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.