CMS attacks economic segregation in schools with board’s new magnet plan

Students hold signs related to student assignment at Wednesday’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting.
Students hold signs related to student assignment at Wednesday’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting.

After more than a year of wrangling and drama, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board came together Wednesday on a new diversity-driven magnet plan designed to chip away at economic segregation in schools.

The immediate impact of the board’s unanimous vote is more symbolic than sweeping. There won’t be massive upheaval: other than a few magnet programs changing locations, no one will be forced to switch schools. The new priorities for magnet seating, based on a complex socioeconomic status calculation, affect only students applying to enter magnet programs, not those who are already there.

“It’s taking a baby step,” board Chair Mary McCray said before the meeting. “There’s not going to be much movement the first year.”

But Wednesday’s decision shows the board has unified across political, philosophical, racial and geographic lines to start dismantling the concentrations of poor and nonwhite students that have earned CMS a national reputation as a city of resegregation – and that board members agree can make it harder for students and faculty to thrive.

“It’s not going to immediately solve all the problems of unequal opportunity … but it gives us a very solid start,” Vice Chair Elyse Dashew said.

Dashew noted that government, business, civic and religious leaders have long struggled with issues of race, class and opportunity, and the urgency increased when Charlotte erupted in riots after the Sept. 20 police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

“A lot of people seem to be at a loss,” Dashew said. “I feel like this plan is a step.”

Board member Rhonda Lennon, who represents the northern suburbs, said the board’s agreement to protect guaranteed assignments close to home while using choice to break up concentrations of poverty was the key to winning over skeptics, including herself.

Speakers at Wednesday’s meeting voiced support, but also a range of criticisms and suggestions. Garinger High School students and other speakers urged CMS to offer more magnets and support for students in east Charlotte.

Boe Clark and James Rachal said CMS needs a plan for measuring and reporting whether students actually benefit from assignment changes.

Board members agreed that much work lies ahead, not only in student assignment but in improving academic prospects for all students.

“At least we’re putting in the framework where we can make it work for all students,” board member Tom Tate said.

Key elements of the plan include:

▪ Creating a new “school options lottery” that attempts to balance socioeconomic status, known as SES, in magnets and other opt-in schools, such as high schools on college campuses. SES ratings combine average household income, adult education levels, single-parent households, English proficiency and home ownership in the areas where students live and schools are located, coupled with self-reported individual data on family income and parents’ education.

▪ A new opportunity for students in persistently low-performing neighborhood schools to request seats in higher-performing neighborhood schools.

▪ Changes to the transportation zones that determine which magnet programs are open to students based on where they live. The shift is designed to help balance socioeconomic status and reduce the chances that disadvantaged students will end up clustered in high-poverty schools.

▪ A commitment that CMS will look for opportunities to expand magnet seats every year, with specific changes for 2017-18 approved and possibilities for the next three years outlined.

The plan approved Wednesday does not change neighborhood school assignments. The one boundary change will be to accommodate a new Renaissance West preK-8 school in west Charlotte, which will pull students from Berryhill, Reid Park and Westerly Hills when it opens in August. Boundaries were approved in 2015.

CMS staff and consultants plan to begin work immediately on the next phase of the student assignment review that began in 2015. That involves looking at boundaries and feeder patterns for neighborhood schools, with changes that could take effect in 2018-19.

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