Superintendent Ann Clark showed no sign Tuesday of backing away from the substance or timing of her controversial student assignment plan, though she introduced some changes she said reflect parent and neighborhood suggestions.
For instance, she opened the door to considering a variety of proposals that have been submitted by families affected by a proposed pairing of Dilworth and Sedgefield elementary schools, but neither she nor the board threw clear support behind any of them.
At Tuesday’s three-hour special session board members voiced praise for families who are working to make changes work, concern about some neighborhoods facing unpopular changes and disagreement over some issues. Clark’s proposal to turn Morehead STEM Academy, a popular K-8 magnet school, into a combined neighborhood-magnet school was the most controversial among board members.
Board member Ruby Jones, who represents the district that includes Morehead, questioned why Clark was sticking with the plan despite vigorous parent protests. “Morehead STEM parents and children are very satisfied with (the K-8 magnet) model,” she said. “I think we are setting this school back.”
But board member Rhonda Lennon said the plan is sensible and board member shouldn’t be swayed by families who threaten to leave. “I am 100 percent behind this,” Lennon said.
Decisions, as well as a second public hearing, are scheduled for May 24. The board showed no inclination to delay, despite calls from some parents and state Rep. Scott Stone, R-Mecklenburg, to do so. Those asking for more time say it would allow better decisions and let Clayton Wilcox offer guidance when he takes over as superintendent.
But Wilcox, who has attended meetings and been consulted on the assignment plan since he was hired this spring, said before Tuesday’s meeting that he doesn’t want a delay. Wilcox, who sat at a side table with his newly hired chief of staff Laura Francisco, said he hasn’t taken a public role because Clark is still superintendent until July 1. Wilcox is working on a per-diem arrangement until then.
Two board members, Paul Bailey and Ericka Ellis-Stewart, couldn’t attend Tuesday’s session. Clark said she still wants to hear from them, but she hasn’t heard a consensus for major change. “Certainly not any dramatic shift,” she said.
Since Clark released the plan on April 25, parent and neighborhood groups have worked frantically on arguments for change and/or alternative proposals.
For instance, a parent proposal dubbed the “Two Great Middle Schools” plan builds on Clark’s proposal to change boundaries for Sedgefield and Alexander Graham Middle. They argued that Clark’s plan leaves Alexander Graham with mostly high socioeconomic status students and Sedgefield with mostly low. The parent plan calls for shifting the Eastover Elementary zone to Sedgefield, shifting the Montclaire Elementary zone to Alexander Graham and uniting the Pinewood Elementary zone at Alexander Graham.
Clark praised that plan during the meeting as meeting the district’s goals. But when asked about it afterward, she said she doesn’t think it’s practical for 2018-19.
Families from the Myers Park neighborhood, who are currently zoned for Dilworth Elementary, are lobbying to get Myers Park Traditional, a magnet elementary school, turned into a neighborhood school that would include the magnet program. Clark’s plan calls for that neighborhood to be part of the paired plan in which students would attend Sedgefield Elementary in grades K-2 and Dilworth Elementary in 3-5.
Board member Eric Davis, who represents that area, praised the Myers Park proposal but noted that it wouldn’t do enough to relieve crowding at Dilworth Elementary. Because the traditional magnet program is full with a waiting list, any shift to neighborhood enrollment would have to start with kindergarteners in 2018, he and Clark said.
Families from Morehead STEM Academy have been fighting Clark’s plan, which spreads the K-8 magnet program to three schools on the Governors Village campus near UNC Charlotte. Nathaniel Alexander Elementary would take grades K-2, Morehead grades 3-5 and Martin Middle School grades 6-8. All would include students from a neighborhood zone as well as those who opt in.
Clark says it will add seats in a popular science, technology, engineering and math program that has hundreds on the waiting list. Families say it will undermine a high-poverty, mostly black school that’s popular and successful.
Jones and board member Thelma Byers-Bailey were both critical of Clark’s plan. Clark said afterward she plans to continue meeting with Morehead families and considering options.
Board members also noted that some parts of the plan that drew initial outcry have been embraced. Davis said families from Cotswold and Billingsville elementary schools have worked together to embrace a proposed pairing.
“They need each other and we need each other,” he said.
Lennon, who represents the north suburbs, said the plan to shift some students from Hough to Hopewell high, which was initially controversial, has been winning converts.
“The community is embracing this,” she said. “People are working hard to build a new sense of community.”