It’s crunch time for CMS magnet plan, and the nation is watching

In the coming month, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will decide how to reshape assignment to magnet schools such as Piedmont Middle School.
In the coming month, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will decide how to reshape assignment to magnet schools such as Piedmont Middle School.

In the next four weeks, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will make decisions that could shape where thousands of students go to school in 2017.

On Monday and Tuesday, the board must turn more than a year of talk about magnet schools and student assignment into concrete proposals that will redefine how the region talks about opportunity, advantage and disadvantage. The board will chart new paths to help students opt out of low-performing schools and reshape a lottery that determines who gets into the most popular specialty schools.

And they’ll do it with local emotions and national scrutiny cranked up by last month’s racial turmoil. It was the Sept. 20 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott that sparked protests and street violence, but local activists and national media such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic quickly linked the isolation and frustration of Charlotte’s low-income mostly-black neighborhoods to resegregation in CMS.

More than half of all black and Hispanic students in CMS attended high-poverty schools that were at least 90 percent nonwhite last year (this year’s numbers aren’t in yet). The board has agreed to try to reduce concentrations of poverty, saying that can hobble the prospects of students who most need a boost from public education. But they’ve struggled with how to do that in a district where more than half the students come from low-income homes. They also want to protect successful schools and avoid alienating families who could move across county lines or enroll in charter or private schools.

“Anybody who looks at the uprising myopically as being about the Keith Lamont Scott shooting alone is missing a significant piece of the puzzle,” says Justin Perry, a Plaza Midwood parent and co-chair of OneMeck, which advocates greater school diversity. “The uprising provides a great opportunity if we take it.”

But Sean Strain, a south suburban parent who is active with CMS Families United for Public Education, says “segregation” isn’t even the right word for school demographics that reflect where people live, rather than discriminatory CMS policies. He says Perry and others who link CMS to the turmoil are exploiting tragedy to advance an agenda.

“What they are doing is creating a chasm that doesn’t exist, or at the very least is a small fraction of what they portray,” said Strain, whose top priority is strong schools close to home. “All it does is it further stokes anger.”

Don’t expect upheaval

After an intense round of discussion in October, the board plans to vote on its plan for 2016-17 on Nov. 9. That vote won’t bring the kind of massive reassignment that has followed court rulings – first to create a racial desegregation plan in 1970, then to dismantle it some 30 years later.

This plan focuses on magnet schools that serve less than 20 percent of the district’s students, who participate by choice. It’s designed to be phased in over four years, and won’t force current students out of their schools.

It introduces a more sophisticated – and far more complex – method of estimating the level of advantage or disadvantage that students bring from home.

In the past, CMS and districts across the nation have used school poverty levels, as measured by students’ participation in the federal lunch subsidy program, to gauge which schools face the biggest challenges. But changes in that program have undermined that measure.

Now CMS has mapped every Census block in Mecklenburg County, looking at data on average household income, single parent families, home ownership, adult educational levels and whether English is spoken at home. They’ve crunched those numbers to rate each area as high, medium or low socioeconomic status.

CMS plans to ask families to report their own income and education levels if their children apply for the 2017 school options lottery. That’s the new term for what used to be the magnet lottery; it will now encompass not only additional options that aren’t technically magnets, such as high schools on college campuses, but additional options for students in chronically low-performing schools to move to other neighborhood schools.

Will people understand?

CMS has yet to disclose how it plans to turn the data into a set of priorities that shapes who gets into which schools; that’s expected Monday.

The challenge is not only making it work, but, in the words of board Chair Mary McCray, “making sure that all of our communication is going out in the language that parents speak.”

That means translating for parents who don’t speak English, she said, and also for those who do.

“We’ve got to put it in layman’s terms,” McCray said Thursday. “Not educational jargon. Not acronyms.”

So far confusion prevails, even for parents who have followed months of board talks.

Robin Hill, a Randolph Middle School parent who has met with CMS officials on how the changes will affect that school, says she remains concerned that well-intentioned changes will undermine a popular, diverse and academically successful International Baccalaureate magnet school.

“If someone like me, who gets over involved and cares enough to keep an open mind on the data, who agrees with the idea of socioeconomic integration, doesn’t feel confident or trusting, what will they do with all the people who only get told what is going to happen and don’t understand all the details?” she asked. “It sounds like a giant mess to me.”

Strain agrees. “I don’t understand it,” said Strain, who said he has not only attended several board meetings but makes a living assessing data. “I think that it’s overly complex.”

Part of a bigger picture

Superintendent Ann Clark says many details remain unexplained because her staff continues to work on the plan and the board has voted only on the broad goals. But she says she’s confident CMS can make the plan work.

Clark and McCray say it’s important to remember that student assignment is part of a bigger community challenge related to race, class, public policy and economic opportunity. The school board has long called for officials from Mecklenburg County, the city of Charlotte and the county’s six municipalities to work with CMS on assignment decisions. And the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force is looking at education among several other factors that shape the ability of local residents to move out of poverty.

The school board is slated to meet with county commissioners two days after Tuesday’s school board meeting. After the Nov. 9 vote, Clark said CMS plans to replace its annual countywide magnet fair with smaller “school options” forums around the county, to make it easier for more families to participate.

That vote will cap the first phase of the district’s student assignment review. But Phase 2 will likely prove at least as challenging: Looking at boundaries for neighborhood schools.

“The day after the vote,” Clark said, “we will start on Phase 2 work.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

Stay informed

Monday: The board’s policy committee will discuss policy changes related to magnet schools and low-performing schools from 9 to 11 a.m. in Room 528 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. The meeting is open to the public, and video will be posted afterward on the CMS website.

Tuesday: The full board will discuss the magnet plan at its regular meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. in the meeting chamber at the Government Center. The meeting includes a public comment period on any topic; call 980-343-5139 by noon Tuesday to speak or sign up on site before the meeting starts. It will be broadcast and streamed live.

Thursday: Joint meeting of the CMS board and the Mecklenburg Board of County commissioners, 4 p.m. in Room 267 of the Government Center.

Oct. 17: Superintendent Ann Clark will take questions and discuss issues at a “coffee and conversation” session from 3 to 4:30 p.m. at Piedmont Middle School, 1421 E. 10th St.

Oct. 25: The board will hold a discussion and public hearing on the magnet plan in the meeting chamber at the Government Center.

Oct. 26: Clark will hold a “coffee and conversation” session from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Elon Park Elementary School, 11425 Ardrey Kell Road.

Nov. 9: The board will hold a second public hearing and vote on changes that will take effect with the January lottery for 2017-18 assignments.

For meeting agendas, archived video and live streaming:

For the draft policy and documents presented to the policy committee:

For other updates on the student assignment review:

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