CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - A handful of new magnet programs and a return to neighborhood bus stops for magnet students are among the changes Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrators unveiled Tuesday, to take effect next fall.
The report launches a month of intense review and community meetings focused on 2016-17 changes. It also sets the stage for a long-range focus on school choice as a centerpiece of CMS efforts to prepare students for college and careers, keep families in public schools and possibly break up racial and economic isolation.
The immediate changes meet a range of goals, from increasing suburban access to filling seats at low-enrollment schools. New career-tech programs for five high-poverty neighborhood high schools are also proposed to offer support that goes beyond magnets.
Existing magnet schools that traditionally generate waiting lists may also expand in 2016-17, said Assistant Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell, but no details were ready Tuesday.
Magnet schools continue to be part of a broader discussion of student assignment. Some tough decisions, such as clarifying the role of diversity and access in the magnet program, will be part of that process.
Carol Sawyer, a former CMS parent and organizer of the OneMECK diversity advocacy group, urged the board not to rush into magnet expansion before it makes neighborhood schools more diverse. "Don't let the magnet program be the tail that wags the dog of student assignment," she said.
Better busing options
The plan calls for ending the magnet shuttle stops that were introduced as a cost-cutting measure during the recession. That arrangement requires families to get their children to central pickup and drop-off points for busing.
A recent report from Magnet Schools of America said that requirement makes it difficult for some families to participate. The new plan calls for returning to neighborhood pickups for all magnet students.
Sridhar Parepalli, a Piedmont Middle School parent, urged the board to end shuttle stops, saying it requires students to get up early to get to a pickup school before a long bus ride: "We are taking up the quality time from the kids."
Because magnet students are scattered over much wider areas than those in neighborhood school zones, bus rides can be much longer and more expensive. Superintendent Ann Clark said it will cost up to $6 million in the 2016-17 budget to eliminate the shuttle plan; she promised to bring more details for board approval by November.
In the coming year, Clark wants the school board to consider dropping admission requirements at some magnet schools. Requirements, which can range from grade-level test scores to arts auditions to knowledge of a foreign language, are designed to ensure that students are ready for the programs but restrict the number of students who can get into magnets.
Career and college prep
Career-themed programs play a big role in the latest plan.
Marie G. Davis Military/Leadership Academy, a K-12 magnet just south of uptown Charlotte that has struggled to fill its space, will add a high school program to prepare students for work in law enforcement, firefighting and emergency response, starting with ninth- and 10th-graders next year. Local police and firefighters will be partners.
Harding High, a west Charlotte neighborhood school with an International Baccalaureate magnet program, will team up with nearby Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology to offer carpentry, automotive and design/fabrication programs. Students will attend ninth grade at Harding, then choose a career path and divide their time between the two schools, which are less than a mile apart.
Garinger, Vance, West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg high schools, all of which serve low-income neighborhoods, are slated to add several new career themes. Those programs will offer students a chance to earn community college credit and industry credentials, with a clear career path available at Central Piedmont Community College.
Long-range plans call for two more small high schools on CPCC campuses and a business-themed uptown high school offered in partnership with a college.
Starting next year, the high school language magnet for the northern part of the county would move from West Mecklenburg High in Charlotte to North Mecklenburg High in Huntersville.
"We think that this is one we're going to get a lot of positive feedback around," Craven-Howell said.
The following year, the plan calls for adding a K-8 language magnet in the northern area, which has few magnet schools. A location hasn't been chosen.
The plan also calls for a performing arts magnet and a high school with an IB or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) theme in the south/southwestern area of the county. Neither dates nor locations are set.
Short-term expansion could come from adding mobile classrooms to popular magnets.
In 2017, the plan calls for adding a STEM program to Paw Creek Elementary in northwest Charlotte, with a Spanish-English immersion magnet added in 2018 at Albemarle Road Elementary in east Charlotte.
Undated proposals include expanding the Montessori program to include high school and creating a middle school to continue the theme offered at Elizabeth Traditional and Myers Park Traditional elementary schools.
Several parents spoke Tuesday to urge the district to add a high school Montessori magnet. Chris Bishop, who has a seventh-grader at Sedgefield Middle's Montessori program, said the option brought his family back from a charter school. "Montessori works," he said.
Billingsville Elementary, across from the old Mint Museum on Randolph Road, has long had some of the district's highest poverty levels, even though it's near some of Charlotte's wealthiest neighborhoods. The plan calls for adding a partial magnet, with a theme to be determined, in 2016-17.