Surprise CMS assignment guidelines spark hope and questions

Orange-shirted supporters of school diversity showed up at Tuesday’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting, joining green-shirted neighborhood schools advocates.
Orange-shirted supporters of school diversity showed up at Tuesday’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting, joining green-shirted neighborhood schools advocates.

After weeks of angst over student assignment, a surprise report at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting has sparked curiosity and cautious optimism among many following the matter.

Superintendent Ann Clark presented a draft of guidelines for student assignment changes. It affirms that students would continue to be assigned to schools close to home, a move many parents and suburban elected officials have been clamoring for.

The draft also calls for family income to be taken into account in drawing boundaries and placing students in magnet schools, a theme other families and activists have pushed. Board members hailed the document as a major step in a review that has consumed and often polarized the community, though they acknowledged the toughest steps lie ahead.

“This document is a uniting document,” said board member Rhonda Lennon, a proponent of neighborhood schools.

“We have been climbing a mountain and we’ve hit a peak. I am so relieved,” said Vice Chair Elyse Dashew, who has spoken about the need for school diversity. “We have more mountains to climb.”

The report caught almost everyone by surprise, including people who turned out to talk about student assignment during Tuesday’s forum for comments on any topic. The report was added to the agenda after the meeting began, a little after 7 p.m., and many speakers filed out before it came up at 9:30 p.m. Board Chair Mary McCray urged the crowd to stay, but many parents and teachers were trying to get home on a school night.

The draft calls for:

▪ All students to have an assigned “home school within proximity to where he/she lives,” similar to what CMS currently does. Travel distance, school capacity and keeping neighborhoods intact are listed as factors to be considered for boundaries. The report also calls for “constructing attendance boundaries especially for newly established schools that contribute to a socioeconomically diverse student population.”

▪ Using magnets and other opt-in schools, such as high schools on college campuses, to offer families choices, with priorities for admission based on socioeconomic status. Students in persistently low-performing schools would get priority for alternatives, and magnets could be used to help improve low-performing schools.

The board remains a long way from making decisions about where students will go to school in 2017-18. The guiding principles could be revised before the board votes April 26, and it will take months after that to figure out how to apply those guidelines.

As word got out Wednesday, people scrambled to figure out what to make of the report – and of professions of unity from board members who have sometimes been sharply divided.

“It’s a step in the right direction and I’m pleased to hear it,” said Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor, who has formed a task force to study splitting from CMS if it doesn’t protect suburban neighborhood schools. But he said the task force will keep meeting until the board makes decisions.

“I’m very encouraged that we are moving toward a compromise position,” said Rosalyn Allison-Jacobs of OneMeck, a group urging the board to increase diversity and break up concentrations of poverty.

“I think there’s a lot of optimism out there, and optimism is what has been missing,” said Rachael Weiss of CMS Families United for Public Education, a group created to explore student assignment solutions.

In recent weeks, neighborhood school supporters have turned out by the hundreds, often wearing green T-shirts. Tuesday’s board meeting drew a new crowd wearing orange “Our Community Our Kids” T-shirts, with several speaking about the hazards of racial and economic isolation.

Chavon Carroll, a CMS parent who donned an orange shirt, said she’s mostly curious about what the guiding principles will mean in practice. For instance, she said, will the district revise “gerrymandered” boundaries that lump poor neighborhoods into some districts and more affluent ones into others?

James Ford, a former N.C. Teacher of the Year who spoke Tuesday about the need to confront resegregation of schools, was one of the parents who left the meeting early to get home to his kids. He said he read the draft report Wednesday and thinks it falls short of “an aggressive approach” to reversing concentrations of poverty.

“I expected a little more out of the gate,” he said.

The board has scheduled a special meeting Wednesday to hear more about what people think of the guidelines.

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

What’s next

Thursday: Student assignment discussion, 10:30 a.m. in Room 527 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. Public may attend, but only board members will participate. Call 980-343-5139.

Wednesday: Public hearing on student assignment guiding principles, 6 p.m. in the Government Center’s meeting chamber. Call 980-343-5139 by noon Wednesday or sign up on-site before the hearing begins.

April 26: Board will vote on guiding principles at its regular meeting, 6 p.m. in the auditorium of Butler High, 1810 Matthews-Mint Hill Road, Matthews.

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