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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools consultant: No hit out on CMS neighborhood schools

Recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meetings have drawn overflow crowds to talk about student assignment.
Recent Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meetings have drawn overflow crowds to talk about student assignment. rlahser@charlotteobserver.com

A week ago the name Michael Alves meant nothing to most Charlotteans. Since Tuesday night, when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board hired his firm to help revise student assignment, he’s become the buzz of the region.

The Massachusetts-based Alves Educational Consultants Group brings a trio of nationally renowned experts – Alves, Richard Kahlenberg and John Brittain – to the task that has obsessed much of Mecklenburg County for the past year: Figuring out whether changes in school boundaries and magnet options can boost poor students’ chances of success without driving off middle-class families.

Their emphasis on plans that emphasize socioeconomic diversity sparked alarm in some circles and celebration in others. Some say the $135,000 contract with CMS signals a secret school board agenda to break up neighborhoods and shuffle students based on demographics. Opponents picked up on a media label for Alves, “the godfather of controlled choice,” as a sign that he’ll arrive with an agenda for Mecklenburg county.

Alves, who regularly visits family members in Huntersville and follows news coverage of CMS, is aware of his new status here. He spent almost 90 minutes on the phone with the Observer Thursday talking about what his group will – and won’t – do in the coming months.

“We don’t have a plan in our back pocket,” Alves insisted. “Believe me, there is no plan, no big conspiracy against neighborhood schools. That’s not real.”

Here are answers to six questions on the minds of people who care about the future of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

1. What is controlled choice?

It emerged in the 1970s as an alternative to busing for desegregation, and Alves pioneered the approach in Massachusetts schools. Under controlled choice, magnet schools are used to attract a diverse mix of students – originally based on race, more recently on socioeconomic status. All schools become “schools of choice” in such plans.

Magnets are a familiar concept in CMS, which opened a raft of them for racial desegregation in the 1990s. Race-based magnet seating ended after a long legal battle, but the magnet schools endure, with a lottery determining who gets in when applicants outnumber seats. And choice remains a central – and popular – part of the current board’s strategy.

What’s fueling concerns among some Mecklenburg residents is that Alves’ approach doesn’t guarantee students a school assignment based on where they live. And the emphasis on socioeconomic balance raises hackles with some.

2. What is the Alves firm’s mission in CMS?

Recommendations will be shaped by the CMS board’s guiding principles, which include enhancing choices and using socioeconomic status to shape some magnet admissions and boundary decisions. But those principles state that students will continue to have schools assigned by where they live, which differs from the standard Alves approach.

“The school board didn’t ask us to come down with a controlled choice plan,” Alves said.

He said there are three essential elements of any plan he works on: It has to be fair, it has to be practical and it has to improve struggling schools. In a sprawling urban/suburban district like CMS, that means a combination of strategies, he said.

“What’s fairness? That’s what has to be worked out,” he said.

3. What are the biggest challenges in CMS?

Crowded schools, urban concentrations of poverty and controversy over the assignment review, Alves said.

Alves, who repeatedly marveled at the popularity of Lake Norman Charter School, says CMS helped fuel the boom in charter schools catering to middle-class students by falling behind on construction, leading to huge suburban schools with students spilling into mobiles. That, in turn, led to an unusual surge in charter schools for suburban students.

“I work all over the country. This is not happening elsewhere,” Alves said.

Extremely high poverty levels and the academic challenges that brings pose another challenge, and CMS must find ways to help those schools excel and entice more affluent families to send their students, he said.

And leaders must reassure families that are up in arms that they’re not out to destroy good schools. “It’s understandable that some parents get upset,” Alves said, “because they love their school.”

4. Does breaking up school poverty really help disadvantaged students?

Some parents have argued that the best hope for students of poverty comes from providing intensive support in schools that cater to large numbers of disadvantaged kids, rather than scattering them to other schools. It’s an approach exemplified by Project LIFT, a $55 million public-private support system for West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools.

Alves says such support is helpful, but not enough. Those students need a chance to attend schools with more affluent classmates, he said.

“In all my years of doing this, I’ve never seen any real benefit of children having to attend high-poverty segregated schools,” he said. “Separate but equal has never worked in this country.”

5. What are the biggest opportunities?

Alves says he’s impressed with the school board’s leadership in laying out principles that take community views into account and emphasize choice: “Young families today, they like choice.”

He said many districts wait to tackle assignment when they’re in crisis.

“The time is now to do this. This is all about the future,” Alves said. “It doesn’t happen by itself. Things only get changed right when you pay attention.”

6. How does Wake County do student assignment, and what can CMS learn from it?

Once known as a district that chose to embrace diversity by capping school poverty levels, Wake saw that plan fall in the aftermath of an election fueled by suburban discontent. In 2012 the Wake County Chamber of Commerce hired the Alves firm to craft an alternative.

Like CMS, Wake now assigns students to schools based on where they live and offers them alternatives. The only North Carolina district bigger than CMS, Wake has 171 schools, including 50 with year-round calendars and more than 40 magnet schools. Magnets and year-round schools have “base school” students – that is, students who live within the attendance zone.

Limits on school poverty levels are gone. But “minimizing high concentrations of students from low income families at each school” is one of the factors guiding boundaries and magnet priorities, along with minimizing concentrations of low-performing students.

Those diversity-based factors are accompanied by other guides, such as ensuring that “students living within the immediate vicinity of a school” can attend that school, trying to keep neighborhoods intact, creating stability in assignments and making the best use of buildings and buses. Wake caps enrollment at some highly crowded schools.

Tim Simmons, chief communications officer for the Wake school district, says it’s a constant balancing act, and one that doesn’t always make families happy. The goal of having using several factors – none outranking the other – is to provide flexibility, he said.

Before taking his position at the school district, Simmons worked for the nonprofit Wake Education Partnership, which teamed up with the Chamber of Commerce and Alves in crafting a plan. But it went through revisions as the school board and community weighed in, he said.

“You can use a consultant to design a plan,” Simmons said. “But in the end a community has to decide how to execute it.”

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