© 2024 WFAE

Mailing Address:
8801 J.M. Keynes Dr. Ste. 91
Charlotte NC 28262
Tax ID: 56-1803808
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

CMS tries to balance stability and choice in 2023 student assignment, construction review

People holding protest signs in a government meeting
Ann Doss Helms
The 2016 student assignment review drew protests from parents worried about change.

After six weeks of meeting with the public to talk about neighborhood schools and magnets, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials say the 2023 student assignment update needs to offer more choices without massive upheaval.

School board policy requires a comprehensive review every six years. Often those reviews bring months of uncertainty and controversy, stoking fears about whether neighborhoods will be split up or students shuffled around to new schools.

Magnet director Walter Hall opened Wednesday’s online wrap-up session by saying that won’t necessarily be true this time.

“The adoption of our comprehensive plan does not necessarily mean a wholesale redrawing of attendance boundaries,” he said. “Our last comprehensive review we did some extensive drawing of boundaries; over 120 boundaries were redrawn. That’s not what this comprehensive review is about.”

This review comes as CMS is trying to rebuild enrollment after declines during the pandemic and build support for a 2023 school bond referendum. The board’s priorities call for allowing families to send their children to schools close to home, creating socioeconomic diversity in schools, keeping feeder patterns intact and making the best use of buildings.

The challenge is that those priorities often clash. For instance, boundaries drawn to increase diversity can increase the distance students have to travel. Attempts to alleviate crowding in some schools and fill empty space in others can force unpopular boundary changes.

Sign up for our Education Newsletter

Select Your Email Format

Since mid-October staff have been holding forums to talk about boundaries, magnet options and construction priorities, such as whether CMS should continue building combined elementary-middle schools and start building large regional sports facilities.

Officials said Wednesday that most people want stability in their neighborhood schools, with more magnet options close to their homes.

“We need more of our popular programs throughout the county, so more students should have access to Montessori and gifted programs, whether that be in the south or that be in the north,” Hall said.

He said parents voiced enthusiasm for the district’s menu of elementary school magnets but want more options to continue with similar themes in middle school. He said there was talk about creating a “gifted school” that would provide accelerated learning for grades 3-8.

Construction consultant Dennis LaCaria said that while parents are enthusiastic about magnets that combine grades K-8 in one building, they voiced mixed reviews about doing that with neighborhood schools. Large stand-alone middle schools offer more sports, extracurricular activities and career-tech classes, he said, while K-8 schools offer continuity and smaller classes.

“One of the things that people talked about anecdotally was the pros of having the whole family together, and some people see it as a con that there are older kids with younger kids, whether that’s on the bus or in the halls,” he said. “And the struggle there obviously is that there are a whole lot of folks who pay to go to private schools that have K-8 and K-12 situations.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
A rendering of a new high school planned in Charlotte.

CMS has also floated the idea of building regional athletic complexes that could host tournaments and graduation ceremonies that are too big for high school stadiums. As land gets scarcer and more expensive, officials have said it may not be practical to keep building those facilities at new high schools.

LaCaria said people want both — full facilities at high schools and regional complexes that offer opportunities for bigger events and more access to swimming pools. In the short run that may be practical, he said. But the long term presents a challenge.

“Fifty years from now, whoever’s doing this job is going to be trying to figure out where to site an elementary school on Highway 51 and Providence’s football field is going to look like the great place for it because there’s no other land available,” he said. “Not saying that’s imminent. But it’s also responsible when you’re doing long-range planning to think about the long range.”

Staff plan to bring a proposal to the school board in January, after new members are sworn in this month. The schedule calls for a vote in February, with a bond proposal brought to county commissioners in spring and a referendum held in November 2023. This year’s vote won’t include all the boundary changes that will be needed as new schools are built.

CMS is holding an online survey through Dec. 9 seeking input on such questions as the importance people assign to economic and racial diversity, schools close to home and schools that aren’t too crowded; the type of magnet programs their kids participate in; and what people think of regional athletics facilities.

People can also email comments or questions to CMSreview23@cms.k12.nc.us.

“We have to have the feedback. We have to have the participation,” Hall said. “We know that everyone won’t get what they want. We know that everyone won’t be happy. But we really truly would like to have feedback.”

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.