If you’re confused about poverty levels in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, that just means you’re paying attention.
A report released Friday on the links between race, poverty and opportunity says that 56 of 170 schools are considered high poverty, with more than half of students classified as economically disadvantaged.
That may sound wrong to people used to hearing that CMS has more than 75 high-poverty schools, all with poverty levels of 75 percent or higher.
It’s all in how you track poverty. And that’s a challenge facing schools across America.
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For years all schools used eligibility for school lunch subsidies. That’s where the higher numbers for CMS come from.
But that method was confusing and controversial for a number of reasons. Because it was based on self-reported information, some skeptics said the numbers were inflated by freeloading families and/or schools eager for extra money to support high-poverty schools. And the income cutoffs for lunch aid are higher than federal poverty levels, leading some to question how so many students could be “poor.”
That system fell apart when the federal government decided to eliminate paperwork by allowing high-poverty schools to provide free meals for all students without taking individual applications. This year 86 of 176 CMS schools do that.
Last year CMS devised a complex “socioeconomic status” rating system as part of its recent student assignment review. That method uses census data to rate geographic areas as high, medium or low SES, based on average income, single-parent households, adult education levels, English proficiency and home ownership. That system yields about three dozen schools with “poverty” ratings above 75 percent, several of them at nearly 100 percent.
The new “Breaking The Link” report uses a third approach: Students are counted as poor if their families receive public assistance or are homeless, or if the students are runaways or foster children. Using that method, about 39 percent of students were poor in 2016-17, the year used as the basis of the new report, and about 46 percent are this year.
Using that method, school poverty levels range from 2 percent at Elon Park and Polo Ridge elementary schools, in the southern part of the county, to 85 percent at Ashley Park PreK-8 School in west Charlotte.
The new report classifies 57 schools as low poverty, with levels below 25 percent; 57 as moderate poverty, with levels from 25 to 50 percent; and 56 as high poverty, topping 50 percent.
The latest approach yields a more verifiable tally of individual circumstances, Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes said. But there is one drawback: Families who aren’t in public assistance systems won’t show up, no matter how low their income. That’s likely to include many immigrant parents who are undocumented and don’t want to call attention to themselves, Barnes said.
So the latest numbers don’t mean poverty has plunged in CMS. The district still has 78 schools receiving federal Title I assistance, which is another marker for very high poverty levels.
What it does mean is that CMS should have a consistent way to make comparisons moving forward. Superintendent Clayton Wilcox has promised annual reports on how effectively his staff can equalize opportunities in high-poverty schools.