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A Look At Student Assignment Debate So Far

CMS will likely see some changes on how students are assigned to schools in the next couple years. The question is how big these changes will be. The school board is still formulating ideas behind a student assignment plan. And parents and community members have jumped into the conversation, hoping to influence the direction the board takes. WFAE will hold a live public conversation on student assignment tonight at 7:00.

WFAE’s Lisa Worf joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry now to discuss.

MT: The board is still a long way from coming up with an actual plan, but what are the possibilities for change?

LW: The change would take into account the board’s goals to reduce concentrations of poverty at school and to not mess up what’s working. Obviously, there’s tension between those goals and that tension has plagued school board members for months. It’s stirred fear in parents worried their children may be sent to a struggling school far from home. It’s also inspired hope among those who think a new plan could give poor kids a better chance at getting a good education. 

MT: The word “busing” has come up a lot. Would that be a part of a new plan?

LW: Board members have said they’re not interested in lengthening kids’ commutes. So that certainly makes reducing concentrations of poverty more difficult. Do you adjust boundary lines to diversify schools? That’s a possibility. Magnets have come up a lot too, the idea of creating diversity at schools through choice. That was the original intent of magnets. Some like Collinswood Language Academy are doing a good job of this. That’s a full magnet that has both high test scores and racial and economic diversity.  But many magnets don’t come close to reflecting the district’s diversity. The board has talked about ways of changing that and sees magnets as part of any new plan. 

MT: What are the challenges for the board as a plan starts to take shape?

LW: One of the big things weighing on school board members’ minds is how to keep students in the district. CMS has a lot more competition these days. Of course, there are private schools, but these days charters and even home schools are luring students away. Those that leave tend to be students with very engaged parents. There are a lot of African-American students in Charlotte charter schools but based on a 2011 analysis many more white students. If you want to diversify schools and strengthen them, the board has to figure out a way to keep these students. And then there’s the challenge of communicating to the public especially at a time when school board members have been discussing broad ideas, but nothing specific.  

MT: How has that been going?

LW:  Well, parents certainly want to get specific because they’re not hearing that from the board, they’ve been quick to fill that vacuum. Trust has certainly been an issue.  Suburban parents aren’t hearing the board mention neighborhood schools and so they worry about long bus rides and changed boundary lines that place kids far from home. On the flip side, communities that have some of the highest concentrations of poverty in their schools have a hard time trusting CMS. After all, the board closed many of their neighborhood schools in 2011 to save money. 

MT: What’s the board’s next step on student assignment? 

LW: The board plans to hire a consultant soon to help them understand their options. CMS received three applications. There’s one from a professor with UCLA’s Civil Rights Project, from the director of Columbia University’s Urban Education Leadership department, and from Michael Alves. He’s worked on student assignment plans with many districts, including Wake County’s. CMS’s policy committee meets next week Thursday and could suggest one of them then.

MT: We have WFAE’s Public Conversation tonight, too....

LW: Indeed, we do. School board members Rhonda Lennon and Tom Tate will be there. We’ll also hear from two parents, one with CMS Families United for Public Education, a group of mainly suburban parents pushing for neighborhood schools. And another parent from ONE Meck. That group wants more diversity in schools. We’ll open it up to the audience afterward.

MT: That starts at 7 o’clock tonight, Wednesday, April 6, at McGlohon Theater. WFAE will also air it live tonight and again tomorrow morning at 9:00 during Charlotte Talks. Thanks, Lisa.

LW: Thank you.