At high-poverty neighborhood schools such as McClintock Middle and Huntingtowne Farms Elementary, magnets could pull in dozens of more affluent students next year.
And at lower-poverty schools such as Blythe Elementary and J.M. Alexander Middle, a larger number of disadvantaged students got seats in popular International Baccalaureate magnets, thanks to a new Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools lottery system that uses socioeconomic status to assign magnet students.
A new report on magnet demographics for 2017-18 includes those encouraging signs, coming after a two-year CMS student assignment review that aspires to boost diversity through a combination of family choice and prioritized seating. That report, provided to the Observer and school board members, offers glimmers of hope while leaving many questions to be answered.
Many schools, including the large full-magnet schools that are among the district’s most popular, show little demographic change in the coming year. That’s hardly a surprise in an assignment revamp that was designed to open doors to greater diversity without creating the massive upheaval that could drive families out of CMS.
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The new report, while complex and confusing, is important because CMS spent two years working on a new diversity system. The district paid a consultant $135,000 to devise a new system of socioeconomic status ratings based on average household income, single-parent homes, English proficiency, home ownership and adult education levels in Census block groups.
The choice priorities are considered vital in a student assignment system that avoided major changes in boundaries, instead striving to break up concentrations of disadvantage though family choice. In full magnet schools, seats for new students were awarded with a goal of having one-third from high socioeconomic areas, one-third from medium and one-third from low. In partial magnets, seats were awarded to balance the neighborhood demographics. For instance, in a high-poverty school most of the magnet seats would be awarded to students from more affluent areas – assuming they applied.
The diversity report, which compares magnet students placed for 2017-18 with those currently enrolled, provides the first glimpse of that system in action.
The trouble is, the more you look at those numbers, the less clear it is what they say about how schools will change next year.
Why it’s confusing
For starters, the new system isn’t comparable to the one CMS and other districts across America have used for decades, in which poverty is defined by eligibility for federal lunch subsidies. Some schools that receive federal Title I aid and provide free meals for all students based on the traditional poverty levels look more balanced under the new CMS system, which shifts some of those students into the “middle” category.
In awarding magnet seats, CMS combined those neighborhood ratings with self-reported individual data. But the report on magnet demographics uses only the neighborhood data. Thus, children of affluent families who have moved into gentrifying neighborhoods show up as low socioeconomic status, while children in more advantaged neighborhoods show up as middle or high, even if their own families face more challenges.
The report compares students who are currently in magnet programs with those awarded seats for the coming year. But a closer look shows that many of the students awarded seats in last year’s lottery either didn’t show up in those programs or left during the year. The gap between lottery placement and actual magnet enrollment is especially large at some of the high-poverty schools showing big changes in the coming year, such as Albemarle Road Middle, Harding High, Coulwood STEM and Idlewild Elementary.
In other words, those schools will get more diverse only if the students placed there actually show up in August. That’s a perpetual challenge in a county with ample choice, where families shopping for schools often apply not only for CMS magnets but for multiple charter schools, with one child holding spots in more than one school. Only after classes begin do those schools figure out who’s really coming.
Change can also be hard to gauge in full magnet schools, which serve the bulk of CMS’ magnet students and draw the strongest family interest. For starters, most already have more socioeconomic balance than neighborhood schools. And because the new priorities apply only to incoming students, significant shifts will take years to play out. For instance, the popular Morehead STEM Academy, which serves more than 1,000 K-8 students, would see most of its change in next year’s kindergarten class, as existing students advance to the next level.
Can CMS sort it out?
And finally, there’s the question of how accurate the numbers are. The report shows Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, a full magnet school that had more than 1,500 students at the official count in September, with fewer than 500 currently enrolled and just over 700 placed for next year. Scott McCully, the administrator who co-led the assignment review and tracks the data, agreed something must be missing when I called that to his attention last Tuesday.
But so far there has been no update or correction.
McCully, who has been the district’s point person on student assignment for 17 years, leaves this week to take a new job in Guilford County. It’s part of a leadership shuffle that comes as Superintendent Ann Clark hands off the top job to Clayton Wilcox at the end of this month.
As students and families shift to summer mode, one could argue that few care about a bunch of wonky numbers related to socioeconomic status. But if the numbers don’t matter, CMS has wasted a huge amount of staff time and community energy over the past two years.
And if they do, the district needs to figure out quickly how to get them right and explain them clearly.
Magnets seeing change
Numbers are based on a report released recently to the Observer comparing current magnet enrollment with seats awarded for 2017-18. “High poverty” here signifies that the school provides free meals to all students, which corresponds to poverty levels of 75 percent or higher under the old system. The numbers apply only to magnet students; demographics for the full school will be different if there are neighborhood students.
Albemarle Road Middle IB (partial magnet, high poverty): Low socioeconomic status enrollment goes from 78 percent to 62 percent.
Blythe Elementary IB (partial magnet, not high poverty): Low socioeconomic status goes from 17 percent to 24 percent.
Cotswold Elementary IB (partial magnet, not high poverty): High socioeconomic status goes from 62 percent to 55 percent.
Coulwood Middle STEM (partial magnet, high poverty): Low socioeconomic status goes from 32 percent to 57 percent.
Harding High (partial magnet, high poverty): Low socioeconomic status goes from 78 percent to 71 percent in the IB magnet and from 81 percent to 67 percent in career-tech programs.
Huntingtowne Farms Elementary IB (partial magnet, high poverty): Low socioeconomic status goes from 67 percent to 60 percent; high goes from 9 percent to 15 percent.
Idlewild Elementary Learning Immersion/Talent Development (partial magnet, high poverty): Low socioeconomic status goes from 42 percent to 34 percent.
J.M. Alexander Middle IB (partial magnet, not high poverty): Low socioeconomic status goes from 11 percent to 26 percent; high goes from 32 percent to 22 percent.
Mallard Creek Elementary IB (partial magnet, not high poverty): Low socioeconomic status goes from 10 percent to 24 percent.
McClintock Middle STEM (partial magnet, high poverty): Low socioeconomic status goes from 56 percent to 42 percent; high goes from 8 percent to 13 percent.
Oakhurst STEAM Academy (partial magnet, high poverty): Low socioeconomic status goes from 54 percent to 46 percent.
Ranson Middle IB (partial magnet, high poverty): Low socioeconomic status goes from 79 percent to 65 percent.
Statesville Road Elementary IB (partial magnet, high poverty): Low socioeconomic status goes from 78 percent to 62 percent.