Thursday, December 16, 2010

Outside eyes on CMS

These are challenging times for public education, and those of us in Charlotte aren't the only ones keeping an eye on how Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is dealing with education and budget challenges. Here's a sampling of some interesting items:.

First, the Orlando Sentinal offers an outsider's take on CMS, noting the clash between racial turmoil at home and acclaim nationwide. "How could this school system be simultaneously viewed as hero and villain?" reporter Richard Fausset asks.

On the acclaim front, The Broad Foundation sends along a data brief on 30 large urban districts where black, Hispanic and/or low-income students outperformed state averages. As noted in Fausset's article, the foundation named CMS one of the nation's five best urban districts this year. CMS, Wake and Guilford county are among 18 districts nationwide where black students outperformed state peers, while CMS is the only Carolinas district recognized for success with Hispanic students.

And on the turmoil side, here's a look at the letter from the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Office asking CMS for student-assignment data as it launches an investigation into complaints about 2011 school closings. I've filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the complaints, which should be arriving soon.

The most intriguing item isn't specifically about CMS, but about the difficulty of turning around low-performing schools. Greg Garrison of Charlotte was kind enough to tweet me a link to a Christian Science Monitor article based on a Thomas Fordham Institute study that examined low-performing schools in 10 states, including North Carolina.

I've only scanned the study, titled "Are Bad Schools Immortal?" In North Carolina, 19 charters and 174 regular schools that were weak in 2002 and 2003 made little progress in the ensuing five years, the study reports. That was pretty typical for what the researchers found nationwide.

"Both of North Carolina’s public-school sectors need to improve their efforts to eliminate bad schools," the study says. "This may prove more fruitful than investing time and resources in turnaround efforts. The findings from all ten states reveal that turnarounds are extremely rare. For those who put the closure option aside in hopes that schools will make dramatic improvements, these results suggest they are likely to be disappointed."

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

CMS budget candor gets rocky start

You may have heard Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Chair Eric Davis make an impassioned speech yesterday about the importance of candor and communication in 2011 budget talks.

Or maybe you didn't. If you pooped out after, say, three or four hours of last night's six-hour board meeting, you missed the budget talk, which took place from 10:45 to 11:30 p.m.

If you did stay up, you watched the board whip through 49 PowerPoint pages of budget data, as well as an analysis of how much money could be saved by various busing cutbacks. But you couldn't have followed along, because those documents hadn't been provided to the public.

At its best, CMS does a fine job of presenting public information on its Web site. There's a link for budget information, where the reports presented last night were posted today.

There's also webstreaming of televised board meetings. Davis and Superintendent Peter Gorman bumped up the value of that service by announcing last night that they'll find the money to videotape special budget sessions in 2011 without tapping the education budget. Gorman talked about getting grants or donations to cover the estimated $10,000 cost, while Davis, Rhonda Lennon and Tim Morgan have voiced willingness to give up some of their budgeted travel money.

Still, Tuesday's kickoff of 2011 budget talks wasn't CMS at its best.

The budget session was scheduled after four long presentations, guaranteeing a late-night time slot. Davis said today that "we just had a lot to cover," and all the items were important.

Anyone who was interested in the previous four reports, on transportation, testing, performance pay and teacher effectiveness ratings, could click on the online agenda and check out details in advance. Except that the transportation documents did not include the item of highest public interest: An analysis of savings generated by busing cuts.

And looking at the agenda item for the budget was a study in contrasts. No detailed documents there; just this description: "An update will be provided on the 2011-2012 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education budget."

On Monday, I left Davis a voice mail asking for specifics. I e-mailed him, Gorman and spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry, asking for documents and details that would let me tell readers what to expect. Davis deferred to Gorman and Henry. Gorman e-mailed that he wasn't aware of any documents.

The only clue came from a press release sent late Monday afternoon, saying CMS officials would talk about possible busing cuts at Wednesday's news conference. Based on that, I called Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain, who provided an outline of what would be on the table Tuesday night.

As for documents, printouts of the budget PowerPoint were handed out at the start of the meeting. The busing analysis was released only after Transportation Director Carol Stamper referred to it during the meeting.

Henry said the reports weren't ready until shortly before the meeting, and the delay in handing out the transportation analysis was a mix-up. I don't doubt her word. But I have some experience with priorities and deadlines, and I can tell you this: If the head honcho makes it clear that getting information out before the meeting is a priority, the staff will make it happen.

There's nothing easy about getting the community to buy into painful decisions about budget cuts. Some people will stick to sound-bite criticisms and simplistic solutions no matter what CMS leaders do.

But I've been impressed by the number of people willing to work hard at understanding complex education issues and relay good information to their PTAs, neighbors and friends. Those are the folks Davis, Gorman and the board need to work with.

"Hopefully CMS will keep everyone posted about their discussions coming up," wrote one parent who attended the meeting and e-mailed me today to see where she could get the busing analysis. "I realize they have a dismal budget to work with, but right now a lot of parents are scared what is going to happen. We just want to be part of the process to come up with solutions."

Monday, December 13, 2010

The free-lunch fraud flap

With Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' poverty level creeping up and 2011 budget cuts looming, a long-running debate over the validity of school poverty numbers is ratcheting up.

CMS, like districts nationwide, uses eligibility for federal lunch subsidies to gauge school poverty (the formal term these days is "economically disadvantaged students"). The district recently released those numbers for each school. The total rose from about 51 percent of all students last year to 53 percent this year.

The cutoff for lunch aid is higher than the federal standard of poverty -- up to $40,793 for a family of four to get a reduced-price lunch, compared with $22,050 for the same-size family to be classified as living in  poverty. Eligibility is based on an honor system; with rare exceptions, CMS doesn't ask for proof of income.

Those exceptions are a small sampling that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the lunch program, requires to be verified. In 2008, the Carolina Journal, a publication of the conservative John Locke Foundation, noted that many of the families audited in CMS and other N.C. districts either failed to provide documentation or had their benefits reduced or ended based on proof of income (read that article here). The Journal talked about fraud and lying; state officials talked about family errors.

CMS's most recent sampling turned up similar results. According to Child Nutrition Director Cindy Hobbs, CMS checked 236 applications. Of those, 128, or 54 percent, maintained their benefits. Fifteen percent didn't respond, 13 percent were found not to be eligible and 18 percent were moved into a different category (most went from free to reduced-price, though a handful went the other way).

Whether you believe those numbers derive from lying, honest mistakes or a combination of the two, they do raise questions: Are thousands of families getting government aid they're not entitled to? And is CMS doling out millions of dollars in school aid based on squishy data? This year more than 74,000 students are classified as "economically disadvantaged" based on lunch applications; even 13 percent would amount to almost 10,000 who aren't really qualified.

In 2008, some board members' call for a systemwide audit of lunch applications died quickly. The USDA foots the bill -- more than $38 million for CMS students last year -- and makes the rules, and the feds don't allow that.

Many who are willing to let kids keep eating free lunches still cringe at CMS using those numbers to allot teachers (see previous blog post on that subject), supplies and other aid, especially now that the district is facing roughly $100 million in likely cuts next year.

"It's riddled with fraud," school board member Kaye McGarry said recently. "When you have millions of dollars that are allocated on those numbers, to me that is ludicrous."

McGarry agrees some schools need more help than others, and she offers no specifics on how to identify them: "It just seems there has to be a better way."

Trent Merchant, who was new to the board in 2008, initially agreed. He worked with CMS staff as they experimented with other data to identify kids who need extra help, such as the number of disabled or gifted students or those learning English. As Merchant recalls, formulas that were far more complicated yielded virtually the same results as using lunch status.

What about basing aid on the percent of students who test below grade level? After all, some middle-class kids can't read or do math, while some from low-income homes do great. But it's easy to see the downside of that: "Congratulations, Principal Smith; your staff did a great job! Your school's test scores rose so much that you'll lose three teachers next year."

The bottom line, Superintendent Peter Gorman and his staff keep saying, is that school poverty levels are the strongest, simplest predictor of academic struggles. For now, they're likely to remain the basis for aid.

But in a year filled with tough choices, don't expect this battle to end.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Newspapers and the view from Amay James

If you get angry when a blog item isn't full of hard-hitting news and analysis, please click away now. I figure I've spent enough time with spreadsheets and officials to bask in an occasional feel-good moment.

And if "community helper day" at Amay James Prekindergarten Center doesn't make you smile, there may be no hope for you. A parade of 4- and 5-year-olds came through dressed as doctors, construction workers, soldiers and scientists (you'd think one kid could have put on a trench coat and a hat with a press card in it, but no). My favorite: A boy in military camouflage who told me he wants to be a veterinarian, but he'd also like to be Spiderman.

My props were pretty feeble next to the uniformed pilot with a model plane, the landscapers who were potting pansies and the police who pulled their squad cars into the parking lot. Just for fun, I brought an American Girl miniature version of a manual typewriter. It brought nostalgic smiles from several teachers, but none of the kids could identify it. A camera? A cash register? A robot?

Several knew what my laptop computer was. The really depressing part? They had a harder time identifying a newspaper. Most gave me blank looks, though a few said they'd seen their parents reading one of those.

"My daddy does," one girl said eagerly. "In the bathroom!"

Any cynics who kept reading may be wondering: With the roughly $22 million Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spends on Bright Beginnings prekindergarten facing scrutiny in 2011, was this a CMS plot to win me over?

I'll admit to being a sap for cute kids. Further, I'll admit to this bias: I'd like to see every one of those children have the best possible shot at becoming doctors, pilots or Spiderman (by 2023, that may be a better career path than newspaper reporter).

Maybe I've still got my rosy shades on, but I think most of us agree on that. Caring about kids doesn't preclude differences of opinion about the best way to reach them with the money that's available. A robust debate about that is coming, and I'll be right in there trying to tease out the facts.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Televising CMS budget meetings

Joni Trobich, president of the Mecklenburg PTA Council, recently sent the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board a plea to televise or otherwise record upcoming budget sessions. Not only are tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs in the balance, but Trobich says the stakes are even higher: "We risk civic unrest, and deep racial and economic division in our community over decisions that are not understood by the public."

Many of the board's budget talks will take place during regular meetings, which are televised and videostreamed on the CMS Web site. The next one, on Dec. 14, falls into that category.

But the board has also scheduled four special work sessions in 2011, which will not be available unless CMS finds about $10,000 or comes up with another plan for taping, airing and streaming. Board member Tim Morgan has suggested pulling from board members' travel allowances, but several of his colleagues balked at spending any public money to televise budget-cutting sessions.

Trobich has some ideas (read the full note below). I'm intrigued by some blog comments suggesting CMS use students. I'm sure that's not as easy as it sounds, and I suspect it can't be done for free. But it seems like the right combination of motivated students, tech-savvy faculty and business partners could do the work while giving students some marketable skills.

 Here's what Trobich has to say:

To our School Board Members;

Today I write not as president of the PTA Council, but as a citizen very interested in education policy. It is critical to the well-being of our city to make all "open" school board meetings available to the public. To continue the policy of only televising "regular" board meetings is actually endangering the peace and civic engagement of our community.

I know of your efforts to engage the public in the comprehensive review; I know that significant efforts were made in the summer, and our community did not respond adequately. We are somewhat spoiled here in Charlotte; we take our "world class" schools for granted, and many of us do not take the trouble to get involved until something happens that affects our school or our household.

In the past, when school cuts were announced and the public was caught unaware, we could go back and see the proceedings of meetings, and we could watch the replay of the meetings (including the budget work sessions where all the important factors in the decisions were discussed) on channel 3. This fall, when school closings were announced, parents, staff, and community leaders felt blindsided, and had no way of going back to the discussions to find the reasoning behind the decisions. Without this background, even those trying to understand were not able to understand why these ideas made sense.

Please do something to keep the public informed as to these decisions; I have been in attendance at many of the budget work sessions, but there are huge numbers of citizens that cannot attend due to work obligations, and still want to understand the process. I recorded and transcribed one of the budget work session meetings and sent it out to our PTAs; it took days (and nights) to accomplish this, and I cannot do that on a regular basis.

Please consider the following possibilities:

  • Provide a digital audio recording of the proceedings of every open meeting that is not televised. A member of the public who is interested in what happened at the meeting could view the powerpoint presentation, provided on the board website, and listen to the digital recording and understand the reasoning behind the proposals. It should be posted immediately after the meeting is concluded. The advantage here is that it is very cheap and does not require special expertise - a digital recorder with USB connection can be purchased for less than 50 dollars which will create a very good quality recording that can be posted as a file on the website.
  • Provide a video recording (as we did before) available on the board website and run it on Channel 3. The obligation to inform the public is certainly worth the tiny amount of funds that is required.
  • Provide a software transcription of the audio recording of the meeting immediately on the website afterward, with the disclaimer that the method used may produce less than perfect quality, and is provided to allow immediate review of the meetings proceedings by members of the public who could not attend.

  • Use a "Flip" camera to provide a video of the meeting. Although it would not be the quality we are used to, we are in a different budget climate than ever before, and the public will understand that. It would be far more informative than the naked power point presentations that we have now, and better than an audio recording alone. Again, this is a very cheap option. A Flip camera which will produce a video tape instantly for Youtube costs less than 130 dollars, and is available at dozens of stores in Charlotte immediately.

Without doing a better job of informing the public, we risk civic unrest, and deep racial and economic division in our community over decisions that are not understood by the public. I believe we have only seen a tiny fraction of the unrest that will occur unless we do this differently.

Thank you for your service to our community. Although I have disagreed with many school board decisions over the years, I have never felt that decisions were made based on "back room" agreements, or were being made arbitrarily without insightful discussion.

All of our citizens should be assured that these wrenching decisions are based on reasonable discussions of costs and benefits to the community, and that they are invited to participate.

Joni Trobich
Mecklenburg PTA Council

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Civil rights and the news from Raleigh

Update at 2:50 p.m.: Turns out the projections for Wake's teacher cuts come from a state report that lays out projections for all districts. Read that report here. I'm posting a story shortly, but quirks in our software make it easier to post a link from the blog than from a news item.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will hold a national education summit in Raleigh this weekend, with a focus on school resegregation. National President Benjamin Todd Jealous is scheduled to speak Friday evening, with a Saturday panel on "Reversing Resegregation."

This lands, of course, at an interesting time for our state. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is grappling with huge budget cuts, which drove a recent decision to close several schools in African-American neighborhoods in 2011. The U.S. Education Department's Office of Civil Rights is still weighing how to respond to complaints -- the total was at seven as of yesterday evening -- that those closings and other student assignment changes are unfair to black and Hispanic students.

Wake County Schools, which just became a majority-minority school system, is going through turmoil as a new school board majority prepares to shift to a neighborhood-based assignment system, scrapping the longstanding system that used family income to promote school diversity. CMS crossed the less-than-half-white threshold many years ago (currently about one-third of students are white), and beat Raleigh to the punch on the shift to neighborhood schools.

It's always interesting to check the News & Observer's education page. Among the other highlights from up the road: The Wake school board is preparing to interview finalists for superintendent, and officials are projecting huge classroom hits based on the likelihood of state budget cuts for 2011.

And there's a fascinating piece about the turmoil ahead for North Carolina's largest district, a title Wake claimed from CMS a few years ago.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Free ride to Harvard?

There's an e-mail making the local rounds saying that Harvard University has just decided to offer free tuition to students whose families earn less than $60,000 a year.

You haven't seen a news story because the decision was actually made about five years ago, according to Harvard's financial aid office. A staffer said the office is getting calls from across the country, as the e-mail has gone viral.

The basic information is sound: Students who are admitted pay nothing if their family income is less than $60,000. There's a sliding scale for incomes from $60,000 to $180,000.

The catch is you still have to get into Harvard, and that's no easy feat. But the message is a good reminder that extraordinary students may be able to get a top-notch private education without taking on a massive debt burden. A growing number of such schools, including Davidson College closer to home, have shifted to covering financial need with grants instead of loans, saying it helps them get the best students regardless of family wealth.

CMS's extra teachers: Do the math

"Weighted student staffing" is a crucial part of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' strategy for helping disadvantaged kids. It's going to play prominently in tough budget talks that lie ahead.

That's a challenge. Weighted student staffing involves -- pause for a collective shudder -- math formulas. That makes it tough to understand, and even tougher to explain in the limited space of a newspaper article designed for people reading quickly.

I've been fudging through the early budget articles with a vague description of extra teachers based on school poverty. My colleague Eric Frazier did an excellent job Sunday describing how high schools that don't get much help from weighted student staffing are seeing some class sizes balloon.

Unfortunately, while the data on class sizes was correct, we fumbled the description of the weighted student staffing formula.

It's important for people to understand this calculation going into 2011 budget. I figure blog readers are a good place to start; you're likely to stick with it and even suggest ways to make it clear to less dedicated readers.

Weighted student staffing starts with the premise that schools get teacher positions based on enrollment. Assuming a ratio of one teacher per 25 students (actual ratios vary from 1:22 to 1:29.5, depending on grade level), a school with 1,000 students would get 40 teachers paid by the state.

CMS uses county money to provide more teachers for disadvantaged kids. Lunch subsidies to low-income families are used as a rough measure of disadvantage (yes, I know there are questions about those numbers; that's a whole different topic). Each child who qualifies for lunch aid is counted as 1.3 students in the CMS formula.

So consider two schools with 1,000 students each. School A has a 20 percent poverty level, or 200 low-income kids. (Twenty percent is low by CMS standards; that's where South Charlotte Middle landed last year.) School B has 80 percent, or 800 kids.

School A is tallied as having 60 extra kids, based on multiplyng those 200 by 1.3. That would net about two more teachers.

School B gets credit for 240 extra kids, or almost 10 more teachers.

Why care? Because CMS is pumping $48 million a year into putting just over 800 additional teachers into schools based on that formula. They're not exclusively in high-poverty schools, as the example above shows, but most of them are.

Starting at the Dec. 14 meeting, the school board will start studying ways to cut roughly $100 million from the 2011-12 budget, which they'll vote on in May. That $48 million is sure to get scrutiny.

As controversial as it was to close buildings, many would say it's far more important to keep good teachers with kids. Brutal choices are looming. That means those of us who care about kids and taxes will need to pay close attention -- even if that means dealing with math formulas.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Update: TV or not TV?

Update: Board member Tim Morgan raised the question of televising budget work sessions today (see discussion below if you're new to this post). Superintendent Peter Gorman said it would cost about $2,000 to tape a three-hour session, air it on CMS-TV and webstream it.

Several budget discussions will take place at regular meetings, which are already televised. Four special sessions are slated, the first in mid-February. Gorman suggested a total tab of $10,000 to allow for run-on meetings.

Trent Merchant, Rhonda Lennon, Joyce Waddell, Richard McElrath and Joe White immediately weighed in against spending the money. Morgan said he'd be willing to give up some of his travel money to cover the cost, and Eric Davis told Gorman he'd talk to board members and get back to him.

For what it's worth, $10,000 from a billion-dollar budget is roughly the equivalent of a person who makes $100,000 spending $10. But even a relatively small expense carries big baggage these days.

If you feel strongly about it one way or the other, you might want to let board members know soon. And of course, feel free to keep posting suggestions here.
Original post: This is far from the toughest decision facing the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, but let me pose a puzzler:

The board is staring down huge budget cuts in 2011.

Members just took a beating over public engagement in the first round of cuts, which included closing schools. Among the complaints: Vast amounts of vital information were presented during special meetings held in the middle of weekdays, when few could attend.

On Friday, they'll start another round of meetings -- again, with a special midday session at a little-known location (1 p.m., CMS Leadership Academy, 7920 Neal Road).

They already eliminated CMS-TV as part of this year's budget. They're still paying freelancers to tape and televise the twice-monthly regular meetings. But they don't televise work sessions and public forums.

Should they?

On one hand, it would be ironic and no doubt unpopular to approve an additional expense going into a long season of budget cuts. Superintendent Peter Gorman fought to keep CMS-TV, but board members decided there was no way to preserve that while laying off teachers.

On the other, CMS has an $18.6 million reserve fund carried over from last year's budget. I don't know the cost for more meetings to be taped, televised and webstreamed, but it'd be pocket change compared to that sum.

Other things being equal, I'm a big fan of making public meetings public, especially when so much is at stake. The Observer can report only a small fraction of what goes on in long board meetings. Broadcast media get even less. CMS posts a lot of documents and PowerPoints, but it's nearly impossible to get the full meaning without hearing the discussion.

Gorman says the board is likely to discuss the question of televising special sessions.

So what do you think?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Racing for reform

I recently posted an item raising the question of what role Charlotte-Mecklenburg school closings might play in North Carolina's quest for federal Race to the Top money. I cited a memo from Chief Accountability Officer Robert Avossa noting that the deadline for CMS's report to the state had been extended from Nov. 8, the day before the board's school closing vote, to Nov. 10, the day after.

Avossa rightly took me to task for asking the question without calling him to get an answer. The deadline was extended for the board's vote, he said this week, but it had nothing to do with impressing the feds to get  money. North Carolina's $400 million and CMS's $15 million share of that have already been locked in, he said.

So why did CMS need to report information about school closings and changes? Even though the money has been awarded, the federal government demands to know what changes are planned for the lowest-performing 5 percent of the state's schools. Districts must choose from a prescribed menu of options, which includes closing.

CMS has 15 schools on that list (see below), including four the board voted to close. Avossa and his crew needed to wait for the board to weigh in before being able to accurately report what would happen. For instance, the fate of Waddell High was up in the air until late that night.

Here's the "bottom 5 percent" list Avossa sent; he notes that the first 12 qualified based on pass rates on state exams and the final three because of graduation rates. I've added any changes to those schools that were approved Nov. 9.

1. Billingsville Elementary.
2. Bruns Avenue Elementary (becoming preK-8).
3. Druid Hills Elementary (becoming preK-8).
4. Reid Park Elementary (becoming preK-8).
5. Sedgefield Elementary.
6. Thomasboro Elementary (becoming preK-8).
7. Walter G. Byers Elementary (becoming preK-8).
8. Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle.
9. Hawthorne High School.
10. Pawtuckett Elementary (closing).
11. Bishop Spaugh Middle (closing).
12. J.T. Williams Middle (closing).
13. West Charlotte High.
14. West Mecklenburg High.
15. E.E. Waddell High (closing).

Monday, November 15, 2010

Coach gets ready for "blind date"

This week Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member Joe White will be sworn in as president of the N.C. School Boards Association, representing 115 local boards.

It will be an interesting role for the retired coach, known for his die-hard Democratic politics and his tendency to speak bluntly. He'll be getting to know the first Republican-dominated state legislature in more than a century, fighting for school spending at a time when revenue is deflating like a punctured beach ball.

House and Senate Republicans will caucus this week to pick new leaders. The Public School Forum of North Carolina, a nonprofit advocacy and research group, recently described the prospect of getting to know new powerbrokers with a penchant for budget-cutting as "the worst blind date of their lives" for people who depend on state money.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Waddell/Harding details

When my editor asked me to do a live chat on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools today, my biggest fear was being embarrassed by dead air. I thought three days after the marathon school-closing meeting, people might be burned out on CMS issues.

Wrong! An hour-long event turned into more than two hours of rapid-fire questions that were still pouring in when we stopped taking new ones at 1 p.m. (read the archived chat here). It was odd to be on the receiving end of the barrage, but very cool to realize so many readers are asking such smart questions.

Several people wanted details of the proposed Smith/Waddell/Harding shuffle. I promised to post the map and projections that CMS e-mailed yesterday, so here it is.

I can anticipate your follow-up: What about the other schools that will change? I'll start tracking similar documents now and let you know if and when they're available. Update: The guy who handles this is out of town today, so it'll be next week.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

School closings, the Democrats and other bits and pieces

A few thoughts as we all catch our breath after Tuesday's dramatic school board meeting:

Will the turmoil in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hobble Charlotte's chances at getting the Democratic convention in 2012?  That question is floating, with some protesters threatening to lobby against Charlotte's selection.  On the one hand, it can't be good to have African Americans, including some well-established Democratic leaders, saying school-closing decisions smack of racism.  On the other, school-board craziness in many big cities makes Charlotte look tame.  I don't know much about the specific situations in Minneapolis, Cleveland and St. Louis, the competition.

Will school closings help CMS and North Carolina get federal Race to the Top money?  A savvy CMS observer* posed that question, and it's intriguing.  The Friday before the vote, CMS's chief accountability officer, Robert Avossa, sent board members an update on the $400 million NC is seeking, with CMS standing to pull in $15 million as its share over a four-year stretch.

As this person noted, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan generally considers it a sign of reform-minded seriousness when districts close low-performing schools.  And Avossa's report contains this interesting note: "Districts must submit a Race to the Top plan to the NC Department of Public Instruction by Nov. 8.   DPI granted our district’s request for a deadline extension to Nov. 10."

The vote to close schools was Nov. 9.

North Carolina must submit its proposal to the feds by Nov. 22, so we'll see what happens next.

*This conversation happened during the blur of Tuesday's meeting, and I can't recall whether it was a "keep my name out of this" proposition.  But the observer in question is a regular blog reader and may feel free to claim credit.

What challenges lie ahead as CMS merges current Waddell students and Harding IB students into a new version of Harding High next year? My colleague Eric Frazier is exploring that question. If you have experience with other high-school mergers (via boundary changes, for instance) or up-close knowledge of the Waddell-Harding situation and are willing to talk for a story, e-mail him at

Tuesday night's live coverage of the school board meeting on was a record-buster, drawing 3,748 viewers and 844 reader comments. (Read the record of the live chat here.) I was too busy writing for print to take part, but we're following up with a live chat at noon tomorrow.  Join in and I'll do my best to field your questions.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Happy anniversary, school board

I was pestering board Chair Eric Davis with what seemed like the millionth question about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' monster review of student assignment on Tuesday when it hit me: It's just one year since he and four other board members were elected.

Davis, Rhonda Lennon, Richard McElrath, Joyce Waddell and Tim Morgan were all voted onto the school board -- and to their first elected office -- this time a year ago. And what a year it's been.

Say what you will about this crew, but you can't call them slackers. They've plunged into what seems like a nonstop season of budget cuts, tackled some major policy issues and pushed through the current quest to revamp schools. They've created a schedule of meetings that's hard for me to keep up with, and it's my full-time job. Some of them have full-time jobs apart from the board, as well as young children to care for.

And they do seem committed to tackling tough issues with dignity. They've clashed with each other and with constituents over race, class and how to educate children, but they haven't resorted to ugliness, at least from what I've seen.

For the most part, citizens have responded in kind. For all the pain and anger floating around the proposed school closings, it's been inspiring to watch high-school students ask questions that would make a reporter proud. Parents and teachers have brought in-depth research and well-told stories to the table.

I couldn't help grinning last night when an adult speaker at Olympic High said his mother had seen him on TV speaking at a previous forum and was distressed by his behavior. He apologized, and explained how he'd been caught up in the heat of the moment.

"My points were valid," he said. "My tone was not."

What a great example of admitting a mistake while standing firm on what's important. I suspect everyone will need to take a deep breath and regroup after Tuesday's vote, however it turns out.

Because as demanding as this year as been, all signs point to a rockier one ahead.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

College football and CMS fantasy

Alert readers may have wondered why I suddenly decided to blog about football this morning. The answer: It wasn't me. My editor, Mike Gordon, has access to this blog, as well as to his own about college football. In one of those slip-of-the-mouse moments, he posted his musings here. (I actually watched the Georgia-Florida game he wrote about, but somehow missed the sidelines drama.)

While I'm letting other folks do my work, anyone who still has a sense of humor left about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' student-assignment turmoil might get a kick out of this column by Creative Loafing's John Grooms. I suspect he's not the only one to fantasize about just how crazy these sessions could get.

And for all the die-hards who are still sticking with it, I'll see you at Olympic High tonight. Eric Davis says this is public forum No. 15 ... but who's counting?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Harding High: Paranoia justified?

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

That wisecrack has been running through my head since last week, when I logged on to before hitting the road and learned Harding High had been added to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' closing list at the last minute.

Months ago, when Superintendent Peter Gorman started talking about closing schools, I heard from Harding parents and faculty who were convinced he had their school in his sights.

The Harding crew had good reason to be edgy. It was just a few years ago, when the economy was good and teachers were scarce, that CMS was letting underqualified faculty teach advanced math classes in Harding's math-science magnet program.

Last year, what started out as a battle over boundaries in southeast Mecklenburg somehow sprawled into a plan to pull magnet students out of the westside Harding -- a plan that emerged months after the school board was supposed to have made its decisions for 2010-11. Harding boosters fought off the most-feared changes, only to be bushwhacked again in the spring with a change in busing. The late-breaking "shuttle stop" plan, created to save money in 2010-11, meant students at Harding and 10 other magnet schools wouldn't get neighborhood pickups and dropoffs this year.

With the busing changes making it tougher to get to Harding and admission requirements making it tougher to get in, Harding's enrollment slumped from 1,043 last year to 894 this year. Still, I wasn't convinced Harding was on the death watch. A $19 million renovation had been completed in 2009, bringing state-of-the-art science labs to a school that specializes in science. Harding's performance on 2010 state exams was strong, and its graduation rate was among CMS's best. At the back-to-school news conference in August, Gorman specifically noted that Harding's enrollment was down, but said it often takes a couple of years to rebuild after a magnet starts weeding out students who aren't ready to tackle the advanced courses.

Harding had been in play for changes in 2011-12, but the plan to close the school came as a shock. On Sunday, Oct. 24, CMS posted details of a plan to close Waddell High and move Smith Language Academy. At 2:30 p.m. the next day, less than four hours before a public forum to discuss that plan, Harding parents got an e-mail saying CMS now wanted to save Waddell and close Harding to make room for Smith.

Reaction has been predictably explosive, not only from Harding boosters but from Smith families who say the new plan isn't as good for their kids.

The explanation from CMS leaders left plenty of room for questions. Apparently, after prodding from members Joyce Waddell and Richard McElrath, they belatedly decided that the guiding principles the board approved in August made it more logical to close a magnet than a neighborhood school.

Now there's a scramble to craft compromises before the music stops Nov. 9. On Monday, Harding leaders sent the school board a list of 26 good, pointed questions they want answered by Thursday. Among them: What really went on behind the scenes leading up to the Waddell/Harding switch? Why dismantle a successful school?

And the last one seems especially poignant: "How does the Board justify continuously targeting Harding University with major mandates over the last three years? What other CMS High Schools have been treated similarly?"

I hope they get good answers.

Monday, November 1, 2010

CMS closings: Dollars and sense?

While I was vacationing last week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools posted a more detailed account of the costs and savings projected from the big school shakeup. I've been trying to make sense of it, with help from CMS planner Dennis LaCaria.

It's not the easiest chart to read, but you'll notice that the biggest projected savings come from "personnel," with no specifics offered. LaCaria said the proposal does not involve cutting classroom teachers. The assumption is that if a certain number of students move from, say, Spaugh Middle, which would be closed, to new preK-8 schools at nearby elementaries, the teaching positions would move to those new schools.

The job cuts -- an estimated 60 to 80 if the school board approves all proposed changes next week -- come from principals and assistants, school librarians, counselors, secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers and others that would become redundant when schools close or merge. The biggest personnel savings, a little over $1 million, is listed at Harding High, a westside magnet that was added to the closing list just last week. The plan calls for moving the IB magnet to Waddell and the math/science magnet to Berry. Plenty of support staff would apparently disappear.

According to the finance plan, moving Smith Language Academy, a K-8 magnet, into Harding's newly renovated campus would cost more than $900,000. That's for installing smaller toilets and other facilities, LaCaria said. He disputed rumors that the switch would require hauling trailers to Harding; the three-story school includes enough first-floor classrooms to house the youngest children, as required by law.

If the plan goes through, Smith's middle-schoolers would inherit the state-of-the-art science labs that opened as part of Harding's $19 million in renovations last year. Berry's labs aren't quite as current, but the school offers "very good instructional space," LaCaria said.

Other points that require some explanation:

Busing costs are not yet calculated for several of the plans. That's because district officials will have to figure out bell schedules and other details, LaCaria said. He said the current assumption is that this year's controversial "shuttle stop" plan for some magnets will remain in force.

Two of the plans -- turning Winding Springs Elementary into a neighborhood school and making Cochrane Middle cover grades 6-12 -- will actually cost CMS more. LaCaria said the Winding Springs plan avoids the eventual cost of building a new school to relieve crowded Hornets Nest Elementary. And he said shifting some students from Garinger High to Cochrane will be a break-even plan in about five years.

The plan to turn Irwin Avenue Elementary into CMS office space includes an unexplained "miscellaneous" savings of almost $236,000 linked to moving people from the uptown Education Center to Irwin. LaCaria says that's because CMS would move other staff out of leased space and into the newly-vacant Ed Center offices.

And finally, it's still hard to say how many students would see major changes under this plan. CMS's tally includes everyone in any school on the list. For instance, a proposal to move about 50 students from Community House to South Charlotte Middle is listed as affecting about 2,400 kids, the combined enrollment of the two schools. Using that method, almost 28,000 students would see some kind of change in programs or enrollment.

About 21,000 more attend schools slated for "targeted assistance" to improve academics, image or student mobility. With a budget of $0 -- that's right: zip -- for 21 schools, it's hard to imagine that's going to be a huge deal.

So ... some of you have a jump start on me. What are you thinking and asking as you crunch the numbers?

Friday, October 22, 2010

CMS drama as performance art

I walked up to the Levine Museum of the New South Wednesday night for a forum on changing demographics and public schools, and found myself at one of the most unusual education events I've encountered.

The organizers from UNC Charlotte decided to forgo a traditional panel discussion in favor of performance art. School-related headlines spanning decades flashed on a screen, while performers read excerpts from court rulings, newspaper articles and personal essays. Civil rights lawyer James Ferguson, one of the readers, interspersed the prose with a cappella verses of Jacob's Ladder, with lyrics such as "Tell me, do you love all children? Leaders of our youth."

And so, 48 hours after covering an NAACP meeting with a crowd fired up to fight school closings in 2011, I watched a headline that was obviously decades old flash on screen: "Negro Groups Complain About School Closings."

Katie McCormick with the UNCC library said she'd started planning this session about a year ago, before the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board launched the student-assignment review that has people up in arms over proposed closings. "It turns out that this topic was more timely than we imagined," she said.

The historians were quick to incorporate breaking news. It was surreal to hear the final few minutes of the performance, where Ferguson and another reader turned quotes and snippets from articles I wrote last week into a sort of point-counterpoint poetry.

The discussion that followed wasn't exactly the bullet-point, solution-finding exercise that you see at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools forums. A mom about to send her child to kindergarten mused about feeling overwhelmed. A more experienced CMS parent commiserated: "It's always been overwhelming to get your kids in CMS."

Older speakers talked about living through desegregation. A Mallard Creek High School student gave his take on resegregation. Northerners and Southerners traded barbs over who was responsible for racial separation.

There was a strong sense of repeating history. A teacher at University Park Elementary, an arts magnet that's slated for closing next year, said it feels like we're going in circles, but as an artist she prefers to think of spirals.

"We can spiral upward," she said, "or we can spiral down."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Where was Gorman?

A whole lot of things went haywire last Tuesday, when a public forum on school closings drew an overflow crowd to the Government Center. The meeting ended with arrests and anger, which continues to simmer as the forums and meetings move toward a Nov. 9 vote.

One of the things I've been hearing is that Superintendent Peter Gorman and the board disrespected the people who showed up to speak by failing to listen to the "open mike" comments. I understand why people think that, but I don't think it's correct.

Here's the deal: The session took place in the formal meeting chamber, where board members normally sit around a dais, looking out at the audience (and into bright lights). There are two podiums for speakers; during regular meetings they address the board with their back to the audience. This time, speakers were given a hand-held mike so they could face the crowd. A couple of board members took their normal seats at the dais, which meant they were looking at speakers' backs.

Others stood at the edges of the chamber, where they could see better. Gorman said today he was standing in the doorway at the right side of the room. If you knew the faces, you could spot the leaders. But if you didn't, all you saw was a lot of empty seats at the dais.

Legitimate concerns remain about the proposals and the process, where speakers' time was cut short and some were turned away (they're supposed to be invited back for a special comment session next Tuesday). But it's worth noting that from what I could tell, the folks making decisions didn't bail out on public comments.

The scoop from The Apple

Superintendent Peter Gorman's news conference this morning wasn't as celebratory as he and his crew had hoped, since Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools didn't snag the Broad Prize for Urban Education* at Tuesday's ceremony in New York City. But there were some interesting nuggets from the event.

First, the serious education stuff: Gorman said Gwinnett County Public Schools, which took the top prize, is pursuing many of the same strategies as CMS. The suburban Atlanta district has moved from a top-down strategy of "telling people what to teach and how to teach it" to one that grants more freedom to successful educators. Gwinnett Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks is also focused on building the effectiveness of principals and teachers.

There was also talk about the importance of leadership stability -- that is, having a superintendent who not only lays out his vision but sticks around to make it work. Wilbanks has held his job 14 years, the longest-serving leader of a big district, Gorman said.

Now the celebrity gossip: Gorman says he had a brief chat with NBC anchor Brian Williams, who gave the keynote speech at the Broad Prize ceremony. He says Williams told him about spending  time in North Carolina because he has a child at Elon University. "He also shared that he likes NASCAR," Gorman said.

And finally, a public-relations official's nightmare: LaTarzja Henry was getting ready for the award ceremony and flipped on the TV in her Manhattan hotel room. And there, on New York City TV, was a report on a student injured by an exploding pen in CMS's Turning Point Academy.

*As some have noted, our print-edition headline and photo caption were wrong in stating that CMS took second place. The four remaining finalists were not ranked. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the also-rans to the stage one by one before announcing the winner. CMS was the last eliminated, which added to the suspense but did not mean the Charlotte crew outscored Montgomery County, Md., and two districts in El Paso, Texas. As Gorman quipped today, "we like to say we tied for second."

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

No champagne for CMS

Update: Gwinnett County Public Schools outside Atlanta took the top prize. I watched the webcast with CMS principals, who had stayed after their regular meeting to see how the district fared. After almost an hour of speeches, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called out the four non-winning districts first. It was down to CMS and Gwinnett when CMS was called as the final runner-up. Still, $250,000 in scholarships isn't a bad consolation prize.

Later this morning, philanthropist Eli Broad and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will announce the winner of the 2010 Broad Prize for Urban Education. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is one of five finalists, and there's a big local crew in New York City for the ceremony.

CMS was a finalist in 2005, but this time feels different. Despite all the furor at home over proposed school closings, Superintendent Peter Gorman (who was trained at the Broad Superintendents Academy) has been getting national buzz for his "strategic staffing" quest to get top principals and teachers into struggling urban schools. A recent article in Newsweek touted the plan as "an ingenious school-turnaround strategy" that gives CMS "a serious shot at winning" the Broad Prize. Duncan recently toured Sterling Elementary, one of the strategic staffing schools.

If CMS wins, it means $1 million in scholarships for local graduates (even finalist status brings $250,000) and national bragging rights for district leaders.
A 13-person CMS delegation is there to get the news: Gorman; Board Chair Eric Davis, Vice Chair Tom Tate, board members Kaye McGarry, Trent Merchant and Joe White and former board Chair  Molly Griffin; Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark; Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh; Chief Accountability Officer Robert Avossa; LaTarzja Henry, the top public-relations official; Denise Watts, a strategic staffing principal promoted to oversee high-poverty schools; and Mary McCray, a CMS teacher who heads the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.

When asked about the travel tab, Henry said it was included in the CMS budget. But Gorman later called to say he is paying for it out of a $250,000 grant the C.D. Spangler Foundation gave him for personal development. The tally wasn't immediately available, but Henry said the group is staying at the Sheraton New York in midtown Manhattan.

So does the advance buzz and the big contingent mean the decision has been leaked? Gorman insists not. He said the Broad crew told him the winning superintendent will find out about five minutes before the announcement, with strict orders not to tip the news to anyone else.

Stay tuned. Some CMS employees who didn't make the trip will be watching the webcast. I'll be there too, hoping the technology works and posting as soon as I know anything.

Friday, October 15, 2010

CMS student assignment: There's more!

Plans for school closings and arrests at a public forum have hogged the spotlight, but there's a new step emerging in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board's student assignment review.

After the drama at Tuesday's meeting, the board formally introduced proposed revisions to the policies that guide the assignment lottery (to read them, click here, then click items V a, b and c). The changes incorporate the guiding principles this board passed during the summer and remove confusing historical references that piled up over the years. They also eliminate the lottery for non-magnet schools, which had tapered off to virtually nothing in practice anyway.

"You almost needed a guidebook to get through it," Superintendent Peter Gorman said of the existing policies. "It will be much simplified."

If you're just hearing about this, never fear: You haven't missed a chance to weigh in. The board plans to hold public hearings on the policies at its next two meetings before voting. That means this could be piled on what's bound to be a marathon meeting Nov. 9, when members have vowed to make decisions on the list of closings, consolidations and other proposed school changes for 2011-12.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How much hope for new preK-8 schools?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will hold the first of its public forums today (6-8 p.m. at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.) on proposals to close high-poverty, low-scoring middle schools and move the students to new preK-8 schools housed at current elementary schools.

Belatedly, here's a link to the Johns Hopkins University study comparing achievement in Philadelphia K-8 and middle schools, which Superintendent Peter Gorman handed out to the school board recently. The hard copy the board got was 56 pages, and this journal article sent by CMS is 35, but as best I can tell from a quick scan, it covers the same key points.

Interestingly, the copy the board got had lots of yellow highlights on pages 6 and 7 (pages 3 and 4 on the link), where the researchers summarize other studies that have found higher test scores, better attendance, more satisfied parents and stronger neighborhood ties at K-8 schools. The highlighted sections also note apparent benefits from avoiding the transition to a new school in sixth grade, when academic performance often slumps. That's a point CMS leaders have emphasized in pushing for the local changes.

But if you keep reading, the researchers note that those studies were small and not highly rigorous; the Johns Hopkins crew set out to do a more sophisticated analysis of how much advantage such schools really have and what factors are linked to those benefits.

Keep reading even further, past a lot of stuff that's tough going for those of us who aren't  researchers or statisticians, and you get to some conclusions that seem to undermine the premise of CMS's plan. These researchers found that the advantages of merging elementary and middle-school grades are relatively small when other factors are accounted for, and that "a district is not likely to replicate the K-8 advantage based upon size and school transition alone if its student population is predominantly from high-minority and high-poverty backgrounds."

The study also warns that the cost of converting to K-8 schools can be high: "(A)dministrators must ask themselves if such a massive reform is truly worth the resources given the likely impacts. They must also compare it to other possible reforms and decide if with K-8 conversions, they are getting the best possible 'bang for their buck' in terms of reform finances."

I assume CMS leaders are asking those questions, since they distributed the study. I'm still playing phone tag to get their answers. More on that in the very near future.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

"Superman": Charlotte is waiting

Will Charlotte audiences pack a theater to watch a documentary about urban education?

If someone had asked me that a few weeks ago, I'd have responded with an "Are you serious?" smirk. But the buzz about "Waiting for 'Superman' " has been building since its national debut, including a feature on Oprah. When I went with a group of education reporters to see it in New York City, the huge theater was selling out on weekday evenings.

The film by Davis Guggenheim, director of "An Inconvenient Truth," opens in Charlotte on Friday. It's likely to swell the surge of education-reform energy building here and nationwide.

The title will make sense to local folks who attended Geoffrey Canada's Charlotte talk in March. Canada, one of the country's most charismatic education leaders, created the Harlem Children's Zone, which provides "cradle to career" services designed to break the link between poverty and academic failure. He tells of growing up in the ghetto and fantasizing that Superman would save him, then crying when his mother told him Superman wasn't real.

His message, and that of the film, is that we all have to be the heroes.

Education wonks will find plenty to debate. Does it oversimplify complicated issues? Sure. Does it present  charter schools as The Big Solution? Sort of. I don't think I'm spoiling anything to say that charter-school lotteries serve as the dramatic hook. My sense is that's less about creating a "great charters/lousy traditional schools" dichotomy than about painting a vivid picture of the slim odds some children face in seeking an excellent education. Here, many families seek Charlotte-Mecklenburg magnets as a ticket out of weak schools (though the computerized lottery and notification letters wouldn't make good theater).

What "Superman" undeniably does is put human faces on the children and parents fighting odds that are stacked against them by poverty and failing schools. We may walk out of the theater arguing about causes and solutions to the problems. But it will be hard to walk out with a shrug.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Pride or prejudice?

"It's about to get ugly," school board member Joe White said as open-mike time approached at last night's forum on school closings and other changes.

Maybe so. From what I've seen, most board members, parents and educators have worked hard to keep a civil, respectful tone during months of talks about student assignment. But now that it's down to specifics about closing and merging schools, tensions are high.

Every school district in America will tell you that making kids switch schools is the toughest issue they tackle. Inevitably, one school is seen as better than another. And let's face it: The less-desirable school is generally the one with lower-income families and more students of color.

Soon after I started this beat, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools drew new boundaries for south suburban schools, all of which were high-performing and well regarded by most standards. But I kid you not, I heard parents complaining that neighborhoods of $200,000 and $300,000 homes were being treated like slums by folks whose homes were worth twice that.

Last night, the tension surfaced between Davidson IB and Alexander middle schools. Today, parents are miffed at each other, at me and at board member Rhonda Lennon, who represents that part of the county and weighed in on what she saw as disdain from Davidson IB families toward the poor and black students at Alexander.

The DIB crowd turned out in force, and most of their comments focused on how wonderful their school is. It's hard to argue that point. Who wouldn't want their kids to attend a small school that's nationally recognized for academic excellence, where kids who expect to work hard apply for admission and where a charming town embraces the school?

But CMS officials say they can't afford it. They've proposed closing DIB, saving the cost of renovating the aging building and putting a bigger International Baccalaureate magnet into Alexander, which has seats to spare. A cash-strapped district saves money and more kids get the chance to take part in the challenging academic program, they say.

Inevitably, some DIB families highlighted the reasons they believe a move to Alexander would be disastrous:  It's too big. It's not as safe. The kids don't work as hard.

"I don't want to disrespect Alexander, but a lot of them don't want to learn like we do," a DIB seventh-grader said. An adult referred to Alexander as "a factory school."

It's hard to blame the Alexander crowd for taking umbrage. "What it really comes down to is fear of change, if you listen to them," one man said.

So how do race and class play in? That part is hard to nail down.

DIB is majority white, but hardly homogeneous. This year's tally includes 143 white students, 65 blacks and 15 each of Hispanics and Asians. Last year about 1 in 5 DIB students qualified for low-income lunch aid (this year's tally isn't in), compared with just under half at Alexander. Alexander is 49 percent black, 31 percent white and 12 percent Hispanic, making it one of CMS's more diverse schools.

The DIB student who talked about how Alexander's kids "don't want to learn like we do" is white. But the next DIB speaker was a black student who had moved from Alexander to the magnet "because of the way kids treat you if you're smart." One of the parents worrying aloud that kids wouldn't be safe at Alexander was African American.

Perhaps the best insight I heard came from DIB seventh-grader Sophie Swallow, who compared merging the schools to "trying to force two families into the same house."

Her point was how difficult that is, and no doubt she's right. But divorce, remarriage and -- especially these days -- economic hardship force plenty of families to merge. A lot of CMS "families" are likely to find themselves sharing quarters next year. The challenge is how to make it work.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Close schools, save teachers?

Expect to hear a new theme from Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board Chair Eric Davis at tonight's public forum on school shakeups: Closing schools will save teachers.

It's always been a bit tough to nail down the driving force behind this months-long student-assignment review. Sometimes academic reform seems to be foremost, sometimes cost, sometimes a desire to streamline or refocus the student assignment process. Sometimes everyone in the room seems to have a different idea.

In an interview yesterday, Davis said he plans to emphasize the prospect of budget cuts in 2011-12. Not only will millions in federal stimulus money disappear, he said, but the governor is warning school districts to prepare for a 5 percent to 15 percent cut. In CMS, that's $30 million to $90 million, which could mean another big round of teacher layoffs, Davis said.

He said he'd rather save money by closing half-filled buildings and merging schools. Superintendent Peter Gorman hasn't presented budget numbers for his proposed changes -- that's coming next week -- but rough estimates are that it costs about $500,000 a year to operate an elementary school, $700,000 for a middle school and $900,000 for a high school (that's not counting staff salaries).

"Every dollar we save in October helps us deal with the budget in April," Davis said. "Our intention is to preserve these teachers that we all value."

If Davis's mindset prevails with a board majority, folks hoping to change minds about Gorman's proposed plans could face a tough sell. Planners and board members have already said it's too late to launch new plans, so the best hope for people who don't like the current proposals will be to get the board to revise them slightly, delay them for further study or kill them entirely. Davis says he plans to warn people suggesting delay or defeat that "what you're saying is you'd rather lay off teachers."

But there are nine members voting on Nov. 9, and huge numbers of parents weighing in. We'll see how the next step plays out starting at 6 p.m. today at Hopewell High in Huntersville. Remember, each public forum will deal with a handful of proposals, rather than trying to plow through the whole list, which affects about 70 schools. Check the forum schedule to see which are up when; the most controversial one up today is the move to close Davidson IB Middle and relocate the IB magnet to Alexander Middle in Huntersville.

Update 11:45 a.m.:  I have just changed the link to the forum schedule to reflect an updated location. Tuesday's session will be at the Government Center, not at West Charlotte High as the previous flier said. The new link will take you to an outdated news release, but scroll past that to get to the current schedule.
Also, as a blog poster discovered, CMS misspelled the email address for comments, so if you cut-and-paste your email will bounce back. They're correcting it. Meantime, use

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

TFA founder: It's all about people

Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America, was in Charlotte this morning giving a pep talk to about 100 people involved with the quest for local philanthropists to boost public-school reform.
(There's more news from the CMS Investment Study Group coming today).

Her message: It is possible to break the link between poverty and academic failure and to do so on a large scale. But it isn't easy.

"It really is possible, not only at a classroom level but at a whole-school level," she said. "It's going to take a lot of hard work to have whole systems of transformational schools. It's going to take developing and unleashing extraordinary leadership."

I can practically hear the hackles raising among readers who are skeptical of TFA. Some see it as a means of replacing seasoned (and expensive) teachers who have made a long-term commitment to education with eager young rookies who stay a couple of years and move on.

For what it's worth, Kopp wasn't preaching TFA as the solution for CMS, which already relies heavily on its recruits. In fact, she made it clear that any formulaic approach to change -- more charter schools, a trendy curriculum, giving kids laptops, etc. -- isn't likely to move the needle. One of the reasons there has been so little gain to show for the last 20 years of investment is that "we just keep lurching after one silver bullet after another," she said.

Instead, she said, any district that hopes to transform high-poverty, low-performing schools must have leaders who can recruit great teachers and principals, then give them the freedom to figure out what works for their school.

Kopp said her Charlotte speech is an early roll-out of points she's making in an upcoming book, "A Chance To Make History."

Afterward, she noted that philanthropic support is emerging as a common thread in the districts with the best shot at helping poor and minority students succeed in school. But Charlotte's level of commitment is "extraordinary," she said, as is the willingness of Superintendent Peter Gorman to work with them.

Monday, October 4, 2010

CMS school change details live

Here's the final tally: Highland Mills and Chantilly Montessori and Elizabeth and Myers Park Traditional, all elementary school magnets, were spared from closing. Mint Hill Middle and Ballantyne Elementary were pulled off the boundary-change list.
All other proposals remain active, but that does not mean they will be approved. Voting on 2011-12 plans is scheduled for Nov. 9.

4:50: Motion to pull DavidsonIB/Alexander off the list fails 4-3. Meeting over.

4:46: McGarry proposes no changes to Villa Heights location. Fails 4-3.

McGarry moves to halt consideration of merging Davidson IB into Alexander Middle.

4:45: Motion to take Waddell/Smith shuffle off the list fails 4-3. Voting to stop studying this: Waddell, McElrath, McGarry.

4:40: Motion to pull Torrence Creek off list for boundary change fails 4-3; the four say they don't know enough to vote yet.

Joyce Waddell moves to take Waddell High/Smith shuffle off the list.

4:38: Morgan and Davis: Don't vote on Torrence Creek today because Rhonda Lennon, who represents that district, isn't at this meeting.

4:35: Unanimous vote to take Mint Hill and Ballantyne off the list for boundary changes. McElrath moves to pull Torrence Creek Elementary as well.

4:30: Raible says recession has slowed development and enrollment surge at Ballantyne and Mint Hill; question is how quickly it recovers.

4:26: Morgan moves not to change boundaries at Mint Hill Middle and Ballantyne Elementary.

4:25: Myers Park and Elizabeth Traditional elementaries are spared; board votes 6-1 to preserve traditional magnet program. Only McGarry opposes.

4:22: Merchant: "We have some major problems that we need to solve in this district and they are not at Myers Park and Elizabeth Traditional. ... For God's sake, leave these people alone and let's go fix something that needs our attention."

Raible: There's no "vendetta" against these schools. "It was simply looking for opportunities."

4:14: Merchant moves to preserve Myers Park and Elizabeth Traditional magnets. He calls for continuing to look for a new location for Villa Heights magnet and exploring some kind of lab-school partnership with Queens. Suggests Oakhurst might be new location for VH gifted magnet. Merchant: I believe staff has "fundamental opposition" to traditional magnets, but "I don't care. It's working."

4:11 Montessori magnets get a reprieve: Board votes 4-3 to take the Highland Mill/Chantilly/Oakhurst plan off the table. Because two are absent, less than a majority of the nine-member board held sway. Voting to remove this: McGarry, Waddell, McElrath, Tate.

4:05: McGarry moves to take Chantilly/Highland Mill Montessori consolidation off the table. Discussion begins.

4:00: Officials outline a series of public meetings on these plans, starting this Thursday at Hopewell High and running through Oct. 25. Will post as soon as I get a link. Ditto for the PowerPoint they're working from today; I've been trying to get a link but right now just have it on paper.

3:56:  Harding expected to have about 1,600 students under new plan, about double current enrollment.

Tate: What would the language school at Waddell be called? Gorman: Board would have to decide.

McElrath: I go to football games and see players and cheerleaders all one race. "It would be nice if you would give diversity some kind of attention." No response.

3:45 Up now, one of the most dramatic shifts. Close perpetually underfilled Waddell High in southwest Charlotte and let Smith Language Academy, a K-8 magnet, have that building. Add neighborhood students to the westside Harding High, now a full magnet. Keep IB program at Harding but move math/science magnet to nearby Berry Academy of Technology.

Harding would pull students from current Waddell and West Meck zones. Waddell kids would go to West Meck, South Meck or Harding.

Joyce Waddell (yes, related to the Waddell the school is named for) says she can't support abolishing a high school that's done well with minority students and has a nationally recognized science program. McGarry says she's "on the fence."

Officials say the move would let Smith expand its Chinese language program.

3:37: Waddell: Plan to put students from low-performing middle schools into low-performing elementaries sounds a lot like what Gorman said he wasn't going to do. Gorman: We're "doubling down" that Strategic Staffing will pay off.
Merchant on new hybrid el/middle schools: "I like these. I think these are good ideas."

3:33: Tate worries that closing middle schools and creating new hybrid elementary/middle schools by 2011-12 is too complex to do so quickly. "We may be trying to do so much that we may not be able to do it as well as we should."
Some of the elementary schools that would expand are part of Strategic Staffing, a CMS program that assigns top principals to struggling schools and helps them recruit teams of high-performing teachers.

3:27 Board members ask if middle-schoolers in new preK-8 schools (which would be small and high-poverty) would have the same elective courses as peers in bigger schools. Not necessarly, Gorman says; no guarantee of "full buffet."
Raible says officials are excited about possible enhancement of science and foreign language for younger kids by virtue of having middle schools in the building. But Gorman is quick to say they're making no promises about that.

3:20: School board got a 56-page research report on academic achievement in K-8 schools, done by Johns Hopkins University researchers. I'll try to get a link to that in the near future.
Raible says no phase-in for new preK-8. That means this year's sixth- and seventh-graders will bounce back to what are now elementary schools for grades seven and eight next year. (Ouch -- that could be a tough sell for rising eighth-graders, especially if they're going back to their old schools!) Buildings will have to be modified for older grades and in some cases for 4-year-olds.

3:18: Gorman calls DIB building the worst in the district; "nothing compares to it." Board moves on to plan to close three low-performing, high-poverty middle schools and create new preK-8 schools to take their place.

3:15: Up now: Closing the popular and successful Davidson IB Middle and making the IB program part of underfilled Alexander Middle in Huntersville (Alexander was one of CMS's most crowded schools until a new school opened a couple of years ago). Officials say this means lots more kids can get into a great program, which could make up as much as half of Alexander's enrollment.

Proposed new IB magnet at Blythe Elementary would also feed into Alexander magnet.

McGarry says she opposes this plan because DIB is unique and successful.

3:10: Raible says Cochrane is doing well academically but underfilled: "This would allow Cochrane's success to continue for grades 9-12."

McGarry says safety is "the elephant in the room" in merging younger grades with high school. Unless CMS beefs up safety, she says, younger kids could be exposed to "selling drugs, assaulting teachers, sex and gangs."

3:05: What about sports? Cochrane high schoolers would play on Garinger teams.

Morgan: Will small neighborhood high school at Cochrane offer enough academic options for high performers? Current 6-12 schools are magnets with specialty programs that families choose. I didn't hear a clear answer to this.

3:01: Next up: Plan for turning Cochrane, an eastside middle school that's losing its science magnet, into a 6-12 school. It would pick up some students from Garinger High. Officials say kids benefit from easier transition to high school. Cochrane would get "targeted assistance for perception" (read: image boost).

2:58: Plan calls for closing University Park Elementary arts magnet and making First Ward a bigger arts magnet (First Ward just picked up arts magnet this year). Raible says benefit is better access to uptown arts/culture scene for UPark kids, plus avoids eventual need to renovate UPark building. First Ward would become a year-round school.

2:53: Next up: Close westside Pawtuckett Elementary, demolish building for future new school, put those kids into relatively new Whitewater Academy in northwest, which failed to fill when economy tanked. Little discussion on that.

2:50: Board members discuss whether they're making decisions without full info, especially about costs. Davis: "We're really not making decisions today." Waddell: "Yes we are." She and Tate says pulling schools out of the plan is a decision.

Montessori change continuing to get a lot of resistance; coincidence that that's the group packing the meeting room?

Davis: We've been at this almost two hours and we're less than halfway through. Moving on.

2:40: As questions and resistance about Montessori change continue, Gorman bristles a bit: "We're getting ourselves backed into a corner where we're going to take everything off the list." That's OK if it's what the board wants, he says, but he'll be back at budget time asking where they want to find the savings.

2:35: McGarry, a former Montessori parent, asks if Highland Mill school was built for Montessori program. Parents in audience pump fists and whisper "yes!"

"Instead of putting the million-dollar market uptown, just have the Montessori schools grow their own vegetables," McGarry says.

LaCaria notes Oakhurst would offer more seats than HM and Chantilly combined, thus more kids could get into Montessori.

This plan continues the new 7-8 Montessori magnet at Sedgefield Middle; question is whether merging elementaries would create more kids feeding into it.

2:30: McElrath touches on what's going to be a very tough question: If you merge three schools, such as Oakhurst/Chantilly/Highland Mills, who is new principal? Gorman: Not ready to start naming names yet (or next week -- personnel discussion will be more general).

2:25: Davis: Montessori/Paideia plan seems to be collisions of academic benefits vs. cost savings.
Tate: What about transportation to new Montessori at Oakhurst? Placement director Scott McCully says kids wouldl have to be bused from very large area.
Gorman mentions desire for more magnets in north Meck; loud applause. But Gorman says there isn't space to do that now.
McGarry arrives; it's up to seven of nine members.

2:20 Raible says closing Highland Mill and Chantilly Montessori magnets and consolidating them into new preK-6 Montessori magnet at Oakhurst is about saving money. He acknowledges Montessori programs rely heavily on contact with outside world and have invested in gardens and grounds.
Oakhurst Paideia magnet disappears under this plan. Tate says it doesn't make sense to change either Montessori or Paideia; says smaller schools can be better for Montessori.

2:12 Davis agrees there are "too many unknowns" to end a successful traditional program. No formal decision, but this one looks like it's going down.
On to Montessori, with groups of parents in T-shirts listening eagerly.

2:10: Merchant on ending the highly successful MP Trad: "I think that's crazy. I will never, ever, ever vote for that. ... I have all faith in our team, but they can't stop time. We don't have time to do all this." Explore partnership with Queens for a later time.

Tate: What happens to Villa Hts building? Gorman: Not ready to say.
Tate: What's cost of vacant buildings. Gorman: We're working on that, will present it.

2:05: Interesting if votes are taken today: Only six of nine members are present: Davis, Tate, Tim Morgan, Waddell, McElrath, Merchant. Absent: Kaye McGarry, Joe White, Rhonda Lennon.

2 p.m. Students at Myers Park and Elizabeth Traditional would get guaranteed seats at Myers Park lab school when traditional magnet disappears, Raible says. He says this program would provide what MPTS parents have said is most important about their school. Lab school also helps Queens train better teachers, which could boost all CMS schools, he says. (University lab schools are used for universities to do teacher education and research on teaching.)

Students at the tiny Villa Heights magnet for gifted kids would move to Elizabeth Elementary, with space for more kids. Additional seats for families seeking the talent development magnet would be available at new Mallard Creek Elementary program.

Tate, Merchant and Joyce Waddell all say they oppose plan to eliminate traditional magnets and move Villa Hts magnet. Richard McElrath says anything that makes magnet kids return to neighborhood schools can be good for those neighborhood schools.

1:55 p.m. New plan for Myers Park Traditional Elementary: It becomes a year-round laboratory school with Queens University. Board members are looking at Wake County year-round schedules to get a feel for how that works.
"Multi-track," which puzzled some board members and parents, has to do with kids having their vacations at different times. Because some kids are off at all times, schools can hold more kids. (Challenge for families: What if kids in different schools have different vacations?)

1:50 p.m. New as part of plan to close Irwin Avenue Elementary: Blythe and Mallard Creek elementaries get new magnet programs: IB at Blythe, talent development (gifted) at Mallard Creek. Both would be partial magnets. Not totally clear how this connects to Irwin Avenue uptown.
Kids in IB magnet at Irwin would get guaranteed seats in IB magnets in their transportation zones. Neighborhood kids at Irwin would go to Dilworth or Bruns.
Irwin building would house administrative offices, with historic status recognized.

1:45 p.m. Raible notes the Davis plan would mean K-12 kids riding buses together. Murmurs from audience.
Tate asks whether Gorman would pursue options that turn out to be more costly. Gorman says only if it's a short-term expense for long-range saving, but there will be uncertainties. "It's very uncertain what we can crystal-ball."
Gorman clarifies cost estimates will come next week but not necessarily Monday.

1:40 Board member Trent Merchant says public is still unclear: "Why are you doing all this?" Should make it clearer what's driving each proposal -- in this case, crowding at Hornets Nest. Audience applauds when Merchants says clarity would help with "buy-in."
Gorman says buy-in will be tough in some cases: "Nobody wants to see their home school go away or their magnet school go away." Some magnets recommended for changes "are good schools that are doing good things," but district is in a money pinch.

1:35 p.m. Gorman acknowledges some kids and families will be hurt by changes: "When we close a school or change a school, it's not always a better option for a particular family. We have to be up front about that."
He says proposals are driven by academics but also cost.

1:30 p.m.  Discussion: Leadership magnet at WS would mesh well with military/leadership magnet at Davis, which is currently in an underfilled, recently-removated building serving grades 6-12.
Question arises about 5-year-olds and teens at same school. "We're talking about a global leadership magnet, for crying out loud," Raible says. "If we're not able to have those students on the same campus, then who?"

1:27 p.m. Turning Marie G. Davis into a K-12 magnet school would help kids by eliminating transitions to middle and high school, Raible says (academic performance often drops during such transitions). Winding Springs Elementary, now a global leadership magnet, would become a neighborhood school, picking up students from Hornets Nest Elementary.
Gorman says HN has about 900 students and is using 15 mobiles; another 900 kids from HN zone are in other CMS schools. "We do need another boundary created by Hornets Nest," he says.

1:20 p.m. Board member Tom Tate says it's going to be tough to decide about eliminating options today without cost estimates. Both he and Richard McElrath are skeptical about getting into boundaries when schools are successful and focus is supposed to be on improving academics.

1:15 p.m. Board members ask about adding mobile classrooms rather than redrawing boundaries to ease crowding. Gorman and planner Dennis LaCaria say moving mobiles is expensive and new boundaries could provide longer-term solutions (still no specifics on which schools would pick up turf, but officials say it's pretty obvious what's adjacent).

1:10 p.m. Latest list of overcrowded neighborhood schools that need new boundaries is down from last week's five to three. Highland Creek and Torrence Creek elementaries and Community House Middle remain. Ballantyne Elementary and Mint Hill Middle have been removed, but planner Mike Raible says "they were removed inadvertently and really should be on the list."

1 p.m. Parents from Chantilly and Highland Mill Montessori magnet schools are packing this afternoon's meeting, where Superintendent Peter Gorman and his staff are poised to explain to Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members how proposed closings and other changes can improve academics and/or save money in 2011-12. Meetings at the CMS Leadership Academy, a little-known building on the Governors Village campus, seldom draw an audience, but interest is high.

Gorman says today's session won't cover costs or impact on personnel; those details are expected Monday.

At the end of today's meeting, the board may decide to eliminate some of the proposals presented last week, Gorman and board Chair Eric Davis say. The session is scheduled to last until about 5 p.m.

Sorting through CMS shuffle today

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board reconvenes from 1-5 p.m. today at the CMS Leadership Academy, 7920 Neal Road, to get more details on the complex list of school shuffles presented last week. I'll be posting live updates, but they may not be as extensive as last week's, when I had the luxury of another reporter backing me up.

The proposed changes for 2011-12 include closing schools, moving magnet programs, changing grade levels (including the creation of CMS's first K-12 school, at Marie G. Davis Military/Leadership Academy) and redrawing boundaries. Board members and parents have plenty of questions that haven't been answered yet, and staff will start providing some of those details today.

Board Chair Eric Davis said he's not sure whether those answers will include the one that affects taxpayers: How much will these changes cost or save? "If we don't have it today, I'll be pressing that we've got to have it next week," he said this morning.

Officials will also offer more details on opportunities for public input. Today's meeting is open to the public; if you're not familiar with the Leadership Academy, it's off IBM Drive, part of the Governors Village complex of schools in the University City area.

It was intriguing to see the CMS changes in the national context presented at a four-day conference on urban education at the Columbia University journalism school last week. Many of the things Superintendent Peter Gorman is talking about, from closing low-performing urban schools to replacing principals to paying teachers based on their results with kids, are among the biggest national trends. Panelists made it clear these are the best working theories about how to help all kids learn, but they're far from guaranteed solutions.

Pedro Noguera, a New York University professor and executive director of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education, says the federal government is prescribing interesting but unproven strategies that could lead to "shutdown plans," rather than improvement plans.

Will CMS's closings bring real improvement? That's what Gorman and the board have to figure out, and quickly. By Nov. 9, the board expects to vote on the fate of dozens of schools.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

CMS shakeup: Wow.

"Your head must be spinning trying to keep up," my colleague, Eric Frazier, posted as I was blogging live from yesterday's school board session.

Yep. That about says it.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hasn't seen a shakeup of the scope Superintendent Peter Gorman is proposing since the 2000-2002 stretch, when federal courts knocked down race-based assignment and officials crafted plan after plan to take its place. I stepped into this beat in 2002, as "the choice plan" was gearing up and tens of thousands of students were switching schools.

If my head is swimming, I can only imagine how this feels for parents, students, teachers and other employees. By my tally, 31 schools would see significant change, such as closing, moving location or changing the kind of programs they offer. More than 20 would see boundary changes; the number remains squishy because it's not clear how many schools would pick up students from some overcrowded schools. (If this latter number seems high, read the fine print: In addition to the five suburban schools listed for boundary changes, plenty of others pick up territory as part of the more complicated student shuffles.)

I got an email from a teacher who's been offered a job at Waddell and has to decide quickly whether to accept. There's no doubt the high school in southwest Charlotte needs that teacher now -- but with a plan afloat to close it to high-schoolers next year, he's wary of taking a post that might be abolished.

I heard from people who are about to buy homes and want to know where new boundaries will land. Parents with kids in magnets slated to change want details of what will happen to their kids.

Answers to these questions, and countless more that will arise, must be hashed out between now and Nov. 9, when the board needs to approve 2011-12 changes in time for the magnet lottery. I suspect a lot of staffers are gaping at the task confronting them. I'm trying to get my head around how to cover something so massive it could probably occupy our entire staff.

Meanwhile, you may have noticed that there's also a tsunami of national attention sweeping toward school reform. TV networks just ran an "Education Nation" surge of coverage, including features on CMS turnaround schools. The movie "Waiting for 'Superman' " is generating huge buzz about Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone (it opens in Charlotte Oct. 15). President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan are urging everyone to get serious about fixing schools that don't work.

That's my excuse for dashing straight from the board's work session to the airport, to take part in a "Good Schools/Bad Schools" seminar sponsored by the New York Times Institute and the Columbia University journalism school. What's going on in Charlotte is part of this national movement. And while I need an army of clones just to keep up with CMS, I need to tap into that picture, too.

For immediate follow-ups on the proposed CMS changes, reporter Mark Price,, is continuing his recent spate of excellent school coverage. I'll be back Monday.