CMS’ bold­est bid to undo seg­re­ga­tion: Paired schools

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY ANN DOSS HELMS [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

As the last school year drew to a close, yel­low school buses made a two-mile shut­tle along Char­lotte’s Ran­dolph Road, tak­ing some Billingsville Ele­men­tary stu­dents to Cotswold Ele­men­tary and some Cotswold stu­dents to Billingsville.

A sim­i­lar ex­change was hap­pen­ing be­tween Dil­worth and Sedge­field el­e­men­taries, just south of up­town.

The chil­dren were check­ing out their new schools and new class­mates. It was a warmup for Mon­day, when the bold­est part of a stu­dent as­sign­ment plan that riv­eted the com­mu­nity for two years be­comes re­al­ity.

Char­lotte-Meck­len­burg Schools, a na­tional sym­bol of suc­cess­ful de­seg­re­ga­tion in the 1970s, has since be­come an icon of re­seg­re­ga­tion. Some 20 years af­ter a white par­ent’s law­suit top­pled the district’s race-based de­seg­re­ga­tion plan, a com­bi­na­tion of neigh­bor­hood schools and fam­ily choice has cre­ated a pat­tern that’s fa­mil­iar across Amer­ica, with white and af­flu­ent fam­i­lies aban­don­ing a broad swath of schools in the city while flock­ing to the sub­urbs.

When the school board started re­view­ing its as­sign­ment plan in 2015, mem­bers agreed they wanted to change that. Packing the most dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents into set­tings where they see few class­mates from dif­fer­ent back­grounds makes it tough to hire and keep top teach­ers, set high stan­dards and build the net­works that lead to adult suc-

FOR THE PAST YEAR, FAC­ULTY AND FAM­I­LIES FROM THE SIX CHO­SEN SITES HAVE WORKED TO CRE­ATE THREE NEW SCHOOLS WITH DIS­TINCT, UNI­FIED IDEN­TI­TIES.

cess, CMS lead­ers agreed.

But solutions proved elu­sive. Meck­len­burg County is big­ger and more com­plex than it was dur­ing the decades of cour­tordered bus­ing, when white stu­dents were a ma­jor­ity and the north­ern and south­ern tips of the county were sparsely pop­u­lated. To­day, sub­ur­ban schools are packed, poverty lev­els are higher and white stu­dents ac­count for only 28 per­cent of en­roll­ment. Black and white stu­dents have been joined by a boom­ing in­ter­na­tional pop­u­la­tion.

In most cases, bus­ing stu­dents to bal­ance de­mo­graph­ics would have re­quired mas­sive up­heaval and long bus rides, some­thing that got a firm thumbs-down from fam­i­lies across the district. So the board mostly made small changes by shift­ing bound­aries and adding mag­net pro­grams, with a com­pli­cated new “so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus” fac­tor used to weight ad­mis­sion.

But school lead­ers found three high-poverty re­seg­re­gated ele­men­tary schools — Billingsville, Sedge­field and Nathaniel Alexan­der — that could be paired with nearby neigh­bor­hood or mag­net schools with dif­fer­ent de­mo­graph­ics and aca­demic strengths.

De­spite some im­pas­sioned protests by par­ents, the board voted to merge them. If all goes as planned, the three newly united schools that open Mon­day will pro­vide the best of both worlds.

The schools with lower poverty lev­els — Cotswold, Dil­worth and More­head STEM Academy — needed more space. The high-poverty schools had room to spare. The low­poverty schools bring strong par­ent in­volve­ment, while the high­poverty coun­ter­parts bring com­mu­nity part­ners and ex­tra public sup­port.

And ide­ally, all stu­dents will ben­e­fit from class­mates who rep­re­sent the di­ver­sity these chil­dren will live with when they grow up.

“I think it’s good for the kids to see all walks of life, to learn from all walks of life,” said Diane Brooks, whose daugh­ter, Za­niah Ford, was a kinder­gartener at Billingsville last year. Za­niah will re­turn to the same school, where she’ll be joined by K-2 stu­dents from Cotswold Ele­men­tary. When she reaches third grade, she and her class­mates will move to Cotswold.

Of course, suc­cess is not guar­an­teed. The plans brought protests from fam­i­lies who feared the schools they loved would be dis­man­tled, es­pe­cially those in the Dil­worth Ele­men­tary zone. Af­ter the May 2017 vote to merge Dil­worth and Sedge­field, last Au­gust both schools saw their en­roll­ment de­cline — Sedge­field by 51 stu­dents and Dil­worth by 57, more than 10 per­cent of their com­bined en­roll­ment.

Michele Cole, whose two chil­dren will re­turn to Dil­worth Ele­men­tary, says she knows at least 10 fam­i­lies that switched their chil­dren to pri­vate schools af­ter the vote, and she ex­pects more will be gone this year. She smiles rue­fully when she sug­gests, only half jok­ing, that CMS found a quick way to re­lieve crowd­ing at Dil­worth: “They scared peo­ple away.”

For the past year, fac­ulty and fam­i­lies from the six cho­sen sites have worked to cre­ate three new schools with dis­tinct, uni­fied iden­ti­ties. This ex­per­i­ment will af­fect only about 4,000 stu­dents in a district with about 148,000, but among those who are tak­ing part, hopes are high.

“We know we have the op­por­tu­nity to make change and have great impact,” said Ali­cia Hash, prin­ci­pal of Billingsville/ Cotswold, which is now con­sid­ered one school with two cam­puses. “We just know that it can open up the doors to so many kids in our city.”

“I think it’s just the be­gin­ning,” said Jenny Mor­ton, an­other Dil­worth par­ent who de­cided to stay. “I think there are go­ing to be others to fol­low.”

TWO DIF­FER­ENT WORLDS

Of all the pair­ings, the match be­tween Sedge­field and Dil­worth el­e­men­taries in­volved the big­gest dif­fer­ences — and the most re­sis­tance, at least from Dil­worth fam­i­lies.

Dil­worth was a ma­jor­ity white school with low poverty lev­els. Last year it earned an A+, the state’s top grade, based on stu­dent test scores. It was also squeez­ing kids into trail­ers and tem­po­rary class­rooms to deal with crowd­ing.

Sedge­field had about half the en­roll­ment, serv­ing mostly African-Amer­i­can stu­dents from low­in­come homes, with a D rat­ing from the state.

Most of the stu­dents live in public hous­ing or apart­ment com­plexes, with par­ents who work mul­ti­ple jobs and tend not to en­gage with school board pol­i­tics, said Sam Grubbs, a Sedge­field par­ent. When the CMS pro­pos­als came out, the Dil­worth merger got lit­tle re­ac­tion, but “their si­lence should not be in­ter­preted as in­dif­fer­ence,” Grubbs said.

Dil­worth, on the other hand, had a PTA that had more than 30 com­mit­tees and could raise $160,000 in a win­ter do­na­tion drive, re­calls Cole.

Dil­worth had been through a se­ries of in­car­na­tions, in­clud­ing a neigh­bor­hood school with dif­fer­ent bound­aries and an arts mag­net school, be­fore CMS drew the cur­rent lines just a few years ago. When the board be­gan talk­ing about an­other change, Dil­worth was draw­ing stu­dents from some of Char­lotte’s most de­sir­able neigh­bor­hoods, in­clud­ing My­ers Park and Dil­worth.

The prospect of yet an­other shakeup mo­bi­lized Dil­worth par­ents. They drafted al­ter­na­tive pro­pos­als, in­clud­ing a call to turn My­ers Park Tra­di­tional, a mag­net ele­men­tary school, into a neigh­bor­hood school.

“When you come to love a school, if any­thing threat­ens to change it, your hack­les go up,” says Mor­ton, who had two chil­dren at Dil­worth last year and a third about to reach school age. The fam­ily lives so close they could all walk to Dil­worth; send­ing the younger ones to Sedge­field would com­pli­cate life.

The school board moved ahead with merg­ing Dil­worth and Sedge­field. Dil­worth par­ents breathed a lit­tle eas­ier when their prin­ci­pal, Terry Hall, was tapped to lead the merged school.

Grubbs said some Sedge­field and Dil­worth fam­i­lies were jolted by a Septem­ber 2017 Char­lotte Agenda ar­ti­cle re­port­ing that Dil­worth fam­i­lies were dom­i­nat­ing the merger process.

Hall cre­ated a joint PTA — though most par­ents came from Dil­worth — and a merged school lead­er­ship team, which taps fac­ulty and par­ent lead­ers to plan school im­prove­ments. Grubbs, who had sent an email de­tail­ing con­cerns about Sedge­field, was tapped for the sec­ond group. When fam­i­lies came to­gether for issues such as pick­ing a name for the new school, Hall says she made sure Sedge­field and Dil­worth par­ents sat to­gether.

Grubbs said he pushed for a fresh start — new name, new mas­cot and col­ors — that would make both groups feel equally in­cluded. As he took part in the talks, he wor­ried about whether his fifth­grade daugh­ter would be ac­cepted so­cially and could keep up with Dil­worth stu­dents who ap­peared to have got­ten more home­work and field trips.

The larger and more vo­cal Dil­worth group pre­vailed, ar­gu­ing Dil­worth had be­come a de­sir­able “brand” for fam­i­lies. The for­mer Sedge­field, which will house grades K-2, is now known as Dil­worth Ele­men­tary/ Sedge­field cam­pus, while the for­mer Dil­worth, with grades 3-5, is Dil­worth/ Latta cam­pus.

The kids who at­tended Dil­worth and Sedge­field last year have al­ready met for “pop­si­cle play dates,” and vol­un­teers from Free­dom House Church have spruced up the court­yards and built raised gardens for the chil­dren who will at­tend Dil­worth/ Sedge­field. Tu­tor­ing pro­grams that were in place at Sedge­field will ex­pand to both cam­puses, while fam­i­lies from the merged zone have been urged to take part in this sum­mer’s fundraiser.

Fac­ulty from the two schools were also brought to­gether for plan­ning and train­ing, such as ses­sions on cul­tural di­ver­sity.

This spring the Dil­worth Com­mu­nity As­so­ci­a­tion de­cided to adopt the merged school, with pro­ceeds from this fall’s home tour go­ing to the school. As the start of school ap­proached, signs dot­ted the com­bined zone pro­claim­ing sup­port for “the new Dil­worth.”

Grubbs says he be­lieves Hall and the Dil­worth par­ents have made a sin­cere ef­fort to reach the Sedge­field fam­i­lies. He said Hall told him she’ll keep try­ing to re­cruit African-Amer­i­can and Latino par­ents for the lead­er­ship team. Mean­while, fam­i­lies from the Sedge­field neigh­bor­hood — a whiter and more af­flu­ent group that had mostly aban­doned the neigh­bor­hood school — are en­rolling their kids, Grubbs said.

Mor­ton, who is ac­tive in the Dil­worth Com­mu­nity As­so­ci­a­tion, is among those now ap­plaud­ing the change. In­stead of hav­ing to squeeze stu­dents into ev­ery inch of space, Dil­worth/Latta now has room for sci­ence labs.

“It’s go­ing to be awe­some,” she said. “It be­gan to seem less like a threat and more like an ex­pan­sion of our com­mu­nity.”

OVERCOMING ANX­I­ETY

The Billingsville/Cotswold pair­ing sparked less public protest, but there was anx­i­ety on both sides.

Brooks said some of her fel­low Billingsville par­ents weren’t en­thu­si­as­tic about dis­rupt­ing the school that is closely tied to the Grier Heights neigh­bor­hood. Brooks said her daugh­ter has done well at Billingsville, but she looks for­ward to hav­ing her daugh­ter meet white class­mates (Billingsville had only six last year).

Billingsville, which has long strug­gled with high poverty and low test scores, has seen more than its share of change over the years. In 2016, the school board ap­proved a new math/sci­ence mag­net pro­gram for Billingsville, even tak­ing ap­pli­ca­tions for the 2017-18 school year. It then re­versed course as it moved into the sec­ond phase of stu­dent as­sign­ment, de­cid­ing to merge Billingsville with the near­est neigh­bor­hood school, which al­ready hosted an In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate mag­net pro­gram.

Pre­serv­ing that IB pro­gram was im­por­tant to Cotswold fam­i­lies, said par­ents Michelle Abels and Jody Para. So was keep­ing Hash as prin­ci­pal of the new school. CMS lead­ers agreed to both.

Abels and Para said Cotswold par­ents were re­cep­tive be­cause they feared more dis­rup­tive changes. Be­cause the school was over­flow­ing, they thought CMS might split the zone. There was also talk of a less de­sir­able mid­dle and high school as­sign­ment.

“We all un­der­stand that the city’s grow­ing and there has to be ad­just­ments made,” Para said. “This was kind of a win­ning sit­u­a­tion for us.”

Brooks as­sumed that Cotswold would be a mir­ror im­age of Billingsville, with vir­tu­ally all stu­dents white and af­flu­ent. In fact, while it’s ma­jor­ity white, it’s so big that it has al­most as many black stu­dents as Billingsville, with sig­nif­i­cant His­panic en­roll­ment as well. Be­cause Billingsville was un­der­filled, the merger will not only di­ver­sify the stu­dent body, it will en­sure they all have space to learn.

This year it won’t mat­ter where stu­dents live or which build­ing they’re in. They’ll all be part of a pre-IB pro­gram that in­cludes Span­ish classes, char­ac­ter ed­u­ca­tion, hands-on learn­ing and a fo­cus on global cit­i­zen­ship.

“I feel like some­times it’s the par­ents who are more ap­pre­hen­sive than the chil­dren,” said Abels, who will send one child to each build­ing. “The kids can’t wait.”

SHAR­ING HARD TRUTH

When CMS un­veiled plans to merge More­head STEM Academy, a pop­u­lar K-8 mag­net school, with a high-poverty neigh­bor­hood ele­men­tary school, an­gry par­ents threat­ened to pull their kids out of More­head.

It wasn’t about race: Both More­head and Nathaniel Alexan­der Ele­men­tary were ma­jor­ity black, with sig­nif­i­cant His­panic en­roll­ment. And it wasn’t about location: The schools sit side by side, shar­ing a cafe­te­ria, on the Gov­er­nors’ Vil­lage cam­pus in the UNC Char­lotte area.

But the mag­net par­ents, who were less likely to come from low-in­come neigh­bor­hoods and had cho­sen to send their chil­dren to a math-sci­ence school, ar­gued that neigh­bor­hood kids would wa­ter down the level of mo­ti­va­tion and achieve­ment.

The merger was ap­proved over ob­jec­tions from some African-Amer­i­can board mem­bers. “If you want the ire of the black com­mu­nity, peo­ple of color, dis­man­tle More­head,” board mem­ber Ruby Jones said at the time.

Alejandra Gar­cia, prin­ci­pal of Na­tions Ford Ele­men­tary, was tapped to lead the merged school. She stud­ied test re­sults for both schools. And she de­cided to con­front the More­head par­ents with a dif­fi­cult truth: There wasn’t as much dif­fer­ence as they wanted to be­lieve.

“This school was re­ally not do­ing how the par­ents thought they were do­ing,” Gar­cia said re­cently. “It’s not ‘their kids.’ It’s not ‘my kids.’ It’s kids were not do­ing well.”

She started talk­ing to fam­i­lies from both schools about how she had brought up scores at Na­tions Ford. She told them not to think about “haves” and “have-nots” but “will haves” — that is, all stu­dents an ex­cel­lent ed­u­ca­tion at the merged Gov­er­nors’ Vil­lage STEM Academy.

A driv­ing fac­tor in the merger was to al­low more stu­dents to take part in the pop­u­lar sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, en­gi­neer­ing and math pro­grams that tra­di­tion­ally left hun­dreds on the wait­ing list. Af­ter the 2017 merger vote, both schools saw a small en­roll­ment dip last school year. CMS pro­jected the com­bined to­tal — 1,700 stu­dents —would stay about the same in 2018-19.

But ap­par­ently Gar­cia’s mes­sage took hold. As the start of the year ap­proached, en­roll­ment stood at 2,100. That means Gar­cia is hir­ing ex­tra teach­ers, sched­ul­ing 36 buses to move through the shared lot and craft­ing a lunch plan that moves 600 stu­dents per hour through the cafe­te­ria.

She beams as she re­lates those de­tails. It’s a chal­lenge, but a wel­come one.

ANN DOSS HELMS [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Prin­ci­pal Alejandra Gar­cia shows off the mas­cot for the new Gov­er­nors’ Vil­lage STEM Academy, a “ro­botic cougar, like a Trans­former.” The school was cre­ated by merg­ing Nathaniel Alexan­der Ele­men­tary and More­head STEM Academy.

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