Thursday, April 24, 2014

Renaissance West chooses CMS over charter

This week's announcement of a new  "partnership school"  being developed on West Boulevard highlights a new twist in the CMS/charter dynamic.  It's a model Superintendent Heath Morrison says we'll see more of in the future,  in the suburbs as well as inner-city neighborhoods.

Renaissance West senior center
The preK-8 school,  which Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to open in 2017, will be part of the Renaissance West revitalization project rising from the site of the old Boulevard Homes public housing.  As Hilary Trenda reports,  that project has been years in the making,  with the Charlotte Housing Authority winning a $21 million federal Hope VI grant in 2010.  At that time, the plan called for a CMS school to be part of the project.

But the recession hit and construction money dried up.  The Renaissance West Community Initiative,  a nonprofit created by the housing authority, shifted to planning a charter school.  If the application had been approved,  the nonprofit board would have gotten public money to open a preK-8 school in 2015. The group was scheduled for an interview with the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board in May.

Renaissance West is a "cradle to career" community,  which seeks to break the cycle of poverty with a mix of high-quality child care,  public education,  health care and support services.  Charter schools are a crucial piece in such national models as the Harlem Children's Zone and Atlanta's East Lake revival.  The latter spurred creation of the Purpose-Built Community Network,  which RWCI is working with.
Site for Renaissance West Neighborhood Academy charter

In 2013,  Mecklenburg voters approved a $290 million bond package that included $30 million to build a school that would relieve crowding at Reid Park and Berryhill preK-8 schools.  It would have gone near the proposed charter,  potentially competing for students.

Meanwhile,  Morrison and Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark were talking with the RWCI crew about merging their efforts. Executive Director Laura Clark said her board saw two big advantages to working with CMS:  The nonprofit board won't have to raise construction money,  and CMS can draw boundaries that ensure the Renaissance West community is served by the school.  Charter schools take applications and,  if there's overflow demand,  have to admit by lottery.  If the community charter school had proven successful,  she said,  neighborhood students might have been turned away on luck of the draw.

RWCI won't have the clout of the Project LIFT board,  which got joint power over academic and personnel decisions at nine westside schools by merit of a $55 million, five-year pledge.  But CMS and RWCI say the partnership will be a serious one,  with both groups and other community partners represented on a school leadership council.

At a Wednesday news conference,  Morrison said he's talking to other existing and prospective charter boards about the advantages of working as part of CMS.  He noted that some of the state-authorized schools,  which aren't part of local districts, are struggling:  "So many individuals think they know how to run a school,  only to learn there's so much that's so complicated."

I'm guessing some will see this as a CMS bid to squelch competition,  while others will see a perfect example of how competition can improve the broader system of public education.  One question I felt certain would arise:  Will CMS be equally receptive when a more affluent suburban neighborhood wants to develop a partnership school for its community?

Absolutely,  Morrison said.  He anticipates a similar relationship with south suburban Ballantyne residents when the district starts working on the K-8 neighborhood/magnet school authorized for that area.  That school,  budgeted for a bit over $31 million,  is expected to open in 2020,  the last item in the 2013 bond package.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Teacher's blog shares passion, heartbreak

Normally sharing a well-written blog by a passionate teacher is a joyful task. Today's discovery comes with an overlay of sorrow.

I met Vivian Connell,  a former Providence High teacher with strong views on the fate of the profession,  at the Emerging Issues Forum in Raleigh in mid-February. I enjoyed her way with words,  and we exchanged emails afterward.


If you read Jane Stancill's recent story,  you know that about a month later Connell was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's syndrome.  She's a few years younger than me, facing a relentless and fatal illness.

I was tempted to feel sorry for her. Then I read her blog, "finALS."

"Well, hello there, Death! I was not expecting you, yet, here you are,"  she writes of getting her March 12 diagnosis. She moves quickly on to her plans for the years she has left:  "I want to join my fiery, righteously indignant, kick-ass colleagues in education blogging as we defend the essential civic institution of public education against an onslaught, a wrong-minded and dangerous take-over by private interests that threatens the nature of American democracy."

Not much hand-wringing there.  I get the sense she'd much rather face a good argument than a dose of pity  --  and someone who describes Diane Ravitch as her hero is likely to spark plenty of good arguments.  You can read more about her path from teacher to lawyer back to teacher,  as well as get her take on all that lies ahead for her.  That include not just her illness,  but her plans to take her students to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.

And while I'm sharing good writing,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has posted a piece about International Baccalaureate life by East Meck student journalist Hannah Lieberman,  titled  "I think, therefore IB."   CMS spokeswoman Stacy Sneed said as far as she knows,  it's the first piece of student reporting posted on the district's site.  I think it's a great idea and hope to see more student work. 

Monday, April 21, 2014

Let's talk about teacher pay

Education looks like the hot topic for this year's legislative session,  with a special urgency about teacher pay and treatment.  The Observer and PNC Bank are hosting a  "Solving It Together"  forum on May 5,  the week before the session starts,  to talk about teacher compensation.

Panelists are Eric Guckian,  the governor's senior education adviser;  CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison;  state representatives Rob Bryan (GOP) and Tricia Cotham (Dem); and Erlene Lyde of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.  WBTV anchor Paul Cameron will pose questions suggested by the audience and press for answers that go beyond sound bites.

Meanwhile,  I'm working on a package that will try to move the discussion past wheel-spinning and broad generalities to get some discussion going about real options,  what they might cost and where we can find the money.

The forum is from 7-9 p.m. at CPCC's Pease Auditorium.  Click here to register and suggest questions.  I'll be there covering the discussion,  so I hope to see some of you there.

In a separate event,  the N.C. Association of Educators and the Tar Heel Alliance of Classroom Teachers are sponsoring a showing of the documentary  "American Teacher"  at 7 p.m. Thursday,  April 24,  at the CMAE office at 301 S McDowell St., Suite 1200.  The film,  narrated by Matt Damon and sponsored by the Teacher Salary Project,  is part of a national effort to increase teacher pay and respect  (read the list of supporters here).

In North Carolina,  the showing is part of a  "Moral Movies"  series that will run in Charlotte and other cities over the next four months.  The state NAACP and the Wilmington-based Working Films are co-sponsoring the series.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Charter pay disclosure: Resistance continues

The state's education leaders now say charter schools,  like other public schools,  must disclose what they pay their employees.  But some leaders of the charter movement say they disagree.

Richard Vinroot,  a lawyer and charter pioneer who works with Sugar Creek and Lincoln charter schools,  says those schools will provide salaries to the Observer but will withhold the names of all but the highest-paid employees.  He says that's because the charter schools,  which aren't bound by the state teacher salary schedule,  pay teachers based on performance.

"I don't want Sally to know what Jimmy got paid,"  Vinroot said.  "It would create disruption within our school."

As Superintendent Heath Morrison noted when I mentioned that argument,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools also has a number of teachers who receive merit-based bonuses,  which we've reported every year.  It may or may not create tension among colleagues,  but it tells the public more about how those pilot systems are playing out,  at a time when performance pay is one of the biggest public policy issues in education.

Chris Terrill, head of Pine Lake Preparatory School,  sent a salary list with all names and even specific job titles withheld.

"I believe that the data shows a high level of fiscal responsibility and a stewardship of public tax dollars.  We have tried to provide salaries that are high enough to recruit and retain an excellent faculty and staff,"  wrote Terrill, who is presumably the administrator listed at $115,360 a year.  "Pine Lake is a model for openness and transparency," he added,  citing the school's compliance with the state's Open Meetings Law.

Baker Mitchell,  a Wilmington charter school operator who serves on the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board,  has been blogging against disclosure since I raised the issue in March.

"Although charter schools are subjected to the same accounting standards and annual auditing that govern traditional schools, they are not required to invade the privacy of their employees by publishing their salaries,"  Mitchell wrote in March.  He contends that the tax forms filed by nonprofits provide enough information,  and noted that many other nonprofits receive public grants or subsidies without being required to disclose salaries.

This week he suggested that test scores should provide what taxpayers need to know about their investment in charter schools.

"We frequently measure costs in terms such as dollars per gallon of milk, or dollars per foot of fence,"  Mitchell writes.  "We don’t need to how much the farmer pays his helpers or how much the fence contractor pays his carpenters – we want to know the final cost of the product.  Similarly, we should ask,  'How much are we paying for each test passed by the students of a school or district?'  What is the taxpayer’s cost per successful test?  Individual salaries give no information whatsoever about how well students are being taught."
And in a comment on an Observer charter-salary story,  Mitchell noted that private vendors get public money from traditional public schools:  "Pearson, Inc. receives hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for their student testing software.  Thomas Bus Company received hundreds of millions for their school buses.  McGraw-Hill receives hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for textbooks.  Duke Power, Xerox, Apple, Microsoft, etc. all receive huge amounts of taxpayer money.  Why would invading the privacy of their workers' personal salary information help improve their products?"
Mitchell, Terrill and Vinroot are omitting a key point:  Charter schools agree to abide by the state's open meetings and public records laws when they accept the public money.  That law protects many parts of personnel files for employees of school districts,  the state,  cities and counties  --  there's no specific protection for employees of charter boards  --  but it says that names, salaries and many other specific items remain a public record.
It's possible that these folks told state officials when they accepted their charters that they'd only follow the parts of the law they agreed with,  but I doubt it.  The boom in charters means those schools are starting to get the kind of scrutiny other public schools receive,  and that can be uncomfortable.  (The Observer doesn't cover Mitchell's schools,  but his Roger Bacon Academy charter management company has faced public questions about enrollment,  personnel decisions and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education.) 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

PowerSchool and NC schools: Work continues

A North Carolina blogger known as Lady Liberty 1885 turned up an interesting letter from big-district superintendents taking Pearson to task over problems with the start-up of the PowerSchool data system.

"Delays in report cards,  transcripts and attendance data have generated considerable negative attention from media,  resulting in districts being blamed for poor implementation,"  says the Feb. 21 letter from 10 superintendents,  including the leaders of CMS, Wake, Union and Gaston county schools.  "... Public goodwill has been severely damaged.  We need Pearson to accept responsibility for the challenges as we continue to address issues."

The superintendents ask Pearson to provide PowerSchool to N.C. districts at no charge next year,  saying the product will eventually be a good one but the one-year rollout,  which many of the district leaders predicted would fail,  has been a mess.  "We want a productive relationship with Pearson since the data system will be with us for many years,"  they say.

"Lady Liberty"
Neither the problems nor the frustration of district leaders is surprising.  T. Keung Hui of the News & Observer and I were among those giving  "negative media attention"  about the time that letter was written.  But Lady Liberty,  aka A.P. Dillon of Holly Springs,  a conservative/Libertarian blogger,  got some good details as part of a public records request related to PowerSchool.  She reports that she's still digging through four big boxes of documents.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison said this week that Pearson's follow-up has been  "very good,"  including a visit to Charlotte last week to meet with him and Chief Learning Services Officer Valerie Truesdale.  (An email to the Pearson communications department has gotten no response.)  "They acknowledged many of the issues we have discussed all year and have promised to help with issues we continue to have, such as not being able to print report cards recently,"  Morrison said in an email.

Philip Price,  chief financial officer for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction,  agrees.  "While I would not state that the larger school districts are completely happy at this time,  I will state that we have addressed the items outlined in the posted letter (most prior to the date of that letter).  As we progress through the implementation year, new issues do arise; but we are pleased that we are not experiencing repeat issues."

But don't hold your breath for that year of free service.  The previously reported cost is $7.1 million a year.  While Pearson may be forced to provide some type of refund if it fails to meet agreed-upon levels of service,  the state Board of Education is asking for $6 million to cover the cost that would otherwise fall to districts and charter schools next year,  Price said.

Here's Price's detailed explanation,  for those who can follow it:

The request to have the software to be free for another year relates to the $4 per ADM charge to sign-up for the Home Base suite of products.  There continues to be confusion as to what the $4 charge is based on.  The software, maintenance, support, data conversion, and training are all free to the school districts and charter schools for all parts of Home Base (including PowerSchool).  We subscribed to some Pearson content that strengthened the Home Base tool with Science and Social Studies material for teachers.  This content is charged to the State based on the number of systems that access the content.  We are charged on a sliding scale based on use.  If 20% of the State sign-up to use the content, the charge is $8.30 per ADM.  If 95% sign-up, the charge will be $4.00 per ADM.  The General Assembly authorized the Department to make-up any shortfall from collections by using possible reversions (with authorization from the State Budget Office).  Therefore, we could stabilize the LEA and charter price at $4.00 for the length of the contract (5 years).

Since this content is based on use, it is difficult to eliminate the charge.  The State Board has requested that the Governor recommend and the General Assembly appropriate funding ($6 million) to cover the subscription content costs.  If funded, there will be no cost to the LEA or charters to participate in Home Base.

Our contracts do include service level agreements (SLAs) that set an acceptable level of service.  If those targets are not met, we do receive credits to our maintenance and support costs.  We are currently determining the amount of those credits.  We plan on refunding Home Base participating LEAs and Charters a portion of their $4 per ADM charge (if it is not appropriated), based on the amount of credits received.

There are several incorrect statements included in the write-up around the letter.  PowerSchool was designed and is supporting the entire State (the comments state that it was never intended to support the whole state). CEDARS has nothing to do with PowerSchool other than the fact that data will come from PowerSchool to CEDARS.  The contract w/Pearson does cover all the costs for implementation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Teacher pay gets hot-potato toss

I didn't make it to Raleigh for the final meeting of the General Assembly's teacher compensation task force,  but the report is online and it's pretty much as predicted:  This panel is tossing the topic back to legislators and asking them to tap the state Board of Education for another round of study.

The recommendations are broad and fairly obvious:  Focus on a pay system that benefits students,  raise pay for newer teachers as a short-term goal  (a tactic already proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory and GOP leaders) and make across-the-board hikes and  "modernization"  a long-term goal.  Just how long isn't clear,  but a draft proposal suggests giving the state board another year to study teacher compensation,  with a goal of putting something in place in 2016-17.

The report indicates that the task force was intrigued by career-ladder approaches such as that being piloted with Charlotte-Mecklenburg's  "opportunity culture"  program,  and by the IMPACT teacher evaluation model in use in District of Columbia Public Schools.

"There are no examples of state-centered comprehensive compensation models that have positively impacted student achievement and have been sustained,"  the report notes.  "Reform models that emphasizes (sic) local flexibility within evidence-based parameters may be a more promising and sustainable strategy."

The lack of specifics on how to raise salaries and modernize the pay plan drew fire from some of the educators and legislators who served,  the AP's Gary Robertson reports.  "We've heard a lot of presentations and propaganda but there really hasn't been a whole lot of meaningful discussion going forward,"  said Timothy Barnsback, president of the Professional Educators of North Carolina.


Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association,  said the task force was  "playing kick the can."

"The report could have been written in January, frankly," said Kidd, a CMS high school teacher. She said it may have been naive to think a real plan could be drafted after four meetings, but she said lack of information isn't the real challenge.  "They know what they need to do. They know they need to do it."

State Rep. Tricia Cotham, D-Mecklenburg,  posted a critical synopsis on her Facebook page:  "I called the committee report 'fluff' and argued that many teachers are hurting NOW. Teachers across NC are trying to make ends meet as we speak. I challenged my colleagues to 'put their money where their mouth is' and send the message that we as a state value our teachers, our children, and education."

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Wake on suspensions: It could be worse

Wake County Public Schools are under fire for high suspension rates for African American students.  Superintendent James Merrill recently acknowledged that it's an issue that needs dealing with, but at least things aren't as bad as in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

"Putting things in perspective,  in 2012-13 a similarly sized North Carolina district had 35,800 suspensions when Wake was at less than half that at 15,000,"  Merrill said,  as quoted in a blog post by reporter T. Keung Hui.  As Hui notes,  Merrill didn't name CMS,  but he didn't need to.  Wake and CMS are the only two districts in the same size league,  and as I reported recently,  CMS' numbers are down but still much higher than Wake's.

I've heard that the CMS board will get a detailed report on racial inequities in suspensions and discipline in the near future.  Meanwhile,  read the state report on crime,  violence,  dropout rates and suspensions here.

Read more here: