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As parents worry, CMS waits to see impact of express bus plan on magnets

West Mecklenburg High, which took part in an earlier CMS shuttle stop program, will be one of the stops for new express buses to magnet schools.
Ann Doss Helms
West Mecklenburg High, which took part in an earlier CMS shuttle stop program, will be one of the stops for new express buses to magnet schools.

School doesn’t start for almost two months, but plenty of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools magnet families are stressing over how to get their kids to distant bus stops.

The switch to an express bus system that eliminates neighborhood stops is just one variable as the district prepares to study and revise its magnet program. More than 27,000 students are expected to attend the specialized programs in August, but the number of new applicants has been down by almost half since the pandemic — from about 15,000 a year before schools closed to around 8,500 the last couple of years, says Magnet Director Walter Hall.

Few schools have experienced as much recent change as Northwest School of the Arts, a combined middle and high school in west Charlotte.

The school board voted to renovate the building and move the middle school to a new location sometime in the next few years. In August, students will start classes two hours earlier than last year. And buses will no longer pick up students in their neighborhoods.

“I felt like all three came and it was just such a shock,” said Elizabeth Kovacs, the mother of a junior at Northwest.

Last year her daughter caught a bus in their Huntersville neighborhood a bit before 8, with classes starting at 9:15. This year classes will start at 7:15, like the district’s large neighborhood high schools. And to ride the new express bus, Kovacs would have to get her daughter to a stop at Hopewell High — roughly six miles from their house.

“At first they were saying that everyone should be able to walk to their express stop, which was nonsense,” Kovacs said.

Kovacs says changes seem to be coming from all directions in CMS. And she’s not wrong.

Rebecca Kovacs, a student at Northwest School of the Arts, demonstrates a ballet pose during a family trip to Washington, D.C.
Provided by Elizabeth Kovacs
Rebecca Kovacs, a student at Northwest School of the Arts, demonstrates a ballet pose during a family trip to Washington, D.C.

The express bus plan, which affects a dozen magnet high schools with more than 5,000 students, was prompted by a driver shortage. Some faculty and families had been lobbying for an earlier bell schedule, and the streamlined busing made that practical for 2023, Hall said.

Splitting the middle and high school arts magnet is partly tied to the $2.5 billion school bond referendum that will be on the November ballot. It’s also part of a massive revamp of student assignment and magnets that the school board launched early this year, then scaled back as new board members wanted more time to get up to speed.

Kovacs says her daughter loves the dance program at Northwest, but the school went without a ballet teacher for part of last year as districts across the country struggled with teacher shortages. She fears splitting off the middle school will require twice as many hard-to-find teachers for specialized arts classes.

Kovacs says it leaves her wondering: “What was wrong with Northwest School of the Arts that they felt like they needed to make these big changes all at once?”

A complex puzzle

Magnet lottery numbers show Northwest has taken a hit. Eighty-nine sixth-graders were placed there for the coming year – down almost 28% from the previous year. Ninth grade, another point where students tend to enter Northwest, is down about 15%.

But Hall says that wasn’t the case at most schools shifting to express buses. “There’s other schools, like Phillip O. Berry, which have (a) significant amount of growth,” he said.

More than 500 ninth-graders were placed at Berry, a career-tech high school magnet in west Charlotte. That’s up almost 10%. Combined, the magnet programs shifting to express stops had about 300 more applicants this year than in 2022, Hall says.

But Hall quickly adds that that’s not the full picture. During the lottery, CMS assumes that students will stay in a program or school as they move up. But that isn’t always the case.

“Phillip O. Berry is an example. It sees a ton of students that go in and a ton of students go out,” he said.

Bottom line: If students are leaving magnets because they can’t get to bus stops under the new system, that won’t be clear until September, when CMS does its annual enrollment snapshot.

Further complicating the scenario: University Park and First Ward, the district’s two elementary school arts magnets, also saw small application numbers this year, even though they’ll still have neighborhood bus stops.

The CMS plan calls for turning First Ward into the countywide middle school arts magnet and using University Park as a countrywide elementary arts magnet. Timing, however, will depend on approval of the school bonds, which will allow the district to start work renovating or replacing the buildings.

Hall says the split is designed to beef up the entire arts program. Northwest would have more space, allowing better programs to compete with neighborhood high schools, which have become increasingly popular. And a First Ward Middle School would offer classes close to uptown arts facilities — part of a CMS quest to make middle school magnets more attractive to families.

Working out the details

The CMS transportation department is still working out bus routes, with assignments expected to go to families in early August. The district has posted a growing list of locations where families can catch an express bus (track all CMS information about express stops here).

Map of express stops scheduled for Northwest School of the Arts.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Map of express stops scheduled for Northwest School of the Arts.

Meanwhile, a Facebook group called Save Our Stops is full of messages from parents complaining about the plan and seeking people to carpool to the new stops. Many say walking is not a safe option.

Jessica Schneebaum would have to get her two kids from east Charlotte’s Grove Park neighborhood to Garinger High, about 3 ½ miles away along busy roads, to catch a bus to J.T. Williams Secondary Montessori School in north Charlotte.

“It’s definitely not walkable,” she said.

Schneebaum is a nurse practitioner who works long shifts in Gastonia about three days a week. On her days off she can take the kids to and from school. The other days she’ll have to rely on her ex-husband.

“He’s going to have to get to work late and leave early on those days,” she said, “which just isn’t cool.”

Schneebaum says her family loves the Montessori program and she’ll find a way to get the kids to school. But she’s frustrated.

“We’re committed to the program. I just wish CMS were committed to it too. I feel like they’re not now,” she said.

But CMS has also approved a slate of building changes designed to provide more seats and better buildings for the popular preK-6 Montessori schools, as well as moving the secondary school into a renovated Marie G. Davis building. The first move — closing Trillium Springs Montessori and relocating that program to a renovated Lincoln Heights school — takes place in August, with the rest contingent on the school bonds.

Lincoln Heights Montessori is expected to open with 250 to 300 students — more than the 186 at Trillium last year but well below capacity of 500 to 550. Hall says he doesn’t yet know how many Trillium students opted out of the new location.

Equity concerns

Zhenia Martinez is also a J.T. Williams Montessori mom. And she works as a family advocate at another CMS school. She says she has spoken with parents who didn’t know CMS would no longer offer neighborhood pickups and dropoffs for some magnets.

“They’re applying to Phillip O. Berry and Northwest but they had no clue that this was going to happen,” she said.

Martinez has also served on the CMS Equity Committee, and she says she’s concerned that parents who don’t have cars, flexible work schedules and resources to patch together their own transportation will find their children shut out of some of the district’s best academic programs.

“They say, you know, it’s not discriminatory, but it certainly feels like it is,” Martinez said. “I’m curious to find out, you know, what the population is, like what the demographics are of these smaller magnet schools that are targeted for this?”

In February, the school board approved the changes to the Montessori and arts magnets because they’re directly tied to the district’s bond request. But it deferred action on a longer list of changes that had been outlined in January. This spring the board, which includes five members elected in November, announced plans to do a broader review of magnet programs and student assignment policy.

The board hasn’t released details, including a timetable. But those talks are almost certain to include discussion of how to provide equitable access to specialized programs — whether that’s driven by location, outreach to families or access to school buses.

And parents say they’re watching to see how the express bus plan shapes their lives in the fall. They’re wondering how many of their kids’ classmates will return, whether the express rides will be as short as CMS promised and how bad traffic will be at schools used as express bus stops.

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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.