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Magnets under the microscope

By Ann Doss HelmsCharlotte-Mecklenburg's magnet schools win national honors, churn out graduates with high-demand skills and have impassioned parents singing their praises.

So why is their future being debated?

They're costly. And in tight budget times, the question arises: Are magnets an expensive luxury, or an essential the district can't afford to lose?

Budget cuts for 2010-11 have already scaled back neighborhood busing for 11 magnets. With another tough year looming for 2011-12, the school board is looking at the best way to balance cost and academics in magnet programs.

Magnets will be one of the themes when the board begins special study sessions today, launching a review of student assignment, academics and related issues.

The first forum took place Monday at Harding High, a magnet rocked by turmoil a few months ago, when board members proposed last-minute changes to its International Baccalaureate program.

Avoiding that kind of outrage, which occurred when Harding families learned their school had been sucked into a late-breaking struggle to balance enrollment at two other schools, is a goal of the board's in-depth review. Members say they've allowed time to hear from the public, air issues thoroughly and vote on changes before families have to choose schools for 2011-12.

Some supporters of magnet schools feel under siege.

The board did a big magnet review three years ago, then revised a handful of magnet programs during the past year as it dealt with enrollment changes in nearby neighborhood schools.

Meanwhile, some suburban families have been clamoring for better access to the specialized programs. Most magnet schools are in Charlotte's center city, a holdover from days when schools were built close in to attract white students for desegregation.

Magnet programs have also been added to help fill seats at schools with empty classrooms. Suburban schools tend to have the opposite challenge, relying on mobile classrooms to hold overflow enrollment.

Details on CMS magnets

Background

CMS offers 11 magnet themes at 41 schools.

Twenty schools are full magnets, which means all students are there by choice.

Twenty-one neighborhood schools include magnet programs.

Last year 17,210 students attended magnets, about 13 percent of all students.

The school board last reviewed magnets in 2007, cutting some programs and expanding others.

Current guidelines

Magnets should offer academically distinct programs and diversity.

Magnets should be located to make effective use of schools and offer access to all parts of the county.

Big questions

Should CMS add, cut or relocate magnet programs?

Can CMS strengthen magnets without harming neighborhood schools?

Will money-saving measures, such as cutbacks on neighborhood bus service, reduce access for students who need educational alternatives?

Academic issues

Magnets provide academic specialties, such as learning in a foreign language or working toward an International Baccalaureate diploma, that aren't available in other schools.

Admission requirements may strengthen magnets but leave neighborhood schools with more students performing below grade level.

Budget issues

Federal magnet grants have dried up because CMS stopped using magnets to promote diversity.

Last year CMS paid $1,542 a year to bus each magnet student, compared to $413 a student for neighborhood schools.

The state pays for most faculty at magnet schools, but CMS spent about $4 million extra to bolster magnets.

Delve in

The CMS Web site, www.cms.k12.nc.us, has several links to magnet information:

Click "Comprehensive Review" for data and maps.

Click "Magnet Transportation Changes" for busing changes coming in August.

Click "Departments," then "Magnet programs," for details about programs and schools.

How to get involved

Public forums

Designed to hear views on the overall guiding principles of student assignment.

Tonight: 6-8 p.m., Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.

Thursday: 6:30-8 p.m., South Meck High, 8900 Park Road.

Monday: 6:30-8 p.m., Hopewell High, 11530 Beatties Ford Road, Huntersville.

Board sessions

Anyone can attend; only board members and staff will talk.

Today: 1-4 p.m., Government Center. Topic: Student assignment/boundaries.

Today: 4:30-6 p.m., Government Center. Magnets and prekindergarten.

Tonight: 8 p.m., Government Center. Regular meeting starts with public hearing and discussion of a new policy on educational equity.

Monday: Noon-3 p.m., Government Center. Topic: Use of buildings, transportation.

June 29: 1-5 p.m., Education Center, 701 E. Martin Luther King Blvd. Topic: Summary of comments from public forums, discussion and vote on guiding principles.

Contact officials

Send questions and comments to ComprehensiveReview@cms.k12.nc.us

Get contact information for board members: www.cms.k12.nc.us

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