Education

Can CMS reduce poverty at some schools without harming others?

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s policy committee made another run at student assignment changes on Thursday.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s policy committee made another run at student assignment changes on Thursday. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members agreed Thursday they want to reduce concentrations of school poverty while protecting schools that are successful.

But they disagreed on whether that’s possible.

The six board members who attended Thursday’s student assignment meeting repeated a long-standing consensus that high poverty levels hinder efforts to recruit a strong faculty and provide students a good education.

“To me, goal No. 1 is to address those concentrations” of poverty, said board member Eric Davis. “Goal No. 2 is not to mess up what’s working while we accomplish goal No. 1.”

Committee Chair Tom Tate questioned whether the two goals are contradictory.

“How are we doing to do that unless we cause somebody to do something they might not want to do?” Tate said. “Doing no harm is like doing nothing at all.”

“There’s no way to please everybody,” Davis responded. But, he said, “I don’t think it’s a zero-sum game.”

Goal No. 1 is to address (concentrations of poverty). Goal No. 2 is not to mess up what’s working while we accomplish goal No. 1.

CMS board member Eric Davis

How are we doing to do that unless we cause somebody to do something they might not want to do?

CMS board member Tom Tate

For months, the board has been trying to lay the groundwork for a review of student assignment policies, with changes taking effect in 2017-18. Members acknowledged Thursday that they and the community are getting frustrated by the lack of decisions.

“Some days it feels like we’re watching paint dry,” Ericka Ellis-Stewart said. “I feel like we’re somewhat untethered.”

“We seem to be going around in circles here as far as trying to get the right words on paper,” added Paul Bailey.

I’ve been expressing great hope that this is going to be an extraordinary moment in our district and in our community.

Superintendent Ann Clark

Part of the challenge stems from what Superintendent Ann Clark cited as a unique opportunity. In decades past, big changes in student assignment have been driven by lawsuits and court orders, from the 1970 ruling that forced CMS to start busing for desegregation to the 1999 decision that ended race-based assignment.

This review is being done because board policy says it’s time for a six-year update, not because a judge is dictating terms. And most members agree they need to tackle the racial and economic isolation that has resulted from 13 years of a plan that mixes neighborhood schools and magnets.

“We’re in the driver’s seat,” Clark said. “I’ve been expressing great hope that this is going to be an extraordinary moment in our district and in our community.”

The committee agreed on five broad goals, each of which comes with unresolved challenges.

1. Reduce concentrations of poverty.

First, the board will have to figure out how to accurately measure school poverty, a task that has gotten more complicated since CMS no longer has tallies of students who qualify for lunch subsidies at many schools.

Then it will have to decide what level is considered unacceptable. In 2013-14, the last year CMS had consistent data, 61 of 157 schools had poverty levels of 75 percent or higher, and 14 were at 90 percent or higher.

Then comes the toughest task: figuring out what to do about it. The district has had very limited success enticing middle-class families into high-poverty schools with magnet programs. And board members are aware that many families will switch to charter or private schools if their kids are assigned to schools they consider undesirable.

2. Avoid harming successful schools.

The large number of high-poverty schools makes it difficult, if not impossible, to make major changes to their student makeup without causing ripples through many other schools.

And, of course, there’s the challenge of defining “successful” and deciding how far CMS should go to protect those schools if the district is making assignment changes.

3. Ensure that students aren’t assigned to a series of failing schools.

First challenge: Defining “failing.” Members said they’re not enthusiastic about state letter grades based on test scores. But creating a separate CMS rating system would be complex and confusing.

However it’s done, labeling schools as failures and giving families the chance to move their children out makes it even more difficult to create success for those who remain. It’s a pattern CMS and many other districts saw when the federal No Child Left Behind Act mandated a transfer option for students in low-scoring high-poverty schools.

4. Promote access to good options.

Under the current system, everyone can apply for magnet schools. But some magnets have long waiting lists. Most have admission requirements. And some families may lack knowledge about the options.

5. Avoid letting some schools get filled far past capacity while others are underused.

That’s a problem that emerged in the early 2000s when CMS rolled out a “choice plan.” Members say they’d like to focus on family choice as they move forward, but money is tight for expanding crowded schools and building new ones.

The board’s policy committee will meet again Dec. 17. Tate said the group will review Thursday’s goals, talk about public engagement and try to set a timeline for decisions.

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

Next meeting

The CMS policy committee meets at 10:30 a.m. Dec. 17 in Room 528 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.

Find video of Thursday’s meeting at http://bit.ly/1ijM0Ps

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