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CMS plan has new twist on student assignment

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  • Construction plan hearing

    The school board will hold a public hearing on the proposed 10-year construction plan at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. Call 980-343-5139 by noon Tuesday or sign up on site to speak. Read highlights of the plan at www.cms.k12.nc.us (click “Expanding choices for students and families” under Recent News).



A new approach to student assignment is embedded in the latest Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools construction plan.

“Overlay districts,” proposed for east Charlotte and the southern Ballantyne area, are a twist on the current system of neighborhood schools and magnets. Superintendent Heath Morrison said Friday the concept aims to reduce the upheaval created when boundaries are redrawn, while cutting bus costs by keeping magnet zones compact.

Morrison, who has been holding community meetings since he was hired a year ago, said he’s heard a lot of frustration about the frequency of school boundary changes in CMS. He said his plan is to carve off relatively small chunks of existing school zones to create base populations for new K-8 schools in the county’s southern tip and the Albemarle Road area of east Charlotte.

Most of the seats would be filled by magnet students from a cluster of nearby crowded schools. Because those areas would be smaller than traditional CMS magnet zones, busing should be less costly.

“Overlays could provide a certain amount of relief, balanced with some amount of stability and the introduction of choice,” a draft of the district’s 10-year construction plan says. “Overlays have not been used previously because of their inability to predict the outcomes of choice.”

Tinkering with school assignments is one of the prickliest tasks any district faces, though reactions often explode only after changes for specific schools and neighborhoods are proposed. In this case, the concept is so new that school board Chairman Mary McCray and board member Rhonda Lennon found themselves unable to discuss it Friday, saying they’re waiting to learn more details.

But both said the concepts - relieving crowded schools while spreading magnet offerings around the county - should prove popular.

“I’m thinking that most parents would be OK with it,” McCray said.

The key, according to the plan, is making sure overlay schools offer attractive choices - either new offerings or clones of popular programs.

The eastern K-8 school would offer a Spanish-English language magnet, in an area where a booming Hispanic population has left Albemarle Road elementary school struggling to squeeze mobile classrooms onto the grounds. Collinswood Language Academy, a K-8 Spanish-English magnet in south Charlotte, is stretched past capacity, too, and has more than 100 students on the waiting list.

The southern K-8 school would pull students from Robinson and Community House middle schools and the elementaries that feed into them. It’s designated as a STEAM magnet, for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. Morehead, a K-8 math-science magnet in northeast Charlotte, is currently the district’s most popular magnet, with more than 1,100 students and another 900 on next year’s waiting list.

The latest plan also represents an evolution of the CMS magnet philosophy. Most were created in the 1990s as an approach to balancing black and white enrollment for court-ordered desegregation. Even after race-based assignment was overturned, most magnets remained located in urban schools, where they’d originally been created to attract white students.

For suburban students seeking access to specialized academic offerings, attending magnets has traditionally meant a long bus ride.

Morrison said his goal is to offer choices across the county, with the new schools reflecting the areas they draw from. Most students in the Albemarle Road zones are Hispanic or African-American. The Ballantyne-area schools are mostly white, with significant numbers of Asian, black and Hispanic students.

“We are very underserved,” said Lennon, who represents the northern suburbs. “We need to get other options in the farther reaches of the county.”

The school board must approve plans for new schools, boundaries and magnets. The board will hold a public hearing on its long-term construction plan Tuesday, with a vote scheduled for April 23. If the plan is approved, the timetable for building new schools will depend on how quickly county officials authorize construction spending.

Helms: 704-358-5033 Twitter: @anndosshelms
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