Magnet parents fret final proposal

Demetra Dunlop almost cries when she recalls her 7-year-old son's reaction to hearing there might not be a seat for him at Beverly Woods Elementary next year.

“I can make myself really small and not take up a lot of space,” Gabriel told her.

As a kindergartener, Gabriel was admitted to the Beverly Woods leadership and global economics magnet. A 5-year-old opting for a global economics specialty is the kind of thing that leads some to say Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has gone overboard with magnet options. Adding to the complexity: Many CMS magnets are contained within neighborhood schools, such as Beverly Woods.

Now that the school board plans to scale back on magnets, the angst in the Dunlop household is playing out across Mecklenburg County.

About 2,800 students, including Gabriel and roughly 100 classmates at Beverly Woods, would have to leave their current schools under a plan Superintendent Peter Gorman presented earlier this month. Gorman, whose fifth-grade daughter is a neighborhood student at Beverly Woods, will present his final recommendations to the board tonight, with a vote in November.

Changes that make sense in the big picture – eliminating the Beverly Woods magnet has been one of the least controversial parts of Gorman's plan – can still feel like betrayal to families who have poured their hearts into the schools they chose. Dunlop is among at least 25 parents who will tell their stories at tonight's board meeting.

Her hope: Even if board members eliminate the magnet for future students, they'll agree to keep the kids already admitted. That's called grandfathering, something the board has done in previous years when it phased out magnets. This time Gorman wants to grandfather only the students with one year left in the school – for instance, fourth-graders whose magnet is abolished could stay for fifth grade, but third-graders and younger would have to move.

“It really boils down to transportation and economics,” says Jeff Linker, a CMS magnet specialist. It has taken five years to phase out some magnets, as kindergarteners move up through fifth grade; meanwhile CMS continues to provide busing from sometimes-distant homes.

Some taxpayers applaud the streamlining. Merrilee Bridgeman of Charlotte asked CMS to calculate last year's transportation costs for Myers Park Traditional, a full magnet school, and Smithfield and McKee Road elementaries, south Charlotte neighborhood schools. The tally: $173,000 for Myers Park Traditional, almost triple the cost for either of the other schools.

But some board members want CMS to honor its promises to current magnet students. Dunlop hopes those members prevail.

“I don't know how Mr. Gorman and the board members against grandfathering in our children can morally justify breaking the promises made to magnet families,” she said.

Dunlop, a nursery-school teacher, got her two older sons into Beverly Woods seven years ago, when the south Charlotte school that combines magnet and neighborhood kids was underfilled. It's only about two miles from their home, which is zoned for Montclaire Elementary.

The magnet's international focus was a draw, Dunlop says. But just as important was the feel she got from a neighborhood school where test scores are high, poverty is rare and most students speak English fluently. At Montclaire, where more than three-quarters of students are Hispanic and even more come from low-income homes, she was afraid her sons would “slip through the cracks.” Montclaire is also crowded, with classes held in trailers.

Some board members cite that kind of flight as a reason to scale back magnets; they want to preserve only those that attract students for a clear academic purpose, such as learning a foreign language or earning an International Baccalaureate diploma.

But others say as long as some neighborhood schools remain low-performing, it's wrong to deny families options. About 90 percent of the students who stand to lose their magnet assignments under Gorman's plan are minorities; Beverly Woods is the only majority-white magnet targeted for cutting.

To Dunlop, the issue is simple: CMS invited her family to join Beverly Woods. She and her children did what they were supposed to and eagerly supported their school. And now her 7-year-old stands to lose the only school he's known.

“It just seems not fair,” she says, “to have recruited us and now be getting rid of us.”