The day after the 2009 elections, people in Wake County awakened to what seemed to be a shocking development. Their public school system, long celebrated as among the nation's best for its high achievement and diverse schools, had been captured by Republican school board candidates whose platform amounted to dismantling the system. No matter that the turnout for the election was low or that it was limited to just four of nine districts, meaning that most of the county didn't vote. The nonpartisan school board, with its 8-1 majority in favor of equitable public education for all students, was history. Incoming: a 5-4 Republican board majority backing "neighborhood schools" regardless of their inequities.
From that defeat, within days the Great Schools in Wake (GSIW) Coalition was created and began rebuilding the case for diversity and excellence. It started as a handful of community leaders making calls. Three weeks later, 75 people met in the basement of Fairmont United Methodist Church in Raleigh.
Typical of such organizations, a core group of 12–16 leaders emerged. Atypically, another 35 or so people have also remained in close, even daily, contact with the leadership group, while hundreds turn out for the meetings and thousands have affiliated online. As the turmoil with the schools worsened, Great Schools strengthened.
Today the GSIW email list numbers 6,000, according to Yevonne Brannon, the group's chair, and the organization has evolved into a powerhouse network of individuals and groups with ties throughout Wake County. And if the core group is, as one member acknowledged, "a little heavy on magnet-school moms," the coalition can also count on the NAACP and its magnetic state president, the Rev. William Barber, for leadership, along with many activists and educators in historically black Southeast Raleigh.
GSIW isn't a political organization; nor does it endorse candidates, even in school board elections. It isn't a formal organization: Rather, it operates—on a shoestring budget of about $30,000 last year—as a "special project" under the umbrella of the nonprofit group WakeUp Wake County, itself a Citizen Award winner in 2008.
That said, when the 2011 elections in Wake County resulted in a stunning defeat for the Republicans, with all five school board seats on the ballot won by pro-diversity candidates, GSIW was the major factor in the outcome.
Susan Evans scored the critical victory. A coalition leader, she upset Republican Board Chair Ron Margiotta in District 8 (Southwest Wake), widely viewed as in the bag for the GOP. The four other winners also aligned with GSIW goals.
The fight for excellent schools continues, and GSIW pledges to be as demanding a watchdog over the new school board as it was with the old one. Still, Brannon says, "We pulled ourselves back from the cliff of re-segregated schools. The community said 'no, that's not who we are.' So we have a chance, and I think we have the right people in place at the right time to move us forward."
Rob Schofield, research director at N.C. Policy Watch, which is affiliated with GSIW, says the group is a model for fighting the right-wing agenda. "When people around North Carolina ask me what they can do about the right's takeover of state government," Schofield says, "I tell them to learn about Great Schools in Wake and then do the exact same things.
"If it weren't for two years of tireless work by the volunteers at Great Schools in Wake, the right-wing takeover of the Wake County schools would still be in full swing."
The key to GSIW's success, says spokesperson Patty Williams, is assembling the facts and communicating them to the public. "Good, factual information," Williams says, exposed the Republicans' high-handed tactics and disproved their assertions that creating high-poverty schools in Wake County wouldn't hurt students from low-income families.
GSIW scoured the country for examples of school systems that had split into "good schools" and "bad schools" after abandoning the goal of balanced student bodies in favor of neighborhood schools. Among the many, the most telling was Charlotte-Mecklenburg, where the inner-city schools declined so dramatically that even huge infusions of money couldn't save them from closing—at great cost to the taxpayers.
In a stream of white papers, community forums, a film series and two major conferences at N.C. State University, GSIW leaders hammered home the research linking low achievement and high-poverty schools. Conversely, they showed that in diverse schools, students at all income levels fare better or at least as well as their counterparts in affluent schools.
Meanwhile, GSIW members turned out in force at every school board meeting to speak—for the two minutes the Republicans allotted them—tag-teaming their critique of the GOP plan while offering a variety of better alternatives.
While GWIS fought the Republicans over school assignment, it embraced the work of Advocates for Children's Services (ACS), whose denunciation of the Wake schools for disproportionately disciplining and suspending black students predated the Republican takeover.
"They've played a critical role in the movement to ensure that our public schools are safe and fair and that [black] students don't end up on a track from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse," says ACS lawyer Jason Langberg. "It's an honor to call them our partner."
Lynn Edmonds, a magnet-school mom, attended that first meeting at Fairmont Church. One of the GWIS stalwarts, she was so distraught at the '09 elections that it took months before she calmed down enough to speak at a school board meeting. Edmonds thinks the drumbeat of facts turned the tide, but so did the parents who told personal stories, as she did, about the benefits of kids befriending other kids from different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds. "We've seen what happens, and the lessons are life-changing and not something that shows up on end-of-grade tests," she says. "That's why we're there."
Brannon, a former county commissioner and longtime PTA leader, says GSIW's success is due to the synergies of different groups and individual talents.
"This group came together around a core value to lift up the community. They came together to say that every child in Wake County, regardless of economics or race or residence, deserves a fair shot at education. That's what I love about it. I'm a child of the '60s, and I've had a lot of opportunities to be an activist, but this has really been, well, my word for it is remarkable."