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CMS Magnet Diversity Plan Includes Lowering Academic Standards For Entry

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools
The plan divides the district into three transportation zones that have a greater mix of students from different socioeconomic levels.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members last night had positive reviews for a plan to diversify magnet schools based on socioeconomic status. Under that plan, the lottery system would be overhauled to encourage a balanced mix of students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Many entry requirements would be dropped and transportation zones would be enlarged in order to draw from a more diverse pool of students. 

WFAE's Lisa Worf joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry.

MT: This plan all hinges on knowing the socioeconomic status of each student. How would CMS determine that?

LW: It really comes down to where a student lives. The district has gone through census data to determine the socioeconomic status of every area of Charlotte. We're talking units that are smaller than neighborhoods. They looked at things like income, education level of parents, English language ability, whether there are many single parent households.  Based on that, they labeled the areas and students coming from them either high, medium, or low socioeconomic status.

MT: That doesn’t sound very exact.

LW: No, it's not, especially for neighborhoods that are gentrifying. So the plan would also entail asking parents to report their own income, education level, and the number of children in the household. 

MT: How would CMS verify that?

LW: It couldn't. The district would have to take families at their word. But that's also why CMS isn't putting that much weight into the self-reported information. Really, the main factor is where a student lives and what the general socioeconomic status is of that area.   

MT: The plan includes new transportation zones for magnets. How much of a change would this be? 

LW: The big difference is that there would be three zones, instead of four. How it works is that the district provides students transportation to any magnet in the zone where they live, provided they get in.  The idea is that larger zones mean magnets have a more diverse pool of students to draw from. The three zone map would keep the towns intact. The northern half of the county would be in one transportation zone. The southern half would be divided into two with an eastern and western zone.  

MT: How would a lottery system work that encourages a mix of students from different socio-economic levels? 

LW: This would be really different. The lottery system CMS uses now is pretty much random. Most magnets now either have a lot of low-income students - and the challenges that go along with that like high teacher turnover - or they have very few of these students. Under this plan, the lottery system would become less random, so that the end result is a magnet school with equal numbers of students of low, mid, and high socioeconomic levels. Basically, this is how it would work. There are two rounds of the magnet lottery. Say, a lot of students of mid and high socioeconomic status applied for a school, but not many labeled low. Those are students that are traditionally referred to as disadvantaged. The district would do some targeted marketing to try to entice these students to apply for these spots in the second round.

MT: And if those students didn't apply?

LW: CMS would still fill those seats. In this case, starting with students of mid-socioeconomic status.  Now, I'm just talking magnets that take up a full school. The make-up of partial magnets, those magnets that are part of a regular neighborhood school, would depend on the demographics of the rest of the school. If it's mainly students of low-socioeconomic status, then CMS would target the magnet seats for those students of medium and high socioeconomic status. And vice-versa. And that magnet theme would be part of the whole school.   

MT: Many magnets have entry requirements. For example, to get into a STEM program that focuses on math and technology, a student needs passing math scores. Why would the district propose dropping that? 

LW: School board member Paul Bailey asked that same question last night.  

BAILEY: If you put requirements that don't demand, then you're really setting up a kid for failure. Because you're going to make them believe that somehow they're going to get into engineering school and they'll go into business and they're not prepared.

LW: In response, Akeshia Craven Howell who oversees the districts magnets said they looked at several CMS neighborhood schools that offer a STEM focus, but don't have the requirement – and students there were doing well. So they felt like it was an arbitrary barrier. 

MT: How many students would this new magnet plan affect?

LW: Only about 20,000 CMS students currently attend magnets. That's 15-percent of the district's students. But last night Superintendent Ann Clark said she'd like to double that number over the next four years. That's a tall order. The district did lay out plans that would add somewhere around 10,000 magnet seats over that time.  Some of that would depend on a bond package county commissioners would have to put on next year's ballot.  

MT: What did board members have to say about the plan?

LW: They seem to really embrace it. Take, Rhonda Lennon. She's had concerns with some aspects of a new student assignment plan, but gave her full approval to this. 

LENNON: This is, like, the wonkiest stuff I've had to look at in seven years on the board. This is big stuff. But we're going to sell this to other districts because this is so darn good. 

LW: The board plans to vote on the magnet plan November 9th. Before then, CMS will hold several information sessions about it. The public can weigh in on the plan at a hearing October 25th.