Poverty, flight hit urban schools with one-two punch

Charlotte Observer, 20 August 2006

By Peter Smolowitz and Ann Doss Helms

Middle-class families have long shunned Shamrock Gardens Elementary, wary of the school’s low test scores and high poverty.

Now, a growing number of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools face the same struggle.

From University City in the north to Quail Hollow in the south, parents are abandoning more and more schools with poverty rates they consider unacceptable.

The trend is not everywhere: Most of the county’s schools are not seeing flight. But in the past three years, about 1 in 5 schools has seen at least a 10 percentage-point increase in poverty rates.

Enrollment of gifted students has plummeted in several high schools. At the same time as this so-called “bright flight,” these schools have seen a surge in low-income students, who tend to be lower performers.

Most of the departing families wind up in the district’s suburban schools. A smaller but growing number are leaving CMS or avoiding it entirely.

“I didn’t want to take a chance on my kids,” said Carol Van Buren of Charlotte, who chose a private kindergarten for her daughter, partly because the CMS gifted program she considered was too far away and its poverty rate too high.

Experts say no public school system has successfully lured back middle-class parents once they started to flee. The rising student poverty rates that follow can depress property values and dampen efforts to attract families and businesses.

“I just don’t see how a school district remains healthy if it is not important to the middle class,” said John Chesser of UNC Charlotte’s Urban Institute. “How do you ever pass a bond? How do you keep support?”

New Superintendent Peter Gorman agreed, calling the shift in enrollment “a big concern.” Changes he’s considering to keep middle-class families include shifting power from the central office, building schools to relieve congestion and raising student performance districtwide.

“All I want to be is an option that people consider viable,” Gorman said. “It’s basic – improve the quality of our schools. I can’t give you the magic bullet.”


The loss of white, middle-class Mecklenburg families has accelerated since 2002. That’s when court-ordered busing gave way to an assignment plan based on neighborhood schools.

There’s no way to track the income levels of families who leave. But the number of white school-age kids in Mecklenburg has increased by about 4,600 since 2002, according to census estimates. CMS’s white enrollment, meanwhile, has dropped by more than 900.

Whites now make up less than 38 percent of the enrollment, down from more than 43 percent in 2002. More than 55 percent of the students are black or Latino, up from 50 percent.

One number hasn’t changed – CMS still serves more than 80 percent of the county’s children. But statistics show an increasing percentage from low-income families.

Some changes are fueled by birth rates: Black and Latino mothers are having more babies. But it’s clear the pursuit of more desirable schools is also transforming CMS. Consider:

In 2001-02, the last year of court-ordered busing, 1 in 7 schools had student-poverty rates of at least 75 percent. Today, that’s true at nearly 1 in 3.

Seven of the district’s 17 high schools last year had white enrollments of less than 25 percent, up from three in 2002.

Independence, Vance and Harding highs have lost almost half of their gifted students – nearly 500 combined. Their numbers of low-income students, meanwhile, have risen. That’s boosted the schools’ poverty rates to almost 50 percent, up from a third.

Even parents who speak proudly of integrating CMS a generation ago are refusing to send their children into high-poverty classrooms.

Scott Franklin, for one, sends his daughter to highly integrated Lansdowne Elementary instead of Shamrock Gardens, his neighborhood school. Why? Because Shamrock, with a 93 percent poverty rate and more than 80 percent of its students black or Latino, lacks racial and economic diversity, he said.

Several families interviewed by the Observer said they left CMS not because of race or class, but based on what they see or hear about school performance.

Lawana McAllister, who is black, said she pulled her daughter out of a middle school that had a poverty rate higher than 60 percent. She said the girl told her too many stories of fights, trash-can fires and students disrespecting teachers.

McAllister enrolled her daughter in a charter. She has since sent her back to CMS for high school. But she said she wouldn’t have kept her there if conditions had been similar to before.

“It’s just parents wanting the best for their children,” she said.


The biggest changes in demographics have occurred in schools between the center city and Interstate 485.

As more affluent families leave for suburban schools, their seats often get filled by lower-income families living closer to uptown. When a school’s poverty rate reaches 40 percent or 50 percent, analysts warn, masses of parents start looking for alternatives.

Take two middle schools, McClintock (at Rama and Monroe roads) and Quail Hollow. In 2002, both had near 50-50 balances of whites and minorities, and fewer than half of their students were low-income.

Today, McClintock’s poverty rate approaches 70 percent; Quail Hollow’s, near 60 percent.

To be sure, poverty rates and related concerns about quality education drive only part of the exodus. Some parents prefer a religious curriculum. Others want a smaller school system. Or they’ve grown frustrated with CMS for everything from crowded classrooms to a controversial school board.

“Empowered families will not subject their children to institutions that they do not feel safe and secure with,” said Lindalyn Kakadelis, a former school board member who now leads the N.C. Education Alliance, a conservative reform group.

Yet several parents interviewed said the higher-poverty schools work for their children. They speak of orderly classrooms and teachers who can challenge the brightest students while helping the less prepared.

At Shamrock Gardens, parent Wanda Lockhart said the staff has found ways to help her pay utility bills, get clothes for her son, Gregory, and push him to succeed. The rising third-grader recently qualified for Shamrock’s new program for gifted students. “I’ve never seen teachers put as much time into a child,” she said.

Still, experts say high-poverty schools face an array of challenges – from less-experienced teachers and reduced parental involvement to higher suspension rates and lower test scores.

East Mecklenburg High and its feeder schools saw poverty rates increase after busing ended. About 100 residents met in 2003. If they all enrolled their children, they hoped they could restore the schools’ images and unite their neighborhoods.

But over time, the task has proved to be daunting. Even some group leaders have enrolled their children elsewhere. Some families won’t even tour the schools.

“It is such an emotionally charged endeavor, we are burning people out left and right,” said Pam Smith, who now heads the parents’ group.

“Now when you bump into people, they start to avoid you. It becomes divisive.”


Some CMS critics and supporters alike say if the schools gave all students a better education, integration would occur naturally. Their suggestions: Put a second teacher in classrooms to deal with discipline distractions, give principals more power to hire and fire, and tie teachers’ salaries to performance. Others say integration won’t occur without a significant push. Options include:


The courts have prohibited the busing plan Charlotte used for racial balance. But more recent federal rulings have allowed race to be considered in assignment decisions. The U.S. Supreme Court could clarify the issue after it hears cases this fall on the school practices in Seattle and Louisville, Ky. Still, any return to busing in Charlotte seems next to impossible. Parents generally want their kids in the closest schools. With the county’s sprawl and the school system’s increase in low-income students, busing would be as difficult logistically as it would be politically.

Magnet schools

The programs create schools-within-a-school, such as the one CMS will launch this week for gifted students at Shamrock Gardens. School leaders hope the academic success of such programs will persuade middle-class parents to send their children to high-poverty schools. They appear to be working at several schools, including Idlewild, Tuckaseegee and Huntingtowne Farms elementaries. The three programs have attracted more affluent students who have done significantly better on state exams than students in the rest of the schools. This year, CMS will have magnets covering 14 curriculums spread among 49 schools – elementary, middle and high.

Housing Patterns

Charlotte has a geographic advantage over other cities, said Matt Lassiter, a University of Michigan professor who wrote a book about suburban politics in the South. Because CMS is a countywide district, middle-class departures will be limited. But that alone won’t lead to integration. “The best thing Charlotte can do,” Lassiter said, “is start tackling the school problem as a housing problem, not just as a test-score problem.”

Here’s what some communities have tried:

Montgomery County, Md., requires projects with more than 20 homes to set aside 12.5 percent of the units for people who earn about two-thirds of Washington’s median income. The policy, which started in the early 1970s, has helped create 12,000 homes for families who otherwise could not have afforded them.

In the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, a nonprofit group makes low-interest loans of up to $12,000 for down payments. The loans are designed to boost the racial balance in neighborhoods where there isn’t enough of a mix. In 20 years, the program has made more than 400 loans, totaling nearly $2.5 million.