It’s not often a school with a low graduation rate is the source of much pride. But West Charlotte High School is an exception. You hear alums call it “the mighty West Charlotte” or say “I am a proud West Charlotte Lion.” So what is it about this school that prompts such love?
A lot of it has to do with West Charlotte’s history. The original school opened in 1938 to an all black student body. It stayed that way until the 1970s when the school helped put Charlotte in the national spotlight as a city that made busing for integration work. Now, a new effort called Project LIFT is trying to help the school reclaim that proud legacy.
Some of West Charlotte’s school spirit has turned to wounded pride. There are the low test scores and then the fact that nearly half of West Charlotte students don’t graduate on time.
Cynthia Ashmore admits when it came time to send her daughter to high school, she didn’t want her to go to West Charlotte.
“But the school has so much history. I did want her to be a part of that,” says Ashmore.
But she looked at the academics and she worried. She talked to a mother on the PTA and she persuaded her to give the school a try. Plus, Ashmore saw West Charlotte could offer something her daughter’s magnet school couldn’t.
“The pride of being part of a historically black school, I think is good to make her feel good about being black,” she says.
A lot of West Charlotte’s pride is tied to race and shaped by adversity. It’s a hard-won pride. The school is nearly all African American now, much like it was when it opened 75 years ago.
“We were able to move forward in spite of,” says Mable Latimer, a 1952 graduate.
She remembers teachers preparing students for the inequities they were up against.
“Our teachers constantly said to us, ‘This is your school and we’re here to do everything we can to make life what you want it to be. And if you want anything bad enough, you can achieve it. But always be proud about where you came from.’”
West Charlotte was fed by neighborhoods with doctors, lawyers, teachers, janitors, maids, people from all walks of life. Segregation made for a class diversity that was absent in most white communities.
Malachi Greene, a 1960 West Charlotte graduate, called the neighborhood “friendly, delicious, new.” He’d go on to represent the district on city council in the 70s.
Leaders in the African American community lived right around the school and a job at West Charlotte was a big deal.
“Teaching was the profession African Americans were welcomed into. And very few other professions could college-educated black folks get jobs in,” says Greene.
The first white students were bused to West Charlotte in 1970 as part of court orders to integrate schools. That was Brenda Richmond’s senior year at the school. Many of her classmates were bused to other schools to make way for the white kids.
“It was a separation, an anxiety more than anything else,” says Richmond.
That first year was rough. There were fights. Kids walked out of school. But gradually things calmed down.
“At some point after the fussing and fighting, we began to realize we all wanted the same thing, which was an education. So we then became friends, and then we became, I guess, the epitome of desegregation,” Richmond remembers.
West Charlotte wasn’t perfect, but students were getting along. That wasn’t the case in Boston. West Charlotte students wrote an op-ed in the Boston Globe and invited Boston kids down to see how busing worked for them. That made news around the country.
But things began slipping in the 90s. The neighborhood had changed. Over time, African Americans had more choices of where to live and not everyone stayed. Poverty grew. Then, busing ended in 2002. Nearly 80 percent of West Charlotte students are now from low-income families. Latimer, the 1952 graduate, came back to volunteer at a West Charlotte that felt very different.
“So many of them, they don’t want to be here. I’m old school. But parental guidance, it has to start at home. It can’t start here because when they get here, they’re in ninth grade,” says Latimer,
Senior Justin Henderson sees that at West Charlotte. He considers himself fortunate to have a mom who gets on his case.
“My mom, she’s one of those moms that, ‘You’re going to college.’ So I tell my mom ‘Okay, I want to go to A&T.’ And she’s like, ‘Okay, I’ll give you everything you’re going to need to succeed.’ And she does,” says Henderson.
“But a lot of kids who go to this school don’t have that support that they need to succeed or they might not have anyone at home saying you have to do this, you have to do that.”
An initiative called Project LIFT is trying to step in and fill that void. At a community meeting last October, Project LIFT Director Denise Watts told parents about the new initiative targeting West Charlotte and the eight elementary and middle schools that feed it:
“We can raise student achievement, if we fix policy, if we focus on the best teachers and the best principals, if we give kids the time they need in school.”
Philanthropists donated $55 million to provide after-school programs, summer camps, teacher retention bonuses, and at a couple of schools an extra month of classes.
“If Project LIFT is going to help our children, we need to step up our game. Because our children are falling to the wayside and I refuse to let mine be one of those 50 percent statistics,” parent Dianne Williams urged the crowd.
Anna Spangler Nelson is one of the movers behind Project LIFT. She’s a 1980 graduate of West Charlotte. She says Project LIFT didn’t pick West Charlotte just for its struggles, but for its strength too, that legacy of pride and love.
“We know that there’s so many people in the community who care so much about the success of West Charlotte. It would give us that much more strength to pull this off. And we’ll see.”