Mathnasium.

“They do additional math and additional reading on top of what is offered at school,” Shah said.

Reaching all kids and families

High average scores don’t mean Asian students can just sail through school. Ballantyne Elementary includes families like the Shahs, who are well established, as well as new arrivals from India, Ukraine and Russia, who still face language, cultural and financial hurdles. And children from any background can struggle in school.

Patel says her goal is to celebrate and support all types of students.

“It doesn't matter what background you come from, what culture you come from, what socioeconomic status you come from, everybody needs something,” she said. “And you’ve got to figure out what that need is for that kid, for that family, for that community.”

She says it’s nice to work in her own community. But one of her goals is making sure all the families become as comfortable together as the kids are — for instance, seeing the PTA reflect the mix of ethnicities at Ballantyne Elementary. Right now there aren’t many Indians involved, she said, but “if other parents can do it then we can too.”

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.