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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

Pairing Schools Was CMS' Big Diversity Move. How's It Working?

In 2017, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board launched an experiment in reversing resegregation by merging pairs of elementary schools with very different demographics and needs. Those paired schools are halfway through their second year now, with data that highlights some triumphs and some troubling questions.

Today, Billingsville Elementary School could serve as the setting for a video highlighting diversity. Kindergarteners through second graders of various skin tones and economic backgrounds learn and play together.

It’s a far cry from what you would have seen in 2017, when most Billingsville students were African American and came from low-income homes. The Billingsville of that era was what some experts call hypersegregated – isolating students by race and class in settings that amplify the challenges of poverty.

School board members agreed: CMS had far too many schools like that. But as they set out to revamp student assignment, they struggled to find alternatives. Surveys and public forums showed little appetite for long bus rides or massive upheaval to create more diverse schools. Unpopular changes could spark flight to charter and private schools. And only 28% of the students were white, a percentage that had been inching down for years.

But geography provided an option for Billingsville, which served the historically black Grier Heights neighborhood southeast of uptown Charlotte.

Just two miles down Randolph Road sat Cotswold Elementary, which pulled from some of the whiter and more affluent neighborhoods nearby. Cotswold also offered a popular International Baccalaureate magnet program … and the school had run out of space.

The two schools already shared a boundary. The plan that emerged called for merging the two zones and dividing the combined student body by age – K-2 students at Billingsville, grades 3-5 at Cotswold.

Fear And Acceptance

Denise Kinser, who had two daughters at Cotswold, remembers the anxiety that plan created.

"Parents knew that change was coming and a lot of parents were not open-minded to change," she recalls. "Some people responded with a lot of fear or a lot of anger, saying 'How could they do this to our really great elementary school?'"

Grier Heights Community Center Director Tijua Robinson.

But Kinser and many other Cotswold parents would eventually urge the board to approve the pairing with Billingsville.

The Billingsville families were less vocal. But Tijua Robinson, director of the Grier Heights Community Center, says they were also receptive.

"I spoke with a few parents and they were open to it," she says. "They were excited about it."

Merging Two Communities

The pairing got a unanimous vote from the school board in May 2017, and the paired school opened in August 2018.

The year between was spent working with faculty, families and community leaders, trying to ensure that everyone felt included. For instance, Cotswold had an active PTA and a popular magnet program, but the Grier Heights neighborhood had deep connection to Billingsville School – dating back to when it was founded as a Rosenwald school for black children in 1927. That’s why CMS decided to keep two names, even after Billingsville and Cotswold became one school.

Robinson, the Grier Heights community center director, says Principal Alicia Hash did a good job of uniting neighborhoods that were at least as segregated as the schools.

"It’s so crazy, because just a few blocks down the road you have a predominantly white community that may have never intertwined with Grier Heights," Robinson says. "And so just to see the merge, it’s kind of like allowing our neighbors here and then the neighbors there to kind of come together."

Losing Some Families, Gaining Others

Now that school is halfway through its second year, and gearing up for Year 3. Enrollment numbers, test scores and conversations with families and administrators highlight bright spots … and areas of concern.

Kinser, the Cotswold mom, is an enthusiastic supporter, having sent her youngest daughter to Billingsville for second grade. 

"There’s a lot that goes into education which includes exposure to diversity, to families who don’t look like yours or live in (the) same neighborhood," she says. "I value that as part of an education for my child."

Families crowded the Billingsville library for a November open house.

At a November open house, staff had to bring extra folding chairs for the prospective parents. Some of them were thinking about opting in to the magnet program – which has added seats because the school now has more space. Others, like Herbert and Farah Saint Jean, live in the zone.

They say they've heard good things from friends who have students at Billingsville. Their child will be in kindergarten next year, and Herbert Saint Jean says he likes the idea of paired schools. It gives a high-poverty school access to more resources, he says, and "I think everybody benefits."

But overall, enrollment is down by more than 20% since the pairing. In their final year as separate schools, Cotswold and Billingsville had a total of just over 1,100 students. Their first combined year, that dropped to about 950, and this year’s first-month count was 866.

It’s always hard to tease out why families switch schools. The loss hasn’t come from any one racial group. This year’s racial makeup at Billingsville/Cotswold – 45% black, 36% white and 12% Hispanic – is very close to what you’d have gotten by combining the two separate schools in 2017.

Is It Successful?

At the open house, one visiting parent asked Principal Hash a blunt question: What evidence do you have that the pairing has been successful?

"Thus far after one year of the merger we’ve seen academic gains, we’ve seen social and emotional gains," Hash replied. "We have seen growth gains in all subgroups that we are really excited about."

What she didn’t mention were some troubling aspects of the data. The new setting may bring students from all backgrounds together, but the test scores still show dramatic differences.

Billingsville students do a math lesson.

For instance, 87% of white students in the combined school earned grade-level reading scores on the 2019 state exams. Twenty-nine percent of black students hit that mark – up just 2 percentage points from how black students fared at the hypersegregated Billingsville the year before.

The reading pass rate for Cotswold-Billingsville’s low-income students was even lower – and down slightly from how those students fared at either of the two separate schools.

The growth ratings – which are designed to measure how far students progressed each year, regardless of where they started – are murky, too. All groups of students at the paired school met the state’s targets, but black and low-income students actually logged more growth at the old, segregated Billingsville.

To be clear, it’s unrealistic to think that creating a more diverse school would yield dramatic changes in one year, especially given that test-score gaps based on race and income happen across the country. In an interview before the open house, Hash acknowledged that the gaps remain but said she’s tracking data that’s more nuanced than what the state reports at the end of each year.

"When we look at 'Is it working for every child?' we literally look at every child’s individual progress," Hash says.

Replication Would Signal Success

Hash and her supervisor, Tara Sullivan, say the Billingsville/Cotswold pairing is laying the groundwork for bigger changes. They talk about building a school that offers support for families in need and access to the strong IB curriculum for every student. 

Tara Sullivan, the CMS administrator who oversees Billingsville/Cotswold, walks in from recess with Billingsville students.

"I watch now when I walk into classrooms," Sullivan says. "I see students from diverse backgrounds having conversations with one another about texts."

PTA President Elizabeth Morrison told the crowd at the open house that the school's diversity should provide measurable benefits in the long run.

"Research shows all children benefit from diverse environments," she says. "Not just the low-performing students, not just the minority students, not just the low-income students, but everybody. When our children are in a diverse environment, we all rise."

Sullivan says her long-term goals include higher test scores, but also the feeling of community that parents and staff talk about. And both she and Hash say the ultimate measure of success will be imitation – in CMS and even other school districts.

CMS board policy requires a student assignment review every six years. That means that before too long, district leaders will get a chance to decide whether paired schools like Billingsville/Cotswold are an experiment worth replicating.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.