Did CMS assignment changes slow resegregation? Here’s what 2018 race tallies show

Cotswold and Billingsville are two CMS schools that merged for the 2018-2019 school year

Two neighborhood schools with different demographics are paired together, despite some anxiety.
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Two neighborhood schools with different demographics are paired together, despite some anxiety.

For most of 2016 and 2017, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders wrestled with student assignment changes while the community watched anxiously.

This year the biggest changes took effect. They were designed to reduce racial and economic segregation while avoiding massive upheaval and keeping neighborhood schools intact.

Just-released racial breakdowns for the district’s 176 schools show slightly fewer students attend what some call hypersegregated schools — those where more than 90 percent of students are nonwhite — but the changes are small.

For instance, 75 of the district’s 176 schools still have white enrollment under 10 percent, and more than 53,000 students attend those schools. Just over half of all black and Hispanic students in CMS still attend those schools, though there has been a slight decline in those numbers.

“My expectation is that (change) will be slow. I wish it could be faster,” said board member Elyse Dashew.

In a year when enrollment was virtually flat, racial demographics showed little change. CMS is about 38 percent African-American, 28 percent white, 25 percent Hispanic and 7 percent Asian, virtually the same as the previous year. Just like last year, Hispanic and Asian enrollment grew slightly (up by about 1,200 and 400 students, respectively) and was offset by small declines in black and white students (down about 900 and 700, respectively).

Race and education have become a central part of Charlotte’s cultural narrative. Over the decades CMS has been lauded for trying to break down Jim Crow segregation in the 1970s and labeled an icon of resegregation in the early 2000s, when courts overturned race-based assignment. It drew local and national scrutiny during the most recent student assignment review, which began in 2015.

One of the goals was to break up concentrations of poverty, which can make it tough to keep good teachers, create a climate focused on academics and expose students to networking that boosts their opportunities. The decisions played out against a backdrop of massive street protests related to the police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott in 2016 and ongoing scrutiny over unequal economic opportunity in Charlotte.

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The plan that emerged preserved a mix of neighborhood assignments and school choice, introducing a complex new measure of socioeconomic status that is now used to prioritize magnet seating in hopes of increasing diversity. Most of the changes took effect in August, with dozens of schools getting new boundaries, grade levels and/or magnet programs.

CMS has yet to post a report on socioeconomic status for 2018-19, nor has the state posted its annual tally of school poverty based on income-based lunch subsidies. That means the CMS racial diversity report provides a first glimpse of how much has changed in individual schools and the district. CMS schools with very few white students almost always have high poverty levels, a trend that’s common across the country.

A few schools did see dramatic demographic change. For instance, the board voted to merge the attendance zone for Dilworth Elementary, a majority white and overcrowded school, with that of nearby Sedgefield Elementary, a majority black school with room to spare. Last year Sedgefield Elementary was less than 5 percent white and Dilworth was 70 percent white . This year, with the enrollment split between the two campuses, the combined school is more than 60 percent white.

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Yet the impact on CMS as a whole appears to be minimal. Most of the schools that were overwhelmingly nonwhite in 2017-18 remain so this year. Two of the three new schools that opened — Wilson STEM Academy and Charlotte East Language Academy — have white enrollment below 10 percent. So does Marie G. Davis, a K-8 school that was restructured this year and picked up some students from the former Sedgefield Elementary zone.

School board members say they didn’t expect drastic change this year. They opted against a massive shakeup in neighborhood schools, and it could take years for new magnet programs and socioeconomic preferences to fully phase in.

Sean Strain, a CMS parent who was active in a group pushing for strong neighborhood schools before being elected to the board last fall, said the racial makeup of schools doesn’t concern him. While reducing concentrations of poverty was among the five goals for student assignment, race didn’t make the list, Strain said.

“I am all about providing a great education for every child,” he said.

Carol Sawyer, also elected to the board last fall, was active in a group that pushed for greater diversity during the assignment review. She says racial and economic integration offer the best hope for giving all students the best shot at a strong education. She said she’ll be watching as magnet changes play out and hoping more diverse magnets don’t create less diverse neighborhood schools.

“Choice is a double-edged sword,” she said.

Here’s an overview of what the 2018-19 numbers show.

Black students

The 55,321 African-American students enrolled this year make up the largest racial group. More than 28,000 of them, or about 51 percent, attend schools that are less than 10 percent white. Most of those schools have poverty levels high enough to qualify for federal Title 1 aid.

Ashley Park, a west Charlotte K-8 school where 85 percent of students are black, is the district’s most racially homogenous school this year. Five schools are more than 80 percent black, compared with seven last year.

White students

CMS has 40,616 white students this year.

Although white students make up just under 28 percent of total enrollment, CMS has 36 schools that are more than 50 percent white, one fewer than last year. More than 23,000 white students, or 58 percent, attend majority white schools, down by about 1,400 from last year.

Davidson Elementary has the largest concentration of white students, at 78 percent. Most of the majority white schools are neighborhood schools in the suburbs or the wedge of affluent neighborhoods that extends from southeast to central Charlotte.

The magnet priority based on socioeconomic status doesn’t seem to have made much difference in the racial composition of the popular Park Road and Chantilly Montessori magnet schools, which remain more than 65 percent white.

Hispanic students

Hispanic students continue to be the most rapidly growing segment of CMS, hitting 36,743 this year.

Almost 19,000 Hispanic students, or 51 percent, attend schools that are less than 10 percent white. That’s down slightly over last year.

Montclaire Elementary in south Charlotte has the highest concentration of Hispanic students at 82 percent. Twenty-one CMS schools are more than 50 percent Hispanic. Most are neighborhood schools in south and east Charlotte.

Asian students

Asian enrollment topped 10,000 for the first time, at 10,157. That’s 7 percent of the district total, but the Asian presence is much higher in south Charlotte neighborhood schools.

Five schools are more than 25 percent Asian, up from two last year. The highest concentration is 38 percent at Elon Park Elementary.

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