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Natural diversity vs. white flight: 3 CMS schools tackle challenge

Drive to Rama Road Elementary, across the street from $200,000 homes in southeast Charlotte, and you might assume it’s the neighborhood school for middle-class families.

Check the data, as many prospective homebuyers do, and you’ll see something else: high poverty and low test scores.

So you might conclude what many others have: This is a nice place to live, as long as you send your kids to school somewhere else.

A zealous crew of faculty, students and middle-class parents are pushing a different perspective: Rama Road and the schools it feeds into – McClintock Middle and East Mecklenburg High – are great neighborhood schools, not despite their mix of students but because of it.

“When you walk in these schools, you’re getting a picture of the world,” East Meck Principal Rick Parker said at a recent family recruitment meeting.

“I love the spirit at Rama. I love the community,” said Jimmie Highshaw, a resident of the nearby Stonehaven neighborhood who has five children at Rama, McClintock and East. “You can’t lose when you come together.”

As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools reviews its student assignment policies in hopes of increasing economic and racial diversity, attention often turns to schools such as these, which would serve a different mix if more families living in the zone could be persuaded to attend.

Rama and McClintock changed quickly after the district rolled out its post-desegregation assignment plan in 2002, combining neighborhood zones with magnets and other choices. Many white and middle-class families fled neighborhood schools viewed as too poor, too black, too international and too troubled. Some chose other CMS options, while others enrolled their children in private schools.

As neighborhoods of single-family homes decamped, Rama and McClintock were left to serve mostly children living in apartment complexes and other rentals. That, in turn, increased the concentration of poverty and the challenges that come along with it.

At Rama, for instance, just over 80 percent of students come from low-income homes. About 1 in 4 come from homes where English isn’t the primary language, with 34 nations represented. Half the students are black, 27 percent Hispanic and 17 percent white.

Overall proficiency on state exams last year was 43 percent, a discouraging data point that arguably says more about demographics than quality of teaching. More on that to come.

Hope and hurdles

The efforts to entice back the more affluent families illustrate a menu of promising strategies, as well as some monumental challenges.

CMS leaders say magnets are a promising path to encouraging diversity. But as Rama Principal Patti Denny knows, choice cuts two ways. While she loses some students to private and charter schools, the biggest competition comes from CMS magnets. Four nearby elementary schools, including the Oakhurst magnet that opened in August, offer opt-in programs ranging from science and technology to an International Baccalaureate curriculum.

This year 143 students from the Rama zone are in magnet schools, compared with 527 who attend Rama.

There’s also a sobering reminder as board members contemplate their options: Drawing boundaries for balance doesn’t guarantee that diversity will materialize. Once families write off their neighborhood schools, it’s hard to win them back.

The first time I wrote about parents trying to revive support for Rama, McClintock and East was 12 years ago. On paper, the gains since then have been minimal.

But parents and students who have taken a chance on those schools speak with missionary fervor. The phrases that come up over and over are “family” and “community” – and they’re proud that their community includes people who don’t all have the same skin color or speak the same language at home.

“There was a groundswell of people from our community who decided to invest in our neighborhood school. They had more courage than I did,” said Peggy MacKay, who put her kids in private school before moving them to the neighborhood schools.

Strategies for revival

The Rama-McClintock-East “win back the neighborhoods” push illustrates four central strategies.

1. Principals and faculty.

The leader of a “natural diversity” school must relate well to families of poverty and families of affluence, groups that not only come from different perspectives but may be wary of each other. Parents at the recruitment meeting say they’ve got a strong team and a stretch of stability that can be rare in CMS: Denny and McClintock Principal Paul Williams are in their fourth years at those schools, while Parker has been at East Meck since 2009.

Great teachers – especially those who stay long enough to build a sense of community – are just as vital. At the recruitment session, Jaid Highshaw, an East Meck senior, pointed out Rama teacher Kim Truitt, saying she had been like “a second mom” when Highshaw was in elementary school.

Truitt has been at Rama for 14 years. She brings her own children from Matthews to attend Rama and McClintock, partly because she’s drawn to the diversity. “A lot of people have chosen to opt out,” Truitt said. “I have chosen to opt in.”

2. Programs.

Rama doesn’t have a magnet program to pull students from outside the zone. But it offers a science lab staffed by a National Board Certified teacher, an innovation lab that lets students do hands-on exercises in engineering and design, and optional single-gender classes tailored to male and female learning styles.

“You can think of us as the Starbucks of education,” Denny told prospective parents. “You can find options at your neighborhood school.”

McClintock developed an award-winning robotics program that led to the addition of a science/technology/engineering magnet, bolstered by a new building with cutting-edge science labs.

East Meck not only has an IB magnet but an academy of engineering and an award-winning culinary arts program.

The effect of all these options is designed to reassure prospective families that, in the words of McClintock’s Williams, “You don’t have to go to a private school or another magnet school in this district to get an excellent education.”

3. Partners.

At schools where many parents are focused on getting by, business and faith partners can be key to providing the extras that come from PTAs and parent volunteers in more affluent schools.

Rama’s support ranges from local churches to teens from the private Charlotte Country Day School who act as mentors to younger students.

East Meck alumni created a foundation that provides money and encouragement for teachers.

But the granddaddy of all CMS partnerships is between McClintock and Christ Lutheran Church. The effort, which started in 2007, helped launch the robotics program, pays for summer programs and brings hundreds of families to the school for weekly dinners. A recent study by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute concluded that without that partnership, McClintock might have joined the ranks of high-poverty middle schools that were closed during the recession.

4. Parents.

Once a school gets the “unacceptable” label, parents feel like they’re putting their children at risk to send them there. It takes a determined cadre of pioneers to persuade neighbors to take another look.

At the recruitment meeting, parents who made the leap were blunt about the challenges. Victoria Johnson, a Rama parent, voiced the concern she knows is lurking for many prospective families: “My kids are really smart and the test scores are really low.”

Denny, the principal, talks to parents about looking at growth instead of proficiency. Proficiency measures the percent of students who earn grade-level scores on year-end exams. Growth measures how much progress they made during that year.

Proficiency often says more about how ready students were when they arrived than how much they learned. Growth gives credit for students who arrived below grade level but made at least a year’s progress – and penalizes schools if they fail to help high achievers make gains. Rama’s 43 percent proficiency earned the school a D from the state, but it topped the state’s target for growth.

Johnson put it in human terms: Students who are strong academically get special projects, time with teachers who specialize in gifted kids and the chance to join clubs with math and science themes. “Last year they dissected a squid,” Johnson said. “In first grade!”

Buying in

For all the enthusiasm at the recruitment meeting, only a handful of newcomers attended. Among them were Eric and Shelly Jones, who were about to close on a house in the Stonehaven neighborhood.

The Joneses have three young children. They’d been looking in the Myers Park High zone, where neighborhood schools are considered far more desirable and home prices are higher. They fell in love with the Stonehaven house, but looked up school data and blanched.

“We almost didn’t even move into Stonehaven because of the schools,” Eric Jones said. They attended the meeting and came away glowing.

“It felt like family,” Shelly Jones said.

“I’m blown away by the passion,” Eric Jones added. “I want to be part of it.”

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