As schools open on a transition year, family confidence in CMS hangs in the balance

When Karen and Harding Cross III packed their 5-year-old son’s Captain America lunch bag and walked him into Morehead STEM Academy Monday morning, the family took part in a rite of passage that goes back generations.

Harding Cross IV said he’s excited about recess and eager to learn about trucks.

His parents have a more complex view of what this year means. Soon after the Cross family learned that their oldest child had gotten into the popular Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools magnet, the district announced it was making major changes that would take effect in 2018.

Outraged Morehead families protested that CMS would ruin a successful school by adding neighborhood students. They threatened to leave the district.

The Crosses opted to stick with their decision.

“I have faith in them, and I hope they live up to it,” said Karen Cross, a professor of education at UNC Charlotte.

Every time parents send a child to school there’s a leap of faith involved, a prayer that this will be a place to nurture the child’s mind and spirit. But this year there’s extra vigilance from many in CMS, who are watching to see how the district and its new superintendent execute student assignment changes approved this spring.

“If we get things done well, then we should be in good shape,” Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said from one of the district’s bus lots, greeting drivers as they hit the road before sunrise. “If we mess it up …”

Some didn’t wait to find out.

April Whitlock, who sent her youngest daughter to kindergarten at Dilworth Elementary last year, watched as half a dozen of Cailin’s former classmates popped up on their parents’ Facebook pages, dressed for a first day in private schools that opened earlier.

“It’s so sad to see my Facebook feed full of all these former Dragons heading to private school this fall,” laments Whitlock, whose three daughters returned to CMS Monday.

It wasn’t many years ago that CMS turned Dilworth Elementary from a magnet to a neighborhood school, creating consternation for families who were used to attending Eastover Elementary. Then, in April, the current Dilworth families learned they’d been tapped for the most dramatic and controversial part of the new plan: The crowded and low-poverty Dilworth would be paired with the underfilled, high-poverty Sedgefield Elementary, to create a combined school where students will spend their K-5 years in two buildings.

There were protests and counterproposals, with a final version of the plan unveiled only days before the school board’s vote. As with Morehead, school board members were bombarded with messages about families from the Dilworth zone giving up on CMS.

Whitlock, a longtime CMS volunteer, says she’s heard of at least two dozen active families who are bailing out.

In fact, each school year brings a swirl of students switching schools, for reasons that range from family moves to frustration with a former school to excitement about a new offering. The Charlotte area has seen a steady stream of new charter schools – which, like CMS, can’t be sure who’s really attending until the doors open. While private schools may require a deposit, public schools often find that school-shopping families make last-minute decisions with no notice.

The state’s official enrollment count in late September will give the first solid evidence of whether, and where, CMS has seen significant flight – or new buy-in from neighborhoods happy with coming assignment changes. And for all the controversy, the majority of Mecklenburg neighborhoods won’t see their assignments change.

Families like the Crosses and Whitlocks, who stuck with CMS, will be watching to see if their confidence is rewarded. Most of the details that will determine whether restructured schools succeed or fail remain to be made, from leadership and faculty to bell schedules and daily routines.

For years, Karen Cross has been telling her UNCC students that someday they might teach her son. It’s a way of reminding them of the importance of their calling – especially for black males, who are at higher risk on most measures of academic success. Cross switched her son’s preschool once when she thought the first placement didn’t reward his intelligence and curiosity.

She thinks a magnet that focuses on science, technology, engineering and math – and that has a record of success with African-American students – is just the right place for a boy who loves building ramps for his toy trucks. She knows there will be changes next year, when Morehead, which is currently a full-magnet K-8 school, merges with next-door Nathaniel Alexander Elementary, a neighborhood school near UNCC. It’s not clear yet which grade levels will land in which building, but Cross says she’s not worried.

“I have a lot of faith in Morehead,” she said.

April Whitlock says she’s impressed with the work that Dilworth and Sedgefield faculty and families have done over the summer to prepare for next year’s merger. But she looks at “for sale” signs around the zone and worries that newcomers – and former families who opted out this year – don’t know about the work in progress.

She fears that uncertainty won’t be a good thing for the Nov. 7 vote on $922 million in bonds to pay for new schools, expansions and renovations for CMS.

“I think there’s a lot of trust that was lost. It will be interesting to see if CMS can build it back,” she said, “and if they can do it in time for the bond vote.”

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