Is CMS elementary school pairing plan innovative – or a 1970s flashback?

Dilworth Elementary would be paired with Sedgefield Elementary as part of Superintendent Ann Clark’s student assignment proposal.
Dilworth Elementary would be paired with Sedgefield Elementary as part of Superintendent Ann Clark’s student assignment proposal.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ plan for assignment changes at 75 schools includes a proposal that some see as a throwback to aggressive desegregation efforts of the 1970s: paired elementary schools.

Under Superintendent Ann Clark’s plan, three pairs of elementary schools would be matched to better use classroom space and achieve a better socioeconomic mix. Nathaniel Alexander and Morehead, Dilworth and Sedgefield, and Billingsville and Cotswold would be partners, or paired schools, under the plan.

Students at the school pairs would be split by grades K-2 and grades 3-5.

The proposed pairings have been questioned, in part because it resembles a discarded desegregation strategy from a previous generation. Others say the plan is far from what CMS attempted in the 1970s when far-flung schools were paired together, with bus rides that could last 45 minutes.

“This plan is hardly new and innovative,” said Republican Mecklenburg Commissioner Bill James. “It is a rehash of the worst liberal busing oldies from the ’70s.”

He added: “CMS is trying to sell it as a ‘new approach’ when it is really the same old approach that the public soundly rejected.”

Former board member Arthur Griffin, who served for 17 years starting in 1985, said the current proposal would have less impact than the school pairing a generation ago.

He lived off Carmel Road. His children went to their home schools of Beverly Woods Elementary for their early grades, and then caught a bus to Barringer Elementary for grades 4-6. Barringer, in west Charlotte, is a 20-minute drive from Beverly Woods.

Griffin said the latest plan would affect children far less than the 1970s school pairings, which were enacted after the landmark 1971 Supreme Court decision of Swann vs. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that ushered in busing.

“It’s nothing like the old days in terms of distance,” he said. “That would be a significant improvement.”

If CMS wanted to pair more schools, Griffin said the district doesn’t have that many options – so long as it wants to pair neighboring schools. There just aren’t that many neighboring elementaries where one school is white and other is a minority-majority, he said.

“Your neighborhoods are segregated and therefore your schools are,” he said.

In addition to whether the plan is a step forward or a step backward, there are other questions focusing on logistics that have concerned parents.

What would be the bell times? Would PTAs be combined? Would a low-income school like Billingsville lose Title I status – and federal money – by absorbing more affluent students?

One of the proposed pairings is Billingsville Elementary and Cotswold Elementary. Billingsville, which serves Grier Heights, is almost entirely an African-American school. Two miles away, Cotswold is about 55 percent white.

The plans calls for Billingsville to house grades K-2. Cotswold would have grades 3-5.

CMS said the pairing would improve socioeconomic diversity, and would better use the classroom space of both schools. Cotswold is more than 145 percent of capacity; Billingsville is at 74 percent of capacity.

Students in this new combined attendance area would continue to attend Alexander Graham Middle School and Myers Park High School.

“As a Cotswold parent, there are different views about the proposed change,” Cotswold PTA President Stacy Beard said in an email. “I'm sure there are parents relieved about maintaining our feeder pattern to AG and Myers Park and several parents concerned with how a split elementary school will work since that is new to us.”

School board member Eric Davis, speaking on WFAE, said the school pairings are driven in part by a state law mandating smaller classes at lower grades.

“We can’t add to those facilities,” he said. “The alternative to the pairing is to shave off part of the zone and send them somewhere else.”

Clark has said that the district considered parents’ wishes of keeping schools and neighborhoods intact. If the schools weren’t paired, the district would likely have to redraw attendance zones and take children from Cotswold and Dilworth and place them in Billingsville and Sedgefield.

Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart, also speaking on WFAE, said CMS would aim to blend the two schools.

“We are trying to make sure those schools have similar bell times so pick up and drop off can work,” she said. “We want a shared school culture that parents can get used to. We don’t want there to be a jarring experience (for students and parents).”

CMS has said that teachers would stay with their grade, not their school. That means that all K-2 teachers from both schools would be clustered together, as would the teachers in grades 3-5.

It’s possible the schools could have co-PTA presidents.

Dilworth Elementary, a majority white school, would be paired with Sedgefield Elementary, a majority African-American school. Dilworth is nearly 20 percent over capacity, while Sedgefield – a little more than two miles away – has a little space, at 90 percent.

Sedgefield would get grades K-2. Dilworth would have grades 3-5.

Anthony Gill, who was walking his daughter Tanaisha home from school Friday, said he likes his daughter attending Sedgefield. The one downside of moving to Dilworth is the distance.

“I like Sedgefield,” he said. “I like being able to walk her to school.”

The other pairing involves two elementaries in University City that are both majority African-American. Nathaniel Alexander Elementary and Morehead STEM Academy are already sister schools and share the same cafeteria and media center.

The proposal calls for them to become partial magnets with a schoolwide STEM focus. Nathaniel Alexander will serve grades K-2 and Morehead will have grades 3-5.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs