Technology helps Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools comply with sweeping court order

When a federal judge ordered the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on Sept. 9 to stop using race as a criteria for student placement, he gave the district less than a year to comply with the landmark ruling. Thirty years of carefully planned desegregation had to be revised in just 11 months, which meant that new boundaries had to be drawn for the district’s 140 schools.

Thanks to Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s extensive use of technology and a well-planned telecommunications infrastructure, however, the district was able to unveil new school assignments for some 65,000 of its 101,000 students within three months of the ruling—a stunning turnaround time for such a sweeping and complex legal judgment.

According to Susan Purser, associate superintendent for education services, the quick turnaround time was necessary to ensure as smooth a transition for next year as possible. Typically, judges will give three to five years for a school district to comply, but not in this case.

“A lot goes into the student reassignment process,” Purser said. “In addition to redrawing school boundaries, we have to determine how many teachers will be at each school, which affects the courses that students will be taking and who their teachers will be.”

Add to these issues the highly politicized nature of reassigning students, and it became clear to district officials that the sooner they could get the word out about the proposed changes, the better they could accommodate feedback from parents.

Sophisticated mapping software was used to develop the new plan and run student assignment scenarios. On Nov. 9, officials revealed the proposed new boundaries to the community on the district’s web site. Zip disks of the maps were sent to the media, and a hotline was set up for questions and feedback from the community. Based on that feedback, the district released a revised set of maps Dec. 16.

The end result has been a plan that meets U.S. District Judge Robert Potter’s mandate, while also addressing the concerns of most parents. And it comes in plenty of time for the district to reassign staff members, draw up new busing plans, and place students in classes for next year.

Mapping students

The guiding principle for the new plan was to give parents choices, Purser said, by sending students to schools close to home while offering them options to transfer elsewhere if they choose.

To accomplish this goal, the revised plan creates “choice zones,” geographic areas within which students can apply to schools other than their assigned “home school.” The district would provide transportation for students anywhere within their choice zone.

But assigning students to a home school required more than just placing them in the closest building. Thirty years of busing had led to a pattern of schools that didn’t necessarily conform to the student population of each neighborhood. And with less than a year to prepare, constructing new facilities was not an option.

“If every child went to the closest school, some schools would have been 280 percent full—and one only 11 percent full,” Purser said. “I can’t imagine what we would have done without the technology to help us.”

To determine the new student assignments, the district had to map the distance from each child to every school to find out which school was closest, which was next closest, and so on. For the mapping of students, the district used geographic information system (GIS) software from MapInfo Corp., a company the district has been working with since 1992.

Student data files were taken as of the 20th day of school—the “magic day” on which student enrollment is used to calculate state funding in North Carolina—and downloaded into the MapInfo software to “geocode” students. The software then took each student’s address and matched it against the addresses in the county street file.

Everywhere there was a match, a dot automatically appeared on the county map to represent that student. Where there was no match, district officials had to reenter the address in the student data file so it would correspond to the address as listed in the county street file. But by linking the student database and the county street file together, the district has achieved a 96 percent hit rate with its geocoding process, said Eric Becoats, chief officer for demographics and planning.

Once all students were mapped, it was time to analyze the county map to determine where best to redraw school boundaries so that each school would not exceed its capacity.

The mapping software was invaluable, Purser said, because it gave district officials a visual representation of where students live in relation to each school. Using this visual tool, officials could draw a proposed boundary around a school, calculate the exact number of students that fell within the boundary, then adjust the boundary and recalculate the number of students as necessary, until a balance was reached between a school’s capacity and that of nearby schools.

“The MapInfo software helps us make decisions faster and with better information,” explained Rick Rozelle, the district’s chief information officer.

Communicating with stakeholders

Technology not only has helped district officials reassign students; it also has helped the district communicate its plan effectively to the community and has provided a way for parents to respond with their comments.

“Our whole process for communication has been critical to the success of the plan,” Purser said. “Using various means of technology, we’ve really been able to get the word out to the community.”

As district officials worked to redraw the boundaries for each school, members of the district’s technology team were busy trying to determine the best format for posting digital images from the mapping software on the district’s web site so they could be viewed using any type of browser.

A test web site was created on a separate, secure district server to create formats for the maps and image files. As the maps for each school became final, they were eMailed to the technology team, which created web pages based on each day’s work.

At 9 p.m. on Nov. 9, right after the new student assignments were presented to the school board, the site went “live” to the public. An automatic response option allowed parents to eMail their comments directly to district officials.

“The fact that we were able to take the maps generated by MapInfo and put them up on the web the same evening [as the board meeting] made it a very powerful experience for the community,” Rozelle said.

Zip disks were mailed to members of the press, and news media also could download the maps in digital format from the district’s web site to reproduce in their print publications or on their own web sites. As a result, parents had near-immediate access to the information, even if they didn’t have access to the internet.

By 8 a.m. the next day, a community hotline was established for taking questions and comments from parents. The hotline was staffed by district employees who had been trained with answers to the questions most likely to be asked and also on how to use the MapInfo software to look up specific addresses, so they could guide parents through the process of finding their children’s schools.

To support the hotline, the district set up a number of workstations linked to the district’s network, so hotline staffers had access to the MapInfo software from the district’s server.

Purser said the district received more than 1,000 comments through the automatic eMail response system on its web site, and hundreds of faxes and letters as well. In addition, more than 4,500 parents came to four public hearings held during the month of November to discuss the reassignment plan.

Based on feedback from the community, the district released a revised set of maps Dec. 16, using the same channels of information. The revised plan includes the grandfathering of certain groups of students, such as rising seniors and juniors and students in the existing magnet programs.

Not everyone was happy with the proposed changes. But despite the few inevitable objections, Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s experience offers a powerful demonstration of technology’s ability to help district officials make difficult decisions more easily, and its ability to include parents in the decision making process.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Student reassignment pages

MapInfo Corp.

Dennis Pierce

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