CMS board prepares to ask the public: How do we boost magnet diversity?

What's next on CMS magnet review?

Here's what the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board tackled during Tuesday's four-hour student assignment session.
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Here's what the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board tackled during Tuesday's four-hour student assignment session.

Before the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board revises the district’s magnet program to increase diversity, it wants to hear from the public.

The board spent four hours Tuesday with administrators and consultants preparing the list of questions and proposals that will be presented at a series of public forums that starts Monday. Decisions on how to increase diversity in magnet programs will remain with the board, which plans to vote in November for changes that take effect in 2017-18.

But before it moves further, the district wants to get a sense of which possible approaches people love or hate. As board Chair Mary McCray put it, laughing: “If they say, ‘Shove that one, Mary,’ we’re going to shove it.”

Here are questions that will be up for discussion:

1. Should the magnet lottery be less random?

The board looked at five scenarios that used weighted priorities to decide who would get magnet seats. Factors that could play in include socioeconomic status, proximity to the school and distribution of students based on which neighborhood school zone they live in.

The goal: Breaking up concentrations of poverty and boosting chances of academic success at magnets and, ultimately, all CMS schools.

“Instead of it being diversity-blind, it’s going to be a diversity-conscious lottery system,” said consultant Michael Alves.

2. How do you define diversity?

CMS plans to use socioeconomic status to gauge school diversity. In the past that has meant poverty, as measured by eligibility for federal lunch subsidies. But changes to the lunch program have made that impractical, in CMS and across the country.

Consultants have suggested using parental income and education, home ownership, single-parent status and English language proficiency to rate students as high, medium or low socioeconomic status.

“We know that income is a rough proxy for likelihood of high achievement,” said consultant Richard Kahlenberg. Parents volunteering in schools can further boost achievement, he said, and “it’s just an uncomfortable reality that middle-class parents are more likely to be in a position to do those things than lower-income parents.”

3. Is low poverty a bad thing?

Most would agree that very high poverty levels pose challenges; virtually all low-performing schools, in CMS and elsewhere, have high poverty levels.

The board and its consultants talked about capping magnet poverty levels at 64 percent to 69 percent, but they also want to set a lower limit of 39 percent to 44 percent (the district level is roughly 56 percent). The thinking goes that schools where most students are affluent lose out on some of the benefits of diversity. The limits would shape goals for magnet admissions.

4. How does busing play in?

“Busing” is often used as code to signal resistance to forced reassignment. But transportation also shapes who applies for and gets into magnet schools.

CMS currently has four transportation zones that determine which magnet schools are available to students. Poverty levels within those zones range from 40 percent to 72 percent. Students in the high-poverty “gray zone,” which stretches from east to west Charlotte, are more likely to land in high-poverty magnets.

The district will outline three options for new magnet busing zones that would come closer to economic balance, increasing the chance that magnet schools will be diverse.

5. Will there be new options?

Yes, but CMS is still trying to figure out which academic themes to add and where to put new schools. Some of those options will be outlined in the coming two weeks.

Board members Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Paul Bailey noted that they’ll need Mecklenburg County commissioners’ support to provide money for new schools. But Rhonda Lennon said CMS should use mobile classrooms to start expanding popular magnets immediately.

“Your staff agrees,” said Superintendent Ann Clark.

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