Student Assignment Challenges, Confusion Unfold In CMS Community Meetings

Aug 29, 2016

Parents this month got their first chance to weigh in on proposals the CMS board is considering to diversify magnet schools. As part of that, they have to wrap their minds around demographics, transportation, and entrance lotteries for these schools. 

WFAE's Gwendolyn Glenn and Lisa Worf each went to community meetings in different parts of Charlotte. They found parents who want good magnet schools that are easily accessible and they grappled with how to achieve that. 

GG: Lisa, the meeting at Harding High School in West Charlotte was lively. CMS Superintendent Ann Clark began the meeting by pointing out that almost half of CMS schools have more than 75 percent of their students living in poverty. They struggle and Harding is one of those schools. A racially-diverse group of about 30 parents and a few students showed up for the discussion.

LW:  The crowd was much larger at Myers Park High School in South Charlotte, around two hundred or so. They were mostly white. Myers Park and Harding both have the same setup. Both are regular schools, so students are assigned there, and, both also have an International Baccalaureate magnet. But unlike Harding, Myers Park has fairly good test scores and a third of students are low-income.  

GG: Those numbers are important because the CMS board wants to figure out how to make magnet schools more economically diverse.

LW: Yes, right now, most magnets are largely made up of poor kids or more well-to-do ones. The hope is blending students of different socio-economic backgrounds will reduce some of the challenges schools with lots of poor kids face, like high teacher-turnover.  Okay, so, these proposals are really complicated. Gwen, just how many blank stares did you see? 

GG: A lot. They were given maps and lottery scenarios and it quickly became obvious that people were confused, even before they began looking at transportation zones and lottery priorities.   

LW: Yes, there was a lot of confusion at Myers Park too and understandably so. Let's start with transportation zones.  Most magnet schools fall into large transportation zones. If students attend a magnet in the zone where they live, they get bus service. Otherwise, they don't.  If CMS wants more economically diverse magnets, those transportation zones also need to be diverse. 

GG: Right now CMS has four zones and only one of them matches the diversity of the district. School board members are looking at changing those lines so that the number of low-income students per zone is more evenly spread out.  They could keep the four transportation zones and move the lines.

LW: ...Or they could go with three zones. That would make for the most even spread of low-income students. But because the zones are bigger, it could also mean longer bus rides. Cortney Varzandeh has a junior at Myers Park who used to be in the I-B program.  

Varzandeh: Size of zone does make a difference even if it's big, if it's going to take your kids an hour and a half to get there, then is size of zone the right way to approach it? 

GG: And, Lisa, parents at Harding also brought up long bus rides, but in a different way. Many didn't think there were enough good options in their current transportation zone. Parent Takisha Cowley said she'd like CMS to provide students transportation to more magnets outside the transportation zone where they live. She said the current policy puts low-income families at a disadvantage. 

COWLEY: I think for a huge part of the fragile communities transportation is an issue. The opportunity is there but the access may not be there.

GG: School board chair Mary McCray says the district does its best to make sure each transportation zone has a similar choice of magnet programs.

MCCRAY: If I’m in the blue zone for instance, I have the same choices that the grey zone or the green zone may have.

GG: Technically, yes, but these parents said not really. 

PARENT: But as a parent it is also pretty clearly understood among parents that all programs within a similar theme are not created equal.

HARDING PARENT: A perfect example is this school. My son is a 10th grader. All of the classes for the IB Magnet program are not available because of teacher turnover. The options look good on paper but it’s not an equitable solution.

LW: At the Myers Park meeting, parents also made this point. The challenge is how do you attract more well-to-do families to apply to mainly low-income magnets that struggle, especially if they're happy with the school their child is assigned to?

GG: Exactly and that's what parents at Harding brought up. Here's a bit of that discussion.

MEETING PARTICIPANT: How do we make these schools an attractive option? If we can't market our school as something that will make your kids successful they won't come regardless of how many seats are available…

MEETING PARTICIPANT:I think if you let people apply anywhere they want they will, a lot of times, go for a homogeneous situation.  

LW: Now, these discussions started from the point of how to diversify magnets, not whether to do that. At Myers Park, a few people did begin by saying they thought that it was a good goal. After the meeting, I talked to others who didn't think socio-economic status should be a factor. Gwen, did that come up at Harding? 

GG: It did. Parents generally agreed they'd like to see more of an economic mix within their magnet programs. The CMS board is looking at doing that by reserving equal number of seats within each magnet for students from low, mid, and high socio-economic status. CMS could measure that status by looking at things like income, parents' education level, and family structure. 

LW: At Myers Park, one parent suggested giving children assigned to low-performing schools first priority at magnets. That's something the school board agreed last week, they'd like to see happen.  CMS did operate its magnet lottery that way for several years.

GG: These discussions were just about magnets. Only about 14 percent of CMS students currently attend these programs. The CMS board plans to come up with a specific plan next month and vote on it in November. The CMS board plans to tackle regular school boundaries in time for the fall of 2018.  

LW: Those looming boundary changes were clearly on parents' minds.  For WFAE News, I'm Lisa Worf

GG: ...and I'm Gwendolyn Glenn.