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UNC Charlotte Grad Students Create App Visualizing CMS Diversity

cms_diversity_map.jpg
Courtesy Kirk Mason
UNC Charlotte grad students Kirk Mason, Chase Romano, and Nityanand Kore (left to right) have developed a new web application that visualizes CMS's diversity numbers.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a segregation problem. That much isn't new, and shouldn't come as a surprise to any teacher, parent or administrator who's worked inside the school district, but sometimes it's hard to fully wrap your head around. Now, a group of UNC Charlotte grad students is hoping to fix that.

The students, Kirk Mason, Chase Romano and Nityanand Kore, have created a new web application that translates CMS' diversity numbers into interactive, easy-to-understand charts and maps.

Queue up the application yourself and see why the N.C. Justice Center has branded CMS "by far the most racially segregated school district in the state."

charlotte_cms_map.png
Credit Charlotte Datalytics
Lighter dots represent schools with higher percentages of white students, while darker dots represent schools with higher percentages of minority students.

An interactive map will show you the majority-white schools clustered in the southern and northern parts of the county, while the minority-majority schools fan out across eastern, western and cental Mecklenburg. Select each school individually and watch as its student body changes over the past decade, possibly becoming more homogenized.

Romano, himself a former CMS math teacher at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, says he was inspired to take on the project after reading an article in The Washington Post on the subject.

He says he and his teammates expected their work would reflect poorly on CMS, and yet some of their findings still came as a surprise.

For example, when they tried to locate a school that did reflect the district's racial makeup, they could find only one out of all 175 CMS schools that came within a 10% margin of error. And it was a trade school —Charlotte Engineering Early College.

They also found that within CMS, 52% of black students and 52% of Hispanic students currently attend schools that are less than 10% white.

Mason says reading those figures is one thing, but he hopes when people see them reflected visually, either for the entire district or for individual schools, it will have a greater effect on them, just as it did on him.

"Whereas before it was just notions and ideas," he says, "now I have a very concrete picture."

The dataset only goes back to 2008, although the grad students say they would like to explore CMS diversity data going as far back as the 1970s, when the district was considered a national model for school integration by using student assignment plans and busing. However, getting that data would involve making a significant public records request which could take the district some time to fill.

In the meantime, the grad students admit they don't have any ready-made solutions to offer. Romano says he hopes the app will simply give people a clearer picture of the current problem.

"Seeing this on the map, and seeing the graphs of how schools have changed just over the last 12 years, I think, really hits home and shows you - wow, we're not integrated at all," Romano says.

They hope CMS leaders in particular will take note and try to correct the district's slide into resegregation.

"Maybe it's policy changes, or maybe there's some other solution," Mason says. "I don't know what the solution is, but in an ideal world, this would make people say, 'Let's change this.'"

While their visual analytics class has since ended (they received an A on the project), the grad students say their work could still evolve. They've published their code and data on the opensource website GitHub, giving other coders the opportunity to build on or replicate their work elsewhere in the country.