CMS review of magnets leaves uncertainty

The future of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's popular “traditional” schools appears to be in question now, the latest twist in a long magnet study that is leaving parents, faculty and even district leaders perplexed by conflicting views and changing plans.

The school board plans a special six-hour meeting Oct. 2, following up on a recent eight-hour discussion that left little resolved. One point of apparent agreement – that Myers Park Traditional and Elizabeth Traditional elementaries were too successful to tamper with – has drawn renewed debate.

“I think they should go away and be neighborhood schools,” said the board's Ken Gjertsen.

About 20,000 students are enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools magnets, which tend to draw high-performing students and passionate parents. Board members say it's time to redefine the mission of programs created in the 1990s to encourage white families to voluntarily desegregate schools in black neighborhoods.

Despite months of board discussion and a series of public forums over the summer, some parents say CMS is blindsiding them with changes that could alienate families and ruin some of the district's showcase schools.

“I'm preparing for private school,” a Villa Heights Elementary parent said after a recent meeting ended with parents shouting at Superintendent Peter Gorman and board member George Dunlap.

Confusion and strife

The prolonged debate is creating rifts among magnet parents, board members and top CMS administrators, with principals often unable to answer questions about plans for their schools.

Last week CMS asked magnet principals to stop letting reporters visit while the issue is unresolved. Spokeswoman Nora Carr said it's an attempt to eliminate distractions and avoid putting schools in the middle of a political fray.

At the root of the strife: Now that court-ordered desegregation is gone, board members don't agree on what they want magnets to accomplish.

Some want to make magnets stronger academically and preserve school choice for families who want it. Some see magnets as a way to protect racial and economic diversity in a resegregating district.

Others want to eliminate all but a core of strong magnets, send students back to neighborhood schools and simplify the system.

“The proliferation of magnets has cannibalized many home schools. At the end of the day we are shifting problems, not solving them,” board member Trent Merchant said in an e-mail to constituents.

Trying to push students from magnets to home schools is a gamble, most say.

“You would have the higher-achievers back,” said board Chair Joe White, who has not taken a stand. “The question is: Do you lose those families?”

Mystery magnets

The magnets with the clearest purpose – immersing kids in foreign language, for instance, or giving teens extensive arts opportunities – are the ones at little risk of closing.

More problematic are those that are popular, produce strong tests scores but – on paper, at least – offer little that's different from regular schools.

The “open” and “traditional” programs debuted in the 1970s to offer alternatives to the standard teaching of the times. Decades of change have eroded their distinctiveness.

Open schools originally featured large, multi-age classrooms led by teams of teachers; those have disappeared. Other elements, such as projects that encourage creative thinking, are now considered standard for good schools.

Previous attempts to abolish the open program met with strong parent resistance; this year's has not. Board member Vilma Leake has argued to save them, renaming if the “open” label has become outdated.

Open magnets at Irwin Avenue Elementary; Piedmont and Randolph middles; and West Charlotte High have 1,345 students in all. Piedmont's program, with 350 students and 272 on the wait list, is considered the most successful.

Piedmont combines open and International Baccalaureate programs, which have enough in common that it wouldn't be too tough to convert to an IB-only school, says Principal Dee Gardner. “Piedmont is going to be fine, no matter what happens.”

Traditional in trouble?

Character education and phonics-based reading were once hallmarks of traditional schools; now they're standard throughout CMS. Myers Park Traditional Principal Paul Bonner says his school is distinguished by high expectations, a focus on college preparation and strong parent involvement – things that all schools strive for and many achieve.

At the magnet meeting Sept. 4, Gorman told the board that, if a distinctive program is the main standard, Myers Park and Elizabeth Traditional should be eliminated as magnets. At the time, members showed little interest; Merchant called them “the two biggest bombs in the community,” referring to the ire that would be raised by changing them.

But in the aftermath, some, including Merchant, say they're looking again.

Bonner said he's disappointed to hear of plans for ending the traditional magnets. The fact that other schools have become more like them illustrates their value, he said: “The successful magnet schools almost become a laboratory.”

This week Myers Park's PTA started organizing parents to attend next week's school board meeting to keep an eye on developments.

Villa Heights drama

For the past two weeks, parents from Villa Heights Elementary, a magnet for gifted students, have bombarded board members with pleas to save their school.

Many say they skipped the summer forums, sure that their tiny, high-scoring magnet for gifted kids was safe. It wasn't until Sept. 4 that Associate Superintendent Ann Clark brought up the possibility of closing Villa Heights, which can't hold all the students who want to get in, and merging it into Lincoln Heights, which combines gifted magnet students with neighborhood kids and has classrooms to spare.

Villa Heights parents say the small setting, where everyone is an eager student, is what makes their school successful. Merge the students into a big, high-poverty school and families will bail out, they argue.

Their campaign gets mixed results. Some board members agree, but others say the parents are going overboard.

Merchant e-mailed Villa Heights parents to say their resistance to Lincoln Heights “smacks of an elitist, NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome.” He told them he was getting so many e-mails he deleted most immediately.

Six more hours

At the Oct. 2 meeting, Gorman says the staff will describe how magnet changes would affect busing, buildings and student assignment.

Since the board shot down Gorman's original slate of magnet proposals in June, Gorman has repeatedly asked the board to give him a clear signal on what they want.

Gjertsen said he thinks another long meeting will help: “We're making progress. We really are.”

Merchant says another data dump will make things worse.

“There's no more information that needs to be gathered at this point,” he said. “If (Gorman) doesn't come forward with a clear, singular recommendation we can work from, he's setting us up for failure.”

Dunlap, the board's senior member, says there's no point trying to predict what the board will do. Everyone still has different ideas.