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The News & Observer (Raleigh, North Carolina)

February 8, 2009

Charlotte school loses students, active parents

Ann Doss Helms, The Charlotte Observer

CHARLOTTE — In the heated debate about student reassignments in Wake County schools, the consequences of ditching the district’s diversity policy is a matter of speculation.

But in Charlotte, the results are as real as McClintock Middle School.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools dropped its diversity policy in 2002. In the six years after court-ordered desegregation ended in the state’s second-largest district, McClintock Middle’s proportion of poor students rocketed from 47 percent to 72 percent.

The student population shrank by almost a third. Parent volunteers melted away. And McClintock Middle contends with a new image as a black school troubled by fights.

“What I hear from the people who are honest enough to say it is, ‘We drive by and we see all the black kids and we’re kind of scared of it,’ ” said McClintock Principal Pamela Espinosa.

The tipping point

McClintock’s story illustrates two prime arguments in the diversity debate.

Those who argue for capping poverty, as Wake does, say that schools are overwhelmed when too many kids come from disadvantaged homes.

Espinosa concurs: Poverty takes a toll on students and teachers alike. Faculty members spend time and energy lining up support ranging from free dental care to family therapy, hoping to help students focus on academics.

But others say reassigning students for diversity could put the entire district, like McClintock, at a “tipping point” where families with options flee.

“We are so far tipped it isn’t even funny,” says Margaret Steitz, who has had children at McClintock for several years. “You start to hear the trash-talking: ‘It’s a ghetto school. There’s fights. There’s guns.’ ”

The academic impact of rising poverty is hard to gauge. North Carolina has made so many changes to its testing that year-to-year comparison of scores are virtually meaningless.

Last year, McClintock’s low-income and black students outperformed the same groups statewide and in the rest of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district. White and Hispanic students at McClintock trailed district averages but roughly matched statewide peers. When the state rated the academic progress McClintock students made in 2007-2008, they exceeded expectations.

McClintock, about seven miles southeast of downtown Charlotte, perches between affluent southeastern suburbs and east Charlotte’s growing population of lower-income and immigrant families. Its attendance zone includes a mix of upper-middle-class neighborhoods and apartment complexes. Some of the city’s most prestigious public and private schools are nearby.

Effects of ‘choice plan’

In the aftermath of a court battle over race-based assignment, the school district launched its “choice plan” in 2002. Students were assigned to nearby schools, but families could seek seats in magnet schools or other neighborhood schools. A school-shopping frenzy ensued; tens of thousands of students switched schools.

“The choice plan killed McClintock, when they had the chance to opt out,” says Cindy Rhodes, a longtime parent.

At McClintock, that turmoil was accompanied by what Steitz, a parent, calls “drama and trauma” in school leadership. Parent leaders clashed with one principal; the job changed hands four times in six years.

Some of McClintock’s affluent neighborhoods organized to urge neighbors to stick with their nearest schools. The effort crumbled; some of the organizers moved or sent their kids elsewhere.

This year about 950 middle-school students live in McClintock’s zone, but about 370 are in magnet schools and other public schools; the district has no data on how many are in private schools.

McClintock’s current enrollment of 663 — down from almost 900 in 2002 — includes some who transferred from higher-poverty center-city schools.

McClintock’s poverty level brings extra county money for staff and supplies, but the percentage of low-income students falls shy of the 75 percent needed to qualify for federal Title I money. McClintock has not gotten any of the extra money Superintendent Peter Gorman has offered to lure strong teachers to some higher-poverty, lower-performing schools.

The key: talented staff

Espinosa and parents agree that talented teachers who haven’t bailed out are the key to keeping McClintock healthy. Although the school lacks the parent volunteer base that more affluent schools have, nearby Christ Lutheran Church has rallied to the school’s aid, hosting summer programs and Tuesday “family nights” where kids and parents get meals, education and support.

The principal and parents also say outsiders’ fears about safety are overblown, based on normal middle-school fights and misbehavior.

But there are signs of trouble. Recently released school reports show that last year, McClintock reported 64 suspensions per 100 students, compared with 43 for all Charlotte-Mecklenburg middle schools and 27 for Wake’s middle schools. In 2008 surveys by the school district, McClintock teachers and students gave very low ratings for student behavior, fighting and safety.

Changes in Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s magnet program for 2009-10 mean many families in McClintock’s zone must make new choices.

Last week, McClintock parents, students, church volunteers and faculty members turned out in force for an open house. There were booths and handouts. Espinosa marshaled her data showing McClintock’s strengths.

Only five new parents came.