Marker-wielding kindergartners cover the stage at Shamrock Gardens Elementary, intently coloring a set of circus posters. They work in clusters, some kneeling, some sprawled flat on their stomachs, chattering happily as they fill the space between the lines with bright and varied hues. Their faces vary too, ranging from palest white to deepest brown.
I watch them with delight. There is nothing more satisfying than acting on your beliefs and then seeing your hopes realized.
Five years ago, when Peter and I decided to send our son to Shamrock, it was the kind of school that middle-class families fled in droves – attended largely by low-income kids of color, with low test scores and few enrichment programs.
Charlotte's schools were resegregating all around us, as our district dismantled its landmark school desegregation plan and parents scrambled to avoid the schools where poverty had begun to concentrate.
But while we wanted Parker to go to a good school, we also wanted him to live in a strong community, one that lived up to the American promise of offering each child an equal shot at success. We believed school integration played a key role in making that promise a reality. We did not want to participate in its demise.
And while Shamrock struggled academically, it was full of smiles and hugs, a place where kids skipped down the halls and teachers stayed late to tutor students and work on lesson plans. We believed it was a place where we could make a difference. In the fall of 2006, we walked Parker through the front door for his first day of school.
In the years since then, staff, families and students have built a new Shamrock one step at a time. We've gotten to know each other, figured out how to work together, found roles to play.
Most of our families, for example, shied away from event organizing. But they were always ready to support their kids, and when they came out to school workdays they labored all day long. So when we decided to build a butterfly garden, I wrote the grant and organized the schedule. Dozens of families showed up to build the beds, haul the dirt and plant the seeds.
It took two full years to really get the garden going. But I'll never forget the morning that students discovered Gulf Fritillary caterpillars covering the passion flower vines, gold-tinged chrysalises scattered across the brick garden walls, and a newly hatched butterfly drying its wings beneath a drainage pipe.
As our garden grew, other things changed as well. Teachers began to stay longer, many transforming from awkward, sometimes tearful novices into confident, creative veterans. Student performance improved, freeing us from the crippling No Child Left Behind sanctions.
Although we recently lost our chess club to budget cuts, we have started a Lego League, a Science Olympiad team, a basketball squad, an International Day festival and two groups of Girls On The Run. Our Asian families cook a Lunar New Year lunch, and our Hispanic women's club sells drinks and snacks at movie night, including the Jarritos and Mexican Cokes that everyone has learned to love.
The gifted classes that we created to entice middle-class families have come to mirror the school's overall makeup – just over half African Americans, about a quarter Hispanics, and the rest a mix of Asians, other immigrants and a growing number of whites. Because no one group dominates, everyone belongs.
Shamrock's still far from perfect. Although our achievement rates have risen, too many kids still don't pass tests. Too many still leapfrog from school to school, sometimes several times a year. Too many don't have food. Too many don't have homes. As my son's classmates have grown older, I've seen the stresses of poverty weigh more heavily on some of them, and I fret about their futures in a way I didn't think about when they were six or seven or eight.
But like those varied kindergartners striving to create a beautiful picture, we are all in it together. I wouldn't trade my years at this marvel of a school for anything.
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Our country needs to hear more stories about schools like Shamrock, tales of the joys and challenges that come when people from many different backgrounds labor together to build a civic institution that strengthens all of us. I think this administration should celebrate them far and wide. Since the legal climate no longer favors large-scale desegregation plans, creating integrated schools depends on the resolve of families and communities. Stories of success can help build that determination.
In recent years, such stories have been overwhelmed by a national obsession with test scores and individual achievement, a focus that scares families away from schools that need their help and obscures the many roles that public schools play in our society, and in our children's lives. We desperately need to rebalance this conversation.
If our country is to "win the future," we have to do it child by child, and school by school. No policy or curriculum or computer program can substitute for the hands-on actions of caring individuals. Shamrock has taught me that I have abilities and influence that I had never dreamed of. We all have these within us, if we will step up and take on challenges together. I hope that Shamrock's story can inspire such actions.
This post was originally written for the White House Champions of Change series.
Pamela Grundy is president of the PTA at Shamrock Gardens Elementary School in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a member of the parents' group Parents Across America. You can read more about Shamrock on her blog: www.seenfromtherock.blogspot.com.