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West Charlotte High School Celebrates 80 Years

Nick de la Canal/WFAE

West Charlotte High School is celebrating its 80th anniversary this weekend. Through the 70s, 80s and 90s the school served as a national model for successful integration using crosstown busing. In its heyday, it was described as Camelot. But as busing faded out, so did the school’s reign as a beacon of education. Test scores dropped and truancy rates increased, but a family environment has remained through the school’s trials and triumphs.

Timothy Gibbs, the president of West Charlotte’s National Alumni Association spoke with Nick de la Canal ahead of the weekend festivities that includes a breakfast keynoted by alumnus and former mayor of Charlotte Anthony Foxx.

Nick de la Canal: So now that everyone knows the history of West Charlotte, can you catch us up on how and when the school was founded?

Tim Gibbs: The school was founded in 1938, it was the second high school for African Americans in the city, the enrollment at Second Ward High School which was in uptown Charlotte adjacent to what is currently Marshall Park was getting overcrowded, so there was need for a new high school. A campus was selected that was located at 1415 Beatties Ford Road, which is now the home of Northwest School of the Arts.

De la Canal: And so that means West Charlotte is not in its original spot?

Gibbs: That's correct it moved about a mile north of the former location to its current location on Senior Drive.

De la Canal: And when was that?

Gibbs: 1954.

De la Canal: And you graduated West Charlotte in 1978?

Gibbs: That’s correct.

De la Canal: So that means you actually attended the school relatively soon after CMS started integrating schools? Were there any feelings of racial animosity or tension when you were there?

Gibbs: Actually when I arrived at West Charlotte those animosities had pretty much died down. What happened was you had students that had different interest, and regardless of race, if you were a jock you hung out with those in athletics, if you were in chorus or the arts, those folks hung together. So you basically had groups at the school that were established based on your interest and not exclusively on race.

De la Canal: Who did you hang out with?

Gibbs: I was sports editor of the yearbook at the time so I had an affinity for athletics, but I also really enjoyed writing, and that's another thing that was really unique about West Charlotte you could go between different groups and it was OK.

De la Canal: It was considered a national model for school integration, especially in the 70s, 80s and 90s. But as the school moved into the late 1990s and 2000s it seemed to take a downturn. The school saw falling test scores, higher truancy rates. There was even talks about closing the school down at one point. Why do you think that happened — do you think it might have been linked to court order busing?

Gibbs: I think that had a role to play in it. I think also the dynamics of the school, or the student body changed where you had a student body that was more reflective of the population within the city of Charlotte and it left from that point to being exclusively minority and primarily African-American.

De la Canal: Moving to present day, West Charlotte’s principal Dr. Tamisha Barnes — Jones was just named CMS principle of the year and it was quite a ceremony, the whole school surprised her in the auditorium. She was recognized for among a number of things improving the school's graduation rate and college readiness program. How do you feel the school is doing today?

Gibbs: I think it's better. We still have a ways to go. Dr. Barnes -Jones has definitely taken the first step in moving us back to what we feel will ultimately be greatness. She’s trying to institute an atmosphere of family and letting every student know they’re cared for, they believe in them, they can achieve and if they work hard enough they will achieve.

De la Canal: Finally former mayor Anthony Foxx, a West Charlotte alum, he’s giving the keynote address for the 80th-anniversary breakfast this weekend. How big of a deal do you think it is that West Charlotte is celebrating 80 years this weekend?

Gibbs: I think it’s a very huge deal, our first principle was Clinton L. Blake, he was the principal from the school's inception to 1966. He was the longest-tenured principle. I think he set the tone and the bar. I think we're absolutely trying to reach that bar and hopefully surpass it, so if he was here I think Mr. Blake would say job well done.

Nick de la Canal is the host of Weekend Edition on Saturday/Sunday mornings, and a reporter covering breaking news, arts and culture, and general assignment stories. His work frequently appears on air and online. Periodically, he tweets: @nickdelacanal