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A Teacher and a Student Reflect on PD's History

PART 1:

A Teacher Reflects
on PD's History

Roy Garrison has taught history at PD since 1983. 

In 1970, after two weeks as an eighth grader at Calvin H. Wiley Junior High School, I transferred to a new school: Forsyth Country Day. Initially I was not happy with this change, as I left friendships that extended back to early elementary school. 

Around the same time, students in Charlotte, Greensboro, Durham, Raleigh, High Point, and Wilmington were making similar changes to recently established or newly expanded schools. The primary impetus for this transformation was the impending shift that would bring a more complete desegregation of public schools. Blacks and whites would learn together in the same classrooms, compete together on the same teams, and ride together on the same buses. 

This social revolution had been on the cards since 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled that “separate is not equal” and ordered that schools end segregation with “all deliberate speed.” Interpretation of the word “deliberate” varied, with many school systems (not just in the South) choosing a “cautious” approach over a “purposeful” program. 

In Charlotte, integration of schools met with strong resistance as was evident when Dorothy Counts attended Harding High School for four days in September 1957. A few black students weathered similar harassment as they technically “integrated” Charlotte public high schools over the next eight years. Myers Park graduates in the 1960s are likely to recall the important role that Jimmie Lee Kirkpatrick played for their undefeated football team in 1965. Despite these few examples of integration, more than 14,000 black students in Charlotte still attended schools in which 99 percent of the students were black.

In 1965, black attorney Julius Chambers brought a suit on behalf of six-year-old James Swann and children from nine other black families that challenged the continued segregation of most students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Although the suit was originally unsuccessful in bringing about change, later appeals won support for integration. In 1969, Judge James B. McMillan called for public schools to enact a plan that mandated greater racial balance in elementary, junior high, and high schools through busing. Ultimately the case went to the Supreme Court in 1971, which handed down a ruling that supported changes required by Judge McMillan.

Many of the opponents to the judge’s plan were upset more by busing than integration. Bus rides of over an hour were documented soon after new plans for integration were implemented. For me personally, I often walked to and from Wiley Junior High, but needed a fifteen-minute car ride from my Mom to attend Forsyth Country Day. Later, after FCDS relocated to its present campus, I rode a bus for more than half an hour to attend. As bad as this sounds, I did not believe that integration was the primary reason for my changing schools. My Mom taught at Winston-Salem State University (a historically black university) and had been visibly upset by the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., a few years earlier. 

In my mind, the determining factors were the size of my classes (50 in my gym class) and the quality of the instruction. I still remember my science teacher starting the first day of class in eighth grade by misspelling some of the specific sciences as she listed them on the board. Nevertheless, I wonder now about the conversations that my Mom had with the other parents in the neighborhood as well as the discussions that she had with members of her extended family. How might these conversations have been influenced by race?

Providence Day, Charlotte Latin, Greensboro Day, and Forsyth Country Day all opened their doors in 1970. Although founded many years earlier, Ravenscroft and Durham Academy created new Upper Schools in 1971 and 1973 respectively. Some private schools that were founded in the early 1970s no longer exist. In Charlotte, Carmel Academy merged with Charlotte Country Day in 1980 and Valleydale apparently shut its doors some time in the early 1980s. 

My FCDS teams competed against Brookwood in Statesville and North State Academy in Hickory. Neither school lasted into the new millennium. Founded in 1971, Kernersville Wesleyan merged with Wesleyan Education Center in High Point and became Wesleyan Christian Academy in 1981. 

The North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association held its first meeting in 1973 and first organized state championships in basketball, tennis, and golf the following year. Prior to that year, there were simply not enough independent high schools to merit their own set of state championships. Without integration of public schools, would any of this have happened?

White flight was a major reason for the foundation of our school. Many other schools in North Carolina were founded around the same time for the same reason. It is an uncomfortable truth about the origins of our school community. To acknowledge this truth puts our founders in an unfavorable light and causes us to ask hard questions. Our answers to these questions will require us to take action. Certainly we are not the same school we were in our first few years, as administrators, board members, parents, students, and teachers have worked through the years to bring about meaningful change. 

Nevertheless, these questions are worth asking as a community and our answers are essential to defining who we are and determining who we will become. To ignore this truth and avoid these questions might help some of us to avoid embarrassment, but at what cost? Shall we miss this opportunity for dialogue and growth? I hope not.  

PART 2:

A Student Reflects
on PD's History

Kaila Dawkins ’20 devoted her Global Studies research project to the origins of PD 

The following is an excerpt from the final research paper Kaila Dawkins ’20 wrote for her Global Leadership class. It was the first such paper in the history of the PD Global Studies program to focus on Providence Day. Portions have been edited for length and clarity with permission of the author. The full paper is available at www.providenceday.org/magazine.

In 2020, we celebrate 50 years since the founding of Providence Day School. How do we tell this complex story with truth and grace while celebrating our incredible academic institution and school community? 

The historical context of Providence Day’s founding in 1970 highlights the impact of segregation and integration in educational spaces. Interviews with members of the PD faculty, administration, and student body help share perspectives of the character of Providence Day through the lens of diversity, equity, community, and global education. 

On September 28, 1970, Providence Day School opened its doors to the Providence neighborhood of Charlotte for the first day of class. Fifth and sixth grade students, taught by five well-revered faculty members, were among the first group of people who learned what it means to be a PD Charger. 

Fifty years later, Providence Day School remains a beacon of academic excellence supported by an excellent community of faculty, staff, administration, alumni, and families. More recently, PD’s well-known passion for global education, social responsibility, and diversity, equity, and inclusion invites significant reflection on our founding, specifically surrounding both segregation and integration in the southern United States in the 1960s and 1970s. Our focus on more inclusive goals invites deeper exploration into the following question: to what extent does PD follow the journey from exclusion to inclusion?

Providence Day, founded on former farmland by the first-ever board of directors, has a challenging history to fully understand. In 1970 and surrounding years, Charlotte — an up-and-coming Southern city — was just beginning its journey as a new banking capital. However, at the same time, “civil rights issues screamed for attention.” Based on this direct quotation from Providence Day School Silver Memories, the book commemorating the 25th anniversary of the school, the word choice and tone calls into question PD’s level of concern for the Charlotte community’s segregation, violence, and discrimination at the time of the book’s publishing.

Court- and government-mandated busing proved to address the issue of integrating schools in the Southern United States but more specifically in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area. The location for Providence Day was intentionally chosen. 

The aftermath of the explicit restriction of black families moving into south Charlotte neighborhoods, like Myers Park, left a residue of very few black families residing in these south Charlotte areas. So, when “the search for a suitable location in south or southeast Charlotte” took place, ‘suitable’ takes on a different meaning than simply choosing an adequate location for a school. A neighborhood school, which eventually would become Providence Day, had a chosen, suitable location in the south Charlotte area, where few black families lived in 1970. 

However, at the same time, “Providence Day’s founders stressed that they wanted a school to offer quality education for children of all races...not an escape for integration,” wrote the authors of the Silver Memories book. Recruiting the most-qualified faculty/administration, teaching the best students, and providing a top-notch learning environment for diverse students is certainly an onerous challenge when the demographics of the surrounding community lacked racial diversity.

Providence Day’s evolution from the fall of 1970 to the spring of 2020 is nothing short of extraordinary and commendable. From just 112 fifth and sixth grade students to over 1,600 lower, middle, and high school students, PD has grown significantly in population size, and in turn, diversity. 

Providence Day now has just under ten affinity groups, including the Black Student Union, Gender Sexuality Alliance, and Asian Affinity Group. These affinity groups — student-led organizations created to unite those with a shared identity — are crucial in providing students a space to hold difficult discussions, social gatherings, and supportive initiatives. Several groups fought hard for the creation of these spaces, including the Multicultural Advisory Board, student leaders, and the Office of Equity & Inclusion. 

Not only has Providence Day evolved in terms of student affinity groups, but PD has also seen major changes in the cultural makeup of the community. According to the 2017 National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) Diversity Review, staff of color increased from 10.6% in the 2006-2007 school year to 14.9% in the 2016-2017 year; administrative members of color increased from 7.7% in 2006-07 to 13.9% in 2016-17; students of color represent about 30% of the total student body. Although the above numbers are averaged for approximately 2,000 member schools in NAIS, they reflect similar positive changes in the diversity of Providence Day’s community.

Other areas of progress include the creation and success of the Global Education Program and the initiatives and partnerships Providence Day supports. The Global Program works in tandem with PD’s standard academic curriculum to incorporate themes that transfer from the classroom to the entire globe. The PD Passport lists knowledge, skills, and personal attributes of a global citizen, which are built upon throughout a student’s learning career. In addition to the academics, the Program also offers non-academic enrichment, such as exchanges, cultural-oriented trips, and Round Square Regional and International Conferences, just to name a few examples. The Program also offers the Global Studies Diploma, a second diploma that may be earned upon the successful completion of the Global Studies Program. 

PD values global understanding but also values supporting the surrounding community through local initiatives. Katie Carmichael, a lower school teacher at Providence Day School for twenty-four years and the first teacher to complete the Global Educator Certificate, also serves as the Director of the Freedom School at PD. 

Freedom School is a summer enrichment program whose mission is to close the summer learning gap by providing literacy development, engaging physical and extracurricular activities, and a loving and supportive environment to students whose families live below the poverty line. When speaking about the care and dedication that flows throughout the Freedom School Program, Ms. Carmichael explains, “I’ve never had anybody that hasn’t caught the passion.” 

“If I look back 24 years,” she adds, “I never would’ve thought that our school would have hosted a Freedom School.” Today, Freedom School is one of Providence Day’s most valued initiatives, with all-school support and involvement through volunteer hours, a student-led service club, and a year-long supply drive. 

Providence Day is viewed as an intense, but prosperous, academic environment. At the same time, the connection between teachers and students as people is one-of-a-kind. Students consistently rave about which teacher is the “coolest,” and not because [insert teacher’s name here] has the best fashion sense. That teacher probably makes it a point to look out for their students and genuinely wants to see them succeed not only in their class but in all the subjects and activities in which the student is involved. This kind of positive support describes “the PD family.”

When asked Does the year 2020 mark a period of reflection or action?, nearly all interviewees replied with variations of “It has to be both.” Providence Day alumnus and Board of Trustees member, Mr. Reggie Love ’00, sums up these thoughts in a matter-of-fact, yet profound way: “In order to take action that is productive and effective, you've got to be reflective. You have to understand where you have been in order to figure out where you want to end up.” He then adds, “you have to understand why you were where you were in order to figure out how not to end up there again.”

How do we use this information to thoughtfully and definitively design a purposeful and everlasting celebration for all Providence Day School members to enjoy? To put it curtly, here is the answer: design celebratory activities that include and make all members of the PD community welcome. 

The finalized celebratory plan must include a truthful storytelling of PD’s history. It may be difficult to read about and listen to, but avoiding a raw, uncut story and bypassing the difficult or less-desirable parts does the members of the PD community an extreme disservice. Period.

In addition to recognizing the context of the past, we must celebrate the evolution and growth of Providence Day School. Mrs. Bobbie Hinson (retired science chair) recognizes that Providence Day was one of the first independent schools in the Charlotte-area to recognize Jewish holidays, which started a series of changes and even more recognition of other religious holidays and celebrations. Mr. Eric Hedinger, Head of Upper School, is proud of the sheer amount of various kinds of classes, including Urban Farming, African-American History, Latinx History, and the plethora of globally-centered courses (i.e. Global Literature, Comparative Religions, Global Leadership, etc.). Additionally, the growth of the Office of Equity and Inclusion, affinity groups, classroom curricula, and other forums show incredible and meaningful progress.

I chose to concentrate on Providence Day’s founding, progress, and celebration through the lens of racial and cultural identity. This is the identifier that I notice to be a topic of evasion, especially regarding PD’s founding and the upcoming 50th celebration. To my LGBTQ+ folks, differently-abled folks, and fellow POC, I stand with you. To anyone who is a part of a marginalized group (or who feels that their identity is under attack), I stand with you. 

To conclude, I’d like to address Providence Day School as an institution. PD, you have helped me grow and flourish in ways I can never fully articulate. The amount of opportunities and experiences I have had the privilege of taking part in will never be forgotten. With the support of my parents, I began to enhance my critical thinking, communication, and leadership skills beginning as a first grader in August 2008. 

At 5800 Sardis Road, I learned how to best advocate for myself and for/on behalf of others. All of these skills are crucial for navigating life no matter where it takes me, and I am deeply grateful to you for nurturing and challenging me. With that said, I need you to hold yourself accountable. Do not simply check a box because it is convenient. I need you to stay on this path of community engagement/partnership, social justice, and global education. Remain purposeful in your mission. Progress is imperative; but its occurrence is nearly impossible if you don’t understand that it needs to continue.

I invite you to take time to reflect, brainstorm, and act.  

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