Thursday, April 28, 2011

Grateful East Meck grad's gift keeps giving

I've just returned from one of those events that perks up not just your day, but your whole outlook. I am here to report something that many of you know, but that too many pundits, experts and so-called reformers seem not to: Urban public schools are not universally failing.

Further, if you want to promote strong teaching, consider putting this into your reformer toolkit: Support teachers, instead of attacking them.

The event was a fundraiser for East Mecklenburg High School's All-Star Teacher Initiative, part of the school's 60th anniversary this year. The initiative, funded by a half-million-dollar donation from a grateful 1973 graduate, Bob Silver (above, at top of tree), aims to attract, reward, train and retain excellent teachers.

If you don't know the story of East Meck and Bob Silver, here's the short version: Silver, after having made a lot of money on Wall Street and grateful for his high school education, called the school in 2005, telling then-principal Mark Nixon he wanted to make a donation. Nixon told him they sure could use a new overhead projector. No, Silver said, you don't understand.

He offered $500,000 – challenging the school to raise enough privately to match it. The school did, including raising $265,000 in one hour at a 2007 fundraiser luncheon.

East Meck, opened in 1950, today has 1,700 students, about 60 percent from low-income families. Principal Rick Parker read some demographics: 48 percent African-American, 26 percent Caucasian, 15 percent Hispanic, 6 percent Asian. A third are in the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program; 95 percent of graduates go to college.

The All-Star Teacher Initiative every year gives each teacher $200 or $300 for classroom supplies and equipment not provided by the school system. Cards on the luncheon tables highlighted some of what the money does: 60 teachers have taken Spanish so they can talk with non-English-speaking students and their parents. Teacher Robin Kolodziey wrote about ASTI helping buy "lab materials for our Enzyme lab, DNA extraction, Osmosis and Diffusion, and cell model building. All of these things used to come out of my family's finances! These things are fantastic!"

Teacher Connie Wood wrote, "You lift us up when it seems everyone else is putting us down. Thank you."

The school chorus sang, as did a gray-haired a capella trio, Class of 1953 – Sam Biggers, Charlie Crabtree, Verner Jordan, who got their start harmonizing in a school bathroom. A new Eagle mascot costume was unveiled to replace the bedraggled one. The crowd was clogged with alumni, including former Charlotte Mayor Richard Vinroot ('58), Moira Quinn ('73), former City Council member Velva Woollen ('57), WCNC TV anchor Sonja Gantt ('83), and of course, Silver.

Why, I wondered, can't other schools do this? As ASTI coordinator Joan O'Brien will tell anyone, it doesn't require a half-million. This city, this country, are crawling with proud alumni from Charlotte's public schools. Wouldn't it be grand if foundations could be set up for ALL Charlotte-Mecklenburg public high schools, and then all the middle schools? (OK, I'll stop thinking big.)

None of this willing fundraising should get the county commissioners and the N.C. General Assembly off the hook for putting enough money into public education, even if it requires keeping a "temporary" sales tax, or asking property owners to pay a wee bit more.

But, as I wrote in 2009, "After all, plenty of local wealth routinely pours into the city's private schools. Charlotte Country Day holds, among other things, the Levine Center, Claudia Watkins Belk Hall, another Belk Hall, Gorelick Family Theater, Bruton Smith Athletic Center and Rea Hall. Charlotte Latin has Thies Auditorium, Belk Gymnasium and the Beck Student Activities Center. Among the buildings at Providence Day is the Dickson-Hemby Technology Center. I hope the example of Bob Silver ... will inspire many of the accomplished CMS alumni to try, in whatever way they can, to help their own alma maters."

Our public schools, many of them, are succeeding. They need our support now, more than ever.

For more information, contact Joan O'Brien -, or 980-343-6430, ext. 312. The East Meck High School Foundation website appears not to be functioning at the moment, but here's its address:

Photo: Students from East Meck's class of 1973 pose in a tree: (From left) Mike Kastan, Bob Silver, Bill Adams, Moria Quinn and (front) Mike Bennett. Photo courtesy East Mecklenburg High School.


Unknown said...

I love photos, especially old ones, but I thought the photo here was of the Mod Squad from the TV show of the 70s.

My kids did not attend East Meck, but did go to schools in East Charlotte and to Irwin Elementary.

I hope folks like former mayor Vinroot will stay on board to keep this issue of funding in the forefront.

consultant said...

Great idea. It's been done before. But all great ideas should be repeated. Often.

There have always been great teachers and great schools. The problem is they aren't the norm. They are the tiny exception.

The success of the civil rights and women's rights movements drained schools of most of the brightest teachers and administrators working there. What we've had over the last 40 years is a cycle documented by Prof. Gary Orfield when he was at the University of Chicago. The lowest achieving high school graduates attend a noncompetitive university where they rank in the bottom third of their college class. They wind up majoring in education, where they are fed back into local school systems. In some parts of the country they wind up back at their old high schools. The cycle repeats.

Only an educated person can educate someone. The problem with our "school" enterprise is that from head to toe, it's mostly led and staffed by uneducated people. Well schooled, but uneducated.

Why is this? We don't want an educated citizenry for the same reason many don't want to support mass transit. For the same reason this nation supported slavery for over 2 centuries. INEQUALITY.

Many, many Americans like and want inequality, even if it winds up hurting them or their kids.

So these efforts of uplift will happen here or there, but not in most schools, because most people don't believe THOSE KIDS can learn or, more accurately, deserve the opportunity to learn.

Here's a good read: Schooling in Capitalist America. College level reading apprehension required.

consultant said...

And I meant apprehension, not comprehension.