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Published in Print: January 30, 2002, as Charlotte Families Rush To Pick Their Schools For First Time

Charlotte Families Rush To Pick Their Schools For First Time

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As three decades of court-ordered desegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools wind down, a new era of choice has begun with a bang. Nearly every family in the district is clamoring for a chance they have never had before: the chance to select which schools their children attend.

Under court supervision, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has for years used a network of magnet schools and busing to create a fairer racial distribution in its schools.

When a federal court barred use of those methods in 1999, the district designed a plan with a similar goal, but one that might be achieved through letting parents select—with some limitations—their children's schools.

The Family Choice Plan required families to sign up by Jan. 18 for the 2002-03 school year.

By the middle of the following week, the response had been stunning: 96.5 percent of the district's 106,000 students had completed applications.

"The response rate is a testament to parents and their concern for their children's future," district spokesman Damon Ford said. "And it's a testament to all the people who helped the district get the word out."

The totals reflected only applications that had been taken over the phone or the Internet.

Applications received in person at schools were still being processed as of last week, Mr. Ford said. In addition, families new to the district have until Jan. 31 to apply.

Massive Campaign

The district went to extraordinary lengths to notify all its families of the deadline and help them with applications. Hundreds of posters were hung around the city and in its buses. Notices were tucked into utility bills. The local news media carried ads and public-service announcements, and pastors announced the application deadline from Sunday pulpits.

Scores of district volunteers and staff members also knocked on the doors of families who had not applied.

In recent weeks, a telephone hotline took 21,000 calls from residents asking about the plan. The district held dozens of school tours and open houses so families could visit. A few principals even promised ice cream or pizza parties as rewards to students who completed applications.

Stopping to catch their breath after an incredibly busy few weeks, district officials expressed satisfaction with their efforts.

"This first phase, public awareness and participation, has been extremely successful," said school board Chairman Arthur Griffin. "To get over 100,000 people doing anything on time is amazing. It bodes well for parents and for the community."

The program divides the district into four zones. Families may rank in order of preference three schools within their zones that they would like their children to attend.

Once all the applications are in, a computerized lottery next month will determine placements. Race will no longer be a factor in placing any student. Students who do not apply will be assigned to their "home" or neighborhood schools. Families will find out the results in March.

Looking for Stability

The plan is the result of years of legal wrangling over how best to promote equal opportunity for minority students and those from poor families. The school district began work on a new student-assignment plan after a federal district judge ruled in 1999 that Charlotte-Mecklenburg had ended the vestiges of segregation and could no longer use race in assigning students to schools. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld that ruling Sept. 21. ("Charlotte Schools Desegregated, Court Rules," Oct. 3, 2001.)

Racial inequities had sparked a 1965 lawsuit and a landmark 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the case known as Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, which allowed the use of such methods as busing and magnet schools to desegregate Charlotte's schools.

Mr. Ford, the district spokesman, said that as the era of desegregation shifts into the era of choice, the single most consistent message the district has heard from parents is that they want to leave behind what they experienced as a time of uncertainty in the schools.

"Parents want to move on and think things will be stable, and know where their kids will attend school," Mr. Ford said. "They want stability more than anything else. This new choice plan will give parents the right to decide their children's education future. We look forward to that."

Even as the new choice plan geared up, however, the legal battle continued.

A group of black families who were among the original plaintiffs in the desegregation case filed an appeal on Jan. 22 of the September appeals court ruling. Those plaintiffs hope that the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the appellate court's finding that the district is "unitary," meaning it has eradicated traces of segregation.

Their lawyer, James E. Ferguson II, expressed doubt that the choice plan will create opportunity that is truly equal. He noted provisions in the plan that give preference in school assignment to students who wish to return to the schools they currently attend, to those children's siblings, and to families who make their neighborhood or "home" schools their top choice.

"I'm very concerned about this plan," Mr. Ferguson said. "I believe it will exacerbate the problem. It's likely to result in greater racial segregation. It's really a neighborhood-school plan, not a true choice plan."

Mr. Griffin, the board chairman, also expressed concern. He said he worries that some schools in the district still are not as ready as others to provide high-quality education.

"Are the teachers prepared? Are the schools prepared?" he said. "We want to make sure the playing field is level, that all the choices are meaningful choices. And I'm not sure we're there yet."

Some of that worry could be alleviated, Mr. Griffin said, when the district examines the results of the lottery to see which schools were most in demand and which lack the resources to respond to the number of students wanting to attend.

The district secured $40 million in extra funding from Mecklenburg County to help equalize disparities in such areas as staffing and instructional materials, he said.

Vol. 21, Issue 20, Page 9

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