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Will telling CMS your income help create better schools?

Palisades Park Elementary, which opened in southwest Charlotte in 2014, has grown so fast that its STEM magnet program will shift to nearby Winget Park Elementary.
Palisades Park Elementary, which opened in southwest Charlotte in 2014, has grown so fast that its STEM magnet program will shift to nearby Winget Park Elementary. Observer file photo

Consultant Michael Alves sees Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ emerging magnet plan as a model that can refine the way schools across America view diversity and equity.

Its immediate impact will be felt by thousands of students expected to take part in the 2017 assignment lottery in January. For now, it’s under scrutiny from parents trying to figure out whether it will help or hurt their kids and their schools.

They’re asking questions about a new system that requires families applying for magnets to report their income or face a penalty: Is it intrusive? Will parents game the system?

They’re poring over plans to revamp magnet programs and rewrite the rules about who can get in.

Not surprisingly, views are split, with unanswered questions lingering.

“I think it will be a nightmare to administer, but in theory it looks like a good idea,” said Robin Hill, a Randolph Middle School magnet parent. “I’m cautiously optimistic. They listened to (parents’) concerns.”

Claude Nottingham and Amonie Greene, parents of two CMS students, say they’re skeptical that a lottery designed to balance socioeconomic status in magnets will provide a real solution for students who aren’t getting a good education.

“It seems more like a game,” said Nottingham, who has one daughter in a magnet and one in a neighborhood school. “I don’t want my kids’ education left to luck and circumstance.”

‘Different in a good way’

CMS already uses a lottery to place students in magnet programs when there are more applicants than seats. About 30,000 students a year participate, Superintendent Ann Clark said, and the most popular schools end up with hundreds of students on waiting lists.

The proposed new lottery, which is up for a public hearing Tuesday and a vote on Nov. 9, uses socioeconomic status, known as SES, to award seats.

Many districts already use a similar approach, and others are exploring it. A report released Thursday by the Raleigh-based Public School Forum of North Carolina cites SES-based assignment as a key strategy for dealing with racial and economic inequality in schools.

Alves, a Massachusetts-based consultant working with CMS, says the local plan is distinguished by the amount of information being crunched to match students and schools.

“This is a real opportunity that the families that have been most at risk can get access to some of your higher-performing schools,” he said. “It certainly will be different than it has been in the past, but I think different in a good way.”

Can families cheat?

The CMS plan starts by rating each of Mecklenburg County’s 568 Census blocks as high, medium or low SES, based on average household income, home ownership, single-parent families, English proficiency and adult educational levels. That’s designed to serve as a measure of the advantage or disadvantage students from those areas bring to school.

All students will be assigned an SES rating based on where they live. If they apply for magnet seats the family will be asked to report their income, parents’ educational level and number of children. That’s designed to account for the fact that blocks, which encompass 600 to 3,000 people, may include families whose personal circumstances fall far from the average.

The block and individual data will be combined to set each student’s priority for magnet seats. Families who decline to report their personal information will be allowed to participate, but their child will be placed after those who did report personal data.

Melinda Nolden, a member of CMS Families United for Public Education, said her group is hearing a concern that also arose at recent town hall meetings: Families may lie about their earnings and education in hopes of boosting their children’s chances.

“We know people game the system to get into a better school,” said Nolden, a CMS magnet parent.

Alves and CMS leaders say lying won’t make sense. The goal is to strike a balance, not to weight the whole system toward any one SES group. A parent would need to know the makeup of the preferred school and the applicant pool to know what SES rating would give an edge.

CMS will calculate SES levels at each neighborhood school, based on the Census blocks in the attendance zone. When those schools have magnet programs, the lottery will be used to balance the overall school population. For instance, a neighborhood school with overwhelmingly high SES – or kids coming from advantaged homes – would award most of the magnet seats to low and medium SES students.

CMS has yet to run those school numbers, officials said Monday. It’s unclear when and where that information will be available.

In full magnet schools, which are often in highest demand, the lottery will be used to create an equal balance of high, medium and low SES among new groups of students.

Students who are already in a magnet, or who will move up to a guaranteed seat in a similar program at the next level, won’t be affected by the SES priorities. Nor will students who are guaranteed a spot because an older sibling is in the program.

Assistant Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell said the district is looking at ways to verify a sampling of individual income reports, but the district hasn’t decided out how to do that, or even how the income question will be presented.

Route to new hope?

Clark and the board are counting on the magnet plan to do more than reshuffle the 22,000 students already in magnets.

Clark talks about doubling participation in the next four years. New schools and programs will be added. Admission requirements are being eased to increase access. And students in the lowest-performing schools will get special options to switch schools.

At a town hall forum, Clark gave the following example of how the plan might work: Say a low-performing school with 900 students, all of them low SES, sees 300 of them opt out. Using the new system, they’d be likely to get into schools with more advantaged students as classmates.

The 600 neighborhood students remaining would still reflect the concentrated disadvantage CMS is trying to dismantle. But CMS could add a 300-seat magnet program, with priority going to high and medium SES students, Clark said. “In a way, that begins to shape success,” she said.

But Kim Buchko, who has a daughter in a neighborhood school, repeatedly asked Clark whether that really makes a difference: “Has it worked? Are we seeing success?”

Clark talked about research showing that more diverse schools have better results for all students. But the skepticism of Buchko and her husband, Chris, is understandable. Past efforts to use magnet programs to attract high-performing students to schools with a bad reputation have struggled. McClintock Middle School is an example: While it has a robotics magnet program that pulls some students in, the school’s overall performance has been so low for the past three years that its neighborhood students will qualify for priority to get out in 2017.

Early win on access

CMS leaders say the new program won’t work unless they can explain it clearly to thousands of families, and not just the highly engaged parents who already frequent meetings.

On Monday, they rolled out a new system that let people participate online in simultaneous town hall meetings at North and South Mecklenburg high schools. Online participants could submit questions, with staff answering them live.

The two sessions had a combined live audience of 90, with 800 virtual participants. Questions streamed in, and the district plans to do it again on Nov. 7.

Once the board approves a plan on Nov. 9, staffers plan to fan out to locations across the county to help families understand and participate in the 2017 options lottery, with special emphasis on high-poverty schools.

Stay engaged

Monday: Superintendent Ann Clark will take questions about the magnet plan during a Facebook Live session with the Observer from 12:30 to 1 p.m. Go to the Observer’s Facebook page to watch and submit questions.

Tuesday: Meeting that starts at 6 p.m. in room 267 of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St., includes a public hearing on the proposed student assignment changes. Call 980-343-5139 by noon Tuesday to speak or sign up on site before the meeting. Watch live online or on CMS-TV Cable 3.

Wednesday: Clark holds a “coffee and conversation” session from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Elon Park Elementary, 11425 Ardrey Kell Road.

Nov. 7: Town hall meetings on the magnet plan from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at East Mecklenburg High, 6800 Monroe Road, and West Mecklenburg High, 7400 Tuckaseegee Road. Participate online by clicking the “town hall meetings” button at the top of the CMS website, www.cms.k12.nc.us

Nov. 9: Public hearing and vote on the magnet plan, 6 p.m. at the Government Center. Meetings are normally on Tuesdays, but this one is delayed because of Election Day.

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