Why this school year might be the toughest yet for CMS

The Observer editorial board

A challenging year awaits Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
A challenging year awaits Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

A new school year cranked up Monday, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools students are surely feeling a bit overwhelmed at the thought of all the schoolwork that awaits.

The adults leading CMS have cause to feel stressed, too, with the school board and administration staring at what looks like a very challenging year.

There’s a new superintendent to hire. An overhaul of magnet school programs to complete. And a potentially explosive review of neighborhood school boundary lines to conduct.

Add school board elections and a school bond campaign for 2017, and you’ve definitely got the makings of a migraine-inducing year for CMS leadership.

Running at peak performance levels has never been more important for the school system.

Our education writer, Ann Doss Helms, has reported that in 2013-14, the last year CMS had consistent data, 61 of 157 schools faced poverty levels of 75 percent or higher, and 14 stood at 90 percent or higher.

Given the strong links between high poverty rates and low academic achievement, it is not surprising that the state in March placed 14 Charlotte schools on its list of chronically low-performing campuses.

It is in this entire community’s best interest to break up the kind of concentrated poverty that dooms campuses to failure. It is also in the community’s interest that CMS officials find ways to do so without chasing away middle- and uppper-class parents.

With the number of charter schools and private school vouchers growing, CMS can’t afford a replay of the infighting that accompanied the 2014 exit of former superintendent Heath Morrison, or the chaos that swirled around the closing of 10 predominantly black campuses in 2010.

Last week, the school board agreed that students in consistently low-performing schools can use the magnet lottery to escape to better-performing campuses, starting in 2017.

That seems a wise move, given the increasingly competitive environment. More changes will be necessary, especially when the board moves on to adjusting neighborhood school boundaries. It won’t be easy.

Already, middle-class parents have voiced lingering suspicions that CMS’ student assignment consultant, Michael Alves, wants to move poor children to better-performing schools, bumping aside kids who live nearby.

The school board has said the neighborhood schools concept remains intact. We remain hopeful that pockets of opportunity exist within it to redraw attendance lines in diversity-boosting ways.

Inevitably, some parents won’t like the new zones. That’s why the school board and the CMS staff must craft the plans thoughtfully and meticulously, aiming to serve the greatest collective good with the least individual harm.

They must be certain they can defend their plans on those grounds.

With 168 schools and 147,000 students to oversee, CMS leaders can’t count on earning any “easy As” here.

Pay attention, do the homework, and stay focused. That’s what we tell students.

Sounds like good advice for the leaders of CMS this year, too.