The courtyard at Idlewild Elementary swarmed with volunteers, students and faculty on a recent sunny day, all working to build an elaborate garden that will serve as an outdoor classroom for years to come.
The project, a partnership with Real School Gardens, is the latest and most visible sign of the creative energy that led Magnet Schools of America to name Idlewild the nation’s best magnet school for 2017.
The irony is that Idlewild isn’t even what most people would call a magnet school. It’s a high-poverty neighborhood school of 1,100 students, about 250 of them enrolled in a magnet program for gifted kids.
It’s also a school where students hail from 40 nations. Gifted students share the halls with severely disabled ones. Children can learn German, robotics and chess or sign up for basketball, cheerleading and Odyssey of the Mind teams – the kind of extras many middle schools are lucky to have.
The national group honored Idlewild for diversity, academic excellence and challenging lessons for all students, regardless of whether they’re gifted, average or struggling.
Too often such opportunities are lacking, especially in settings where most students come from impoverished neighborhoods, a recent investigation by The Charlotte Observer and The (Raleigh) News & Observer found.
“There are extremely poor students who are extremely gifted. What you find is they just don’t have access,” said Kim Morrison, superintendent of Mount Airy City Schools and chair of the Magnet Schools of America awards committee. The group named Idlewild the best of approximately 4,000 magnet programs across the country.
Idlewild is a model for how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hopes to make high-poverty schools more diverse and successful in the years ahead. Last week the school board approved a student assignment plan that relies heavily on schools that combine neighborhood and magnet students, known in CMS as partial magnets.
That approval came after intense debate, with supporters citing Idlewild’s national recognition and critics saying its success is not easy to clone.
In fact, the CMS assignment review that culminated with Wednesday’s vote began with a 2015 study by Magnet Schools of America that questioned the district’s ability to successfully merge magnet and neighborhood students. In too many CMS schools, the group said, that arrangement had created schools where academic success was lacking, especially for minority and low-income students.
Idlewild Principal Larenda Denien (pronounced de-NEEN) can rattle off jargon and data with the best of them, but she and parents who have chosen the school say what makes it work goes beyond things that are easily measured.
Denien recalls what she told the interview team when she got the job three years ago: “I plan to douse the place in glitter. I want things to be sparkly and happy.”
Jasper Ray, an Idlewild magnet parent, says it’s working. “Walking through the halls you feel joy,” he said.
How it got here
Idlewild’s magnet program emerged from an earlier round of student assignment turmoil. It was created in 1999 as CMS responded to a court case that ended race-based desegregation. Then, as now, the hope was that strong programs would attract a diverse student body to high-poverty neighborhood schools.
The “learning immersion / talent development” program, known as LITD, caters to gifted students. Parents who think their children show promise as 4-year-olds can apply for kindergarten seats. LITD magnets tend to get another influx in third grade, after students are formally identified as gifted.
Under the old “school within a school” model, the magnet students – often from families with more advantages – tended to lead separate lives from their neighborhood counterparts. Integration was mostly on paper, with the nonmagnet students getting little benefit.
CMS is shifting to a model in which everyone participates in the theme. At Idlewild, gifted students are in separate classes starting in third grade. Younger children and older ones who aren’t classified as gifted are in “learning immersion” classes. Both groups include neighborhood and magnet students, and both take part in the same types of lessons. For instance, all fourth-graders might do projects based on “The Secret Garden,” but those who aren’t reading at grade level would get extra help, including read-aloud sessions.
Outstanding ... or average?
Idlewild’s approach doesn’t work miracles. Despite the national accolade, the school earned only a C from the state, based on student test scores last year. Just over 70 percent of students earned grade-level math scores, and just under half met that mark in reading.
Parents of gifted students who have opted into Idlewild say they want their children to experience the real world, not a sheltered one.
“They’re supporting every single child that’s there,” said Angela Concha de Hernandez
“It is super diverse,” says PTA President Kelly Barclay.
But it’s not easy to persuade families with choices that their kids can thrive in a school with high poverty and unimpressive test-score averages.
While Denien is relatively new, continuity of leadership is part of Idlewild’s secret.
Her two predecessors had long tenures, says Amanda Helms. Helms is the school’s magnet coordinator, a job she took after teaching both special ed and gifted classes at Idlewild.
Idlewild also works to match or top the offerings at more affluent schools.
The school has had an Odyssey of the Mind team for more than a decade, for instance. The competition, which requires extensive after-hours work with props, often relies on the kind of parent support found only at lower-poverty schools. When the kids won a state championship in 2008, teachers and parents scrambled to raise money to ensure the team’s costs would be covered for a trip to Maryland for the world competition.
Denien, who knew she was stepping into a successful school, added even more, such as a basketball team and a chapter of Girls on the Run. There are electives that include German, chess, robotics, yoga and typing. The Real School project, which includes ongoing teacher training to help weave the garden into all kinds of lessons, adds one more level.
Partnerships with Cokesbury United Methodist Church, New Charlotte Church and Church at Charlotte bolster the work of faculty and families, Denien says. Many parents lack transportation and/or money to send their kids to private after-school activities, but the school embraces them as volunteers.
“For our kids, they need something extra,” Denien said. “Every day of the week there’s someone here till 8 o’clock at night.”
A tough judge
Idlewild applied for recognition from Magnet Schools of America, as it does every year. No one was shocked when it was named a school of excellence for a third consecutive year.
But this year Idlewild was among the top five elementary schools, which meant the school would get a personal visit. Denien recalls that the judge not only asked a lot of questions but voiced skepticism about the partial magnet model. She figured it would be a long shot to win a higher award, but at least there would be a trip to Los Angeles for recognition at the national conference.
And sure enough: The announcer named the runner-up for best elementary magnet, then the winner. Nothing about Idlewild.
Denien says she was caught off guard when the Ronald P. Simpson Distinguished Merit Award – the best of all grade levels – was announced. It was Idlewild.
“It’s like we won an Oscar,” quipped Ray.
Morrison, the award committee chair, laughed when told the Idlewild crew thought they hadn’t impressed their reviewer. That judge is known for a “prove you’re great” attitude, she said: “If you go in thinking they’re awesome, it’s more difficult.”
Morrison says it’s unusual to see a magnet within a neighborhood school rise to the top. But when the award team conferred, she said the choice was clear: “Hands down, this is the top school.”