Commonwealth Morningside eyes Shamrock Gardens-type ‘turn-around’

Neighborhood wrestles with school dilemma

Michelle Estrada Abels is an unlikely community organizer. However, she has two small children and does not want to move from the neighborhood she loves, Commonwealth Morningside. So in her neighborhood off Central Avenue, she is urging neighbors to fight the trend seen in many other Charlotte neighborhoods near uptown: couples move into a small bungalow in an older neighborhood, have children and once children are school age they move to another area. Why? Most couples cite two main reasons: their house is too small, and their neighborhood schools are poor.

Although adding on to a house can solve the size problem, the problem of a low-performing neighborhood school is tougher to solve.  But Abels is working on it. She’s trying to do for Commonwealth Morningside what the Plaza Midwood neighborhood, just across Central Avenue, did six years ago: work with neighborhood parents and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools until the parents begin to send their children to the neighborhood public school.

It’s a problem in many revitalizing Charlotte neighborhoods as well as in other cities: although many CMS schools are excellent, a neighborhood that lacks good public school options – or even is just perceived as lacking them – can have trouble attracting the more educated, middle-income families who can bring stability and rising incomes to once-downtrodden areas. Similarly, a perceived lack of strong public school options in some more affluent areas (Fourth Ward in uptown Charlotte is an example) has pushed some families who want an urban lifestyle to abandon the public schools in favor of private ones.

A small change in federal law brings added urgency for parents like Abels. Starting in fall 2013, families in Charlotte-Mecklenburg neighborhoods assigned to low-performing schools are losing an opt-out provision many had relied on to allow them to send their children to other schools in CMS. For Abels and her neighbors, the immediate concern is where to send their children next fall. But it’s part of the larger question – how will this change in federal policy affect revitalizing neighborhoods that are now assigned to low-performing neighborhood schools?

Staying in CMS but not in the neighborhood school

Commonwealth Morningside is a small neighborhood lodged between Independence Boulevard and Central Avenue. Most of its houses are small, 1940s and ’50s vintage, and in recent years it has drawn increasing numbers of residents who like being able to walk or bike easily to the reviving Plaza-Central business district. Home values there rose 16.9 percent between 2002 and 2010, compared with a citywide value increase of 5.1 percent.

Children in Abels’ neighborhood are zoned for Billingsville Elementary on Randolph Road in the historically black Grier Heights neighborhood. In 2010, only 19 percent of Billingsville’s third graders were proficient readers, and though this number has improved to 33 percent in 2012, those scores – plus the opt-out ability – explain why no children living in Commonwealth Morningside attend Billingsville.

The question of Billingsville’s low performance has been the subject of multiple neighborhood meetings in Commonwealth Morningside, and for years school officials have offered residents the same advice – send your kids there, then it will become a better school. In theory, that advice is correct: With more educated and higher-income parents, schools will likely show higher test scores and win more resources.

But as Abels’ recently wrote to CMS leaders, “Although, that might be true, the parents in our neighborhood are not willing to gamble with our most prized possession, our children, and their education.”

So what would it take for neighbors to send their children to the neighborhood school? 

Today, Commonwealth Morningside children attend schools all over the district through a couple of school assignment mechanisms. First, CMS’ system of magnet schools with specialized programs, such as performing arts, Montessori or language immersion, lets parents enter a lottery for admission – although the odds of admission to popular magnet schools are low. Second, a provision in the 2001 federal No Child Left Behind law let families assigned to low-performing schools “opt out,” and get students placed in another school, with transportation provided. The provision was designed to serve poor families in high-poverty areas, not upper middle-class families. But Commonwealth Morningside residents relied on that loophole for years to ensure that their children did not attend the low-performing, racially isolated neighborhood school, where 97 percent of students’ families qualify for free/reduced price lunch.

Come fall, that loophole is closing, due to a change in federal policy.

This has meant additional For Sale signs in Abels’ small neighborhood, as well as a stronger wish to help solve Billingsville’s chronic low performance. Although parents will still have the magnet school lottery option, residents in “opt-out” neighborhoods will no longer receive lottery priority.

Adding to neighbors’ sense of urgency, the neighborhood has seen a baby boom since 2008, with more than 100 children now under age 4.

Those parents are comparatively highly educated: 97 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher. As one said at a recent community meeting, “I bought during the bubble, so I can’t move, and I have a rising kindergartener.  This is an emergency.”

So Abels, a preschool teacher with a communications degree who has lived in the neighborhood since 2007, became a community organizer. She has been building support for Billingsville for years by coordinating neighborhood volunteer efforts and encouraging conversations between school leaders and her neighbors. But the end of the “opt out” provision has been the tipping point to get neighbors involved, demanding a quality neighborhood school option.

Abels created a group called Charlotte Neighbors for Education and has united four surrounding neighborhoods that feed into Billingsville: Commonwealth Morningside, Chantilly, Commonwealth Park and Echo Hills.  She has rallied residents, communicated with stakeholders and offered a plan. To create that plan she looked for a model of another neighborhood school that turned around. She and neighbors needed only to look across Central Avenue to the Plaza Midwood neighborhood and Shamrock Gardens Elementary School.

What does it take to turn a school around?

Plaza Midwood’s role in the Shamrock Gardens turn-around has been widely chronicled. Shamrock Gardens was a racially isolated school with a long history of low performance; it holds the distinction for being the first state takeover of a failing school. Even then, test scores remained some of the lowest in the state. But in 2006, as the result of community pressure, CMS placed a partial magnet program at Shamrock, a talent development and learning immersion program.

Pamela Grundy, a Plaza Midwood resident and public schools activist, rallied neighbors to support the new magnet program. Many gave lip service to the idea, but few neighborhood children attended. In 2006, Grundy’s kindergartener was one of the only Plaza Midwood children who enrolled. Now, six years later, Shamrock Gardens is a model of how a school can attract neighborhood families. The turnaround came through years of effort by a committed group of parents, as well as concerted reform efforts by CMS and the community. 

In 2008, Shamrock Gardens had one of the highest per-pupil expenditures in CMS. The school has been staffed with clusters of Teach For America teachers (and the support that comes with them), and today the principal and assistant principal are graduates of the prestigious principal-training program, New Leaders for New Schools.

Grants from Lowe’s and Target paid for community gardens and a new library. Plaza Midwood neighbors regularly volunteer. Teacher attrition is down, and the school is stable. While Shamrock Gardens continues to have 80 percent of its students qualifying for free/reduced lunch, proficiency scores are rising, and the neighborhood has a school where many are willing to send their kids because of the rigor of the magnet program.

Can Abels perform a “Shamrock turn-around” for her neighborhood school?

She has many ideas. One is pushing for a partial magnet, similar to the one Shamrock won in 2006.

Another idea includes placing a partial magnet in the Oakhurst Elementary building, which today holds CMS administrative offices. Regardless of the site, the idea is to create a STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, Math) magnet with a sustainability theme that could provide the rigorous instruction and academic focus that many parents demand.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials have been amenable to discussions with neighbors. While those discussions have generally been positive, to date CMS has not made any decisions about Billingsville or the other proposals.

Abels thinks her ideas are plausible. “We are not asking the school board to get rezoned to another school; remove a magnet program to get our own school; or rezone children that currently attend Billingsville,” she says. “We just want a school that is acceptable for our children to attend that guarantees they will succeed and be prepared for the future.”

Another important goal? She wants her 4-year-old to have neighborhood friends who are also school friends. And unless Billingsville becomes a neighborhood school that her neighbors want to send their children to, she knows this won’t happen.

It’s not clear yet whether Abels’ efforts will succeed. But this much is clear: The stakes are high, and not just for Commonwealth Morningside, but for plenty of other children, families, and neighborhoods throughout the city.