New diversity lotteries bring gains and surprises at Charlotte-area charter schools

New diversity lotteries bring gains and surprises at Charlotte-area charter schools
A kindergarten class at Community School of Davidson. (John D. Simmons | The Charlotte Observer)
A kindergarten class at Community School of Davidson. (John D. Simmons | The Charlotte Observer)
Charlotte Lab School founder Mary Moss Brown (John D. Simmons | The Charlotte Observer)
Charlotte Lab School founder Mary Moss Brown (John D. Simmons | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - Two popular Charlotte-area charter schools say their pioneering efforts to set aside seats for low-income students have boosted diversity, albeit slowly.

Like Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and schools across America, they're also learning that change comes neither quickly nor easily.

Charlotte Lab School in uptown Charlotte got about 1,400 applications for 158 open seats, but half a dozen spots in sixth grade are being held open for now because the school couldn't recruit enough economically disadvantaged applicants, says founder Mary Moss Brown.

"It was definitely challenging to have as many as we wanted," Brown said Wednesday.

At Community School of Davidson, which has about 1,300 students and a waiting list of 3,400, more than 200 applicants checked the box to indicate they qualify as economically disadvantaged, says founder Joy Warner. But there were only 50 to 60 openings for new students, mostly kindergarteners, with 10 percent of them set aside for lower income students, she said.

So there won't be a huge, immediate shift in the school's demographics – it was 86 percent white and 5 percent low-income last year – but "it's a step in the right direction," Warner said.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was 29 percent white last year, with more than half the students coming from low-income homes. But those numbers vary widely across the county, with schools in the north suburban Davidson area generally having more white students and fewer impoverished ones.

Some charter-school critics say the publicly-funded schools function as private schools for kids who are already doing well in public schools. Charter schools aren't required to offer busing or federally subsidized meals, which can deter some families from applying.

Both Warner and Brown say they're trying to boost diversity at their low-poverty, mostly white schools not as an act of charity but as a benefit to all students.

"We are passionate about the notion of socioeconomic integration in education," Warner said this spring.

Charter schools are alternative public schools that are approved by the state and report to independent boards. Typically schools with more applicants than seats use random selection lotteries. But recent changes to North Carolina's rules allow charters to give priority to students of poverty. Four of North Carolina's 168 charter schools are doing so this year.

Diversity was always part of the mission at Charlotte Lab School, which opened in 2015. But Brown says word of mouth among the founders' friends led to a flood of applications from middle class and affluent families, while charter-school failures in lower-income Charlotte neighborhoods fueled distrust among those families. Last year, Charlotte Lab was 60 percent white and 17 percent low-income; the goal is to eventually have 40 percent of seats filled by low-income students.

Brown says she launched her case for setting aside seats by holding a "town hall" meeting in which speakers put the decision into the broader context of segregation, desegregation and resegregation in Charlotte's public schools. At the same time, CMS was working on a new lottery system for its magnet schools that uses socioeconomic status to promote balance. The first such lottery was used for students who will start in CMS magnet schools in August.

Brown says she will hold open the sixth-grade seats until early August in hopes of recruiting economically disadvantaged students, then fill them from the wait list if that fails.

Brown cited one additional recruiting challenge: High-quality instruction in CMS' high-poverty schools. While proficiency rates are often low, leading to low ratings from the state, Brown said her visits led her to believe the faculty at many of those schools are doing good work. That might make families less likely to take a chance on a charter school, she said.

"I think the Title I schools are doing a good job," she said, referring to CMS schools that qualify for federal assistance because at least three-quarters of the students come from low-income homes. "I don't think anyone actually hears that. I've seen excellent instruction."

Talks about opportunity and equity will continue at Charlotte Lab School, she said, especially as the first group of sixth-graders tackles its new social studies curriculum.

"We're going to confront issues and we're going to try to tell a more historically accurate and less Eurocentric version of history," she said, including Columbus Day and Thanksgiving celebrations that give Native American perspectives.

Both Warner and Brown say that while there were initial questions about the wisdom of setting aside seats, there hasn't been backlash since the 2017-18 assignments were made.

"It's been quiet," Warner said, "and that's what I was hopeful for."