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CMS Officials Struggle To Make Schools Equitable For All Students

Jessa O'Connor / WFAE
File: Students at Collinswood Language Academy

After nearly a year of meetings and discussions, Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members are still trying to hammer out an equity policy for the district. It would direct district officials in addressing achievement gaps between whites and students of color and other educational disparities stemming from racial and economic factors.

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn / WFAE
CMS school board's Policy Committee members struggle to develop an updated equity policy for the district

The discussions are being closely watched by parents as CMS officials try to agree on what factors should drive the policy.

Making education equitable for all students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in terms of buildings, resources, instruction, staff and other support is not new. Officials have retooled the district’s equity policy over the years with the last update being 2010. But this time around, they are giving more attention to things like cultural inclusion in instruction, teacher performance and especially the high concentrations of poverty in numerous schools.

“Let’s stop trying to wiggle our way out of what we know to be true,” school board member Ruby Jones, who chairs the board’s Policy Committee, said. “Social economic status for our children is key to the problems we are having in terms of equity in delivering a quality educational program for them.”

Credit Submitted
CMS school board member Ruby Jones chairs the board's Policy Committee

The board’s policy committee has spent most of this year grappling with language for a new equity policy. District officials are trying to break up high concentrations of poverty in schools, because they usually have fewer resources, fewer advanced placement classes, less experienced teachers and lower test scores. The social economic status of students, SES, was one of the factors that drove the student assignment plan, which has resulted in modest reductions of concentrated poverty in schools.

At a recent meeting, there was a disagreement of policy committee members about whether SES should be given more weight than other factors — such as student growth or test scores — in making sure schools are equitable.

“I don’t understand why it is elevated above all others,” school board member Sean Strain said. “I don’t think the SES composition of a school means that it’s high quality. When we look at schools like Garinger that achieved a growth score of 12 last year, meeting the needs of students and accelerating their growth, I think that’s a high-quality school. Has nothing to do with the SES composition of the school.”

But board member Carol Sawyer countered by saying, “While I applaud the tremendous growth scores at Garinger, they, unfortunately, do not offer anywhere near the range of educational opportunities offered at higher SES schools."

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn
During equity meeting, CMS school board member Sean Strain questions whether students' economic status should be given greater weight than other measures such as growth and test scores.

“SES is absolutely determinative of the equity within a school," Sawyer continued. "You give me the SES composition of a school and — with a few rare exceptions — I can tell you the proficiency level and educational opportunities within that school."

Garinger, by the way, is rated a "C" school by the state with a majority enrollment of low-income students of color. Less than one percent are high income.

Parents have shown a strong interest in the equity policy discussions, especially since the district’s "Breaking The Link" report came out almost a year ago that revealed wide racial and economic gaps when it came to student achievement. At last week’s school board meeting, parent Justin Perry called on officials to develop a policy that closes those equity gaps.

“This equity policy needs to be more than an embarrassment to a report. It needs to establish a new way of doing business going forward, a strong policy with teeth, accountability and measurements,” Perry said. “I’m here demanding that you offer the same respect to parents like me and to the kids inside the city with black and brown children that you do to suburban schools.”

Parents Amy Nelson and Laura Handler have been following the equity policy discussions and complained to board members about what it does not include.

“If we’re talking about equity, then we need to talk about school choice and this policy doesn’t adequately do so,” Handler said to applause.

“I’m concerned that it doesn’t address equity,” Nelson said. “When we talk about equity, we’re talking about the elimination of privilege, oppression, disparities and disadvantage. Our policy focuses on activities of all students, but all students aren’t receiving an equitable education. But children living in poverty, children learning English, children of color and children who enter school without a strong foundation — their outcome is a roll of dice. Money is the biggest driver of inequity and is not mentioned in this policy.”

But low-income schools already get more money per student than high-income schools. They get federal Title One money that can be used for curriculum and increasing teacher pay, for example. Still, the extra help often isn’t enough.

Charles Jeter, the district’s policy coordinator, said equity committee members are noting the disparity issues parents are raising and others.  

Credit Gwendolyn Glenn
Charles Jeter, policy coordinator for CMS

"Does every school have a media room, AV equipment, football conditions, field conditions, AP classes? Superintendent Wilcox just set a baseline that every high school will have at least 10 AP offerings," Jeter said. "What can we do to make sure we have the best talent in all of our buildings? It’s a combination of a lot of different pieces that we are focusing on."

Jeter said accountability will be a big part of the policy, requiring the superintendent to produce quarterly reports on whether goals set in the equity policy in various areas are being met and if not, include recommendations for the board on ways to meet them. He said the equity policy is a complicated process and realizes parents are frustrated with the pace.

“Board members want to make sure whatever they do improves outcome," Jeter said. "I know everyone wants us to move with earnest, but we’re willing to take the criticism because we want it done right. If we didn’t think it through have we done the community any favors by acting fast versus acting diligently? We’re not dragging our feet. Simply not happening.”

One issue committee members are not taking up is the creation of an independent equity advisory committee. A similar panel was disbanded about seven years ago. School board members are divided on whether such a committee is needed now, what it should do and who should serve on it. So that the equity policy wouldn’t be held up, a six-month moratorium on discussions about an advisory committee was approved in November.

The next policy committee meeting on equity is scheduled for Feb. 14. Jeter said he believes members will finalize a policy then that can be sent to the full school board for discussions, public hearings and a vote.

An earlier version of this story mistakenly attributed statements to board member Margaret Marshall that were made by Carol Sawyer. The story has been updated.

Parent Laura Handler was mistakenly called Linda Handler. That has been corrected. 

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.