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CMS student assignment talks reach out to suburbs

Upcoming student assignment talks aim to engage families from suburban schools such as Huntersville’s Grand Oak Elementary.
Upcoming student assignment talks aim to engage families from suburban schools such as Huntersville’s Grand Oak Elementary. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

As the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board returns to its student assignment task with a renewed sense of urgency, community forums are trying to expand the discussion, literally and figuratively.

For the past year the board has inched toward the challenge of reviewing boundaries, magnets, demographics and academic achievement. So far the public discussion has been dominated by people focused on diversity. Forums highlighting the challenges of Charlotte schools with high concentrations of poverty and racial isolation have drawn large crowds.

The next three weeks will see sessions in the northern and southern suburbs, with organizers trying to engage families, voters and taxpayers who may have stayed silent so far. Meanwhile, the school board gathers to discuss student assignment again Thursday, with a timeline for moving toward tough decisions this year.

The closer those decisions get and the more voices chime in, the more perspectives clash.

Consider, for instance, the reaction of school board members Rhonda Lennon, who represents the north suburbs, and Paul Bailey, who represents the south, to League of Women Voters forums coming to their areas. League organizers say they’re trying to bring nonpartisan, open-minded updates. But Lennon and Bailey object to the fact that UNC Charlotte sociology professor Roslyn Mickelson will present an overview of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools history and its prospects for the future.

“I will be actively encouraging people to go and protest,” Lennon said in an informal discussion before a committee meeting last week.

Lennon said this week that “protest” was probably too strong. She said she does plan to “ask some hard questions” at the league’s Huntersville forum on Feb. 6 – and hold her own education summit in Cornelius next week to explore the student assignment views of her constituents.

Those constituents, she said, tend to be happy with the schools in their towns and wary of being bused to Charlotte. One of the big questions, she said, is “What is the public’s tolerance for any kind of change?”

Diversity or community?

The tension between Lennon’s perspective and the league’s highlights a challenge of talking about student assignment: Defining the terms can shape the agenda.

Mickelson and Amy Hawn Nelson of UNCC’s Urban Institute have been strong voices in student assignment talks. They’re co-editors (along with Mickelson’s husband, Stephen Smith of Winthrop University) of “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow: School Desegregation and Resegregation in Charlotte” and have spoken at public forums on diversity and assignment.

Helene Hilger of the League of Women Voters says she thought Mickelson would bring expertise. “I didn’t mean for that to ruffle any feathers,” she said.

But by using terms like “resegregation,” defining the issue as pro- or anti-diversity and advocating for assignment policies that will balance school poverty levels, Mickelson and Nelson have raised hackles among people who feel like dissenters are being cast as selfish or racist.

And by focusing on the challenges of urban Charlotte schools, they’ve left residents of other towns on the fringes, Lennon said.

“There’s not a strong connectivity between West Charlotte and Davidson,” she said. “They’re miles apart and worlds apart. That’s not to say there’s not empathy.”

Unity or flight?

Another challenge: One of the reasons CMS can talk about diversity is that unlike many big cities, it still has significant numbers of white and middle-class students. But those numbers are slowly declining, and many who remain are in majority white, low-poverty suburban schools.

And as district officials have repeatedly acknowledged, all families have a growing array of alternatives to CMS – especially in the suburbs, where charter and private schools abound.

Lennon says she hears constantly from people who love their Cornelius, Davidson and Huntersville schools and worry about boundary changes or reassignment to Charlotte schools. “They have options,” Lennon said, “and they will leave.”

But there’s still a push to craft some kind of united front that will work for everyone.

The Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice, a relatively new group of 64 faith leaders working for educational equity, racial and economic justice and other causes, will hold a Tuesday forum at Caldwell Presbyterian Church in uptown Charlotte to present data and work on a message for the school board.

Tom Tate, a school board member who’s a member of the clergy coalition, will speak along with Caldwell’s John Cleghorn. Cleghorn said the coalition is coordinating with OneMeck, a group formed last year to advocate for increasing diversity and breaking up concentrations of poverty.

Hilger said the League of Women Voters forums – slated for Jan. 30 in southeast Charlotte and Feb. 6 in Huntersville – are designed to increase citizen engagement “and maybe tamp down the flames of people worrying that something bad will come out of this.”

Hilger said the league’s 2005 statement on student assignment still stands, encouraging the board to foster diversity by “strengthening schools in naturally diverse areas, as well as maintaining choice priorities that support economic balance.”

“We’re hoping something good will come out of it,” Hilger said.

CMS student assignment

Board committee

The CMS policy committee meets at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in Room 528 of the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St., to discuss next steps in the assignment review, including a public survey planned for this month.

Clergy Coalition

The Charlotte Clergy Coalition for Justice will host a discussion of school resegregation at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Caldwell Presbyterian Church, 1609 E. Fifth St. Details: www.charlotteclergycoalition.com; Rev. John Cleghorn, 704-957-4511; or Rev. Robin Tanner, 704-307-0869 or robin@puuc.org.

District 1

Rhonda Lennon, the school board member representing the north suburban District 1, will hold an education summit with small-group discussions of student assignment from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Jan. 21 at Cornelius Town Hall, 21445 Catawba Ave. Contact: rhonda.lennon@cms.k12.nc.us.

League of Women Voters

The league will hold student assignment updates from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Jan. 30 at the South County Regional Library, 5801 Rea Road, and at the same time Feb. 6 at North County Regional Library, 16500 Holly Crest Lane, Huntersville. Contact: Helene Hilger, hhilger@uncc.edu, 704-568-5431.

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