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CMS board looks at choice and diversity in student assignment

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board committee reviews three draft options

Magnet schools and diversity would share center stage with neighborhood schools

Decisions about student assignment remain months away


Oct. 15, 2015

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board stepped a bit closer Thursday to a student assignment plan that places more emphasis on choice and diversity than the current one.

Seven of the board’s nine members took part in a two-hour review of guiding principles that will shape decisions about school boundaries and magnets. They made no decisions, and a vote on those principles now seems likely to happen next spring.

Board members said they want to survey parents and students to get a sense of what’s working, where Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is falling short and what it will take to create schools with wide appeal. CMS, with roughly 148,000 students, serves about 80 percent of Mecklenburg’s school-age children but faces growing competition from charter and private schools.

In several previous meetings, members have said they want to boost diversity and reduce racial and economic isolation in schools. Thursday they looked at a draft pulled together by staff, based on those discussions, that offered three possibilities.

1. Magnets and neighborhood schools: The current policy defines “home schools,” based on geographic boundaries, as the foundation of the plan, guaranteeing every students a school “within proximity to where he/she lives.” The first option gives home schools and magnets equal standing and says boundaries and the magnet lottery will be used to “minimize high concentrations of students from low income families and high concentrations of low performing students.”

Several members noted that the definition of proximity has never been clear, and some suggested dropping it altogether. But member Rhonda Lennon said she won’t support any plan that eliminates some guarantee of community schools.

2. Choice zones: The second option calls for providing every student “an opportunity to attend a choice school within proximity to where he/she lives,” offering “an array of attractive thematic instructional models.” Superintendent Ann Clark said that could be a cluster of magnet and nonmagnet schools for families to choose from.

Said board member Eric Davis: “I envision a boundary-less area where parents have an array of choices.” How that might work remained unclear.

A CMS “choice plan” that debuted in 2002 was scrapped after a few years as popular schools became overcrowded and those viewed as undesirable had empty classrooms. “Everybody’s going to remember that,” Davis said. “Everybody’s going to throw that in our face.”

3. Boundaries for diversity: A third option calls for drawing school boundaries to “provide diversity that aligns with the diversity of the school system as a whole,” using factors that “include, but are not limited to, race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and neighborhood viability.” It calls for avoiding school poverty levels that are more than 10 percent higher than the district average, which is currently about 58 percent.

The group ran out of time before discussing that option, and committee Chairman Tom Tate said afterward it’s unlikely to garner serious support. “I think we ought to slash No. 3,” he said as the group wrapped up.

The board is heading into a stretch of time-consuming work focused on magnet changes for 2016-17 and a limited schedule of meetings in November and December. Since the board hopes to get survey results before finishing its work on the principles, the series of meetings that will lead to a new assignment guidelines seems likely to start in early 2016, Tate said.

The goal is to have changes in place for 2017-18, which would require approval of a full plan by the end of 2016.