Education

New school to relieve overcrowding in south Mecklenburg will be a partial magnet

J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville, pictured here, was built with 2013 bond money and opened last August. The last school to be built from that bond issue, called the Rea Farms Relief School, is scheduled to open in August 2020 to help relieve overcrowding in southern Mecklenburg County.
J.M. Alexander Middle School in Huntersville, pictured here, was built with 2013 bond money and opened last August. The last school to be built from that bond issue, called the Rea Farms Relief School, is scheduled to open in August 2020 to help relieve overcrowding in southern Mecklenburg County. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board approved a partial-magnet student assignment plan Tuesday night for a new school meant to relieve overcrowding in south Charlotte, while voting down a full-magnet approach that had community support.

The Rea Farms Relief School, as it is now called, is scheduled to open in August 2020 as the final project from a $295 million school bond package voters approved in 2013. The bond issue described it as a magnet school that would relieve overcrowding at Jay M. Robinson and Community House middle schools, and their elementary feeder schools.

In April and May, as community meetings were held, the district assessed other options for the $40 million school off Providence Road. Those included operating the new facility as a K-8 school solely for students from within its attendance boundary, as a middle school or as a K-8 school with only choice seats.

Molly Reed, a parent at Providence Spring discussed the safety concerns and inefficiencies facing an overcrowded school.

The district said it evaluated the options based on the distances from homes to the school, whether they would keep school feeder patterns intact, school utilization and socioeconomic diversity.

The board voted 8-1 Tuesday for Superintendent Clayton Wilcox’s recommendation: a K-8 school with 70 percent of its seats assigned from a home school attendance area and 30 percent available in the school choice lottery for the district’s Blue Transportation Zone. The school’s academic theme will be decided with community input, with initial support voiced for a STEM/ STEAM curriculum.

Wilcox said the proposal would guarantee relief for the overcrowded schools while reflecting the intent of the bond issue by including a magnet option.

None of the five options for which CMS sought feedback in community surveys stood out distinctly from others, Associate Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell told the board, although creating a middle school with solely home-school seats drew the most consistent support.

“Clearly, this is not a community with a single voice or a single perspective,” she said.

An alternate plan

But many parents in the area had argued for a full-magnet school, saying that’s what the 2013 bond issue had promised. District 6 board member Sean Strain, who represents southern Mecklenburg, introduced a proposal to do that.

Strain’s proposal would create a K-8 magnet school that for its first two years would fill 80% of its seats from the Robinson and Community House attendance zones. In year three and later, all seats would be open to students from across the much larger Blue Transportation Zone.

Strain argued that a magnet school, compared to Wilcox’s recommendation, would much more quickly draw students from diverse social and economic backgrounds. Equitable resources among all students has been a focus of CMS for more than a year.

“How can we say we value equity and diversity if we don’t support initiatives, like this, that do that?” he told colleagues.

Wilcox responded that, despite a community survey that found 37% of families in the area would likely be interested in a magnet curriculum, there was no guarantee they would follow through. He said he also doubted that a full magnet would increase diversity as Strain depicted it.

“This relies on a leap of faith that people will choose these (magnet) options,” Wilcox said. “We’ve tried to create a plan that provides (overcrowding) relief, but I can’t do that on a leap of faith.”

Strain’s proposal failed on a 2-7 vote.

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