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CMS reviewing “Guiding Principles” for student assignment

As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools march toward a 2016 full of discussion about the types of campuses students attend and the boundaries that define where they are assigned, one word may be at the center of the debate: proximity.

The district’s current student assignment policy says, “every student will be guaranteed an opportunity to attend a home school within proximity to where he/she lives.”

But, as members of the local school board recently noted, the district has never clearly defined what “proximity” means, and that has led to plenty of confusion and contention among the community. Does it mean an elementary school within walking distance from home? Does it mean students must attend the closest campus to their house, or does it mean they could be bussed past the closest campus to a different school down the street?

CMS is simultaneously considering changes to its magnet schools and a broader overhaul to the district’s student assignment plan. School board members are meeting monthly to review “guiding principles” for the assignment plan. This month, they received a draft of three possible options from district staff.

All use the word or notion of proximity to a student’s home, and board members say they need to make sure to define the concept concretely to avoid confusion and controversy.

The first option would use the existing model of home schools and magnet schools, though organized differently. It would focus on creating new magnet schools that would be used in conjunction with current offerings to address student diversity and “high concentrations of low performing students.”

The second option, which will sound familiar to longtime Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents, would create “choice zones.” These zones would cluster schools of varying themes and allow parents to pick the campus that was the best fit for their child. CMS tried this idea in 2002, but scrapped it when some schools were significantly overcrowded while others had empty classrooms.

I was a student at South Mecklenburg High School during this era; our student population surged as parents chose South Meck over campuses they viewed as less desirable. It was among the most overcrowded high schools in the district, while other schools just a few miles down the road had underutilized classrooms. The school board recognized the failed choice plan. “Everybody’s going to remember that,” board member Eric Davis said in The Charlotte Observer. “Everybody’s going to throw that in our face.”

The third option—and by far the one with the most potential for controversy—would directly address diversity and inequality. The staff’s proposal would “provide diversity that aligns with the diversity of the school system as a whole” by using student assignment boundaries “including by not limited to race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status and neighborhood viability.”

School board members haven’t had a chance to discuss this third option at length, but likely will at their next policy committee meeting on November 12. A vote on these principles isn’t going to happen until after a new school board is elected, and probably won’t come until the spring. As we’ve previously reported, the board wants to implement student assignment changes in the 2017-18 school year, meaning a decision would have to be made on a final plan around this time next year.

Whatever the board decides—one of the options CMS staff laid out this month or something else entirely—expect a clear definition of what it means by “proximity” and how that word will affect the families of CMS’ 148,000 students.

Adam Rhew

Adam Rhew attended Beverly Woods Elementary, Carmel Middle, and South Mecklenburg High schools, all part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. He earned a journalism and political science degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. He is a contributor to Southern Living, Charlotte magazine, and SBNation Longform, among other publications. Previously, Adam was an award-winning television and radio news reporter, with stops at stations in Chapel Hill, N.C., Charlottesville and Richmond, Va., and Charlotte, N.C.