Charlotte District, Still in Limbo, Presses Ahead With Choice Plan

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The Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., school district is moving forward with yet another student-assignment plan, despite being left in legal limbo waiting for a ruling in its 30-year-old desegregation case.

At a Glance:
Charlotte-Mecklenburg,  N.C., Schools

Enrollment: 108,000 projected for 2001-02 in pre-K- 12.
Superintendent: Eric J. Smith
Racial makeup: 47 percent white, 42 percent African-American, 6 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian-American, 1 percent American-Indian or multiracial

Number of Schools: 141
Number of magnet schools: 45

Although the school choice plan, which will go into effect next fall, will not assign students based on their race, district leaders say it can be adjusted if a federal appeals court finds that the 108,000-student district is not yet desegregated. The school board approved the plan on an 8-1 vote on July 31.

Days following the board's action, a University of North Carolina at Charlotte professor released research concluding that the district remains racially segregated and also segregates students through high school academic tracks.

Superintendent Eric J. Smith said the debate surrounding the case and the uncertainty about which student-assignment plan will been enacted has been a distraction.

"[It's] been a very emotional journey for parents and leaders in the community on all sides of the issue, because it reaches back to the history and a lot personal experiences that people have had here in Charlotte," Mr. Smith said in an interview late last month.

Eric J. Smith

A school choice plan that was supposed to take effect this fall was scrapped last December, after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., overturned a lower-court ruling that would have ended mandatory busing. ("In Wake of Ruling, Charlotte Votes to Drop Choice Plan," Dec. 13, 2000.)

It was a landmark 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg case that cleared the way nationally for large-scale student reassignment and busing as a remedy for racially segregated schools.

Student Options

This year could be the district's last under its raced-based student-assignment plan, in use for decades. The plan for next year divides the district's 141 schools into four geographic choice zones, allowing students to attend any of the schools in their assigned zone, with transportation provided.

Eric J. Becoats, the district's chief officer for demographics and planning, said the plan includes "student-assignment priorities"—not racial goals—to try to ensure that schools don't have a concentration of low-income students or students who perform below grade level.

That information on students' family income and academic performance also will help maintain and increase the diversity of Charlotte's schools, Mr. Becoats said. The choice zones themselves were drawn to mirror closely the district's racial makeup, which is 47 percent white, 42 percent African-American, 6 percent Hispanic, 4 percent Asian-American, and 1 percent American Indian or multiracial. Some of the school system's 45 magnet schools will increase their enrollments as well.

No matter how the federal appeals court rules, Mr. Smith believes the district won't have time to shift gears again. A school showcase to inform parents of their options is scheduled for Dec. 1, and students must start registering for high school courses in February.

That's why the district is moving forward with two plans simultaneously, the superintendent said. If the court finds that the district is still segregated, the economic and academic priorities will be replaced by racial and ethnic priorities for student assignment.

Still, it is possible that any of the parties involved in the case—the black parents who support the district's desegregation efforts, or the white parents who challenged the use of busing and magnet programs—could use the courts to halt either plan.

Mr. Smith said: "One of the big challenges for communities like Charlotte is to keep people together and maintain the confidence of the public."

Two Forms of Segregation

Highlighting the district's gains in minority student achievement could prove more difficult in the wake of the new UNCC research. The study is critical of the segregation that it says harms Charlotte-Mecklenburg's students.

"Under the Smith administration, the school system has turned its attention to [racial] inequities," acknowledged Roslyn Arlin Mickelson, a professor of sociology at the university and the study's author. "However, the deep structure of segregation remains. So as long as second-generation segregation in the form of ability grouping and tracking exists, it will be nearly impossible to reduce the race gap in course placement, achievement, and test scores."

Her findings in "Subverting Swann: First- and Second-Generation Segregation in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools" were published in the Summer 2001 issue of the American Educational Research Journal. The study's title refers to the Supreme Court's ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the desegregation suit.

Ms. Mickelson found that high school students who had attended segregated elementary schools earned lower grades and test scores than their classmates who had attended integrated elementary schools.

And although some Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are desegregated, they often are resegregated by academic track, she found, so that black students are enrolled in the lowest academic tracks while the more challenging courses are effectively reserved for white students.

"The absence of a direct approach to dealing with unconscious and conscious racist practices and attitudes in the classrooms, corridors, and administration offices contributes to what I'm finding," she said in a recent interview.

District officials dispute Ms. Mickelson's conclusions, arguing they don't fairly portray Charlotte-Mecklenburg's present or future.

Research Disputed

Susan A. Agruso, the assistant superintendent for instructional accountability, said the study focused on students who graduated almost five years ago. The district has shown that schools don't have to be desegregated for students to achieve academically, she said.

The district is ensuring that all schools are equitably financed and have the courses, textbooks, supplies, and other materials needed to be able to teach their students. By the end of this school year, she said, all 16 high schools will offer the core Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate classes to students.

The proportion of African-American graduating students taking at least one AP or IB course increased from 14 percent in 1996 to 24.4 percent in 2001.

Superintendent Smith stressed that he is not an advocate of segregated schools. But he said claiming that desegregating schools is the only way to achieve educational success would "write off major urban cities."

Vol. 21, Issue 1, Page 10

Published in Print: September 5, 2001, as Charlotte District, Still in Limbo, Presses Ahead With Choice Plan
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