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.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

CMS proposes sweeping changes for magnets, neighborhood schools

Here's the link to the CMS report on 2011-12 school changes. These are proposals the board is currently discussing. The board may decide to take some proposals off the table, but members will not make final decisions today on any that are kept on the list. Next step is meeting with school leaders, including families and partners.

4:08 Eric Davis: "I think we're clear on the direction we've given the staff" -- pursue ALL proposals outlined today.
Board could still decide not to carry them out, but they've bitten off a mind-boggling task.

4:05 Raible: We'll start scheduling meetings with leaders at all affected schools. Hope to have schedule by end of this week.
Merchant: Is this realistic? Tell us if it isn't. It's our fault, not staff's, if this has been slow.

4:01 Merchant: I didn't hear anything but "pursue." "The clock's ticking. Is this realistic for six weeks?"
Gorman: This is it. We can't do other projects.
Merchant: All we can do is stay the course or take away (withdraw proposals from the list).
Gorman: Yes sir.

4 p.m. Tim Morgan, board member and real estate guy: At some point, tell us what would happen to buildings we close. Also says some schools disappeared from "the list" and aren't among new proposals. He cites Quail Hollow. Raible: Assume no major changes proposed; that was an oversight.

3:58 Richard McElrath: None of this tells me how we're going to get good leaders and teachers and adequate resources into schools.

3:56 Merchant on Smith/Waddell plan: "This one is the most interesting on the whole sheet. I don't know if you're building to a climax or what. ... This makes so much sense. ... It took a lot of courage for you guys to put it up in front of the board."

3:55 Several members have raised questions about whether this year's magnet "shuttle stop" approach would continue with proposed changes in magnets. Answer not clear. Probably up to board to decide whether to keep that approach going and/or expand it.

3:52: Just looked up from my laptop. Peter Gorman is in the house. It'll be interesting to hear his "I need clear direction" summary.

3:51 Last proposal: Smith K-8 language magnet moves to Waddell High, which stops being a high school. Waddell kids go to South Meck, West Meck or Harding. Harding, now a full IB/math-science magnet, becomes IB/neighborhood. Math-science magnet moves to Berry Academy of Technology.

3:50 Proposals being discussed: Spaugh closes, with kids going to K-8 schools at Ashley Park, Thomasboro and Westerly Hills (plus Sedgefield and AG). PreK kids from Amay James also to to AP, Thomasboro and WH.
J.T. Williams closes, students move to K-8 schools at Byers, Druid Hills and Lincoln Heights. LH loses gifted magnet.
Wilson closes, kids go to K-8 schools at Berryhill and Reid Park, plus Whitewater Middle.
Board moves on with brief discussion.

3:43 Joyce Waddell: Gorman has repeatedly said he wouldn't close a low-performing school and merge it with another, but students from middle-schools are being assigned to high-poverty elementaries with academic challenges.
Clark: But the elementaries are small and staffed with top principals. Eliminating transition to middle school will help kids. She notes that some Spaugh students would need to be reassigned to Alexander Graham and Sedgefield middle schools.

3:40  DIB/Alexander discussion ends without vote or clear decision. Board moves on to proposals to close three high-poverty, struggling middle schools -- Spaugh, Wilson and Williams -- and move kids to new K-8 neighborhood schools.

3:33 Merchant: Everyone agrees DIB is successful school, but it's in "the absolute worst facility that we have ... and it's way up in the corner of north Mecklenburg County," which makes transportation expensive.
Raible: Question is whether CMS can afford expensive, exclusive program for about 250 kids.
Clark and Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh: More kids in northern middle-school IB magnet could strengthen IB magnet at North Meck High.

3:29 McGarry questions plan to close DIB and move program to Alexander: Decision is "more than just the dollars; this is an award-winning program and it hangs in the balance."
Part of proposal is that CMS doesn't have to spend money approved in 2007 bond to renovate the tiny DIB building. More kids could get into IB in bigger, newer Alexander.

3:25 Lennon on Davidson IB proposal: "I hear things so strongly on both sides of this." People who have kids at Davidson IB love it as is. But many others want to attend IB program and can't get in. "People on the (latter) side aren't being very verbal because they don't want to take the attacks. That's up to me to do."
She says pursue w/ modifications in high-school options (not in writing, don't dare summarize what she just rattled off).

3:20 Students who live in Devonshire and Hickory Grove elementary zones would move from Garinger to Cochrane for high school under proposal. Cochrane would get extra help turning around public perception.
Board moves on to Davidson IB/Alexander plan.

3:15 Eric Davis: "We have 45 minutes left and six proposals left to discuss." Board moves on to plan to expand Cochrane, an eastside middle school, to grades 6-12, taking some students from Garinger High. (Just discovered an oversight in my typing: I think I neglected to mention that the small schools at Garinger and Olympic are on the "targeted assistance" list, which means they may get academic reform and other support but no closing or major change.)

3:13 Merchant, a former actor, says year-round arts magnet is exciting, offers great opportunities. "I think this is potentially very exciting to working families."
White: I'm not excited about year-round school but families may be. Let's try it. "It's another opportunity that we haven't given people before in this community." (Actually, CMS had year-round magnets in the 1990s.)

3:08 Up now: Plan to close University Park elementary arts magnet, consolidate with First Ward, which just became an arts magnet this year, and make it a "year-round multi-track magnet." Board members have questtions about how this works with kids' creativity.
Raible says center-city location offers great access to museums and arts.
Rhonda Lennon says she's not sure year-round schedule will work for families.

3:05 Board moves on to proposal to close Pawtuckett Elementary, a westside neighborhood school, and move students to Whitewater Elementary. Whitewater is newer and larger; both are very small in enrollment.
If the board is deciding on proposals, it's by default. No one said take Montessori plan off the list, so apparently it's still alive.
Board move on from Pawtuckett.

3:02 Tom Tate: Students being moved from Oakhurst to Billingsville, one of CMS's lowest-performing schools, may perceive they're being moved to a less successful school. If we close or change a school, students need strong options.
Ann Clark: Good point. Oakhurst Paideia magnet was very close to meeting new academic goals.
Tate: It would help to know cost (money, that is) of these changes.
Raible: That's coming.

3 p.m. Plan to make Oakhurst Elementary a preK-6 Montessori magnet is being discussed. Chantilly and Highland Mill Montessori magnets would close; Park Road would remain as is. Oakhurst's Paideia magnet would disappear, and neighborhood students would move to Billingsville or Rama Road elementaries.
Sedgefield Middle would continue to host a fledgling Montessori magnet for grades 7-8.

2:53  Rhonda Lennon says she can "trepidaciously support" turning Myers Park Traditional into a year-round magnet. Board moves on to Montessori changes. If there was a clear decision on traditional/VH plan, I missed it. But it wasn't withdrawn.

2:50   There's been some debate about how many schools would close under this plan. I count 12, but it's tricky. For instance, if Smith Language Acadaemy building closes, students move into Waddell building and Waddell ceases to be a high school, what "closes"?
Still no decision/consensus on VH and traditionals. Lots of complex ideas still untouched.

2:45  Trent Merchant on proposal for traditionals and VH: "My direction would be pursue and feel free to modify." But I don't understand how this is highest priority. I'm excited about year-round option even though "I don't understand it at all." I'm going to have to be absolutely convinced that this is the best thing for students.
(This may be the challenge in getting the "clear direction" Gorman is seeking: Board members have complicated reactions to complicated proposals.)

2:40  More than halfway through this three-hour session, it's safe to say there's no way the board gets through this whole list in the remaining time.

2:37 Tom Tate: What does it mean to create "year round multi-track magnet" at Myers Park Elementary? Raible: We don't know yet. If board gives go-ahead we'll figure it out.

2:30 p.m. Kaye McGarry, one of only four board members who was here at the time, notes that the board debated ending traditional magnets and relocating Villa Heights just two years ago. "I'm not ready to close Villa Heights." She suggests abandoning this proposal. Staffer Dennis LaCaria notes that this change would give more students access to successful program now at VH.

2:27 p.m. Board member Joyce Waddell worries about disrupting Villa Heights, a tiny and highly successful magnet for girted kids. Raible says Villa Heights faculty would prefer to stay put, but if they have to move, it's better to stay intact in a new building, rather than be split. Proposal would put them in Elizabeth Traditional building, ending the popular traditional magnet program. More seats would be available in the "learning immersion/talent development" magnet: 26 classrooms in ET building vs. 12 in VH.

2:25 p.m. Proposal to close the center-city Irwin Avenue Elementary stays alive. Students would be reassigned to yet-unspecified schools nearby if the board eventually approves this plan. Irwin Avenue building would become administrative offices.
Up next: Traditional magnet program.

2:20 p.m. Plan to change Winding Springs elementary from a global leadership magnet to a neighborhood school stays on the list. The shift would relieve crowding at Hornets Nest Elementary. Elementary magnet students now going to Winding Springs could go to new K-12 magnet at Davis. Note that these decisions are not final approval of any plan.

2:15p.m. Board member asks how this year's enrollment data will play into decisions. Planner Mike Raible says staff has taken "a cursory look" but not done detailed analysis. Those numbers, based on Friday's enrollment, should be reported soon.

Eric Davis asks how plan to eliminate Winding Springs global leadership magnet benefits kids academically. Staff seems to be struggling to answer. Main point, from Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark: A new K-12 magnet at Marie G. Davis could help kids with transition from elementary to middle school. If approved, this would be CMS's first K-12 magnet, other than alternative schools.

2 p.m. Board members discuss boundary changes to Ballantyne, Highland Creek and Torrence Creek elementaries and Community House and Mint Hill middle, all suburban neighborhood schools. Some members have reservations about tinkering with some boundaries. Not clear whether they pulled any off the list.

1:50 p.m. The board has just heard a quick presentation on a sweeping array of school changes proposed for 2011-12. It's hard to imagine Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools can work out all these plans by their self-imposed deadline of Nov. 9; that's what the board has to figure out now.

The changes would affect some of the district's most popular magnets, it's struggling high-poverty neighborhood schools, and many others. These recommendations are bound to create an explosive reaction among families. The board could decide today to back away from some or all of these staff suggestions.

Superintndent Peter Gorman is in Raleigh speaking to other superintendents. Planner Mike Raible outlined the plans below, which are designed to be a starting point for the board's quest to boost academic performance, save money and deal with building issues.
Board member Joe White, a skeptic about the process, says this list "woke me up" and persuaded him CMS needs to make some serious change. "We're going into the tough part of this."

The list below is my effort to summarize a 24-page powerpoint on the fly, so it's rough. But here's what we've heard.

Updates (these are all staff proposals that have not been approved or discussed yet):
These schools would get "targeted assistance" to help with academic, enrollment or perception problems but would not see student-assignment changes: Barringer, Billingsville, Cotswold, Huntingtowne Farms, Lansdowne, Pinewood, Sedgefield and Shamrock Gardens elementaries; Albemarle Road, McClintock, Randolph and Ranson middle schools; Oaklawn (K-8); Park Road Montessori (PreK-6); Northwest School of the Arts (6-12), East Meck, Myers Park and North Meck high schoools.

Board member asks why Myers Park, one of top-performing and most popular high schools. Planner Mike Raible cites weak performance by minority/low-income students.

Irwin Avenue Elementary closes; students reassigned to unspecified nearby schools. Building houses administrative offices.
Winding Springs magnet elementary becomes a neighborhood school, relieving crowding at Hornets Nest Elementary.
Marie G. Davis Military/Leadership magnet, now 6-12, becomes first K-12 school.
Boundaries are changed (not specified yet) to reduce crowding at Ballantyne, Highland Creek and Torrence Creek elementaries and Community House and Mint Hill middle schools.

Traditional magnet program disappears. Myers Park Traditional becomes  a year-round multi-track magnet. Villa Heights magnet for gifted students moves to Elizabeth Traditional building; Villa Heights building closes.
Pawtuckett Elementary closes, students move to Whitewater Elementary.
Chantilly and Highland Mill Montessori magnet schools close, Oakhurst Elementary loses Paideia magnet and becomes a Montessori magnet.
Neighborhood students who have been at Oakhurst move to Billingsville and Rama Road elementaries.

Smith Language Academy, a K-8 magnet in high demand, closes at its south Charlotte building. Students and staff move to Waddell High in southwest Charlotte.
Current Waddell students move to South Meck, West Meck and Harding.
Harding, currently a combined IB/math-science magnet, becomes a "comprehensive" school with an IB magnet. Math-science program moves to Berry Academy of Technology.

Spaugh, a high-poverty neighborhood school that has been one of Superintendent Peter Gorman's showcases for turnaround efforts, closes. Ashley Park, Thomasboro and Westerly Hills elementaries become K-8 neighborhood schools
J.T. Williams, a high-poverty, low-performing middle school, closes. Byers, Druid Hills and Lincoln Heights elementaries become K-8 neighborhood schools.
Wilson Middle, also high-poverty and low performing, closes. Berryhill and Reid Park become K-8 neighborhood schools.

Davidson IB magnet closes, IB program becomes part of Alexander Middle.
Cochrane Middle becomes 6-12, relieving Garinger High. Extra academic help provided.
University Park Elementary, a creative arts magnet, closes and consolidates with First Ward, another arts magnet.

Monday, September 27, 2010

School board ethics

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board is preparing to vote on a code of ethics for members.

I know, I know. For board bashers, this sounds like the setup for a punch line.

It's something the board has been working toward for years. Several efforts bogged down, but after five new members took office in December, this crew got serious about hashing out guidelines. Plus, state law requires boards to pass an ethics code by year's end.

This code calls for good attendance, full public discussion of issues, independent judgment and no interference with the superintendent's management. It also adds some training requirements, on ethics and general governance.

Tom Tate, who chairs the board's policy committee, says the items are designed to be individual commitments. Unlike most policies, they're written in the first person, as in "I will render all decisions based on available facts and my independent judgment, and I will not surrender that judgment to individuals or special interest groups." There are no penalties for anyone who falls short.
It's never been easy to settle disputes between members over the right way to do the job. The most creative effort: Former board Chair Arthur Griffin once threatened to hand out a "porcupine award" to colleagues he perceived as unduly prickly (to my disappointment, the award never materialized).

There's a public hearing but no vote on the ethics code at Tuesday's regular meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. in the meeting chamber of the Government Center. Also up for hearings: A proposed policy on drug dogs in schools, and one on who can send material home via schools. Check the agenda here.

Brush up on "the list"

Just got a query from Joni Trobich, president of the Mecklenburg PTA Council, wondering how to find Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' presentations on the 59 schools facing potential changes. The school board plans to narrow that list Tuesday, and she was having trouble tracking down what staff has already presented.

I agree; it's tough to find. So for all of you who plan to attend Tuesday's work session (1 p.m., Room 267 of the Government Center) or just want to catch up:

The presentation on the original 32 schools identified is here.

The news release on adding five more to that list is here.

The presentation on magnet schools that don't meet new school board criteria is here. That added 22 magnet schools or programs that hadn't been identified before.

Superintendent Peter Gorman says there will be updates on all 59 Tuesday. For some schools, that will mean recommending no immediate action, or taking them off the list (if the school board agrees). For the rest, there will be more details about possible solutions to low performance, underuse, crowding or magnet weaknesses.

And if you're feeling really energetic, here's a link to the data on all schools that generated a "performance cost indicator" rating, intended to show how much academic bang CMS is getting for taxpayer bucks.

Friday, September 24, 2010

What cut? CMS budget up $10 million

After months of drama over massive budget cuts and layoffs, the bottom line for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is in:

The budget grew.

CMS's 2010-11 budget of $1.15 billion is up almost $10 million over the budget approved last fall. It's $16.7 million more than actual spending for 2009-10.

And that's not even counting the $20.5 million in federal jobs money CMS socked away for next year, riling folks who wanted the district to hire teachers now.

Chief Finance Officer Sheila Shirley knows that's jarring. After all, CMS cut more than 1,000 jobs based on projections that this year's budget could shrink by tens of millions of dollars. The district laid off hundreds of teachers based on worst-case scenarios, then rehired many of them when state and county cuts weren't as bad as expected.

She notes that $10 million, a hefty chunk of change for most people, is less than a 1 percent hike in the overall budget. She explains that much of the increase had to go toward rising costs, such as retirement, insurance and opening two new high schools, which required CMS to pull money from elsewhere. Enrollment is growing, which drives up spending as well.

And in fairness, Shirley and Superintendent Peter Gorman always said they were planning for the worst and hoping for the best, and that the dire scenarios were estimates based on a shaky economic picture. By the time the school board adopted a budget earlier this month, state money was roughly flat over the previous year, while county money was down. The budget growth was driven by a late-breaking influx of federal cash.

Still ... no budget cut at all?

That's got to rankle to employees who lost jobs, families whose kids are in bigger classes and teachers who must cope with all the turmoil. For most folks living through this recession, a cut doesn't require fine-print explanations. It just means less money.

No matter how earnest CMS officials were in their efforts to project, plan and explain, there's bound to be a bit more skepticism next time around.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

When schools get a bad name

What can be done when the public perception of a school gets so bad that improvements don't seem to matter?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders have a plan, which they expect to unveil at a Tuesday school board meeting that will map next steps to improve schools that are low-performing, underfilled, too crowded or unsuccessful as magnets.

In the last couple of weeks, CMS rolled out two lists of schools under scrutiny; all total, about 60 of the district's 170-plus schools are on those lists. Mike Raible, the CMS planner who's leading the study, was getting me up to speed when he dropped the intriguing tidbit about burnishing reputations.

I had raised an eyebrow at the notion that West Charlotte's International Baccalaureate program was one of only nine CMS magnets -- and the only high-school IB program -- that met all the school board's new standards for academic accomplishment. (Read the magnet report here.) I hadn't crunched any recent data, but it's the smallest of CMS's IB magnets, located in a high-poverty school that has struggled to attract top students and teachers.

Raible noted that at some schools, public perception becomes so bad that no one notices improvements: "That school could have perfect scores across the board and it wouldn't matter." He said he'll present a proposal on Tuesday, and while he wouldn't tip his hand, he said it won't involve closing those schools (an option that's on the table for schools on "the list") or changing their name (a popular but largely unsuccessful strategy in years past).

The image-changing strategy may be just a footnote Tuesday, but it's interesting, given how many schools have suffered flight when their image slides. The bigger news is likely to come as the board and staff winnow  the cumbersome list and make it clearer what kind of changes could be in those schools' future. I'm still working on a weekend story about what to expect on that front.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Performance pay fizzles in study

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is among many districts hoping to boost student success by rewarding its most effective teachers. So a new study on performance pay is likely to get as much buzz locally as it is among national educators and reporters today.

The gist: A three-year study of teacher bonuses in Nashville found that the rewards made no difference in student test scores. That's a bit of a shocker, with performance pay emerging as one of the country's hottest hopes for better public education.

Andy Baxter, CMS's performance-pay director, calls the study important and credible but adds that he hasn't had time to review the details. So I don't feel too embarrassed admitting that I haven't either.

Instead, I'll just offer some links to early reports and let you do your own research (there will also be a story in tomorrow's Observer):
Here's the take from The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit education news organization.
Here's Education Week's online report.
And here's a piece from Linda Perlstein, public editor for the Education Writers Association, who goes on to predict how this will play out in "the edublogosphere." (Hmm ... don't think I'll be putting that term on my resume.)

Help me catch up

Well. I certainly picked an interesting time to go on medical leave.

In the four weeks I was gone, local philanthropies launched a huge push to boost student achievement through private giving. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rolled out two lists of schools under scrutiny for big changes, including possible closing. The effects of classroom budget cuts and magnet shuttle stops started playing out. CMS produced a 65-page report on increasing graduation rates. There are rumblings about fees for AP and IB exams, drug dogs in schools and possible changes paying for campus security.

Anyway, I'm back, feeling fine and trying to catch up. It's a bit overwhelming, so give me a hand: What are people talking about? What are the big questions and issues on your mind as 2010-11 gears up?

A very articulate correspondent from Mint Hill e-mailed yesterday about his quest to wrest meaning from the latest developments in the school board's student assignment review: "Emails are flying all around our end of the county and, quite honestly, many of them are either misinformed or uninformed, and in either case an absence of actual facts never stopped anyone from making up their own," he wrote. "For CMS’s part, I appreciate their attempt at transparency, but their communications have been less than entirely clear. A review of their website discloses a lot of information (I think) bound up inside ill-defined acronyms and opaque metrics."

I know what he means. For the past month, I've been reading the paper and clicking on the CMS Web site like the rest of you. The latest report on magnet schools is a real head-scratcher without having been in the meetings. I agree with the writer than CMS is trying hard to share information, but those reports seldom make sense without a lot of added context. The public information office has taken hits during budget cuts; they, too, are scrambling to keep up with all the breaking news (and Tahira Stalberte, a strong player in that department, just left to head the public information department for Durham County schools).

So let me know what you're thinking. And if you tried to e-mail me with anything important this month, please try again. The company e-mail system declared me temporarily terminated, and I have yet to retrieve any messages from that stretch. I'm not even sure my autoreply directing people to other reporters kicked in; I'm sorry for any inconvenience. But I'm back in the land of the electronically living: