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Charlotte Area

A look at First Ward, a school CMS is forcing most students to leave

A math class at First Ward Elementary.

Three hundred seventy-six students at First Ward Elementary in uptown Charlotte are preparing to atttend a different school next year. Some will move on to middle school. But CMS is forcing most to transfer to another school. The CMS board made this decision last week as part of a plan to relieve overcrowding at Eastover Elementary by moving 113 students from that school. The move affects hundreds more parents and students at First Ward and two other schools. In this report, WFAE's Simone Orendain takes a closer look at First Ward and the ramifications of the school board's decision: On an overcast day, First Ward music teacher Candy Hayes leads second graders in a song. Students sit at xylophones, sticks poised and ready to strike a note. Some fidget and get distracted by the microphone, but most eagerly participate. It's business as usual at the school, even though staffers don't know where they'll be this time next year. About 1,100 students will be shuffled around to relieve Eastover Elementary of 113 students. It's a complicated formula: the arts magnet program currently at Dilworth Elementary will move to the First Ward building. First Ward students will go south, mostly to Dilworth and some to Eastover. Meanwhile, a handful of students from Selwyn Elementary will be sent to the new Dilworth school. First Ward PTA President Deborah Albritton spoke out against the plan at several school board and community meetings. "First Ward is a very large school. We have room where Dilworth could have come and we could have stayed. But to displace our entire community and not give us any options, when Dilworth and Eastover [parents] seem to have a catered punch card to their children's education, that's a horrible example to set," she says. Combining the arts program with First Ward sounds simple enough. But it would result in a school with a strong concentration of poverty and minority students- something the district tries to avoid whenever possible. First Ward is 95 percent African American and 88 percent of students there receive free or discounted lunch. Dilworth is 62 percent African American and 66 percent of students receive free or reduced price lunch. The district says it will have two "strong" schools with the creation of the new Dilworth, and Eastover receiving a handful of First Ward students. Students on free and reduced price lunches will be around 27 percent at both schools. And each school will be about one-fourth black and at least two-thirds white. At First Ward's driveway, Angela Singleton waits to pickup her granddaughter. She and her daughter went to First Ward. For seven years the school has been part magnet, part neighborhood. And even before this controversy, the CMS board decided to drop the First Ward magnet program altogether this year. Singleton says this made the school an easy target. She's hopeful she'll be able to enroll her two granddaughters in the arts program that's coming in. She says, "I don't want to see all our kids bussed out of here. I want them to stay here but want them to get good teacher's that's going to help them." The First Ward staff will also be displaced. Interim Principal Tisha Greene says they may not be at the school, but there will be positions for them within the district. "It is a little disheartening for them," says Greene. "But a lot of them realize we've got to go down and make this the best year for First Ward and make that be the legacy that leaves the First Ward as we know it. As sort of the neighborhood First Ward." Over the years, the school's had its share of troubles but parents and teachers have remained loyal. The most recent standardized test results show in 2006, 55 percent of students there were on grade level, in 2007 it was 59 percent. Then in 2008, it plummeted to 31 before spiking up last year. The dramatic drop coincides with a period when teachers jumped ship after a new principal had a brief tenure. Privately, parents and staff feel like the school was left to languish. The boundary plan was the final blow. Long-time kindergarten teacher Linda Thomas says it caught the school off guard. She says at the board's request, the school was working on a proposal that would help boost enrollment. "I love First Ward and I love the children. I have a concern about what will happen to them, where are they going to be dispersed? They're not going to be with us, the people who really love them and understand them and provide for them the way we do. It's just a certain thing about First Ward," says Thomas.