CMS wants millions to expand magnets. Would that shortchange neighborhood schools?

If voters approve a bond referendum next month for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, students will get a shot at hundreds of additional magnet seats in new buildings.

The $922 million plan includes roughly $143 million to build or renovate buildings for five magnet schools. Much of that spending would create more opportunities for K-8 students to learn foreign languages, an opportunity CMS leaders say prepares students for success in a global society.

“We have kids from everywhere. We have multiple languages spoken in the district,” said Superintendent Clayton Wilcox. Producing graduates who are fluent in other languages “is one of the things that I think businesses are asking us to do, probably more so than anything else.”

The new magnet schools are also a key to the district’s recently adopted strategy of using family choice to diversify schools and reduce concentrations of poverty. That decision was a relief to many, heading off the need for more drastic plans that might have forced students to switch schools. But the plan to pump millions into magnet schools isn’t universally popular.

The reason? Even with a project list totaling nearly a billion dollars, many schools didn’t make the cut. And if it’s your neighborhood school that’s crowded and/or getting dilapidated, the idea that opt-in schools are being built before yours can chafe.

Some families in magnet schools have also been skeptical of how the proposed changes might challenge their success. Creating new magnets takes more than just building a school and carving off boundaries; the district has to find specialized teachers, such as those who are fluent in multiple languages, and recruit students.

The magnet portion of the Nov. 7 bond referendum illustrates how school construction is entwined with academic strategies, student assignment, poverty, equity and politics. Each of those strands matters – not only to parents seeking the best opportunities for their children, but to taxpayers footing the bill and a region that relies on strong public schools to fuel business recruitment.

The plan would move the popular K-8 language immersion school at Waddell, where students learn Chinese, French, German and Japanese, into two new buildings: One near the current site in south Charlotte and one in Huntersville, giving northern students access without such a long commute. It would create a new, larger home for Collinswood Language Academy, where K-8 students learn in Spanish and English; convert Waddell to a magnet high school and create a new Montessori magnet in Lincoln Heights.

‘Appropriate space’

Collinswood families know what it’s like to miss out on bonds: Their school just missed the cut for the 2013 package. The brick building in south Charlotte opened as an elementary school in 1959 with about 300 students. Today it holds about 800, half of them in modular or mobile classrooms squeezed onto the grounds.

A new class lines up at the too-small cafeteria every three minutes from 11:05 a.m. to 1:33 p.m. Students in mobiles must walk to lunch, gym and restrooms in the rain. Staff are squeezed into every possible space, including a small room off the media center that houses books, the computer server and three employees.

“Children need appropriate space to learn and teachers need appropriate space to teach,” said Collinswood Principal Jennifer Pearsall, who hopes to be able to move into a new building designed for K-8 students in 2020.

Magnet schools have long served a dual purpose. They offer additional academic opportunities for students who opt in, but they’re also a tool for desegregation – initially by race, and later by economic status after courts began rejecting race-based assignment.

The tension between those roles flared last November, as the school board prepared to vote on the first phase of a revised student assignment plan.

That phase called for the district to build new magnet schools and expand existing programs for families who wanted alternatives to neighborhood schools. The plan created a new system of magnet priorities to balance students from high, medium and low socioeconomic status, as judged by such factors as average family income and single parent families where they live. It also gave special priority to students who want to leave low-performing schools.

In the eyes of Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett, a Republican who represents northern Mecklenburg County, that makes the current roster of new magnet schools “an extraordinarily expensive program that’s being done to help educate poor children” and destined to fail at that task. Puckett summoned CMS officials to a special session with county commissioners on Nov. 1, 2016, saying he worried about how the magnet plan would play out in school construction, which is the county’s financial responsibility.


Puckett said creating economic diversity in schools might mask the failure of students who are concentrated in high-poverty schools, but it wouldn’t improve their prospects.

Then-Superintendent Ann Clark, who retired in June, said CMS has plenty of strategies other than student assignment to help struggling students and low-performing schools.

“I wouldn’t want anyone in this community to imagine that a Phase 1 magnet plan has any desire to be an academic plan,” Clark said.

Puckett, who continues to be a vocal opponent of the CMS bond package, has used Clark’s statement – and arguably misquoted it – as he makes the case for rejecting the Nov. 7 referendum and forcing CMS to rethink its construction plans. He says the spending on new magnet schools shortchanges two groups: Neighborhood schools that were edged out for construction – including those in the north suburbs he represents – and students who are left behind as the most motivated families and students flee high-poverty neighborhood schools.

“Magnet schools that the superintendent said had no educational value – why would you build those ahead of the other schools” that didn’t make the cut for 2017 bonds, Puckett asked at a recent Black Political Caucus debate on CMS bonds.

Clark didn’t respond to an email seeking clarification on her remark. But Wilcox, who took over in July, says the idea that the latest list of magnet schools lacks educational value is “just fundamentally wrong.”

“Magnet programs are instructional at their very heart and core,” Wilcox said. “What they allow kids to do is chase their passion, chase their interest, or it allows parents to say, ‘This is an area that we want to nourish within our child.’ ”

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