Harding parents protest being drawn into the Myers Park-East Meck issue

Oct. 23, 2009

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Harding plea: Keep students here

By Ann Doss Helms

ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Posted: Friday, Oct. 23, 2009

Harding University High School parent Erica Ellis-Stewart (left) was among the 250 people who filled the school’s library Thursday night to protest a plan that would transfer some of Harding’s students to East Mecklenburg High School.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ final meeting on high school magnet changes brought a crescendo of anger Thursday, as 250 people cheered speakers who hammered officials for their last-minute proposal to shift students from Harding University High to East Meck.

“We are under capacity and you’re coming to our school and taking away from us?” said Harding parent Kim Anderson. “Leave us as we are. Take us completely out of the mix.”

What started this spring as a quest to draw boundaries for a new Mint Hill high school left East Meck backers angry at how much their school would shrink next year. In August the school board voted to consider shifting students from adjacent Myers Park High, the state’s largest school, with an enrollment of nearly 3,000.

After weeks of protests from those families, CMS rolled out a plan 10 days ago that would shift some math/science magnet students from Harding, a westside magnet school that draws students from the whole county, to East Meck. Harding has about 1,050 students this year; East Meck is worried about dropping from 2,100 to an estimated 1,500.

Harding backers packed into the school’s newly renovated library, peppering student placement director Scott McCully with questions about CMS’s logic. Some booed and shouted when they didn’t think he answered well.

Among the issues:

CMS just added stricter requirements for admission to its International Baccalaureate and math/science magnets. Harding, which combines those programs, saw enrollment drop partly because of those requirements and is trying to rebuild with a better-prepared student body.

“Give us an opportunity to build a program before you change it,” said Harding supporter Toinette McElrath.

In recent years, CMS has struggled to find high-level math and science teachers for Harding’s magnet.

“You had a hard time staffing our school this year. How are you going to staff two math/science schools in a year when resources are tight?” asked Harding parent Ericka Ellis-Stewart.

CMS just completed a $14 million expansion and renovation at Harding, designed partly to add science labs and strengthen the magnet. “You will not be a good steward” by pulling students out of the program now, Ellis-Stewart said.

The latest proposal would create a new “STEM magnet,” for science, technology, engineering and math, at East Meck. Students in the southern part of the county who now go to Harding could either go to East next year or stay at Harding but provide their own transportation, an option that several parents and students angrily denounced.

Several speakers chided officials for backing down in the face of Myers Park protests, including the board’s decision not to pursue a staff plan that would have rezoned neighborhood students in the Cotswold Elementary zone to East Meck. The latest slate includes options that would shift some or all of Myers Park’s IB magnet students to East and Harding.

Willie Pinson, a CMS teacher and Harding parent, said he’s heard a lot about the impact on Myers Park. “Well, we have a community here, and we feel the same about this school,” he said.

Christopher Pittman, drum major for Harding’s band, urged officials not to break up friendships, as band members waved their arms in support. “You can’t hurt kids’ feelings like this,” he said. “We are a family.”

A smattering of Myers Park and East Meck backers, who have had two previous meetings to air their issues, showed up.

“To quote our former President Bill Clinton, we feel your pain,” said East Meck teacher Bill Allen. “We would like to see a STEM program started, but not at the expense of Harding.”