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CMS Looks At Pandemic's 'Missing Students' And Effects Of 2016 Diversity Decisions

Changes to Morehead STEM Academy during the last CMS assignment review drew protests.
Ann Doss Helms
Changes to Morehead STEM Academy during the last CMS assignment review drew protests.

As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools lays the groundwork for next year's student assignment review, Associate Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell told board members the results of 2016 diversity decisions have been mixed.

Since 2002, when court orders ended race-based assignments, CMS has used a combination of neighborhood assignments and magnet options to encourage diversity. While some schools are racially and economically diverse, most are not, leading to the district being cited in state and national media as an example of resegregation.

Since then, CMS leaders have looked for ways to break up concentrations of poverty. Board policy requires an in-depth review every six years.

The last time around, Craven-Howell said, "the board identified several factors which, when taken together, can influence the learning environment." They're English language ability, family composition, family income, homeownership, and then parental education attainment.

CMS socioeconomic status map
CMS socioeconomic status map

Based on those factors, CMS rated each of 548 census blocks in Mecklenburg County as high, medium or low socioeconomic status. Before the 2022 review, CMS plans to update those ratings based on delayed 2020 census data.

Socioeconomic status, often shortened to SES, roughly translates to “educational advantages.” In a high SES block, you’d be more likely to find wealthy families with two parents who went to college, own their home and speak English. In a low SES block you’d be more likely to find the opposite.

It’s not a perfect measure, and it doesn’t account for the individual variation within blocks. But CMS uses it to set diversity preferences in its magnet programs. For instance, a magnet school located in a low SES neighborhood would give preference to students coming from medium or high SES areas.

Craven-Howell told a school board committee last week that some magnet schools, such as Myers Park Traditional Elementary School, Collinswood Language Academy and Piedmont and Randolph IB middle schools, are getting close to a socioeconomic balance, but most of the district’s 178 schools remain out of balance. (Watch video of that report here.)

In addition to 27 full magnet schools, CMS has 45 schools that combine neighborhood assignments and magnet programs, known as partial magnets.

"We have schools that are partial magnets where as little as 7% of the seats are offered in the school choice lottery," Craven-Howell said. "We also have partial magnet schools where as much as 73% of the seats are offered in the lottery."

In 2016, CMS also created three school pairings in hopes of creating better schools and boosting diversity. Craven-Howell said combining the zones for Cotswold and Billingsville elementary schools — with K-2 students attending Billingsville and grades 3-5 attending Cotswold — has resulted in diverse schools. But the pairings of Sedgefield and Dilworth elementary schools and two Governor's Village schools have not.

But the bottom line is that about 80% of CMS students attend schools based on where they live, she said. That means schools often reflect the racial and economic segregation of the county's housing patterns.

Bringing Students Back To CMS

Craven-Howell says a first step toward being ready to scrutinize where kids go to school is recovering the ones who vanished during the pandemic. CMS, like most districts across North Carolina, saw a steep drop in enrollment this year, after several years of flat numbers or small declines.

Some of the losses came from students who were enrolled last year but didn't return after the pandemic struck. CMS, like most school districts, opened in remote mode, while many charter and private schools offered in-person classes.

Those losses were biggest in high SES areas, Craven-Howell said. Withdrawals from the district went down in low and medium SES areas, but increased by 34% among high SES students.


But those numbers were relatively small, not nearly enough to account for a drop of roughly 7,000 students. That came mostly from new students who didn't show up, especially kindergarteners and sixth-graders.

All areas saw new enrollments decline, but the drop was sharpest in low SES areas, Craven-Howell said.


This year's magnet application season took place when in-person school visits weren't allowed. Craven-Howell says students can still get in through transfers. With schools expected to open with full-time, in-person classes in August, Craven-Howell said CMS is trying to target its marketing at neighborhoods that might have students who could be enticed back and increase diversity.

Board member Lenora Shipp said she thinks some families are unaware of CMS options or confused by the magnet lottery.

"I heard that a lot from families that chose charter schools recently, was because they did not feel they had opportunities for choice," she said. "They did not feel that they were able to get in and maybe didn’t know how to work through the lottery process."

New Strategies Needed?

A volunteer panel that has spent more than a year studying assignment issues said last week that CMS does need to market its options better, but that's not enough.

Chance Lewis, a professor of urban education at UNC Charlotte, reported at last week's Equity Committee meeting that the group studying student assignment wants the board to prioritize diversity in upcoming boundary decisions, whether that's for opening new schools or a more extensive revision as part of the 2022 review. (Watch video of that report here.)

"This is very important and a very hot-button issue in the community," he said. While socioeconomic diversity is one of the board's current priorities, Lewis said, "sometimes it gets lost in the shuffle."

He also suggested the board revise its policy to allow more creative approaches to diversity.

The Equity Committee will make a report to the school board soon, board Chair Elyse Dashew said.

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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.