Evergreen—A charter school committed to becoming racially inclusive

 In Caring for our children, Embracing our connection, Shifting cultural paradigm

When my wife Shonnie and I began our search in early 2016 for a school for our daughter Gracelyn, who would be entering kindergarten in the fall, we did our due diligence. In February and March, the three of us visited ten schools in and around Asheville—public schools, charter schools, Waldorf-based schools, private schools. And in our search, we were not only concerned with academic standards, but also whether nurturing the entire child—mind, body, and spirit—was at the forefront of each school’s mission.

Once we narrowed our list to four schools, we asked for and were granted an opportunity for Gracelyn to participate in each of their kindergarten classes for a few hours. Since a lottery system was in place for three of the schools we preferred and only a few dozen students would be chosen from the hundreds who applied, we figured the odds were against us. But remarkably Gracelyn made the cut at all three. “Let’s take this kid to Vegas!” I joked.

It was a challenging decision for us, but after touring Evergreen Community Charter School’s wooded, ten-acre campus with climbing wall and ropes course, learning that Evergreen was founded on principles developed through a collaboration between Outward Bound and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and talking with Gracelyn after she’d participated in Ms. Ona’s kindergarten class, our choice became clear. Gracelyn would attend Evergreen in the fall.

Early on, however, we discovered that, among the many positive aspects Evergreen offered, there was also a downside—a definite lack of ethnic and racial diversity. In fact, most of the students, parents, teachers, and staff looked like us—white and middle-class. While the school acknowledged that it and other charter schools shared some responsibility for the resegregation of public schools, it became readily apparent to us that Evergreen was determined to change this perception, and even more importantly, the reality.

In September of 2016, Evergreen sponsored its first racial equity training for staff, faculty, board, and parents. The powerful weekend workshop awakened many of us mostly white participants to our blind spots about race and inclusiveness. Afterwards, I became a member of the school’s Equity Leadership Team—a collaborative comprised of teachers, staff, and parent volunteers—and ultimately served as co-chair for two years. Among our accomplishments were additional racial equity trainings, including one for middle schoolers in 2018, and teacher/staff trainings.

In 2018 and 2019, I was privileged to participate in Evergreen’s strategic planning process during which the school’s Board of Directors, with full support of the school community, recognized diversity and inclusion as a top strategic priority for our school. Thus, Evergreen is currently taking significant steps toward becoming a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive community. These include outreach to communities of color, creating more inclusive curricula, removing some structural barriers, and hosting additional racial equity trainings. In addition, the State Board of Education approved a change to our lottery, which will be weighted for economic diversity beginning with the 2020 admissions cycle. We recognize weighting our lottery for low socio-economic status is an incomplete fix to work around the legal restrictions that restrain us from weighting for racial/ethnic diversity. We also recognize that while low income is not directly related to race/ethnicity, a lottery weighted in this manner can be helpful as we reach out to people of color living with low income.

Evergreen has built an incredibly strong and sought-after school over the past 20 years. The staff and teachers are outstanding at what they do. However, a predominantly racially homogenous campus means Evergreen’s students are being denied a diverse, culturally rich experience, and they are not being prepared to live in a diverse society. Furthermore, families of color in our community have been excluded from the opportunity to participate in, benefit from, and influence what has been created at Evergreen. As strong as our school is, it is incomplete when such a significant segment of our community is missing.

Evergreen now has the opportunity to eliminate the inequities that our school has inadvertently helped foster and that our culture has inflicted on people of color for centuries. Yes, we may need to find additional revenue and/or reallocate resources for this effort. Yes, teachers and staff may be called upon at times to do more. Yes, those of us who live in the bubble of white privilege may experience discomfort. But to eliminate white supremacy from our culture, from our community, and from our campus, we must be bold, we must be courageous, we must be on the right side of history.

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My op-ed was originally published in the September 22, 2019 edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times. For more information about Evergreen Community Charter School you may visit evergreenccs.org.

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