Mecklenburg commissioners must help CMS in magnet quest

The Observer editorial board

Parents and students turned out to support a new middle/high Montessori magnet school at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
Parents and students turned out to support a new middle/high Montessori magnet school at Tuesday’s school board meeting. ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

As a massive new Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools magnet school plan takes shape, skeptics are asking if it will drain struggling high-poverty neighborhood schools of their brightest students and most engaged families.

It is an important question, meriting serious consideration and great caution from CMS leaders and the school board. It’s a question coming at CMS from various sectors of the community. Republican Mecklenburg County commissioner Jim Puckett and his Democratic colleagues Vilma Leake and Ella Scarborough are asking it. So are students from Garinger High School.

They are asking why we can’t simply make every campus, even the high-poverty ones, schools of excellence, instead of moving kids all around the county via magnets?

But most of us already know the answer to that question. It’s because no one has solved the riddle of high-poverty schools.

With Charlotte’s neighborhoods rapidly segregating by race and income, CMS must act. While graduation rates and other measures have improved in recent years, concentrated poverty is still dragging down achievement levels in the poorest neighborhoods.

The research on concentrated poverty and student achievement is voluminous. Johns Hopkins University sociologist James Coleman’s groundbreaking 1966 study, commissioned under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, found that the strongest predictors of student success were the student’s family income and the socioeconomic status of her peers at school.

We appreciate the passionate arguments from Puckett, Leake and others, but leaving poverty clusters intact is not a viable option. As school board member Eric Davis told the editorial board Thursday, CMS must face “the reality that concentrations of poverty create overwhelming challenges for students, for teachers, for principals.”

The school board must continue pushing forward with the magnet plan. It will boost socioeconomic diversity, as well as offer parents more of the school options they seek – and increasingly find at charter schools.

But even as CMS moves to add nearly 13,000 magnet seats over the next four years, it must also keep developing its neighborhood schools. That won’t be easy. Superintendent Ann Clark has said that as students leave neighborhood schools for magnets, CMS will look to add new themes or programs to boost the appeal of those schools. That must be more than just lip-service.

Commissioners, meanwhile, need to accept the fact that we need a magnet plan to help diversify schools on a voluntary basis. If they have concerns, they need to press to make the plan better, not try to kill it.

We have applauded commissioners for putting together an economic mobility task force to study why so many poor people in Charlotte can’t advance in life. Poor schooling is a big part of the problem. If commissioners are serious about being part of the solution, they can start by helping make the school board’s magnet plan as strong as it can possibly be.