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

Four Years After CMS Diversity Change, Results Remain Hard To Find

Student assignment meetings in 2016 brought protest and angst.

Four years ago Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools launched a new diversity plan to break up concentrations of poverty. So far, officials acknowledge it’s hard to see the results. 

When the school board started a student assignment review back in 2014, there was quick agreement on one point: CMS had far too many schools where students of color from low-income families were concentrated. Across political and philosophical lines, members agreed that those conditions create barriers to success for students and educators.

But when the board started talking about how to change that, things got complicated. What emerged, in 2016, was a new measure of socioeconomic status that would be used in magnet admissions – basically an attempt to diversify schools by tilting the lottery rather than by redrawing boundaries.

"It’s important to know that we are looking at the socioeconomic status of geographic areas within the county. This is not a designation that we apply to individual students," Assistant Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell reminded the board Tuesday.

The update came in the second half of a board meeting that lasted almost five hours.

Finding A New Measure

Assignment based on race has been struck down by courts – and with CMS only 27% white, it would be hard to balance schools that way even if it were allowed. Poverty levels based on individual student circumstances have gotten hard to tally because of changes in the federal school lunch program.

So CMS hired a consultant to look at such things as average income, home ownership, English proficiency and single-parent households in each Census block and label those areas low, medium or high socioeconomic status. “SES” becomes shorthand for advantage – high SES neighborhoods have the most factors that tend to help kids in school.

So is the plan making a difference? After Tuesday’s report, board member Carol Sawyer said no.

"While it was a priority in our pupil assignment plan adopted in 2016, it’s not sounding like it’s had the desired impact," she said.

The percentage of magnet students coming from each socioeconomic group hasn’t changed much from 2017 to the current year, the report shows. It didn’t include school-by-school numbers on concentrations of poverty.

The last socioeconomic status report CMS posted, for 2018-19, shows 38 of the district’s 175 schools with at least three-quarters of students coming from low SES areas. At 22 of them, more than 90% were from low SES areas.

Change Is Slow

Craven-Howell didn’t argue with Sawyer's assessment.

"It is something that is taking time to have significant effect," she said.

There are a couple of challenges. First, neighborhoods change faster than Census reports are updated.  Sawyer said the labels are likely not accurate for "rapidly gentrifying areas."

"I’m concerned that neighborhoods are being tagged as low SES when in fact they’re high SES," Sawyer said.

Craven-Howell agreed, though she said she couldn't measure the scope of the problem.

"But I know, just given the rapid changes in many of our communities that it is happening. It is absolutely happening," Craven-Howell said.

The system is set up to award one-third of available magnet seats to each SES group. That only works if there’s enough demand from all groups. And in high-demand schools, most of the available seats are only in entry grades – pre-K for Montessori, kindergarten, sixth and ninth grades for most other schools.

Bright Spots

Craven-Howell said several magnets, including the popular Montessori elementary schools, are starting to see that balance. But she said there are only a few she’d identify as changing significantly, including Piedmont and Northeast middle schools.

Vice Chair Thelma Byers-Bailey noted that middle schools can change faster because there are only three grades. She cited Piedmont as proof that "it can work and it is working."

But Piedmont is a magnet school with a long history of racial and economic diversity – and academic success. Several members questioned the district’s strategy of putting magnet programs into high-poverty schools to attract diversity.

Lenora Shipp, a retired principal recently elected to the board, said she faced challenges at a magnet for gifted students in Lincoln Heights, where some of the students came from a neighborhood zone.

"We open a magnet and we don’t have all the resources that’s needed to ensure that it’s going to be a great magnet," she said.

How To Measure Success

Board member Sean Strain said reports on socioeconomic diversity have some value, "but without the context of the academic performance sitting next to them, they’re almost immaterial."

He, too, voiced skepticism about the magnet programs in neighborhood schools

"Are we actually delivering the best academic outcomes we can using this type of programming?" Strain asked. "Or frankly, would we be better off doubling down on something else?"

Sawyer argued that several east Charlotte neighborhood schools have seen magnet programs generate benefits that can’t be measured in test scores.

"Because of the SES diversity that those schools achieved, those schools have strong PTAs, they have strong community partnerships, and they have agency and advocacy as schools," she said.

Tuesday’s work session didn’t involve any proposals for change, let alone votes. That’s still at least a couple of years down the road, officials said.

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.