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Poll examines diversity attitudes in CMS, Wake and 3 other districts

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s policy committee started work on a public opinion poll at its November meeting.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s policy committee started work on a public opinion poll at its November meeting. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board wants to know what parents think about diversity, neighborhood schools and other issues related to student assignment.

The district plans to start polling in January, but a group of researchers beat CMS to the punch. About 1,000 Mecklenburg residents recently completed phone surveys that will be used to compare attitudes about diversity and resegregation here with those in Wake County; Rock Hill; Nashville, Tenn.; and Louisville, Ky.

“We want to understand why in some communities people embrace school diversity and in other communities they have not,” said UNC Charlotte sociology professor Roslyn Mickelson.

Nashville and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are considered the “not” communities. Raleigh, Louisville and Rock Hill are locations the researchers cite as doing a better job of resisting school segregation.

Mickelson and two other professors – Toby Parcel of N.C. State University and Stephen Smith of Winthrop University – created the poll with a $482,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a government agency that supports scientific research. The study is designed to help districts formulate “policy that will better support socioeconomic mixing of students, which enhances diversity by promoting educational attainment and upward mobility in society, especially for at-risk students,” the abstract says.

“Adult attitudes drive votes,” said Parcel, the lead researcher. “Votes determine school board composition and the school board makes the policy.”

Taking the public pulse

The CMS board is preparing to make some important policy, and members want to know what their constituents think. They’re trying to craft a strategy for reducing concentrations of poverty and racial isolation without disrupting successful schools or driving families to charter and private schools.

Earlier this month members looked at a draft survey prepared by staff. One question asks participants to rate how strongly they agree or disagree with such statements as “Diversity of student population is more important to me than proximity of the school” and “I would be OK with a longer bus ride if it meant my child(ren) attended a diverse school.”

Another multiple-choice draft question asks participants to choose the best means to reduce concentrations of poverty, with options such as “increased school choice” and “increased partial magnet choices.”

Board members wrestled with the best wording, as well as how to reach the broadest sample without undue expense and how much personal information can be requested without alienating people.

Sarah Crowder, a CMS staff attorney working with the board, told the group she had taken the researchers’ phone poll. It was, she said, “excruciatingly long.”

Mickelson and Parcel don’t argue with that description. “I can feel her pain,” Parcel said, chuckling.

Their poll included about 75 questions, spanning attitudes about diversity and resegregation and opinions about traditional public schools, magnets and charter schools. Each list of questions was tailored to the community, with a goal of getting a total of 5,000 responses.

‘Interesting stuff’

Parcel, Mickelson and Smith have the raw data in hand now, but can’t say when they’ll have anything ready for public release.

It’s possible, of course, to get quick answers. During the final stretch of the Charlotte mayoral campaign, the Observer included a poll question noting that CMS is studying student assignment changes and asking, “What do you consider more important: Being able to send children to the school closest to their home or having more diverse schools across the city?”

The result: 55 percent chose schools close to home, 39 percent chose diverse schools and 6 percent weren’t sure.

But the polling didn’t include people outside the city of Charlotte, and the results raise a host of follow-up questions.

That’s why the school board and the researchers agree it’s important to take time to carefully craft a survey.

Mickelson says the academic work isn’t linked to the CMS assignment review. The truth is, she says, that assignment decisions are a constant in most districts, including the five they’re studying.

Mickelson and Smith, who are married to each other, are co-editors of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte.” Parcel is co-author of “The End Of Conensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignments,” a study of Wake’s student assignment history.

They say the survey data will provide new insights to flesh out what’s already known.

Academic research moves slowly, but Mickelson says she’s eager to release preliminary findings as soon as they’re solid.

“We have some real interesting stuff,” she said.

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