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FAQ City: What's The Deal With All Those Large Rocks Outside Charlotte Schools?

Charlotte Spirit Rock.jpg
Jennifer Lang
/
WFAE
A painted rock outside of South Mecklenburg High School.

What Are Those Rocks Outside Of The Schools?

They are called spirit rocks, which can be decorated by students, guardians and the school community. Find them outside of elementary, middle and high schools.

The rocks are like billboards, so they can advertise anything from a birthday to an encouraging message to the school community before a football game. Each school decorates its rock differently.

Spirit Rock in Charlotte.jpg
Jennifer Lang
A spirit rock outside of South Mecklenburg High School.

Do Other Places In The United States Have Spirit Rocks?

Yes, and they’re sometimes called “senior rocks.”

When Did The Rocks First Come To Charlotte?

LaTarzja Henry, the chief of staff at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said the earliest recollection and record of the rock trend was in 1977.

“It really was a strategy to help deter graffiti," Henry said. "Because what would happen is kids would get really excited, especially during football or athletic rivalries, I guess, and they would draw or do whatever they do on buildings. So, this was a way to get them to point their attention to something not on the school, and that’s the rock.”

Where Do These Giant Rocks Come From?

Some schools have rocks on their property they can use, but other times they are ordered and put in.

“We’ve actually purchased rocks from a rock quarry, and used it as a spirit rock for every school,” Henry said.

South Mecklenburg High School spirit rock.jpg
Jennifer Lang
One side of a spirit rock at South Mecklenburg High School.

What Are The Steps In Decorating A Rock?

“So, how it works is that you have to reserve it through the PTO or the PTA at the school,” said Breana Fowler, a junior at North Mecklenburg High School. “To reserve it, you have to pay to use the rock. And most likely, if you're using the rock as a parent or student, it's either to celebrate an achievement that could be a birthday or an achievement that your son or daughter had. For example, honor roll or As and Bs, or just a shout out to the school.”

Fowler also said a certain type of paint. According to online art blogs, acrylic paint seems to be a popular choice.

How Do People Decorate The Rocks?

Each school has its own process of rock decoration rotation, but during certain times of the year, rocks tend to follow a theme. For example, during February, you might see more rocks painted pink and red with messages of love for Valentine's Day. And in the last weeks of school, you might see more teacher appreciation.

There have even been times when multiple rocks were decorated to celebrate the Carolina Panthers.

Many birthdays, milestones, school spirit encouragements and even social statements have graced the extra-large stones. Each of these eventually gets painted over by the next work of art, the messages stay with students forever.

“Every rock will be different because every rock is different," Henry said. "So, if you couple that with the opportunity for students and in some cases staff to creatively think, I think it provides a wonderful opportunity not to have the same thing replicated in the same way at every school. So, there are 175 unique opportunities to communicate and engage using 175 unique rocks.”

What Are Some Memories Students Have With The Rocks?

Elementary school students tend to be more involved in the rock tradition. Gabe Schuhl, a senior at Ardrey Kell High School, remembers a birthday message on a rock.

“Seeing my name when I was little in elementary school just painted on a rock, like ‘Happy Birthday!’ when I was 10," Schuhl said. "That was really great.”

“I remember when I was in elementary school ... the rock was such a big deal,” Fowler said. “It would be booked up for the next couple of months because so many people want to use the rock and then their parents and their friends will stay after school, so then they could paint the rock and make it special for them and put their handprints and put their names all on the rock with paint.”

The rocks are also used sometimes for school rivalry. Schuhl says rival schools will take photos with another school’s rock during sports games.

How Else Are The Rocks Important To The Community?

In the summer of 2020, students painted a rock at Ardrey Kell High School in support of Black Lives Matter.

“After the protests and the murder of George Floyd in the summer, some kids got together and painted the rock with the names of various people who were murdered by police officers,” Schuhl said. “It was a really great testament to the Black Lives Matter movement, and it was a really great outpouring of genuine love and empathy for minorities in the Ballantyne community.”

But then the rock was vandalized.

“The names of people who were killed were crossed out and red X's and the Black Lives Matter symbols were painted over. When I say that school rocks are supposed to be a celebration of culture, unfortunately they also sometimes reflect dominant narratives and problematic tendencies of power, which is something that we should always be aware of with anything we do,” Schuhl said.

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Ann Doss Helms

The high school has been in the news over the past few years for other incidents of racial slurs and bigoted behavior.

After the rock was defaced in the summer of 2020, students came together to repaint the rock. But it was more than just the rock paintings that happen every so often at schools.

This event brought people together.

“I mean, personally, I was devastated, and not only devastated but angry,” Schuhl said. “I think a lot of people at Ardrey Kell and around the community felt the same way. So, we got together and repainted the rock. It was a really great symbol, I think of respect and dignity towards the names that rightfully should have had their place on that rock.

"So, we repainted the rock and put our hands on the rock and made a huge Black Lives Matter fist on the rock. And I thought that was really great. And you know, a showing of respect that was absolutely needed after the hate that came before it.”

How Have The Rocks Changed During The COVID-19 Pandemic?

The rocks have also been used for inspirational messages, especially at elementary schools. Fowler said the rocks during this time have helped students feel connected to a school building they might not be going to in person.

“It’s a super cool and fun way to get the kids involved into doing something creative for the kids, especially during COVID,” Fowler said. “This will be an amazing time for our elementary school students to get involved and to do something creative and to get those creative juices flowing and to do something collaborative during this time — something to express the way that they feel towards the school.”

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Alexandra Watts is a Report for America corps member and covers local government and community issues through a partnership between WFAE and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.