Choice, diversity and schools: How the new CMS magnet lottery will work

The new CMS formula crunches several factors to calculate socioeconomic status for individuals and Census blocks.
The new CMS formula crunches several factors to calculate socioeconomic status for individuals and Census blocks. CMS slide

Thousands of families are watching to see what Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ new diversity-driven magnet lottery will mean for them.

For decades, CMS and districts across America used race-based assignment to counteract Jim Crow segregation. As those plans toppled, racial isolation expanded. More than 53,000 CMS students attend schools where 90 percent or more are nonwhite.

Student poverty, as measured by eligibility for federal lunch aid, became the gauge for challenged schools in the 1990s and early 2000s. By 2013, when changes in the lunch program undermined that data source, about 56 percent of CMS students were considered poor. Seventy-six CMS schools have such high poverty that all students get free meals.

Of course, a parent’s paycheck doesn’t determine academic aptitude. Poverty was used as a rough gauge of such challenges as family turmoil, hunger, poor health, lack of exposure to language and books, unstable housing, neighborhood violence and other trauma that distracts from learning.

On Nov. 9, the school board approved a plan that uses socioeconomic status, or SES, to stand in for those challenges and try to balance schools. Here’s how it works.

Block by block

CMS staff and consultants gathered Census data on household income, single-parent households, adult educational attainment, English proficiency and home ownership.

Those were turned into a numerical rating for 548 Census blocks in Mecklenburg County, each with 600 to 3,000 people. Those ratings were then divided into three equal groups, labeled as high, medium and low SES. “High” refers to the neighborhoods where, on average, kids have the most advantages.

Students who apply for a magnet in 2017 will start with an SES rating based on where they live.

The block ratings will also be used to calculate SES levels at neighborhood schools. It’s not clear yet what those labels will look like or when they’ll be on view for the public.

Family reporting

When families submit an application, CMS will ask for household income, parents’ educational level and number of children in the home. That will be used to generate a second SES label. For instance, an affluent, college-educated couple living in a low SES block might have a lottery priority of low/high.

For families who choose not to report that information, the second label will be “null.” When CMS awards seats through the options lottery, that will put them below families who do report.

Allotting seats

Current magnet students who continue in their school or program next year won’t be subject to SES priorities.

In full magnet schools, CMS will use the SES priorities to shoot for an even mix of the three categories among new students. Students with guaranteed seats – for instance, younger siblings of current students – may take up some of the spots allotted for their SES category.

For magnet programs located in neighborhood schools, known as partial magnets, seats for new magnet students will be used to try to balance the overall school demographics. In a high SES neighborhood school, most magnet seats would be reserved for low and medium SES students.

School performance

Students attending neighborhood schools that have been rated low-performing three years in a row will get an additional priority if they want to transfer out. State ratings are based on proficiency and growth on state exams. For 2017, the schools that qualify are Cochrane, Eastway, McClintock and Sedgefield middle schools and Sterling and Tuckaseegee elementary schools.

Students who get the school performance priority can use the lottery to apply for transfers into higher-performing schools that have space.

Individual menus

That all sounds incredibly complex, but CMS says what families will see is simple: A list of options available for each student.

Magnet options will be based partly on transportation zones, which are being redrawn in another attempt to balance SES. The new violet zone covers roughly the northern half of the county, with the blue zone covering the southwest and the green zone the southeast.

Most students can choose up to three options, including magnets and other alternatives such as college-based high schools. Those with a school performance priority can list an additional three nonmagnet requests. Their “menu” will tell them which neighborhood schools are open to them.

Program requirements

The new plan also revises requirements for getting into and staying in various magnet programs. CMS leaders say they’re trying to open opportunities to as many students as possible while maintaining standards that let each program function effectively.

For instance, students seeking admission to middle and high school International Baccalaureate magnets used to need passing scores on state reading and math exams; now only the reading score is required. However, the high school IB magnets are adding requirements to ensure that students show success to stay in the program.

Two lotteries

The first chance to apply under the new system will be in January. If the seats set aside for any SES group aren’t filled, they’ll be held open until a second lottery in the spring, even if there are applicants from other SES groups on the waiting list.

Only after another round of recruiting and a second lottery will CMS award seats to students who don’t fit the desired demographics.


Because the system is new and complicated – and because school choice is being touted as an avenue for disadvantaged students to improve their prospects – CMS plans new efforts to keep families informed. In addition to one big “options fair” in January that showcases all available schools, the district plans regional events. Staff will also go to schools where families may have language and technology barriers to make sure parents understand their options.


The plan calls for CMS to add magnet seats every year. Superintendent Ann Clark says she’d like to see the number double to roughly 40,000 in the next four years, but specifics will depend on money, space and ability to recruit specialized staff. Faculty, parents and students will be involved in choosing themes at neighborhood schools that add magnets.

Changes approved for 2017-18 are:

▪ An new computer science elementary magnet will open at the old Newell Elementary building on Old Concord road, offering 550 new seats.

▪ A health sciences magnet program will be added at Billingsville Elementary, adding 300 magnet seats at the neighborhood school.

▪ A computer science magnet program will be added at Paw Creek Elementary, adding 180 magnet seats at the neighborhood school.

▪ The Early College High School at UNC Charlotte will add a program for students who want to become educators, offering 55 new seats for ninth-graders next year.

▪ A new middle college high school will open at Central Piedmont Community College’s Merancas campus, offering 120 seats the first year.

▪ The small middle-high school Montessori magnet program at Sedgefield Middle School will move to the old J.T. Williams campus and expand, adding 375 seats the first year. Turning Point Academy, an alternative program for students with discipline problems, will move from the Williams campus to the old Pawtuckett elementary school.

▪ Marie G. Davis military/leadership academy, a K-12 magnet school, will split, with 250 high school ROTC magnet seats moving to Hawthorne Academy. Davis will become a K-8 International Baccalaureate countywide magnet.

▪ The science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) magnet program at Palisades Park Elementary will move to the less-crowded Winget Park Elementary.

Up next

This is just the first phase of an ongoing review of student assignment. CMS plans to plunge immediately into the second, which involves possible changes to neighborhood schools, with changes taking effect in 2018-19.

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