CHARLOTTE, NC (Ann Doss Helms/The Charlotte Observer) - Chavon Carroll is the kind of parent who could be expected to thrive in a school choice system.
A college-educated PTA president, she understands her daughter's needs, follows the news about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and has a network of contacts who understand the system. As soon as the 2018 application season opened, she set out to take advantage of a new system that promises alternatives for students who attend chronically low-performing schools.
But within 48 hours, Carroll was ready to scream in frustration. She couldn't crack the system herself, and a CMS hotline kept hanging up on her.
"CMS makes it nearly impossible for you to find the information you need and to advocate for yourself," Carroll wrote the Observer.
The school board pledged exactly the opposite: A choice system that would be easy to navigate, even for families who face barriers such as limited English proficiency or lack of internet access at home. The promise that no child would be forced to stay in persistently failing schools is crucial to the assignment plan approved last spring.
About 12,000 students – the majority from low-income homes – currently attend 16 schools that have been labeled low-performing for the last three years. The policy calls for CMS to offer them an out – even as the district tries to recruit families to voluntarily send their kids to new magnet programs in some of those same schools.
For families who want to use the escape hatch, the clock is ticking. They must apply for alternatives by Dec. 18 or risk missing their chance at seats in higher-performing neighborhood schools and popular magnets. Students are picked by lottery when there are more applicants than seats.
"The challenge is – and it's always the challenge in CMS – if space is available," said Assistant Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell.
There's an even bigger challenge – and tighter deadline – for families whose children will start kindergarten in August. They must be enrolled in CMS by Dec. 1 to get into the lottery – and if CMS doesn't have them on file, they're less likely to be notified about the complex new options they qualify for.
How difficult is it to navigate this system? Let's let the Carroll family tell the story.
"Your call is important...' click
When Jordan was approaching school age, Chavon and Charles Carroll did what a lot of parents do: Looked at test scores and school letter grades, freaked out when their neighborhood school was rated low and got her into a magnet school.
First they tried a Spanish immersion magnet, then a Montessori school. Neither was right for Jordan, who has learning disabilities. They switched to Newell Elementary, their neighborhood school, where their daughter found the support she needs.
"I switched from an A school to a D," Chavon Carroll says. The lesson she took away: "When you just make a blanket judgment, that's not good."
The Carrolls recently got a letter from CMS saying her daughter's default assignment for next year is Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, which also rates a D. So Chavon Carroll was intrigued when she read an Observer article that mentioned the expanded opt-out priority for low-performing schools.
Carroll spent 15 minutes scouring the CMS website but could find no details. So she posted a query on my Facebook page, where another reader quickly offered a link to the school board policy that covers the low-performing opt-out priority.
The policy raised more questions, so Carroll tried to call the student placement office. After figuring out the automated menu, she pushed the button she hoped would get her a person to talk to. Instead she got a recording saying the call volume was high and asking her to hold.
After five minutes – and numerous "your call is very important to us" messages – the recorded voice told her to call back between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. And the call ended.
She tried it again. And again. And again. Each time, five minutes of hold, then a hang-up.
Trying to catch up
A few days before Thanksgiving, Craven-Howell met with me to talk about Carroll's experience and the opt-out priority.
Although the application period had opened a week before, Craven-Howell said schools on the list were still working on notifying parents about their option. That's most challenging for students who are about to start a new school, as opposed to those already enrolled, she said.
CMS has not posted a list of the schools that qualify (see attached box).
Craven-Howell said the best way for Carroll to figure out her daughter's options would be to log on using her daughter's personal ID number, which gives her a list of magnet and neighborhood schools open to Jordan.
Ideally, someone answering the student placement hotline could have told Carroll that. Craven-Howell said the lines are always overwhelmed with calls during the application season but the system shouldn't cut off callers.
I called the line Monday afternoon, 12 days after Carroll's experience and a week after talking with Craven-Howell. I was disconnected almost immediately.
More roadblocks and lessons
This week, more than two weeks into the 2018-19 application period, Carroll is still trying to figure out her options.
The best service came after she realized she had misplaced her daughter's ID number. She searched the CMS site again and found email addresses for individuals in student placement. Within eight minutes of sending her request, she got the ID number to log in.
But that was just the start. She found a long list of neighborhood middle schools she could apply for via transfer – but without transportation – because Jordan's school rates a D or F. Then she had to log into a separate system – and decipher cryptic CMS labels – to discover Jordan had priority for Ridge Road Middle based on King's three years of low scores.
Her chances of getting Jordan into a magnet school hangs partly on a new socioeconomic status measure, which factors in income, single-parent households, parent education levels, English proficiency and home ownership in each of 548 Census block groups in Mecklenburg County.
In a magnet school populated mostly by disadvantaged students, families from high socioeconomic status neighborhoods have an edge, and vice versa. So it helps to know the current makeup of any magnet school under consideration, as well as your own family rating.
Because the Carrolls live in an economically diverse area near UNC Charlotte, Chavon Carroll can't guess whether their address is rated high, medium or low status. And CMS offers no way to help families figure that out.
Current SES breakdowns for each school were posted Tuesday afternoon, after repeated queries from the Observer, then taken down a few hours later, after I told them their percentages didn't match the raw numbers.
"The district is now re-evaluating the data for inconsistencies and will release updated SES data as soon as possible. CMS will review procedures for data collection and analysis to ensure accuracy as a top priority," said Chief Communications Officer Tracy Russ.
For Carroll, her personal frustration is compounded by knowing that when low-income and minority families don't pursue alternatives to low-scoring schools, it can feed "the myth that 'these parents don't care' or 'they're not engaged.' "