Your Schools

Is CMS plan to shift students on the right track? Here are some red flags.

Dilworth Elementary, which is slated to merge with Sedgefield Elementary next year, saw enrollment decline by 60 students this year.
Dilworth Elementary, which is slated to merge with Sedgefield Elementary next year, saw enrollment decline by 60 students this year.

For parents who worry about their kids at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, this year is a bit like peeping out the door when the eye of a hurricane passes over.

Two years of angst and controversy over student assignment changes are behind us. The biggest changes lie ahead, when boundary changes, school mergers and several new magnet programs debut in 2018-19.

Optimists hope the changes will help CMS compete for students, provide new options for academic success and entice families to voluntarily reverse resegregation. Skeptics predict those same changes will accelerate flight and frustration without yielding much benefit.

Newly released enrollment numbers raise some red flags related to flight and diversity, yet they also point to some early successes. Bottom line: It’s going to take at least a couple more years to judge the wisdom of the latest strategies.

Here’s what we know – and don’t know – about four big issues.

Q. Did the changes create flight from CMS?

During the long debate over assignment changes, many families threatened to leave public schools if the board made changes they didn’t like.

CMS didn’t shrink this year, but it didn’t grow much, either, falling short of even the district’s modest forecast for adding 750 students. There are hints that the changes drove some departures.

For instance, Dilworth and Sedgefield elementary schools are slated to merge next August, a move touted as creating diversity while balancing enrollment at one underfilled and one crowded school. This year Dilworth, the crowded low-poverty school, lost 60 students, or about 8 percent of its 2016-17 enrollment. Sedgefield, a high-poverty school in a too-large building, lost 51 students, or 13 percent of its previous total.

There had already been anecdotal reports of disgruntled Dilworth families opting for private schools, and Assistant Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell acknowledged the drops in enrollment were likely driven by anxiety about the change. She said CMS hopes to win students back by working closely with the schools and neighborhoods affected during this planning year.

The drop was less dramatic at the other neighborhood elementary school pairing, with Cotswold down 29 students, or 4 percent, and Billingsville down seven students, or 2 percent.

The plan to pair Nathaniel Alexander Elementary with Morehead STEM Academy, a K-8 magnet, drew heated objections from Morehead families, but that high-demand magnet school held fairly steady with about 1,050 students. Nathaniel Alexander lost 35 students, or 4 percent of its enrollment, a change Craven-Howell attributes to the opening of a new K-5 computer science magnet school nearby.

University Park Creative Arts magnet school lost 44 students, or 9 percent of its enrollment, after families objected to plans to add neighborhood students next year. But First Ward Creative Arts lost only five students, even though it’s facing a similar change.

Q. Are schools more diverse?

Not yet, though a key measure hasn’t been released.

One of the purposes of changing student assignment was to break up concentrations of poverty and disadvantage, which can make it harder to recruit and keep strong teachers, create an atmosphere of high achievement and challenge the highest performers.

CMS paid a consultant to help create a new measure of socioeconomic status, which would gauge school diversity and influence admission to magnet programs. The district posted school ratings for 2016-17 but hasn’t updated them. Craven-Howell said new ratings will be posted in mid-November, which CMS starts taking applications for 2018-19 magnet seats (skeptics will note that’s also after the Nov. 7 school board election and bond referendum).

Out of 176 schools this year, CMS has 86 that offer free breakfast and lunch to all students based on family income, up from 76 schools last year. Seventy-eight qualify for federal Title I aid to high-poverty schools, the same as last year.

And 2017 racial tallies indicate racial isolation remains virtually unchanged. Seventy-five schools are less than 10 percent white, and just over half of all CMS black and Hispanic students attend those schools. White students make up 28 percent of all enrollment, but 60 percent of them attend the district’s 37 majority-white schools, mostly in the suburbs.

Craven-Howell said no one expected major improvement this year. Big changes to neighborhood schools don’t take effect until 2018. And the revised magnet lottery awarded 2017 seats to new students based partly on socioeconomic status, but didn’t affect students who were already enrolled. That means magnet diversity will be phased in over several years.

Q. Are families abandoning low-performing schools?

Not in large numbers, though that could change.

This year the school board created a new priority to help students in low-performing schools switch to higher-scoring ones. Six schools had low enough ratings to qualify. Craven-Howell said. CMS set aside 588 seats for students using that priority and got only 72 takers.

Of the six targeted schools, two (Eastway Middle and Tuckaseegee Elementary) saw significant enrollment drops this year. Sedgefield Middle did too, though its decrease seems to be largely attributable to the loss of a Montessori magnet program that was temporarily housed there last year.

Revisions to the opt-out policy and lower 2017 performance ratings, which increased the eligible schools from six to 16, could create more departures in 2018-19.

Q. Are magnets making a difference?

The new plan relies on magnets to accomplish a number of goals, from relieving crowding to bolstering low-performing schools to offering academic programs that will keep families in CMS. This year’s results are mixed.

McClintock Middle School and Cochrane Collegiate Academy, two of the low-scoring schools that offered priority for neighborhood students to leave, actually saw enrollment grow this year because more families opted into high-tech magnet programs they offer. That’s exactly how putting magnet programs into high-poverty schools is supposed to work, attracting students while boosting the academic offerings for everyone.

Dorothy J. Vaughan Academy of Technology, a new K-5 computer science elementary magnet in northeast Charlotte, pulled almost 400 students at opening. And the decision to move a STEM magnet program from crowded Palisades Park Elementary to underfilled Winget Park Elementary helped balance enrollment at the two southwest Charlotte schools.

But the changes haven’t always worked as planned. For instance, small alternative high schools offered on college campuses seem to have contributed to enrollment declines at schools such as West Mecklenburg (down 259 students, to 1,545), Garinger (down 125, to 1,815) and Rocky River (down 96, to 1,534). Those schools weren’t nearly as crowded as Ardrey Kell, Myers Park and South Meck, which grew to top 3,100 students this year.

And enrollment shifts in northwest Charlotte and Huntersville illustrate the kind of unintended consequence that can come with changing a complex system. West Charlotte High and Ranson Middle School both have International Baccalaureate magnets, designed to attract motivated and successful students to neighborhood schools that have struggled with overall performance.

The new plan merged two transportation zones, which determine eligibility for magnets. That meant students in the West Charlotte and Ranson magnet programs could now get bus rides to IB programs at North Mecklenburg High and J.M. Alexander Middle – and many made the switch. West Charlotte and Ranson each lost about 6 percent of their total enrollment, while North Meck added 254 students (a 12 percent increase) and Alexander gained 155 (a 20 percent increase).

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