CMS magnets: Future of public schools or costly luxury?

Coulwood Middle School offers a STEM magnet program that includes this robotics class.
Coulwood Middle School offers a STEM magnet program that includes this robotics class. adunn@charlotteobserver.com

Don’t let the long, dense presentation fool you. When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board heard a report on magnet schools Tuesday, it waded into one of the most emotional and essential issues in public education.

Magnets, which let students choose schools with specialized themes, emerged in Charlotte in the 1990s in an attempt to comply with court-ordered desegregation. Today they’ve evolved to get students ready for college and careers while helping Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools compete with charter and private schools.

“Parents are leaving public schools because they want what? Choice,” board member Ruby Jones said Tuesday. “This is our future. This is at the core of what we’re about.”

At best, magnets draw crowds of students eager to seize opportunities that range from learning Chinese in kindergarten to attending high school on a college campus. The most popular schools have admission lotteries and long wait lists.

Magnets are where low-income and minority students often log the best test scores and graduation rates – though whether that’s because of superior instruction or because those schools get the most talented and motivated students is open to debate.

Parents who choose magnets tend to love them – and feel like they’re always fighting to keep their programs alive.

But critics say magnets are an expensive perk for a select few, which can strip other schools of resources, motivated families and top students. About 20,000 of the district’s roughly 145,000 students attend magnet programs.

“I remember times when our magnet schools were so ‘magnetic’ that they basically decimated some of the home schools,” said Tom Tate, the longest-serving board member, echoing a consultant’s term for magnet popularity.

Tuesday’s report from a Magnet Schools of America consultant was an early step in a deep look at student assignment in CMS. Consultants and administrators were scheduled to talk to magnet principals Wednesday, and Superintendent Ann Clark says a fuller magnet report is coming soon.

Here are five touchy topics that led to discussion Tuesday:

1. How important is diversity?

When CMS magnets debuted, admission was based partly on race. Enrollment that reflected the district’s demographics was a key goal. Now magnets use a race-neutral lottery. Many draw an overwhelmingly African-American and Hispanic student body, often from neighborhoods where schools are perceived as undesirable.

Magnet Schools of America views diversity as essential. The nonprofit group has money to award, and Clark said one goal is lining CMS up to benefit from future grants.

Tuesday’s report said CMS magnets tend to be weak on diversity, including underrepresentation of students with disabilities and those learning to speak English. Lead consultant Kelly Bucherie suggested the district and individual schools do better marketing to increase diversity and draw in more families. For instance, the report recommends that magnet materials be translated into several languages.

Tate said the report was unclear on how it measured diversity, given that magnets often have a better racial and economic mix than nearby neighborhood schools.

2. Do admission requirements help or hurt?

When CMS admitted all applicants, schools with advanced academic themes often struggled to accommodate students who hadn’t mastered basic skills. Other schools, such as Northwest School of the Arts, found themselves with students who had no interest in the theme but whose parents wanted to get them out of low-performing schools.

Over the past decade CMS has added admission requirements, from grade-level test scores to auditions, for a growing number of magnets. That tends to boost those schools’ performance while leaving neighborhood schools with a larger proportion of students who can’t make the cut.

CMS magnet director Natasha Thompson said the study indicates that the district could increase diversity by doing away with some of the requirements.

3. What about busing?

Because magnets pull students scattered over wider geographic areas than neighborhood schools, busing for magnets adds millions to the district’s transportation bill.

During the recession, CMS cut costs by requiring many magnet students to report to “shuttle stops” for pickup and dropoff. That meant families had to have a way to get their kids to the stops, rather than having a stop the kids could walk to.

“Are you recommending that we move away from the dreaded shuttle stops?” board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart asked Bucherie. “I am so over the shuttle stops.”

“We are,” Bucherie responded, saying it would make magnets accessible to more students. She acknowledged that would mean coming up with additional transportation money.

4. Do partial magnets work?

At some CMS magnets all students are there by choice. Others, known as partial magnets, combine magnet students and those who live in the neighborhood zone.

The consultant’s report noted that partial magnets had lower student achievement than full magnet schools. And Jones voiced a frequent criticism of such arrangements: Neighborhood and magnet students can end up divided, even when they share a building.

“You can say you have a diverse school,” Jones said, “but you really don’t. You have two separate schools.”

Families trying to revive struggling neighborhood schools often view a magnet program as an incentive to entice high-performing students with parents who might otherwise seek other options.

Pam Grundy, who spent years on that kind of effort at Shamrock Gardens Elementary in east Charlotte, argued that the best partial magnets extend the benefits to the entire school. Shamrock, for instance, has a magnet for gifted students but all teachers use techniques designed to spark advanced learning.

5. How do individual schools rate?

Tuesday’s report talked about CMS magnets in general terms. Ultimately the toughest discussion will be what’s working in which schools.

Similar programs in different locations can get very different results, from test scores to popularity. Ellis-Stewart raised the question of West Charlotte High’s International Baccalaureate magnet, which has struggled to draw top students to a chronically low-performing school. IB programs in other high schools have high demand and performance.

“When kids are getting vastly different experiences, vastly different expectations, vastly different levels of rigor, we are doing something wrong,” she said.

The weekend before Tuesday’s meeting, board members got binders filled with data to prepare for the extensive student assignment review, including magnet lottery results, attendance patterns and neighborhood school boundaries. It did not include evaluations of individual schools or programs.

Keep up with study

▪ To view the presentation or watch the discussion: www.cms.k12.nc.us/boe/Pages/SchoolBoardMeetings.aspx. “Live via video streaming” includes Tuesday’s archived tape; the magnet report starts at 1 hour, 19 minutes. Click the agenda to see the presentation.

Links to some of the material included in the board’s notebook:

▪ Student assignment plan

▪ Magnet lottery results

▪ Magnet brochure

▪ School poverty levels

▪ Map of all schools