Charlotte’s boldest bid to undo school segregation is about to become reality

As the last school year drew to a close, yellow school buses made a two-mile shuttle along Charlotte’s Randolph Road, taking some Billingsville Elementary students to Cotswold Elementary and some Cotswold students to Billingsville.

A similar exchange was happening between Dilworth and Sedgefield elementaries, just south of uptown.

The children were checking out their new schools and new classmates. It was a warmup for Monday, when the boldest part of a student assignment plan that riveted the community for two years becomes reality.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, a national symbol of successful desegregation in the 1970s, has since become an icon of resegregation. Some 20 years after a white parent’s lawsuit toppled the district’s race-based desegregation plan, a combination of neighborhood schools and family choice has created a pattern that’s familiar across America, with white and affluent families abandoning a broad swath of schools in the city while flocking to the suburbs.

When the school board started reviewing its assignment plan in 2015, members agreed they wanted to change that. Packing the most disadvantaged students into settings where they see few classmates from different backgrounds makes it tough to hire and keep top teachers, set high standards and build the networks that lead to adult success, CMS leaders agreed.

But solutions proved elusive. Mecklenburg County is bigger and more complex than it was during the decades of court-ordered busing, when white students were a majority and the northern and southern tips of the county were sparsely populated. Today, suburban schools are packed, poverty levels are higher and white students account for only 28 percent of enrollment. Black and white students have been joined by a booming international population.

In most cases, busing students to balance demographics would have required massive upheaval and long bus rides, something that got a firm thumbs-down from families across the district. So the board mostly made small changes by shifting boundaries and adding magnet programs, with a complicated new “socioeconomic status” factor used to weight admission.

But school leaders found three high-poverty resegregated elementary schools — Billingsville, Sedgefield and Nathaniel Alexander — that could be paired with nearby neighborhood or magnet schools with different demographics and academic strengths.

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Despite some impassioned protests by parents, the board voted to merge them. If all goes as planned, the three newly united schools that open Monday will provide the best of both worlds.

The schools with lower poverty levels — Cotswold, Dilworth and Morehead STEM Academy — needed more space. The high-poverty schools had room to spare. The low-poverty schools bring strong parent involvement, while the high-poverty counterparts bring community partners and extra public support.

And ideally, all students will benefit from classmates who represent the diversity these children will live with when they grow up.

“I think it’s good for the kids to see all walks of life, to learn from all walks of life,” said Diane Brooks, whose daughter, Zaniah Ford, was a kindergartener at Billingsville last year. Zaniah will return to the same school, where she’ll be joined by K-2 students from Cotswold Elementary. When she reaches third grade, she and her classmates will move to Cotswold.

Of course, success is not guaranteed. The plans brought protests from families who feared the schools they loved would be dismantled, especially those in the Dilworth Elementary zone. After the May 2017 vote to merge Dilworth and Sedgefield, last August both schools saw their enrollment decline — Sedgefield by 51 students and Dilworth by 57, more than 10 percent of their combined enrollment.

Michele Cole, whose two children will return to Dilworth Elementary, says she knows at least 10 families that switched their children to private schools after the vote, and she expects more will be gone this year. She smiles ruefully when she suggests, only half joking, that CMS found a quick way to relieve crowding at Dilworth: “They scared people away.”

For the past year, faculty and families from the six chosen sites have worked to create three new schools with distinct, unified identities. This experiment will affect only about 4,000 students in a district with about 148,000, but among those who are taking part, hopes are high.

“We know we have the opportunity to make change and have great impact,” said Alicia Hash, principal of Billingsville/Cotswold, which is now considered one school with two campuses. “We just know that it can open up the doors to so many kids in our city.”

“I think it’s just the beginning,” said Jenny Morton, another Dilworth parent who decided to stay. “I think there are going to be others to follow.”

Two different worlds

Of all the pairings, the match between Sedgefield and Dilworth elementaries involved the biggest differences — and the most resistance, at least from Dilworth families.

Dilworth was a majority white school with low poverty levels. Last year it earned an A+, the state’s top grade, based on student test scores. It was also squeezing kids into trailers and temporary classrooms to deal with crowding.

Sedgefield had about half the enrollment, serving mostly African-American students from low-income homes, with a D rating from the state.

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Most of the students live in public housing or apartment complexes, with parents who work multiple jobs and tend not to engage with school board politics, said Sam Grubbs, a Sedgefield parent. When the CMS proposals came out, the Dilworth merger got little reaction, but “their silence should not be interpreted as indifference,” Grubbs said.

Dilworth, on the other hand, had a PTA that had more than 30 committees and could raise $160,000 in a winter donation drive, recalls Cole.

Dilworth had been through a series of incarnations, including a neighborhood school with different boundaries and an arts magnet school, before CMS drew the current lines just a few years ago. When the board began talking about another change, Dilworth was drawing students from some of Charlotte’s most desirable neighborhoods, including Myers Park and Dilworth.

The prospect of yet another shakeup mobilized Dilworth parents. They drafted alternative proposals, including a call to turn Myers Park Traditional, a magnet elementary school, into a neighborhood school.

In 2017, families from the Myers Park neighborhood, which was zoned for Dilworth Elementary, pushed an alternative plan to turn Myers Park Traditional Elementary into a combined magnet/neighborhood school. Diedra Laird

“When you come to love a school, if anything threatens to change it, your hackles go up,” says Morton, who had two children at Dilworth last year and a third about to reach school age. The family lives so close they could all walk to Dilworth; sending the younger ones to Sedgefield would complicate life.

The school board moved ahead with merging Dilworth and Sedgefield. Dilworth parents breathed a little easier when their principal, Terry Hall, was tapped to lead the merged school.

Grubbs said some Sedgefield and Dilworth families were jolted by a September 2017 Charlotte Agenda article reporting that Dilworth families were dominating the merger process.

Hall created a joint PTA — though most parents came from Dilworth — and a merged school leadership team, which taps faculty and parent leaders to plan school improvements. Grubbs, who had sent an email detailing concerns about Sedgefield, was tapped for the second group. When families came together for issues such as picking a name for the new school, Hall says she made sure Sedgefield and Dilworth parents sat together.

Grubbs said he pushed for a fresh start — new name, new mascot and colors — that would make both groups feel equally included. As he took part in the talks, he worried about whether his fifth-grade daughter would be accepted socially and could keep up with Dilworth students who appeared to have gotten more homework and field trips.

The larger and more vocal Dilworth group prevailed, arguing Dilworth had become a desirable “brand” for families. The former Sedgefield, which will house grades K-2, is now known as Dilworth Elementary/Sedgefield campus, while the former Dilworth, with grades 3-5, is Dilworth/Latta campus.

The kids who attended Dilworth and Sedgefield last year have already met for “popsicle play dates,” and volunteers from Freedom House Church have spruced up the courtyards and built raised gardens for the children who will attend Dilworth/Sedgefield. Tutoring programs that were in place at Sedgefield will expand to both campuses, while families from the merged zone have been urged to take part in this summer’s fundraiser.

Faculty from the two schools were also brought together for planning and training, such as sessions on cultural diversity.

This spring the Dilworth Community Association decided to adopt the merged school, with proceeds from this fall’s home tour going to the school. As the start of school approached, signs dotted the combined zone proclaiming support for “the new Dilworth.”

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Yard signs proclaim support for the new two-campus version of Dilworth Elementary. Ann Doss Helms

Grubbs says he believes Hall and the Dilworth parents have made a sincere effort to reach the Sedgefield families. He said Hall told him she’ll keep trying to recruit African-American and Latino parents for the leadership team. Meanwhile, families from the Sedgefield neighborhood — a whiter and more affluent group that had mostly abandoned the neighborhood school — are enrolling their kids, Grubbs said.

Morton, who is active in the Dilworth Community Association, is among those now applauding the change. Instead of having to squeeze students into every inch of space, Dilworth/Latta now has room for science labs.

“It’s going to be awesome,” she said. “It began to seem less like a threat and more like an expansion of our community.”

Overcoming anxiety

The Billingsville/Cotswold pairing sparked less public protest, but there was anxiety on both sides.

Brooks said some of her fellow Billingsville parents weren’t enthusiastic about disrupting the school that is closely tied to the Grier Heights neighborhood. Brooks said her daughter has done well at Billingsville, but she looks forward to having her daughter meet white classmates (Billingsville had only six last year).

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Billingsville, which has long struggled with high poverty and low test scores, has seen more than its share of change over the years. In 2016, the school board approved a new math/science magnet program for Billingsville, even taking applications for the 2017-18 school year. It then reversed course as it moved into the second phase of student assignment, deciding to merge Billingsville with the nearest neighborhood school, which already hosted an International Baccalaureate magnet program.

Preserving that IB program was important to Cotswold families, said parents Michelle Abels and Jody Para. So was keeping Hash as principal of the new school. CMS leaders agreed to both.

Abels and Para said Cotswold parents were receptive because they feared more disruptive changes. Because the school was overflowing, they thought CMS might split the zone. There was also talk of a less desirable middle and high school assignment.

“We all understand that the city’s growing and there has to be adjustments made,” Para said. “This was kind of a winning situation for us.”

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Diane Brooks and her daughter, Zaniah Ford, talk about what Zaniah liked at Billingsville Elementary last year and what will change in 2018-19. Reed Klass

Brooks assumed that Cotswold would be a mirror image of Billingsville, with virtually all students white and affluent. In fact, while it’s majority white, it’s so big that it has almost as many black students as Billingsville, with significant Hispanic enrollment as well. Because Billingsville was underfilled, the merger will not only diversify the student body, it will ensure they all have space to learn.

This year it won’t matter where students live or which building they’re in. They’ll all be part of a pre-IB program that includes Spanish classes, character education, hands-on learning and a focus on global citizenship.

“I feel like sometimes it’s the parents who are more apprehensive than the children,” said Abels, who will send one child to each building. “The kids can’t wait.”

Sharing hard truth

When CMS unveiled plans to merge Morehead STEM Academy, a popular K-8 magnet school, with a high-poverty neighborhood elementary school, angry parents threatened to pull their kids out of Morehead.

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It wasn’t about race: Both Morehead and Nathaniel Alexander Elementary were majority black, with significant Hispanic enrollment. And it wasn’t about location: The schools sit side by side, sharing a cafeteria, on the Governors’ Village campus in the UNC Charlotte area.

But the magnet parents, who were less likely to come from low-income neighborhoods and had chosen to send their children to a math-science school, argued that neighborhood kids would water down the level of motivation and achievement.

Supporters of Morehead STEM Academy turned out to protest a plan that would turn the K-8 magnet school into a neighborhood elementary school with a STEM magnet included. Jeff Siner

The merger was approved over objections from some African-American board members. “If you want the ire of the black community, people of color, dismantle Morehead,” board member Ruby Jones said at the time.

Alejandra Garcia, principal of Nations Ford Elementary, was tapped to lead the merged school. She studied test results for both schools. And she decided to confront the Morehead parents with a difficult truth: There wasn’t as much difference as they wanted to believe.

“This school was really not doing how the parents thought they were doing,” Garcia said recently. “It’s not ‘their kids.’ It’s not ‘my kids.’ It’s all kids were not doing well.”

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Principal Alejandra Garcia shows off the mascot for the new Governors’ Village STEM Academy, a “robotic cougar, like a Transformer.” The school was created by merging Nathaniel Alexander Elementary and Morehead STEM Academy. Ann Doss Helms

She started talking to families from both schools about how she had brought up scores at Nations Ford. She told them not to think about “haves” and “have-nots” but “will haves” — that is, all students will have an excellent education at the merged Governors’ Village STEM Academy.

A driving factor in the merger was to allow more students to take part in the popular science, technology, engineering and math programs that traditionally left hundreds on the waiting list. After the 2017 merger vote, both schools saw a small enrollment dip last school year. CMS projected the combined total — 1,700 students —would stay about the same in 2018-19.

But apparently Garcia’s message took hold. As the start of the year approached, enrollment stood at 2,100. That means Garcia is hiring extra teachers, scheduling 36 buses to move through the shared lot and crafting a lunch plan that moves 600 students per hour through the cafeteria.

She beams as she relates those details. It’s a challenge, but a welcome one.

Before the change

Here’s what the six schools looked like before this year’s merger, including the percentage of students who made up the racial majority at each school and the state’s 2017 letter grade, based on students’ performance on state reading, math and science exams.

Neighborhood elementary school
672 students
70 percent white
21 percent poverty
State grade: A+

Neighborhood elementary school
340 students
74 percent black
84 percent poverty
State grade: D


Neighborhood elementary school
322 students
81 percent black
88 percent poverty
State grade: D

Neighborhood elementary school with IB magnet
785 students
54 percent white
37 percent poverty
State grade: B

Nathaniel Alexander
Neighborhood elementary school

776 students
64 percent black
62 percent poverty
State grade: C

Morehead STEM
K-8 magnet school
1,052 students
66 percent black
29 percent poverty
State grade: B
Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms