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Aug. 13, 2015


CMS board: It’s time to break up concentrations of school poverty

Members remain a long way from settling on strategies for student assignment

Next steps are polling parents and hiring a consultant

Expect an intense fall focus on assignment priorities


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It’s time to revise the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools student assignment plan to undo the intense concentrations of poverty that hobble many schools’ chances at excellence, most board members agreed Thursday.

But they remain a long way from figuring out how to do that. At a committee meeting with eight of nine members participating, they talked about expanding magnets and exploring other ways to create economic diversity without driving families out of public schools.

Eric Davis, one of several members who said current poverty levels at many schools are unacceptable, summarized the challenge of changing those patterns: “How will we decide which students to move out of the schools, and to where? Which students will we decide to move into the schools, and from where?”

“That’s the question,” committee chair Tom Tate responded wryly. And the rest of the group burst into laughter at the understatement.

In the short term, the board agreed to craft a public survey about how parents choose schools and hire a consultant who can guide them toward a new approach to student assignment. They said they’ll invite officials from the county, city of Charlotte, six Mecklenburg towns and the countywide Economic Opportunity Task Force to a September meeting to talk about how student assignment meshes with broader plans to encourage more diversity in housing.

And there will be lots of opportunities for public discussion before any decisions are made, they said.

In the long term, the challenge is figuring out how to revamp student assignment in a way that benefits students in impoverished neighborhoods without alienating families who could flee to private, charter or public schools in nearby counties.

It’s a challenge that has stymied cities across the country. Many have seen all but the poorest residents abandon public schools, leaving few people with money, volunteer time and political clout to advocate for those students.

In districts like CMS, which still have a racial and economic mix, even small changes in boundaries or assignment rules can create political turmoil and community angst. And the board is contemplating major change at a time when charter schools are proliferating and the state is offering Opportunity Scholarships to help low-income families move their kids from public to private schools.

Just over half of CMS students qualify for lunch subsidies to low-income families, used nationally as a measure of school poverty. In 2013-14, the last year for which clear school-by-school data is available, 61 of 157 schools had poverty levels of 75 percent or higher. Fourteen of those were at 90 percent or higher.

Board member Rhonda Lennon, who represents the northern suburbs, works during the day and didn’t participate in Thursday’s meeting. But at a June board meeting she said that eliminating the guarantee of neighborhood schools close to home would drive parents away in droves – and even talked about opening her own charter school if that happens.

Board member Paul Bailey, who represents the southern suburbs, said it’s clear that extremely high-poverty schools face major academic challenges, but it’s not so clear that reassigning students would solve the problems. He encouraged the board to do more research on the causes of students’ academic struggles.

Student placement executive Scott McCully said the board will get a review of research on student assignment next month, along with a detailed consultant’s report on CMS magnets. Board members got an overview of the magnet report last month.

Board member Ruby Jones said magnet programs offer families the best option for choosing district schools with more diversity and stronger academics – or “unforced integration.”

At the start of the meeting, Tate handed out a 14-point summary of previous student assignment discussions. He reported that an assignment plan driven by geography can’t provide excellent schools for all neighborhoods and “a majority of the board” wants to see schools better reflect the district’s diversity. Magnets don’t help students whose parents lack the time, resources or knowledge to shop for schools, he added.

“Unfortunately,” he wrote, “we have too many hyper-segregated geographical areas and thus too many hyper-segregated schools, whether by race and ethnicity or poverty and wealth, or a combination.”

The board’s tentative plan is to agree on new guiding principles for student assignment this November, with a detailed plan for executing those principles in place by November 2016. Any changes would take place in 2017-18.