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County meeting on CMS magnet plan shows big questions linger. Here are some answers

Supporters and opponents of the CMS magnet plan watch as Superintendent Ann Clark fields county commissioners’ questions Tuesday.
Supporters and opponents of the CMS magnet plan watch as Superintendent Ann Clark fields county commissioners’ questions Tuesday. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Mecklenburg County commissioners’ Tuesday meeting about student assignment ended without action, but it made one thing clear: Questions are still bubbling about the magnet plan up for a school board vote next week.

Commissioner Jim Puckett got no traction on his request to ask the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to delay its vote. But the move generated a flurry of comments, critiques and questions from people who have been following the board’s slow march toward a new student assignment plan.

Among the most basic: What does CMS hope to accomplish by introducing a new diversity-driven plan for magnets?

Puckett derided the plan as an attempt to solve the problems of high-poverty schools and struggling students by shuffling enrollment. He said CMS should instead focus on meeting the needs of students in the areas where they live, even if that leaves many schools with high concentrations of disadvantaged students.

Superintendent Ann Clark’s response – “it’s not intended to be an academic plan” – may create further confusion if taken as a sound bite.

In fact, Clark and the school board have consistently said they see assignment changes as one tool to boost academic performance, to be used in addition to existing strategies, not in place of them. Those include programs to recruit and support top teachers and principals, efforts to boost reading skills and an infusion of extra support for low-scoring, high-poverty schools.

The proposed assignment plan offers more alternatives for students assigned to schools where turnaround efforts have yet to yield results, including the chance to switch to higher-performing neighborhood schools. It calls for offering more options to any family that’s interested – potentially helping students find a setting that matches their skills and interests, as well as helping CMS compete with charter and private schools.

If students leave low-performing neighborhood schools, Clark has talked about adding magnet programs that could attract strong students with supportive families, potentially strengthening the school. The socioeconomic lottery priority means students with advantages would have top preference for getting into schools in impoverished areas, while the reverse would be true for magnets in more affluent neighborhoods.

And in elementary and middle schools, the neighborhood students will take part in any new magnet theme. For instance, a math-science-engineering theme might bring a robotics program for everyone.

There is, of course, no guarantee that the changes will pay off. As many have noted, neighborhood schools with a bad reputation could be left with the most fragile students and families as others flee to magnets. And moving to a more diverse school doesn’t ensure that a student will fare better.

“What a reduction in the percentage of poverty does is change the conditions” that can stack the odds against students and teachers, Clark told commissioners.

Here are other questions that emerged Tuesday.

Will a new superintendent change course?

Not likely.

Puckett wanted the school board to delay action until it hires a new superintendent early next year, saying the new leader could “come in and go, ‘You people are crazy.’ 

But the superintendent reports to the school board, not the other way around. The same board that has spent more than a year hashing out this assignment plan is doing the search, and members are unlikely to hire someone who wants to scrap their work. The new superintendent may tweak the plan, but under the current timetable the big decisions will be made before Clark retires – and before the November 2017 school board election.

Is the CMS plan unique?

Yes and no.

Commissioners and speakers questioned whether CMS is plunging into uncharted territory with its diversity-based magnet plan. Consultants have said that the complex formula being used to calculate socioeconomic status in CMS is more sophisticated than any currently in use.

But CMS is far from the only district using SES, as the new approach is called. A Century Foundation report earlier this year found 83 districts either using or working on SES-based assignment plans. Districts with established plans have supporters, who point to civic and academic benefits of diversity, and detractors, who note that the plans haven’t broken the link between poverty and academic struggles.

Is it controlled choice?

Two speakers at Tuesday’s meeting said CMS is pursuing a “controlled choice” path that the Massachusetts-based Alves Educational Consultants Group is known for, characterizing it as a strategy that has failed in Wake County and elsewhere.

The CMS plan does emphasize choice, and exerts some control over where students will go. But as Clark told commissioners, “controlled choice” has a precise meaning in educational circles, and it’s one the school board rejected: Eliminating all guaranteed seats in neighborhood schools and requiring all students to enter a lottery.

Under the CMS plan, participation in a lottery is optional. Students won’t be forced to leave the neighborhood schools that serve a majority of students.

Will it undermine neighborhood schools?

Several families have accused CMS of ignoring a February student assignment survey that showed a strong majority of parents rating schools close to home as more important than diversity.

It’s unclear whether that criticism is justified. After that poll, the board split its work into two phases. The one that’s slated to conclude next week deals only with choice. The expansion of magnets requires a yet-undetermined amount of money for buildings, programs and busing – money that critics say is diverted from neighborhood schools.

The second phase will look at whether boundaries and feeder patterns for neighborhood schools should be revised. That’s expected to be the most controversial stage.

That work starts next week.

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

Stay engaged

Monday: CMS will hold simultaneous town hall meetings to explain the magnet changes from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at East Mecklenburg High, 6800 Monroe Road, and West Mecklenburg High, 7400 Tuckaseegee Road. People can also watch live and submit questions online (go to www.cms.k12.nc.us and click the “Town Hall Meetings” button at the top of the page).

Monday: Superintendent Ann Clark will hold a “coffee and conversation” session from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Grand Oak Elementary, 15410 Stumptown Road, Huntersville.

Nov. 9: The CMS board will hold a public hearing on the proposed changes, followed by a vote, at a meeting starting at 6 p.m. in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. To speak, call 980-343-5139 by noon Nov. 9 or sign up on site before the meeting.

More information: Click “2017-18 Student Assignment Review” on the CMS web page, www.cms.k12.nc.us.

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