CMS panel wrestles with poverty, race, school boundaries and opportunity gaps

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.

A panel of Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members agreed Thursday that reducing concentrations of poverty through student assignment is one way to create equitable opportunity.

But as they delved into details sharp philosophical differences emerged. And by the end of their 90-minute meeting it wasn’t clear whether they’d stick with the plan to monitor school poverty trends.

At issue is the quest to craft an equity policy to redress historic and ongoing educational disadvantages based on race, class and ethnicity. The board and its policy committee have been working on this task for more than a year.

At Thursday’s policy committee meeting, board members Ruby Jones and Sean Strain balked at focusing too tightly on haves and have-nots. “Let’s move forward with doing what’s good for all students,” Jones said.

But member Carol Sawyer argued that the whole point of an equity policy, as opposed to a broad plan for education, is to acknowledge and address those gaps. “We wouldn’t need an equity policy at all if we weren’t dealing with systemic racism and bias,” she said.

The current draft of the policy calls for the superintendent to monitor and report on six “equity levers.” They are concentrations of poverty, educational opportunities, facilities, school staff, family engagement and social and emotional support for students. Most of Thursday’s discussion focused on assignment, with the committee voting 4-0 that it should be one of the levers.

New poverty list

Assistant Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell handed out a new tally of socioeconomic status based on 2018-19 enrollment. That’s a measure CMS created in 2016 to measure and balance the level of advantage or disadvantage students bring to their schools.

The district looked at family income, parents’ education level, home ownership and other measures in all census blocks to label students high, medium or low socioeconomic status. Those ratings are used to give priority in magnet programs to students who balance the demographics.

The list shows neighborhood schools continue to vary widely. At Providence Spring Elementary in Charlotte’s southern tip, all but two of 978 students are classified as high socioeconomic status, while at Devonshire Elementary in northeast Charlotte 613 of 614 are classified as low socioeconomic status.

Twenty of the district’s 175 schools, all of them neighborhood schools in a band that runs from southwest to northeast Charlotte, have more than 90 percent low socioeconomic status — that is, the students with the most family and neighborhood disadvantages. (See list at bottom for specifics.)

Eight neighborhood schools have more than 90 percent from the most advantaged areas, including one in Huntersville and seven in south Charlotte.

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The Observer has requested the socioeconomic breakdowns in a format that can be shared publicly.

Jones, member Thelma Byers-Bailey and board Chair Mary McCray said city and county housing policies drive much of the isolation in schools, which limits the district’s ability to create greater diversity.

“We know we have segregated housing patterns,” Byers-Bailey said. “That is not going to go away tomorrow.”

Sawyer argued that CMS should focus on what it can control, such as school boundaries. She said extreme concentrations of disadvantage hamper efforts to recruit top teachers and promote high achievement. “We can decide it is more important to have a socioeconomically diverse school than to have, however we define it, a neighborhood together,” she said.

Narrow the focus?

The panel also discussed the best way to measure social and emotional support, with the other “levers” left for discussion at future meetings.

The current draft calls for monitoring suspension and attendance for signs of disparities. But Cotrane Penn, executive director of student wellness and academic support, said those are “dead data points” that only track the students who are in severe distress.

Penn said CMS plans to pilot a new method of gauging all students social and emotional skills this spring.

McCray agreed such support is vital to providing a good education. But she suggested the committee risks adding too many measures to the equity plan. She suggested aligning the equity policy with the three focuses of the superintendent’s strategic plan: Time in school, top teachers and access to rigorous classes.

Months of work lies ahead. Once the committee agrees on an equity policy, it must go to the full board for public hearings and a vote. Then it will fall to Superintendent Clayton Wilcox to create quarterly equity reports and create plans for improving any shortcomings. The school board must also decide whether and how to create a citizen advisory panel.

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But Jones, who chairs the policy committee, said she’s already getting lots of calls and emails about the equity plan. For the first time, CMS live-streamed the committee meeting, which is still available for viewing on the CMS Facebook page (@CharMeckSchools).

“The public is very, very interested in this,” Jones said.

Most and least disadvantaged

These schools draw at least 90 percent of their students from low socioeconomic status areas this year, according to the new CMS list:

Elementary: Allenbrook, Briarwood, Devonshire, Hidden Valley, Orr, Merry Oaks, Nations Ford, Reid Park, Renaissance West, Starmount, Statesville Road, Windsor Park, Winterfield.

Middle: Eastway.

High: Garinger, Harding.

Combined levels: Cochrane, Druid Hills, Thomasboro, Westerly Hills.

These draw at least 90 percent of their students from high socioeconomic status areas:

Elementary: Elon Park, Grand Oak, Olde Providence, Polo Ridge, Providence Spring.

Middle: Community House, Robinson.

High: Ardrey Kell.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.