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Assignment talk will get real with upcoming CMS magnet plan

An engineering/robotics magnet program at McClintock Middle School is helping the high-poverty school attract students.
An engineering/robotics magnet program at McClintock Middle School is helping the high-poverty school attract students. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

On Oct. 13, the public can expect its first glimpse of the future of student assignment in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

That’s when Superintendent Ann Clark plans to report on proposed changes to the district’s magnet programs. She has said she plans to expand magnet options and sees family choice as the first step toward breaking up concentrations of poverty.

Board member Eric Davis dropped a similar hint at a recent MeckMin forum on educational equity, telling the group that “I predict that we will radically expand our magnet program.” He noted that suburban families, who now face long bus rides if they want their kids enrolled in the specialized themes, are likely to benefit.

Clark’s magnet report won’t be the end of the ongoing student assignment review. The school board is just starting to hash out guiding principles for a comprehensive plan to take effect in 2017-18.

But Clark’s plan will bring specific changes to schools, some taking effect in 2016-17 and some rolling out over the next few years.

Families are mobilizing already. For instance, those from Sedgefield Middle School’s Montessori magnet are drumming up turnout for the Oct. 13 meeting in support of a high school Montessori program.

Meanwhile, board members got a more detailed report last week from Magnet Schools of America, which did an extensive review of CMS programs last spring and presented a preliminary report in July.

Spoiler alert: The executive summary leaves big questions unanswered, from “How do you measure and encourage diversity?” to “Where will the money come from?” It doesn’t give recommendations for specific schools, though it does include a list that highlights some with academic challenges.

Here’s an overview of the group’s recommendations:

1. Improve academic offerings.

The consultants found most CMS magnet schools lacking in faculty training for the academic themes.

The plan calls for CMS to create a plan to “improve undersubscribed and low-achieving magnet schools and programs within one year.” It suggests better professional development and a curriculum specialist for each magnet theme.

Marie G. Davis Military and Global Leadership Academy, a K-12 magnet, and First Ward and University Park creative arts elementary schools are highlighted as full magnet schools that are underperforming on state exams.

2. Scrutinize partial magnets.

Magnet programs within a neighborhood school are often viewed as a way to bring back families who may be fleeing because of high poverty levels and/or low performance. The goal is for the magnet to improve the whole school. The reality can be an island of achievement in a school that continues to struggle.

The report notes that such settings “have inequitable outcomes, with minority and low-income student achievement remaining in decline,” and says that test scores are lower at partial magnets than full magnet schools.

Several partial magnet schools are highlighted for large performance gaps between magnet and nonmagnet students: Blythe, Huntingtowne Farms, Lansdowne, Barringer, Idlewild, Mallard Creek, Shamrock Gardens and Tuckaseegee elementary schools; Albemarle Road, Alexander, Ranson and Sedgefield middle schools; and East Mecklenburg, Harding, North Mecklenburg, West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg high schools.

The report calls for CMS to address such gaps, but it doesn’t suggest strategies.

3. Increase diversity.

That recommendation is no surprise, given that diversity is a central value for Magnet Schools of America and that examining diversity was one of the group’s charges from CMS.

The consultants found that CMS magnets show “limited evidence of diversity reflective of the district and community” and noted that “CMS recognizes the need to eliminate racial predictability.” The report calls for magnets to be part of a districtwide diversity plan and to offer cultural proficiency training.

It also suggests targeted recruitment from each school and annual reports on efforts to reduce “minority group isolation.”

The report notes that the transportation zones used for magnet placement and busing may inhibit diversity, especially the “gray zone” that spans a narrow east-west band across the county.

4. Give magnets freedom.

The report calls for “nearly exclusive autonomy” for magnet school principals to hire staff, set curriculum and control decisions about the building.

That’s a provocative and challenging proposal. Over the years, several CMS leaders have talked about how to give principals more freedom while maintaining districtwide standards in a sprawling county where students often switch schools. Extensive state and federal rules also constrain school flexibility.

5. Recruit community support.

The report calls for CMS to create a community task force on magnet programs and an industry advisory board to provide guidance.

The magnet report, of course, deals only with magnet programs.

But the question that looms in the background is what all this will mean for other schools in CMS. If the district pumps money, energy and students into magnet schools, will neighborhood schools suffer?

That tension has run through discussions of CMS magnets since the 1990s, and it’s a balancing act that will be part of everything that lies ahead.

Stay engaged

▪ Superintendent Ann Clark’s magnet report will be presented at the Oct. 13 school board meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. in the chamber of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. It’s also streamed online and airs live on CMS TV Cable 3.

▪ The board’s policy committee will discuss student assignment guiding principles at 12:30 p.m. Oct. 15 in Room 528 of the Government Center. The meeting is open to the public.

▪ An Oct. 8 policy committee meeting on student assignment has been canceled. The meeting had been announced and reported in the Observer, but members had scheduling conflicts, CMS said.

▪ The board will take part in a forum on “building collective commitment” at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, 3400 Beatties Ford Road, at 4 p.m. Oct. 27, with its regular meeting held at the church at 6 p.m. That session is expected to include a presentation on changing demographics in Mecklenburg County and how that affects schools.

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