Friday, September 19, 2014

Schools boost PTA membership through student fees

Parents generally have to lay out money for their children at the start of the year in school fees. Some schools are taking the opportunity to boost membership in the parent-teacher organization at the same time.

I'm not sure how widespread the practice is in CMS, but I've come across at least a handful of cases where schools have combined locker, planner and PTA charges into a single fee marketed to parents before classes begin.

Bailey Middle School, for example, sent an email to parents reminding them to send a $20 check to school with their kids for the student fee, covering locker fee, agenda and a PTA membership.

Doing it that way gets results. At Huntersville Elementary, the new $15 "Back To School Bundle" included a planner, logo magnet and PTA membership. It boosted membership in the parent-teacher organization from 372 to 632 this year, according the group's website.

Of course, parents aren't forced to pay the PTA fee if they vehemently don't want to join. But when it's bundled together, it's hard to say no. At Huntersville Elementary, only 67 parents declined to join.

Perhaps this is a good way to get more parents involved in the school. But I've already gotten a few messages from parents who don't like the way it's all marketed together.

I'll expect more thoughts from parents in the comments.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Some teachers concerned about security at Olympic High

Olympic High School has lost its security guards this year, sparking some concern among teachers about safety at the school.

Every middle and high school in the district is assigned a school resource officer. Schools often are also assigned some of the district's 110 "security associates," who aren't sworn officers but are in charge of protecting the campus.

I asked Randy Hagler, head of the CMS Police Department, about the change in security guard staffing at Olympic. He acknowledged that two security guards had been moved out of Olympic High but said it's because the school already has many more administrators than is normal. Because the high school is technically a community of five schools, it has five principals and five deans of students that can help out if a situation arises.

I've also heard from a few people close to the school who asked not to be named to protect employment. They said the moves have put the responsibility on teachers to handle violence that arises.

Olympic isn't a particularly violent school. Of its five schools, only one of them had a violent crime rate that exceeded the district and state averages. The other four fell significantly below.

But that doesn't mean incidents don't happen.

Earlier this month, a teacher at Olympic sustained a serious injury while breaking up a fight that occurred on campus.

According to police reports, Paul Hamilton was punched in the face while intervening in a mid-day altercation between what appears to be a student and someone who was not enrolled there (the aggressor was charged with trespassing as well as assault). Details on what specifically transpired are scarce in the report.

Hamilton was treated in the emergency room and released.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Two from CMS named to state commission on Common Core

Two Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrators have been included on the final 11-person team that will review what North Carolina will do with Common Core standards, the state said Tuesday.

The state legislature set up the Academic Standards Review Commission as a sort of compromise on what to do with the controversial standards. Plenty of legislators wanted to do away with the Common Core, and the N.C. House passed a bill that would not let any of the current standards be considered. The final outcome is a group that will study the standards and come up with a recommendation for a rewrite.

The final list of who's to serve was just released this week. From CMS: Deputy superintendent Ann Clark and Project LIFT zone supervisor Denise Watts.

Their appointments at least indicates that the outcome of the commission might not be predetermined. Superintendent Heath Morrison and other administrators in CMS have been on the record about supporting the Common Core standards.

A few other members have been upfront with their opposition to the standards. Retired math professor John Scheik, for example, told N.C. Policy Watch that he thinks they include "ludicrous" methods of teaching.

The group will meet for the first time Monday up in Raleigh. Here's the full list of appointments, courtesy of the N.C. Department of Administration. I've added in parentheses a brief description of how they ended up on the list.

House Appointments

Tammy Covil, New Hanover (New Hanover County school board member)

Dr. Jeffrey Isenhour, Catawba (principal of Bunker Hill High School in Claremont)

Katie Lemons, Stokes (South Stokes High School teacher)

Denise Watts, Mecklenburg

Senate Appointments

Ann B. Clark, Iredell

Dr. Laurie McCollum, Rockingham (assistant principal, Western Rockingham Middle)

Jeannie A. Metcalf, Forsyth (Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board member)

Dr. John T. Scheik, Wake (retired UNC math professor)

State Board of Education Members

Chairman William “Bill” Cobey, Durham

Dr. Olivia Oxendine, Robeson

Gubernatorial Appointment
Andre Peek, Wake (IBM executive and leader of the N.C. Business Committee for Education)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Parents pushing for partial magnets as schools reopen

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to re-open two elementary schools next year, and parents who live in both areas are pushing to create new partial magnet schools there.

Both cases center around fast-growing areas of Charlotte that are drawing more high-income families, but are districted to schools with a large percentage of low-income students. Partial magnets take kids from the immediate area as a home school and then have lottery spots for the magnet program.

Oakhurst Elementary, at Monroe and Commonwealth Avenues, was closed in 2011 as CMS sorted through massive budget cuts. The district will re-open the school in the fall of 2015. That's sent parents in three nearby neighborhoods in front of the school board over the past month -- including a half dozen at Tuesday night's meeting.

Chantilly, nestled between the Elizabeth and Plaza Midwood neighborhoods, has rapidly gentrified and become what real estate agents call "highly desirable" in the last few years. Homes currently listed for sale there are going for $500,000 or more. The Commonwealth/Morningside area is just across Independence from there, and the Oakhurst neighborhood is to the east. Homes on the market there are in the $300,000s range.

The neighborhood is home to Chantilly Montessori, a tiny magnet school. The area is districted to Billingsville Elementary, which was made up of 95.5 percent economically disadvantaged students last school year, per CMS data. The school also performed well below the district and state average on End of Grade tests.

The parents from the area who spoke at the meeting said they and their neighbors don't find that a good option.

"Parents win the (magnet) lottery, go to private school, or move away," said Scott Thomas, who lives in Commonwealth Morningside and is the father of boys aged 2 and 3. "At this point, they have no good options of schools to attend."

One parent, Lyndsey Kenerley, said she gave Billingsville a chance and then sent her child to a charter school. "We just need a great neighborhood school back."

The answer, they said, is to re-open Oakhurst Elementary as a partial magnet with a science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) program.

Parents near Huntingtowne Farms Elementary had a similar story. Starmount Elementary is set to re-open next year as well, and the Huntingtone Farms parents want their school switched a partial magnet with a STEAM program as well.

Huntingtowne Farms was 85.5 percent economically disadvantaged last year. Montclaire Elementary, also in the area, was 92 percent economically disadvantaged.

Erin Pushman told the board that the concentration of poverty was a negative both for low-income children and the more affluent children at the school.

"It is not an issue of our children and their children, of us and them. This is an issue for everyone," she said. "The stakes are high. All children at Huntingtowne Farm are at risk."

The board didn't respond directly to any of the comments. I spoke with Scott McCully, executive director of student placement at CMS, after the meeting.

He said the district still has a community meeting or two left to go before any decisions start being made. A potential STEAM program at Oakhurst has come up in some of these meetings that have already been held.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Steps forward and back in high school graduation rates

CMS celebrated its increasing graduation rate this week. It hit a new high at 85.2 percent, edging out the state of North Carolina as a whole and Wake County.

It wasn't until the next day that the school-by-school numbers came out, and as you'd expect there's both good news and not-as-good news.

  • Hawthorne High near uptown Charlotte had the biggest leap in graduation rate, to 90.6 percent from 65.9 percent the year before. The school is a bit of an unusual case, though. For years, Hawthorne was an alternative school. CMS decided last year to turn it into a medical science academy magnet school, and brought in some new students this year in that program. The graduating classes each year are also exceedingly small: only 29 students this year.
  • Lincoln Heights Academy posted the lowest graduation rate at 66.7 percent. It's a school designed for students with behavioral issues. You can't compare this year's rate with past performance, however. The school was formerly known as Lincoln Heights Elementary, and only re-opened with high school students in 2011. That means a full class of seniors hadn't come through until this year.
  • West Charlotte High posted another sizable increase in its graduation rate year, moving from 71.1 percent to 78 percent. The school made headlines last year by jumping 15 points in a single year. It's still the lowest graduation rate among high schools with a traditional population, however.
  • Fifteen schools had graduation rates above 90 percent, just more than half of the 29 total schools with reported figures.
  • Seven schools had graduation rates above 95 percent this year, which is the cut-off point where the state no longer gives a specific figure but instead just reports that the graduation rate was somewhere above that line. Ardrey Kell, Mallard Creek, Northwest School of the Arts, and Providence were repeats from last year. The Military and Global Leadership Academy and the Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology were new entrants on the list. The Performance Learning Center fell off the list, coming in at 93.2 percent this year.
  • Garinger High took the biggest step back this year, falling from 92.2 percent to 87.6 percent. 
Here's a full table I compiled, for your perusal:

Ardrey Kell High> 95> 95
Butler High91.893.4
Cato Middle College High> 95> 95
East Mecklenburg High83.583.8
Garinger High87.692.2
Harding University High87.687.6
Hawthorne High90.665.9
Hopewell High87.586.5
Independence High88.684.4
Lincoln Heights Academy66.7n/a
Mallard Creek High> 95> 95
Military and Global Leadership Academy> 9592.6
Myers Park High91.385.6
North Mecklenburg High92.388
Northwest School of the Arts> 95> 95
Olympic High - Biotech Health Pub Admin88.585
Olympic High - Intl Study, Global Econ8576.2
Olympic High - Renaissance School91.583.8
Olympic High -Intl Bus and Comm Studies82.585.5
Olympic High-Math Eng Tech Science92.893
Performance Learning Center93.2> 95
Phillip O Berry Academy of Technology> 9591.8
Providence High> 95> 95
Rocky River High88.992.6
South Mecklenburg High90.888
Vance High84.281.3
West Charlotte High7871.1
West Mecklenburg High8577.4
William Amos Hough High92.492.2

Thursday, August 28, 2014

CMS buses weren't smooth sailing for all on first day

Superintendent Heath Morrison and other CMS leaders proudly reported that there were no issues with transportation on the first day of classes this week, on what was a pretty smooth day overall.

But it seems like the "no issues" designation might depend on who you talk to. Parents reported a range of problems on the district's Facebook page earlier this week, and the last child wasn't delivered off the school bus until after 7:30 p.m. Yes, that's 20 minutes earlier than last year, but it's still pretty late.

The CMS Facebook page became a forum for complaints from parents whose kids were picked up or dropped off late Monday morning. To be sure, a few dozen or so complaints doesn't represent massive problems in a district of 140,000-plus, but it gives a flavor of some issues that arose.

One parent said her child waited on a broken down bus for an hour before she picked him up from school. Others reported delays from a half hour to more than an hour and a half.

The district's social media team advised the parents to give the transportation line a call.

I asked Carol Stamper, CMS director of transportation, about what "no issues" means in the context of the first day of school.

Here's what she said, via email: "It is unrealistic to think we would have no issues on the first day!  However, we do consider a successful first day in transportation being one that every student was delivered home safely….and that is what we accomplished!"

She said a number of things could result in a late bus, ranging from longer load times to make sure kids were on the right buses, to new students who weren't on the bus roster, to traffic congestion, to drivers getting used to their routes.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Beacon school turnaround initiative faces early test

There's a reason Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been careful to call the University of Virginia its intended partner for the initiative it unveiled earlier this month to turn around 14 struggling schools: The university still might decide it doesn't think the project is worthwhile.

Superintendent Heath Morrison laid out the concept for the Beacon initiative at a school board meeting two weeks ago. It calls on a partner to work with CMS to do a deep analysis of the needs of the 14 underperforming schools, and then lay the groundwork for a lasting recovery. The district said they planned to work with UVa., but said the contract was not finalized. The next day, CMS said it will cost $600,000 a year over three years.

It didn't quite add up for me until I talked about it with Denise Watts, the zone superintendent for Project LIFT. In that role, she has some experience with UVa. Principals at Project LIFT schools get leadership training through the university, and were up there just a few weeks ago. Their school turnaround program is a combination of resources from the business school and college of education, and has worked with districts in 16 states since 2003.

But Watts said that the university won't commit to helping a school district until it's convinced that doing so would be worth their while.

"They want to see some willingness to change," Watts said.

Leaders of the UVa. program are expected to be in Charlotte in early September to interview CMS administrators to make sure they'll be a good fit. They'll quickly make their decision, and then set to work.

It's unclear what the fall-back plan is should the UVa. partnership not go through, which is probably unlikely. Beacon is dependent on having an outside partner, but CMS did cast a pretty wide net when it started looking for one earlier this year.