CMS racial data refuels diversity concerns

Almost half of all African-American and Hispanic students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools attend schools that are more than 90 percent nonwhite, according to delayed 2013-14 school demographics.

The racial breakdowns, stalled by problems with a state data system, landed as the nation marked the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling that ended legal segregation. Many remarked on the rising number of racially identifiable public schools across the country.

“Equal opportunity means more than just striking down Jim Crow laws,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent speech to education reporters, lamenting the increase in schools where less than 10 percent of students are white.

In CMS, 60 of 160 schools fell into that category this year, up from 56 last year, an Observer analysis of the new numbers shows. More than 29,000 black students and almost 14,000 Hispanic students attend those schools, just under half the total enrollment for those groups.

Segregation Again,” a study of race in North Carolina schools by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, labels such schools “intensely segregated” and notes that research has shown such schools have higher dropout rates, lower test scores and fewer highly qualified teachers. The subtitle of the study, released in May, is “North Carolina’s Transition from Leading Desegregation Then to Accepting Segregation Now.”

Few would dispute that the 60 CMS schools, most of which have very high poverty levels, face a host of challenges. But the numbers reflect a world that has changed dramatically since the Jim Crow era.

Charlotte is no longer a black-and-white community. Today more than one-quarter of CMS students, most of them Hispanic, don’t fall into either category. Asian students make up a significant minority at many schools, especially in the south suburbs.

Walter G. Byers School, a preK-8 school northwest of uptown Charlotte, is the most racially homogenous school at 92.7 percent black, with no white students. But many of the schools with few whites have a mix of black and Hispanic students.

Whites, once a strong majority, now make up just under 31 percent of CMS enrollment. They’re more likely to experience racial diversity than students of color, though many attend majority-white schools.

The Observer found that 43 percent of white CMS students attend the 29 schools that are at least 62 percent white, or twice the district level. Grand Oak Elementary, which opened in Huntersville in August, has the largest white majority at 85.6 percent.

Neighborhoods and choice

“Schools mirror local neighborhoods,” said Superintendent Heath Morrison, who came to CMS in 2012.

The current racial landscape of CMS was shaped a decade before that, after a long legal battle ended court-ordered desegregation. Race-based assignment gave way to a network of neighborhood schools and magnets. Poverty levels rose and white enrollment dwindled at a band of schools crossing Mecklenburg County.

Those changes were shaped partly by housing patterns and partly by family choice, which plays a growing role. Not only is CMS expanding its magnets – some of which produce strong academic results with mostly-minority enrollment – but the roster of charter schools is growing. And thousands of Mecklenburg students attend private schools or are home-schooled.

White enrollment and CMS’ share of the school-age “market” has declined slightly in recent years, though the district still educates roughly 80 percent of Mecklenburg’s students. And white flight isn’t as dramatic as some believe: While whites made up 55 percent of the county population in the 2010 census, only 43 percent of school-age children were white.

But in some neighborhoods, high-poverty, low-performing neighborhood schools are avoided not only by white families but by others with the desire and means to seek alternatives.

“It’s not only about money. It’s about education level and emphasis on education in families,” said Amy Hawn Nelson, director of the UNC Charlotte Institute for Social Capital and the co-author of an upcoming book about the history of Charlotte schools.

Nelson knows the pattern well. She lives in Charlotte’s Commonwealth-Morningside neighborhood, which includes many white families. The neighborhood school is Billingsville Elementary, which is more than 95 percent nonwhite and has a poverty level of almost 90 percent.

Solutions vary

Nelson, who is white, said she believes in the value of racial and economic integration. When students are grouped with others like them, “we are also harming our privileged white students because we are giving them this unrealistic view of the world,” she said.

Nelson said her upcoming book will argue that CMS should tailor student assignment to achieve diversity by family income. It’s an approach that Wake County schools are known for, though those assignment policies have been in flux as political battles have raged in recent years.

Morrison has urged educators and communities to confront racial issues in education, ranging from discipline disparities to students of color being underrepresented in advanced classes. His solutions focus not on reassigning students but on providing more individualized options for students, more training for teachers and more support for struggling schools.

Last week Morrison spoke at the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum, a west Charlotte gathering of elected officials and community activists that has roots deep in the desegregation movement. Discussion there hinted at the complexity of today’s education scene.

Terry Belk, a black parent who sued CMS in the 1990s to maintain court-ordered desegregation, used to make regular appearances berating CMS leaders over racial issues. He told Morrison he’s had little cause for complaint lately.

Levester Flowers, who is also African-American, said he wants to work with CMS on getting more families involved in schools. “We need to go back to the roll-up-your-sleeves mentality,” he said.

Sarah Stevenson, the group’s co-founder, said afterward that she’s “impressed and hopeful” about Morrison’s approach.

But Stevenson, who lived through Jim Crow segregation and served on the school board in the 1980s, was taken aback when told the number of schools that have few white students. She said people who have less knowledge and experience benefit from mingling with those who have more opportunities.

“I would feel much better if we were integrated more,” she said. “I just think togetherness is better than separateness.”

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