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CMS choice lottery opens Monday with new options and transportation changes

Early College UNCC.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
Early College High School students at UNC Charlotte. CMS will offer a similar program at Central Piedmont Community College starting in August.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools starts taking 2023 school choice applications Monday, with 14 specialized academic themes offered at 71 of the district’s 180 schools. Many are perennial favorites, such as Montessori, world languages, arts and International Baccalaureate.

But there are a couple of new programs, one relocation and a new approach to busing for some magnet schools. Here’s what to expect:

Aviation and early college

Two new programs are on this year’s menu. Ninth and 10th graders seeking careers in aviation and aerospace can apply for spots at Waddell High, a southwest Charlotte school that’s reopening in August after several years as a K-8 language magnet. Waddell will also offer career-tech courses related to graphic design, marketing and software development.

Waddell will also host a new PACE Academy for teens who are learning English, but those spots won’t be assigned through the choice lottery.

Students who will be in grades 9-11 can also apply for a new Early College High School at Central Piedmont Community College’s uptown campus. That allows students to take high school and tuition-free college classes simultaneously; they can stay an extra year and earn enough credits for an associate’s degree.

Both are part of a trend toward preparing teens for college or careers. The district has career-tech magnets at several other high schools, offering such themes as culinary arts, auto technology and digital manufacturing. And it already has early college programs at UNC Charlotte and middle college programs (open only to upperclassmen) at other Central Piedmont campuses.

Express buses offer straight shot

A countywide magnet system requires a lot of busing. In an effort to address a driver shortage and reduce students’ ride times, CMS is doing express busing for about a dozen magnet schools next year. Students in those schools, which pull students from across the county, will go to a stop up to three miles from home to catch a bus.

It’s similar to a shuttle stop plan that CMS tried for a few years, but CMS Magnet Director Walter Hall says those buses made several stops on the way to and from magnet schools. And those stops were up to five or six miles from some homes.


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“This time the transportation department is committed to making sure that express buses are truly express buses, from Point A to Point B,” he said.

The change means Northwest School of the Arts, a middle/high magnet that currently starts classes at 9:15 a.m. to allow buses to make multiple stops across the county, will shift to a 7:15 a.m. bell, the same as most other CMS high schools. Hall said that opens up afternoon time for extracurricular activities, including those related to the arts.

Krista Kane Smith, a Northwest parent, told the school board last week she worries that some families will not be able to get their children to express stops.

“For students who cannot be transported to an express stop, the only option is to walk the several miles, mornings and afternoons, often along busy roads and roads without sidewalks, and in the dark in the mornings,” she said.

Chief Operations Officer Brian Schultz says families will get information about their express stops when they apply for those schools. He said CMS is working on ways to help families connect with others who might be able to work together to get students to and from express stops.

"In extreme cases where there's just no way, we're going to work with that family," he said. "If you want to get to a school, there's going to be a way."

Montessori program moves

CMS will close Trillium Springs Montessori, located at the southern edge of Huntersville, at the end of this year and open a new Montessori magnet for pre-K to sixth grade at Lincoln Heights in north Charlotte.

Montessori magnets are traditionally among the district’s most popular offerings. CMS officials say the move is part of a push to replace small, outdated buildings for some of those schools, with Park Road and Chantilly on the list for future replacement. Students and teachers at Trillium Springs will be offered spots at Lincoln Heights, with additional seats available in August.

Several north suburban parents complained to the board that moving the school makes Montessori less accessible to families in Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson, who have traditionally had to take on long bus rides to get access to magnet programs. Julie Kelly of Huntersville said last week that Trillium Springs recently surveyed parents about whether they’ll send their kids to Lincoln Heights.

“About 40% said they would go, 40% said not sure, and about 20% said ‘We’re not going,’ ” she said.

Kelly says she’s in the “not sure” group. It depends partly on how long her son’s bus ride would be, she says. Her older kids go to J.T. Williams Secondary Montessori, which will have express buses, but elementary schools will not. “If I have to drive him that’s an hour commute twice a day,” she said.

How the lottery works

CMS launched many of its magnets in the 1990s as part of a court-ordered effort to desegregate schools by race. The district now uses priorities based on socioeconomic status to promote diversity in magnets.

SES map for 2023.png
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Here's how CMS rates socioeconomic status by Census block.

Census blocks in Mecklenburg County are classified as low, medium or high socioeconomic status. Those rankings were recently updated based on 2020 Census data. Families applying for magnets are also asked to provide information about household income, the number of children in the home and the highest level of education attained by parents. The individual and neighborhood information are combined to assign priorities for awarding competitive seats.

Applications are open through Feb. 13. Once they close, the district will conduct a lottery to assign seats where there are more applicants than openings. Students who don’t get a seat in their first-choice school will be put on a waitlist in case other students withdraw.

Most of the openings tend to be at entry grades — for most elementary schools that’s kindergarten, but for Montessori magnets it’s pre-K. Montessori pre-K is the only CMS program that charges tuition: $3,000 a year for full-day programs, $2,200 for half-day and $738 a year for round-trip busing. Financial assistance is available based on family need.

Many magnet programs include guaranteed seats at continuation programs when students advance to middle and high school.

Some magnet programs have entry requirements, such as an audition for Northwest School of the Arts and academic requirements for middle and high school IB programs.

Individual schools are already holding open houses and offering tours. On Feb. 4 CMS will hold a choice fair from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Innovation Park, 7201 IBM Drive in the UNC Charlotte area. That will offer families a chance to check out information from all programs in one place.

Get more information about magnet programs and the lottery at CMSchoice.org.

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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.