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Racial breakdowns highlight school differences and CMS challenges

Walter G. Byers School, which is 90 percent black and 1 percent white, is Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s most racially homogenous school.
Walter G. Byers School, which is 90 percent black and 1 percent white, is Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s most racially homogenous school.

More than half of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ black and Hispanic students now attend schools that some call resegregated, where at least 90 percent of their classmates are nonwhite and poverty levels are high.

Thirty-nine of the district’s 168 schools are majority white, and 61 percent of the district’s white students attend those schools.

The most racially homogenous schools in CMS are Byers School (90 percent black), Montclaire Elementary (84 percent Hispanic) and Grand Oak Elementary (82 percent white).

CMS has finally released 2015 enrollment numbers, which highlight trends that have been developing for more than a decade.

Meanwhile, the school board is tiptoeing toward a prickly question: Are these numbers acceptable? And if not, what should be done?

It’s been 13 years – a full cycle of public education for a child – since the courts toppled CMS’ race-based assignment and the district rolled out a plan that combines neighborhood schools and magnets.

As critics of that system have noted, today’s demographics, driven by residential patterns and family choice, look a lot like those created by segregation in the 1960s. Tens of thousands of black and Hispanic students attend schools where faculty must cope with extreme concentrations of poverty. High-poverty schools across the country find it difficult to attract the best teachers and the most engaged families. Diversity proponents add that students in mostly white schools may also find themselves ill prepared for the global economy and the modern American workforce, even if test scores are high.

CMS is now 40 percent black, 29 percent white and 22 percent Hispanic. (In the prime of court-ordered desegregation the ratio was roughly 60 percent white and 40 percent black, with Hispanics not even on the radar.) Current poverty levels haven’t been released, but the district has topped 50 percent for several years.

Some board members and advocates say it’s important to reduce racial and economic isolation. Yet it’s far from clear how CMS can juggle those numbers in a way that benefits students without alienating parents.

Months of wrangling over that issue lie ahead. For now, here’s what the latest enrollment numbers show.

Black students

CMS has almost 58,000 African-American students, and 53 percent of them attend schools that are at least 90 percent nonwhite.

Byers, a small preK-8 neighborhood school just north of uptown Charlotte, has the highest concentration of black students at 90 percent, but 11 schools are at least three-quarters black.

There are mostly black magnet schools, such as University Park Creative Arts and Berry Academy of Technology, with strong academic performance. But the neighborhood schools with intense concentrations of impoverished black and Hispanic students generally rank at the bottom on school letter grades and other measures of academic achievement.

White students

CMS now has just under 43,000 white students, a number that’s been inching down for years. Most of them attend majority-white schools in the northern and southern suburbs, as well as a band that runs from affluent close-in neighborhoods such as Myers Park and and Eastover south to Ballantyne.

Grand Oak, which opened recently in Huntersville, has the strongest white majority at 82 percent. Eight neighborhood schools are at least three-quarters white, and 39 are at least half white, accounting for 61 percent of all white students. Most of those schools have low poverty levels.

White students account for no more than 10 percent of students at 66 schools, and no more than 5 percent at 45 of them.

Hispanic students

Steady growth has pushed Hispanic enrollment to just over 32,000. Like black students, 53 percent of them attend schools that are at least 90 percent nonwhite.

Twelve schools, including Collinswood Language Academy, a popular Spanish-English magnet school, and the newly opened Starmount Elementary, top 50 percent Hispanic enrollment. Montclaire, a neighborhood elementary school in south Charlotte, has the highest concentration at 84 percent.

Asian students

CMS has almost 9,000 Asian students, only 6 percent of the district’s total enrollment. But Asian students account for more than 1 in 4 students at two large south suburban elementary schools, Elon Park (31 percent) and Polo Ridge (28 percent).

Asian students are not as clearly clustered as other races, with 39 percent of them attending majority white schools and 30 percent at schools that are less than 10 percent white.

Diverse schools

Board members have spent months lamenting the fact that they aren’t sure how to define diversity, let alone promote it.

So I don’t know how to count diverse schools. But eyeballing the list shows dozens of neighborhood and magnet schools where black, white and Hispanic students are all well represented. Diversity may be in the eye of the beholder, but CMS clearly has schools that are more racially diverse than the places where most of us live, work and worship.

That’s worth keeping in mind as people scrutinize the schools sliding toward 21st century segregation.

The real challenge is deciding whether it’s good enough to celebrate the diversity that exists, or whether CMS can and should increase it.

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