It was a long and often contentious night for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board members Wednesday as they voted to approve a student assignment plan that takes effect in 2018. There was agreement on parts of the plan but also close votes along racial lines, including a failed motion to delay a decision on the plan for a couple of weeks.
“The community didn’t get to have all of their voices heard and I’m not pleased with that,” said board member Thelma Byers-Bailey.
Parents and board members spoke passionately about the things they liked and disliked in the student assignment plan. Board members at times sniped at each other and had to be reeled in by board chair Mary McCray. The meeting went until about 1 a.m. Some board members said the plan was a great start while others said it was not bold and did not go far enough in breaking up concentrations of poverty - a major goal that was supposed to guide the student assignment plan.
Board member Ericka Ellis-Stuart said for her, "the plan was an opportunity on how to make schools more viable academically for everyone and much more diverse racially and economically, and from that standpoint our plan has not made the mark."
But Elyse Dashew disagreed and said, “I believe we have the power in this room and community to work together to implement this plan well and make it work for the benefit of all of our children.”
The African-American board members said they didn’t like the process and felt the African-American community is bearing the brunt of the changes. They said much more time was spent on the first phase of this process for magnet schools, last November.
“We have unnecessarily pushed phase two in four months and spent four times that amount of time on phase one, although phase two affects many more students,” said Chair Mary McCray. “Doing nothing is always better than doing the wrong thing.”
The vote broke down along racial lines on several motions. Reid Park Academy was one example. Board members voted five to four to change Reid Park from a pre-K thru eight school to a pre-K thru five school, with African-American members against the motion. It’s one of the high poverty, predominantly African American West Charlotte schools that were turned into pre-K through eighth grade seven years ago to save money, against most parents’ wishes. Many say they like them now and don’t want them changed.
With Wednesday's approval, Reid Park’s middle school students now will go to Wilson, a school that was closed in 2010 and is getting a $5.4 million makeover. Westerly Hills’ students also will go to Wilson. Parents and some board members object to this because both of those schools are failing and what’s left at both schools’ elementary levels will still be 99 percent low-income students.
Some board members were also concerned that Reid Park and Westerly, along with Bruns Academy, another pre-K through fifth grade school under the plan, are not offering the same courses as other schools.
A public hearing was held on all eight pre-K through eighth grade schools before the student assignment hearings. But, as board member Ericka Ellis-Stuart pointed out, that process was shortened to speed up consideration of the student assignment plan, something other African-American board members were against.
Superintendent Ann Clark admitted that the K-8 schools do not have the same course electives as larger middle schools.
“You have fewer numbers of students (in pre-K thru eight) and student demand drives electives,” Clark said. “Do K-8 have the same electives as a large middle school with 1,400 students? No. They have access to being in honor classes but not the same electives and that is one of the challenges of our K-8 schools, sheer small numbers of students.”
The idea of turning some full magnet schools into partial magnets sparked feisty exchanges. When it came to changing University Park Creative Arts from a full magnet to a partial, the vote was 5-4, again along racial lines. The school will be predominately low income — no break of poverty concentrations there — and African-American board members feared the program would be watered down. Board member Ruby Jones and others pointed out also that since the arts theme would be school wide, it would force students into a magnet program they did not choose.
“What happens when you get a student who’s not interested in the magnet program?" Jones asked. "Creative arts is a specialized skill for students who crave it and are passionate about it. What about students not willing to delve into it that far, can they exit? It’s not educationally sound to me to bring in students when the arts don’t rev them up, if you don’t dance, sing or act.”
Some University Park parents also questioned the rationale for making the school a partial magnet, saying they felt the plan was being force on them.
This was also the case for Morehead STEM. Morehead parents came out in force again last night opposing the change. Initially, the recommendation was to break Morehead’s full magnet up between three schools. Last night the board approved spreading the magnet only between Morehead and Nathaniel Alexander. Board members McCray and Byers-Bailey had differing opinions on Morehead.
“I have no interest in breaking up this full magnet than the others,” Byers-Bailey said. “It violates our goal of preserving what’s working. If that’s our goal and we violate it, we may as well scratch that goal out because we’re not doing what we said we’d do.”
“I’d charge staff with making sure that that STEM program is carried out with fidelity,” McCray said. “I don’t see us watering down Morehead, and shame on us if we allow it to be watered down as a board.”
Those opposing the plan said CMS has a poor track record with partial magnets. They pointed to Harding, a once successful full magnet that is now struggling as a partial magnet. They said creating partial magnets in high poverty areas will not attract a diverse student body and that they are doomed to fail.
Board members were more in tune when it came to pairing Dilworth and Sedgefield elementary schools. Parents were still split, with some opposing it and some excited about the two schools coming together as K-2 and 3-5. Some told the board the pairing would create more diverse schools, and pledged to help make it successful.
A last-minute change that has some parents upset over the change is that they found out two days ago that some students in the Eastover community who go to Alexander Graham Middle now, a B school, would be reassigned to Sedgefield Middle, a struggling school. Dilworth and Sedgefield elementary students will go there as well, as initially recommended.
There were some unanimous votes, including the pairing of Cotswold and Billingsville as K-2 and 3-5. This will relieve overcrowding at Billingsville and take advantage of under-used space at Cotswold, and both schools will be more economically diverse.
Board members also were unanimous on having some students assigned to Hough High School in Cornelius to go to Hopewell in Huntersville, to make both more diverse. And they were unanimous on reopening Villa Heights as a K-5 school. It’s in an area going through gentrification and is expected to be economically diverse as a result.