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An Ode to Open School

by Decker Ngongang

November 7,2008

I remember jumping up and down when my mom told me that my sister and I had won the lottery – assuming it was a boatload of money and all the 10-speed bikes I could ever want. Instead, my mom was excited that my sister and I were going to attend Irwin Avenue Open Elementary School that next year.

I didn’t know what the big deal was about Open School. I was just excited to leave my more traditional school for what I thought was endless recess and daily pizza parties.
This memory is poignant to me as I prepare to leave my birthplace of Charlotte to go work for Generation Engage in our Washington, DC headquarters. From being born in Presbyterian Hospital to volunteering at Discovery Place as a Science-Teen, no experience was as formative, and helped shape the essence of who I am and how I act in the world, than my time in Open School. And I am not alone.

As Charlotte continues to grow and feel those natural pains that any growing metropolis does, we must remember what got us here and what will continue to push us higher. We must invest in a culture of community and the people and programs that push our community forward.

Open School allowed so many of us to believe that not only were we capable of being whatever we wanted, but we were responsible for making sure our friends were there dreaming and doing along with us. This sense of possibility and responsibility has continued into our adult lives. Those seemingly trivial and endless group projects and teamwork assignments were more about us understanding the difference between being competitive and accomplishing a goal. Our success in the classroom was as much about the journey and experience of working and doing together as it was about the grade at the end of the day. We invested in each other by trusting each other with responsibility and our own commitments to a goal.

This community will only go as high as our investment in the future of the young people who will one day guide this community. Many parents sacrificed their children to 3-hour bus rides, and scraped money to send us on teambuilding trips and drove hours across town to birthday parties for kids who didn’t look like their kids. These parents knew that for the world to change they would have to take risks with their most precious gift, their children. They needed their children to learn at an early age to work with other people who didn’t look like them and to develop trust in them as it would train us to solve the problems of our communities.

My mom raised my sister and me by herself, but with a family of Open School parents, teachers, and friends she was never alone. She and I sat in UNC-Chapel Hill at my sister’s White Coat ceremony for Medical School and we both cried. I thanked her for putting me and Chelsea in Irwin and thanked her for risking us. I knew that any success I have and any success my sister has in our various pursuits is conversely a responsibility to make good on the investment that Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools made in the Open School Program. Open School may be gone from our schools, but anyone who knows an Irwin, Piedmont, or West Charlotte graduate knows that Open School lives on in our passion to use our lives to make something, someone, or some community a better place.

Whitten Tadlock, one of my dear friends from high school who passed away my junior year, told his mother a quote – “keep the passion.” In many ways it was a fitting quote for any conversation at Open School. The key to the Open School experience was finding our passion. Open School gave me my passion for writing to express my opinion, for conversations about diversity, and for the power of community. After forgetting about math, science, English and the other subjects from our Open School days, it is that commitment to our passions which is most important and what will guide the rest of our lives.

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