Pilar Mageau has a knack for getting her students singing. 

The Spanish teacher found that music was an easy way to get her classes interested in the lessons she had planned. During her Spanish 2 class’s clothing unit she blasted the song “Ropa Cara,” or “Expensive Clothes.” The high schoolers couldn’t help but hum along. 

Mageau’s strategy for forming connections between her students and the language she teaches hasn’t changed in her 11-year career in Gaston County Schools. Her classroom has always been fun, warm and welcoming. 

The only thing that has changed is her location. Mageau began teaching at Bessemer City High School, a school of 600 in Bessemer City, North Carolina. Then, eight years ago, Mageau moved 30 minutes down the road to South Point High School in Belmont. 

It was in this transition that Mageau became acutely aware of the state of socio-economic segregation in her county and North Carolina as a whole. 

Though separated by only 18 miles, the makeup of Bessemer City High School and South Point High School looks quite different. More than 60 percent of students at Bessemer City High are considered economically disadvantaged. At South Point that number drops to 22.5 percent. 

“(Bessemer City High) is in a very rural area, so the number of students that have more financial needs was predominantly higher,” Mageau said. “More students qualified for free lunch, more students were the first ones in their family to graduate high school.” 

In some North Carolina counties, the trend has shifted away from racial segregation and toward income-based segregation. Racial segregation has either remained stagnant or slightly improved in most of the state’s largest counties. But in large urban centers, both forms of segregation have increased. 

According to a 2018 study by Kris Nordstrom at the North Carolina Justice Center, the state’s 10 largest school districts, which includes Gaston County, all saw increases in income-based segregation between 2007 and 2017.

The differences between economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools can feel small, but they add up. At South Point High, Mageau said, parents volunteer at the beginning of the year to provide supplies for the classrooms, while many of the families at Bessemer City High didn’t have extra money to spend that way. 

“At Bessemer I feel like the children come to school looking for more of a relationship with their teachers,” Mageau said. “You try to get more involved with them, counsel them with their families, encourage them to continue education. (At South Point High) I feel like the children are not necessarily needing as many things in terms of advice. I interact with them more on a professional level.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, once held as a golden example for how to integrate a public school system, is now the most racially and socio-economically segregated school district in the state. 

The reasons behind this shift away from integration are well documented. In 2001, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals declared Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s school assignment plan, which was created with the goal of racial integration, illegal. This set back not only Charlotte-Mecklenburg, but school districts all over the state as they decided when and if it was appropriate to prioritize racial integration. 

School choice also became a hot-button issue. Some white and high-income families flocked to magnet, charter and private schools, shifting the demographics of neighborhood public schools. This trend is likely increasing in the midst of the pandemic, said Amy Hawn Nelson, director of training and technical assistance for Actionable Intelligence for Social Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Hypersegregation, a term used to describe when a racial group is highly segregated across multiple measures, can be detrimental to the wellbeing of students of color and their families.

“We have decades of social science evidence that hypersegregation is really harmful,” said Hawn Nelson. “We know the root cause is racism and structural inequality, so we can either uproot racism and inequality or we can think about policy mechanisms to create more equal opportunity.”

In the era immediately after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, the answer to the segregation problem was busing, a policy that proved successful in some counties. 

But now, as busing has lost popularity, the solutions will likely have to expand beyond the scope of education. 

“There’s no appetite for meaningful desegregation,” Hawn Nelson said. 

Policy experts have offered several suggestions to mitigate the impacts of segregation, including fully funding schools and addressing residential segregation. 

Districts could also benefit from investing in culturally relevant curriculum, said Jenn Ayscue, assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development at North Carolina State University. 

Policy changes aside, what may be most difficult in halting racial and income-based segregation is changing the attitudes of the families who need to help support system-wide change. 

Anthony Foxx, former mayor of Charlotte, grew up in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools at the height of integration. 

“I think the parents that sent their kids to public schools back in the 70s and 80s had to buy into what the school system is doing,” Foxx said. He remembers parents prioritizing both academic and social education for their children. 

Now, he said, he thinks student performance in the classroom is emphasized over the social and emotional learning that can be benefited by racially and economically integrated schools. 

“I think we’ve lost sight of the kind of society we’re trying to build,” he said. 

Integrating North Carolina’s schools is crucial to the state’s wellbeing, Foxx said. 

“When we think about public education, we’re thinking about and addressing how young people’s sense of how they fit into this country and the ongoing dialogue of this country,” Foxx  said. ”If they’re only seeing part of the picture, they’re going to get the wrong impression.”

This story originally published at UNC Media Hub.

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

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