CMS plan’s impact on high-poverty schools becomes clearer, and it’s not much

CMS plan’s impact on high-poverty schools becomes clearer, and it’s not much

CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - When Superintendent Ann Clark unveiled the long-awaited plan for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools boundary changes Tuesday, she said 21 schools would see improvements in diversity.

That's far short of breaking up intense concentrations of poverty at roughly 75 schools. But an Observer analysis of CMS data released after the meeting shows the plan does even less: Only seven schools that currently have at least 70 percent of students rated as low socioeconomic status (known as SES) will see a significant drop in poverty levels.

Another 16 high-poverty schools are slated for changes that will not significantly reduce the economic isolation that is often referred to as resegregation. And two new schools – Renaissance West and Villa Heights Elementary – are slated to open with extremely high poverty.

The proposed changes will take effect in 2018-19 if the school board approves them May 24. There will be a public hearing May 9, and several community meetings throughout the month.

CMS has not specified which 21 schools it counts as improving diversity, but the report distributed after the meeting cites such examples as Martin Middle School, which will become a partial magnet and is expected to go from 52 percent low SES to 48 percent, and Mallard Creek High, which see a boundary change and go from 69 of its students rated as medium SES to 65 percent at that level.

PREVIOUS: Here's what the new CMS boundary and magnet plan means to each school

Meanwhile, when the dust settles on a complex network of proposed changes, most of the district's biggest concentrations of advantage and disadvantage – and the racial isolation that tends to accompany them – remain unchanged.

Take West Charlotte High, an icon of Charlotte's journey from Jim Crow segregation through court-ordered desegregation into the current era of neighborhood schools and choice. This year it is 84 percent black and, under the district's new SES ratings, has 93 percent of its students coming from low socioeconomic status neighborhoods. Under Clark's plan, West Charlotte sees several boundary changes, picking up some West Meck students and sending parts of its current zone to Myers Park, Harding and Garinger high schools. But the low SES enrollment drops only to 89 percent.

Allenbrook Elementary, Cochrane Collegiate, Druid Hills, Eastway Middle, Garinger High, Harding High, Reid Park, Westerly Hills and Windsor Park Elementary all have low socioeconomic status enrollment of 90 percent or higher, which won't change significantly even though they're slated for boundary changes. Ashley Park, a preK-8 school, will actually see its low SES level rise from 89 percent to 95 percent.

The student assignment review, which has taken two years, is designed not only to deal with diversity and concentrations of poverty, but to reduce crowding, offer students neighborhood schools close to home and offer families more and better academic options.

Can you force change?

The dearth of dramatic change illustrates the challenge: In an era of school choice, where families who don't like their assigned schools can opt for CMS magnets, charter schools or private schools, there's a limit to how much difference boundary changes can make.

"We have to make improvements on our concentrations of poverty. It's a huge drag on our students' education," board member Eric Davis said this week. "And yet if we go too far in that direction we'll exacerbate the very problem that we have, in losing the parents we need to retain. It's a balancing challenge."

Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart has urged her colleagues to be bolder about breaking up poverty, but when asked about a better strategy, she spoke instead about all the additional support students need from families, teachers and administrators.

"This plan right here, it moves students around but it still doesn't address some of the underlying factors that impact our students' success," she said.

Some of the most dramatic change in high-poverty schools comes from a plan to pair two high-poverty, underfilled elementary schools – Billingsville and Sedgefield – with two low-poverty crowded schools, Cotswold and Dilworth. If the plan is approved, students will be part of a larger, merged elementary zone, attending one school for K-2 and another for 3-5.

The two schools with high poverty levels – 99 percent low socioeconomic status at Billingsville and 75 percent at Sedgefield – would become part of a more diverse school where high socioeconomic status students make up the largest group. For neighborhoods currently assigned to Cotswold and Dilworth, concentrations of advantage would diminish in the merged schools.

Davis says even during Tuesday night's meeting he was getting reactions from constituents, with the elementary school pairings spurring a lot of questions and concern.

Relying on magnets

Other schools that would drop from more than 70 percent low socioeconomic status to lower levels are:

  • Bruns Academy, a preK-8 school where 91 percent of students come from low SES areas, would send its middle school students to Ranson, see some elementary boundary changes and add a magnet program. In 2018-19 it’s projected to have 56 percent low SES enrollment, assuming the magnet attracts a more diverse student body.
  • Walter G. Byers School, a K-8 school with 98 percent low SES enrollment, would lose part of its current zone to the new Villa Heights Elementary, which would open at 87 percent low SES. Byers would add a countywide health and medical careers magnet, which is projected to bring low SES enrollment down to 59 percent.
  • Greenway Park Elementary, with 82 percent low SES enrollment, would lose a few neighborhood students and add an arts magnet, which is expected to bring low SES enrollment down to 69 percent.
  • Sedgefield Middle would see boundary changes that would bring low SES enrollment from 77 percent to 50 percent.
  • Winding Springs Elementary would see boundary changes that would bring low SES enrollment from 74 percent to 64 percent.

Meanwhile, a postscript to Tuesday's report illustrated the challenge of using magnet programs to diversify high-poverty schools: Billingsville Elementary had offered a math/science magnet program for 2017-18 but got so few applicants the plan was scrapped, Clark told the board. If the merger with Cotswold goes through, both schools will offer an International Baccalaureate magnet program.

Concentrations of affluence

Meanwhile, most of the schools where most advantaged students are concentrated will see little or no change under Clark's proposal. Only seven with at least 70 percent of students coming from high socioeconomic status areas are slated for change, and three of those – Ardrey Kell High, Beverly Woods Elementary and Selwyn Elementary – would see no significant change in that level. Community House Middle School's high socioeconomic status level would actually rise, from 89 percent to 95 percent, after a boundary change.

Three high-advantage schools would see those levels drop: Dilworth Elementary would go from 75 percent high socioeconomic status to 66 percent after the Sedgefield merger. Hough High would go from 72 percent high socioeconomic status to 68 percent by sending some students to Hopewell, and the underfilled Torrence Creek Elementary would get students from the Blythe zones and go from 70 percent high socioeconomic status to 54 percent.

Board members say the plan could change as they hear from constituents and consider alternatives. That means schools and neighborhoods that aren't affected by Clark's proposal could find themselves pulled in through revisions.

Clark said she will present any proposed revisions at the May 9 meeting, which also includes a public hearing. She will do a Facebook Live discussion of proposed changes at the Governors Village schools (Morehead, Nathaniel Alexander and Martin) at 9 a.m. Monday and of the proposed elementary pairings at 10:15 a.m. Monday.