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CMS hopes to avoid student assignment turmoil

School board’s summer project: Start talking, listening about new school boundaries.

By Ann Doss Helms

[email protected]

Posted: Monday, Jun. 21, 2010

Few topics in public education evoke as much angst as student assignment.

In Raleigh, sudden, drastic changes have led to community turmoil, with protests and arrests at school board meetings.

That’s what the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education hopes to avoid with a review that starts Monday. The board is asking citizens to weigh in on broad guidelines before it proposes any changes in where kids go to school in 2011-12.

Stakes are high. School boundaries can shape property values, community identity and support for public education.

Today’s CMS student assignment system has its roots in the 2002 “choice plan,” which emerged as an alternative to court-ordered desegregation. Students were assigned to neighborhood schools, with magnets and some other options for those who didn’t like their assignments.

But schools in affluent suburban neighborhoods quickly overflowed into encampments of mobile classrooms. Meanwhile, families fled schools in low-income areas, leaving many schools with rising poverty levels and plunging test scores.

The guidelines that have evolved since then embrace a range of values: Stability, diversity, schools close to home, logical planning.

Trouble is, those values often prove tough to juggle.

Neighborhood schools may lack diversity and encourage concentrations of poverty.

Successful, popular schools tend to attract families with children – leading to enrollment growth that forces boundary changes and undermines stability.

Struggling schools may end up partially empty, leading to complaints about poor planning and wasted money.

In recent years, boundary changes have been forced by the opening of new schools. In 2011-12, for the first time in memory, changes will likely be driven by school closings.

Soon after five new board members were sworn in last December, the board vowed to review student assignment. Members say they want to clarify and simplify the guidelines they’ll use as they move into a new era.

But they also discovered that a serious look at drawing new boundaries raises big questions about all aspects of education. And feelings run high, even when the board shifts boundaries for only a handful of schools.

Monday, it begins.


In 2010-11, CMS will have 138 schools serving neighborhood zones (CMS calls them home schools).

All students have a guaranteed seat in one of those schools. Last year, about 87 percent of the district’s 133,700 students attended a neighborhood school, with the rest in magnets.

Current guidelines

CMS will provide schools close to home and strive for stability.

Zones should be “logical, compact and contiguous.”

Diversity should be “fostered but not forced,” and CMS will “focus on strengthening schools in naturally diverse areas.”

Key questions

How does student assignment affect students’ chances at academic success?

Should boundaries be drawn to balance poverty levels or otherwise promote diversity?

Can CMS simplify its student assignment policy without alienating large parts of the community?

Academic issues

Test scores, graduation rates and other measures of success tend to be highest in the suburbs and lowest in a band of high-poverty, mostly-minority schools running east-west across Mecklenburg County.

Some say breaking up the concentrations of poverty and failure would give center-city kids a better shot at learning. Others say forcing diversity risks driving families out of public schools, leading to more failing schools and less public support.

Budget issues

CMS spends millions to provide extra teachers and otherwise bolster academic quality at high-poverty schools.

Zones that are more focused on keeping kids close to home could save busing costs.

Reducing frustration with student assignment could build community support to pay for public education.

Dive in

Find student assignment policies, boundary maps and a chart listing how many students in each zone attend their neighborhood school at (click “Comprehensive review,” then “Documents.”)

Public forums

Participants will be expected to discuss and report on big goals of student assignment.

Today: 6:30-8 p.m., Harding High, 2001 Alleghany St.

Tuesday: 6-8 p.m., Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.

Thursday: 6:30-8 p.m., South Meck High, 8900 Park Road.

June 28: 6:30-8 p.m., Hopewell High, 11530 Beatties Ford Road, Huntersville.

Board sessions

Anyone can attend, but only board members and staff will talk.

Tuesday: 1-4 p.m., Government Center. Topic: Student assignment/boundaries.

Tuesday: 4:30-6 p.m., Government Center. Magnets and prekindergarten.

Tuesday: 8 p.m., Government Center. Regular meeting starts with public hearing and discussion of a new policy on educational equity.

June 28: Noon-3 p.m., Government Center. Topic: Use of buildings, transportation.

June 29: 1-5 p.m., Education Center, 701 E. Martin Luther King Blvd. Topic: Summary of comments from public forums, discussion and vote on guiding principles.

Contact officials

Send questions and comments to [email protected]

Get contact information for board members:

This week The Observer will provide daily features on the big issues CMS is studying, with tips for getting involved. Coming Tuesday: Magnets.

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