Seven years ago Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools set off an explosion of controversy by forcing changes on westside schools. Now there’s consensus: The schools that were supposed to become beacons of success are no better, and in some cases worse, than they were before.
Parents and community leaders who opposed the hasty transfer of 4-year-olds and adolescents to elementary schools kept saying “I told you so.”
Today, as CMS tries to rally support for school bonds and boundary changes, leaders are listening.
“We need to do right by them,” school board Vice Chair Elyse Dashew said at a recent meeting. “I think we made a mistake.”
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The topic: Considering a do-over at eight merged elementary-middle schools.
In 2010, the school board closed three struggling middle schools in west Charlotte and sent their students to what had been elementary schools. Many of those schools also picked up 4-year-olds as CMS closed prekindergarten centers.
Hundreds of parents protested, accusing the district of racism for disrupting schools in low-income black neighborhoods.
If these schools were not full of children of color, our community would never stand for this.
CMS board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart
Though there are glimmers of hope and enthusiasm, most of the schools continue to log low test scores and high suspension rates. Older students miss opportunities they’d get in a larger middle school. Elementary schools that had empty seats have become crowded preK-8 schools where students ranging from 4 to 14 crowd jammed cafeterias and sprawl into mobile classrooms.
“If these schools were not full of children of color, our community would never stand for this, not in a million years,” school board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said Tuesday.
Superintendent Ann Clark proposes a fresh start, with solutions based on community feedback. She envisions several of the schools returning to traditional elementary or middle school grades, while the most popular ones continue as is.
The school board is expected to settle the question soon, and the decision will ripple far beyond the 5,000 students in those eight schools.
Clark calls the preK-8 changes the leading edge of a quest to reshape schools in ways that give all students a better shot at success. Families across Mecklenburg County are watching to see what that means for them.
And CMS hopes addressing problems at these eight schools will encourage voters to approve $798 million in bonds this fall. That requires rallying a sprawling county that’s often divided by race, neighborhood and philosophy.
Beyond what will heal old wounds and satisfy communities, there’s a tougher question: Will moving the students help? After all, the middle schools that closed had many of the same problems.
“I get how ugly that decision was and how painful it still is. ... I get that the pain fell heavily on these schools and these communities,” said board member Eric Davis, who chaired the board during the 2010 school closing vote. But he says he’s still wrestling with the follow-up: “How do we know if we change the grade-level configuration it would be different?”
No one thinks the schools’ struggles will be easily overcome. The schools have already been the focus of a barrage of turnaround programs – including a new one approved on a racially-split 4-3 vote Tuesday night. And families and faculty agree: Success or failure comes partly from homes and neighborhoods.
How this happened
The Great Recession hit CMS hard. Hundreds of teachers had been laid off when then-Superintendent Peter Gorman rolled out a long list school changes designed to save money.
Among the data he gave the school board was a report examining K-8 schools in Philadelphia. He had highlighted the positives in yellow: Higher test scores, better attendance, more satisfied parents and stronger neighborhood ties at K-8 schools.
But past those early pages, the report continued: The advantages of merging elementary and middle-school grades are relatively small when other factors are accounted for, and “a district is not likely to replicate the K-8 advantage based upon size and school transition alone if its student population is predominantly from high-minority and high-poverty backgrounds.”
That perfectly described the schools CMS planned to merge.
It’s like a volcano is erupting and we have to deal with it.
CMS parent Tasha Houston in 2010, about plans to close J.T. Williams Middle School
Hundreds of upset families packed hearings on the proposed changes. Some schools serving more affluent families got a reprieve, but the push to close the three high-poverty, low-performing middle schools endured, even as African-American families and activists protested at school board meetings and in the streets.
The school board approved that plan in November 2010, after a motion to kill it failed on a 4-5 vote.
That meant CMS had to scramble to get eight elementary schools – Ashley Park, Berryhill, Bruns Avenue, Byers, Druid Hills, Reid Park, Thomasboro and Westerly Hills – ready for the teens and tots who would arrive in August.
Meanwhile, Gorman was making his own plans. In June 2011, he left to take a job with a private education technology company.
When school opened in August, some of the newly merged schools were caught off guard by larger-than-expected enrollment. Discipline problems spiked, as teens angry about their old schools closing were sent back to elementary schools.
“I think that we rushed it too much. We weren’t as prepared to do it as we thought we were,” recalls board member Tom Tate.
Success and struggle
Over the years the schools have kept adjusting. They’ve added science labs and sports teams for middle schoolers. They’ve worked to build faculty who can work with the broader age range, and experimented with discipline strategies. Most have changed principals and been part of school turnaround projects, such as Project LIFT and the CMS Beacon Initiative.
The results are mixed, and show how tough it can be to figure out what works.
▪ At Walter G. Byers School on the northwest edge of uptown Charlotte, the promise of 10 uninterrupted years at the same school has been undermined by a neighborhood where families move often. Many of the children come from a nearby homeless shelter. Educators say it’s hard to provide a full middle school experience, including advanced classes and after-school clubs, for their older students. The school is leaning toward a split.
Try as we might – and trust me, we try to put in as many things as possible –they just don’t get that same middle school experience.
Byers science teacher Kerrie Seberg
▪ Berryhill, a majority-Hispanic school perched near Mecklenburg County’s western border, is the academic high-flier of the group – the only one with a C grade from the state, amid D’s and F’s for the others. School leaders credit a trusting, stable relationship between the faculty and families. The school offers options that many counterparts don’t, such as high-school Math I for eighth-graders and Spanish and French in every grade. Families and staff don’t want their school to change.
▪ On paper, Ashley Park is one of the worst schools in CMS, with low test scores and high suspension rates. But parents, students and volunteers lined up Tuesday to tell the school board they love their school as is, and Clark said she’d willingly send a child to the school about three miles west of uptown Charlotte.
▪ Bruns Academy, located between Byers and Ashley Park, has the demographics and test scores of a failing urban school. But its zone includes gentrifying neighborhoods packed with young families, some of whom argue that converting Bruns back to an elementary school could entice the natural diversity that would help the school thrive.
▪ At Druid Hills Academy, test scores are low while racial and economic isolation is intense – the school had no white students at the official count this fall. But volunteers from St. Peter Catholic Church are lobbying the school board to keep the combined grade levels intact. They say they’ve worked hard to overcome the tumult of the first change, and shaking things up again could do more harm than good.
Jean Miller, a leader in the St. Peter/Bruns partnership, notes that CMS is talking about making Druid Hills a middle school, but not about changing the concentrated poverty that poses such a challenge. “It is simply yet another shuffle, not a move towards integration,” she said.
The pressure points
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake, whose district encompasses most of the merged schools, has become a regular speaker at CMS board meetings.
Leake, a former school board member who had moved to the county seat by the time of the 2010 vote, calls the creation of the preK-8 schools “a disaster to the community.” If CMS can’t repair the damage, she says, it can’t count on the strong support for school bonds that it traditionally gets from the black community.
“Why should we support the bonds?” Leake said in an interview. “You said there would be success, and there was not success.”
You just put them there and left them there.
Mecklenburg County Commissioner Vilma Leake to the school board
Combined elementary-middle schools aren’t inherently doomed. The combination is used in charter schools and CMS magnets, where families opt in, and CMS is starting to expand the neighborhood model into the suburbs.
But most agree the district botched the execution of the eight hastily-created schools, even if they blame financial pressure.
Clark, who calls herself “the last person standing” from the leadership team that made the decision, hopes to launch changes before she hands off the job to Clayton Wilcox in June.
The bonds approved in 2013 include $25 million to upgrade six of the eight schools under review. Some of the renovations would be needed regardless of the grade levels. But others, such as adding gymnasiums appropriate for middle school students, would depend on decisions about who goes where.
Ultimately it falls to the school board to decide whether to roll back the changes of 2010, and if so, how to do it. Three of the nine members – Davis, Tate and Rhonda Lennon – were part of the 2010 vote. Others, such as Ellis-Stewart and Thelma Byers-Bailey, were citizens who argued against some of the 2010 changes before being elected to the board.
Clark declines to second-guess those decisions, but says there will be at least one clear difference.
“I think the fact that the superintendent has listened and took the time to do that will feel different from 2010,” says Clark, who has held a series of community meetings and polled faculty, parents and older students at the eight schools.
“Before I make a recommendation I will have heard from the community first, versus making a recommendation and going out to get reaction.”