CMS weighs diversity in upcoming student assignment plan

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders took their first steps Tuesday in weighing how sweeping they want the upcoming student assignment plan to be – and how big a role it will play in helping struggling schools.

Diversity was the key point of discussion. School board members broadly agreed that many of the district’s neighborhood schools are not diverse, but they did not come to a consensus on how to address that.

Other big questions were also on the table: Should CMS continue to guarantee a spot in a home school, despite overcrowding? Should there be changes in the shuttle system to magnet schools?

The school board will be working on the assignment plan well into 2016. By then, CMS is slated to have a new superintendent, who may come in with his or her own ideas.

Some school board members broached the topic of using student assignment to make schools more diverse, a politically fraught issue that has landed CMS in court in decades past.

School board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said the issue needs to be on the table. “We have some places where we’re not doing what we need to do for our kids,” she said. “If we don’t address some of the issues inherent to student assignment, we are doing our students a disservice.”

Board member Tom Tate said he originally voted against the student assignment principles when they last came up in 2010 because diversity wasn’t a big enough part. Instead, the district has gone with a series of other initiatives, including beefing up staff in high-poverty schools, to try to move the needle.

“We’ve tried lots of things over the last five years,” Tate said. “Is it possible that student assignment is one of the things we really need to take seriously this time because student assignment becomes a block to students getting the education they need?”

On charters

The district’s competition with charter schools – and the threat of more parents leaving CMS for them – was also a repeated undercurrent in the conversation.

This year, CMS had both fewer white students and fewer black students than the year before as charter schools continue to expand in Mecklenburg County.

Board member Rhonda Lennon, who represents northern Mecklenburg County, where charter school competition is among the fiercest, said her neighbors have told her that uncertainty about which school their kids would be sent to was a key reason for choosing a charter school.

“This will be an immediate rush from CMS if they perceive that we’re going to change student assignment,” Lennon said.

Magnet review update

The school board did not hear the results of the ongoing magnet school review that will have a significant impact on any assignment plan.

The district brought in the national nonprofit Magnet Schools of America in February to evaluate nearly all of the county’s 43 magnet programs. The goal of the $63,000 project was to see which programs could be combined, altered or expanded, as well as to make CMS a better candidate for grants.

But the process has also worried some parents, who fear their child’s school could be on the chopping block. About 20,000 students are in CMS magnet programs.

CMS was expected to release the results in May. Clark said they would now likely be presented in June.

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Twitter: @andrew_dunn