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As Richmond Rezoning Debate Heats Up, A Look At Pairing In Charlotte

Mary Munford Elementary
Mary Munford Elementary is one of several schools included in Richmond's rezoning proposals to pair schools to increase student diversity. (Photo: Crixell Matthews)

Richmond Public Schools is currently considering several rezoning options that include what's called school pairing. That's been done in other districts across the country including Charlotte, North Carolina, where in 2016 the school board there voted to pair two majority white schools, 70 percent white Dilworth elementary and 56 percent white Cotswold Elementary with two majority black schools, Sedgefield Elementary and Billingsville Elementary, respectively.

To understand how that effort has played out, VPM’s Megan Pauly spoke with Ann Doss Helms, an education reporter at Charlotte’s NPR affiliate WFAE for this week’s Learning Curve

Transcript: 

Pauly: Hi Ann. Thanks for being with us.

Helms: Hi.

Pauly: So Ann, the two sets of schools have been paired for one full school year now. And you've analyzed achievement data for that year. What do we know so far?

Helms: Well, so if you look at this year's enrollment and at last year's test scores, which of course just came in, for the Billingsville and Cotswold pairing - that's the slightly less extreme one - looks about like what you'd expect. The demographics are similar to what you'd expect if you just merged the two schools, and I don't particularly like North Carolina's letter grade system, but it's kind of a good shorthand. You had a B school and a D school that merged to become a C school. The Dilworth, Sedgefield pairing is a little different. Bear in mind, Dilworth is the most affluent of the schools in this mix and honestly, the combined schools now look a lot like Dilworth. They kept the Dilworth name, it's Dilworth Latta campus and Dilworth, Sedgefield campus. They kept the Dilworth principal, and they didn't do a straight up merger of the districts. They actually carved off a public housing project that was in the more disadvantaged school and that was where you had a lot of your really poor, really challenged kids and they just sent them somewhere else. So the school that we have now - the Dilworth merged, paired school - it's 61 percent white compared with 70 percent before, and there's been a huge loss of black students and the overall scores look pretty good, but it gets very different when you start breaking it down by race and income.

Pauly: Tell me a little bit more about that. Is the pairing helping to close the achievement gap at all?

Helms: Just looking at the numbers - and the numbers never tell the whole story - it hasn't done much good this first year. And again, you don't expect overnight miracles. If you see them, you start looking for cheating. But at the paired Dilworth school there are gaps of 60 percentage points between black, Hispanic, and low-income kids versus white and non-poor kids for the percentages who are on grade level. So again, the white and non-poor kids are doing great. The kids who weren’t doing great in the old school are still not doing great [in the paired school].

North Carolina does do what they call a growth calculation. It's sort of a value-added thing. So the idea is that even if your kids aren't at grade level yet, you'll get some credit for the progress they made. And that is a little bit interesting because the growth calculation was actually a little bit lower in the paired school for white students than it was at the separate school. But there were some pretty significant growth increases for the black and the low-income students. So that could be a sign that things might be changing for the better. And for Cotswold and Billingsville - the less extreme pairing - the gaps are still pretty big: around 50 percentage points on reading proficiency. But interestingly, on the growth measure, the black and the low-income kids actually fared better at the old, super segregated Billingsville than they did at the paired school. Now again, that's one year. It's a relatively small number. I don't know whether these are going to be trends.

Pauly: Anything else you think Richmond can learn from the pairings in Charlotte?

Helms: So certainly one thing is: don't expect dramatic overnight change. You know, you're not going to eliminate the achievement gap overnight. You probably shouldn't expect to. For Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, it was only one tool in dealing with the whole picture of diversity and overcrowding and other assignment issues. And unless Richmond is configured very differently from Charlotte, I would imagine this is not going to be the thing that will transform the entire district or the entire city. And I think one other lesson is that it's hard to avoid having this be something that looks a little bit like a takeover by the more privileged families.

Pauly: Thanks so much, Anne. I really appreciate your time and your reporting.

Helms: Thank you.

Pauly: Ann Doss Helms is a reporter with WFAE in Charlotte. Thanks for joining us. You're listening to VPM News, I'm Megan Pauly.