Thursday, March 31, 2011

CMS seeks to bypass teacher vote on performance pay

A local bill introduced by Rep. Ruth Samuelson this week would allow the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board to launch teacher performance pay without the approval of teachers.

Reaction from teachers has been swift. Judy Kidd, head of the Classroom Teachers Association, sent an "action alert" last night, urging members to tell local legislators that the bill "is NOT in the best interest of students of CMS, teachers of CMS and therefore the economic stability of Mecklenburg County." That group and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators plan a news conference later today.

"If you want buy-in to any kind of performance pay, this is not the way to go about it," said CMAE President Mary McCray.

Trent Merchant, the school board's point person on performance pay, said this morning he hopes CMS can still create a plan that would win teacher approval, but said the bill would give the board a "nuclear option" for a key part of its education reform. He said CMS leaders have botched communication on the issue and lost the support of teachers and many parents, and called for a "time out" to rethink how officials are interacting with faculty.

"When we started talking about this three years ago, we said it would be done with teachers, not to teachers," he said. "Right now it seems like teachers feel like something is being done to them. Right now it feels adversarial."

Some background: Superintendent Peter Gorman and the board have long viewed performance pay as a key to improving educational results. The plan is to identify and reward the most effective teachers while helping weaker ones improve -- or, if all else fails, getting rid of them.

State legislators already approved a plan that would allow a handful of districts -- so far, CMS is the only one to apply -- to revise the teacher pay scale under certain conditions, including approval by a majority of teachers.

As CMS has moved toward its performance pay plan, which is scheduled to take effect for teachers in 2014, resistance has grown. Teachers have voiced concern about "value-added" ratings based on test scores -- and more recently, parents have mobilized as CMS rolls out 52 new local exams designed to size up student and teacher performance.

On Tuesday, Gorman sent employees a link to a five-minute video clip Tuesday, urging teachers to get more informed and engaged in the process of identifying effective teachers. He mentioned the new local bill but did not say it would eliminate the teacher-approval requirement. Instead, he said it would give CMS "freedom and flexibility  as a school district to make decisions about how we evaluate staff and how we compensate staff."

"We want to make sure we treat you as professionals and give you the information you need," he said.

Several teacher say that's not the impression they've gotten. One forwarded this list of concerns presented to Gorman and his staff by his Teacher Advisory Committee, with district responses in red. The responses "are degrading, demoralizing, and in a tone of voice that I have never read before. This is so scary to classroom teachers," the veteran teacher said.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Saving sports, paying executives, catching up

A few items as I catch up after a week off:

*The folks trying to raise private donations to save middle school sports in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools will hold their first public meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday, March 29, at Christ Lutheran Church, 4519 Providence Road. Another meeting in the northern part of the county is expected soon.

*Kay McSpadden, a teacher who writes opinion pieces for the Observer's editorial page, will be guest speaker at an Action for Education meeting at the East Meck media center, 6800 Monroe Road, from 6-9 p.m. Tuesday, April 5. This is the group of teachers and parents who are concerned about performance pay and the use of standardized testing to rate teachers. Read McSpadden's take on the issue here.

*I was interested to note that CMS hired a new human resources director, Daniel Habrat from Wells Fargo/Wachovia, at $160,000 a year. That's up 12.5 percent from the $140,000 Maurice Ambler was making before he left last summer. Kit Rea, promoted last week to Southwest area superintendent, is making virtually the same as her predecessor at $134,659. We'll be doing our annual payroll roundup soon; that will provide a better look at how executive salaries and positions stack up (it won't reflect job cuts that may happen in 2011-12).

*As noted recently, CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman's name has been floating as people speculate about Mayor Rahm Emanuel's possible picks for CEO of Chicago Public Schools (Gorman says he's not interested in leaving). Another site, Catalyst Chicago, has posted him as a top contender. The report notes that CMS is much smaller than Chicago Public Schools, but adds that "Gorman is no stranger to controversial decisions, such as closing schools and laying off teachers -- two things he would most likely have to do here."

*Columbia Journalism Review has a fascinating cover article on the challenges of covering teacher-effectiveness ratings and the national trends behind the push to use a more businesslike model for teacher pay. It's great context for big issues swirling in Charlotte (but not a quick read).

*Eric Smith, who was CMS superintendent from 1996 to 2002, has announced his resignation as Florida's education commissioner, saying he wants to let newly elected Gov. Rick Scott pick his own education leader.

*And finally, reporter Steve Lyttle shares the word that CMS is taking a different approach to Friday's teacher work day. Administrative offices will work 10-hour days today through Thursday and close Friday. Hmm ... if nothing else, that eliminates any confusion that might come from memos and edicts issued on April Fools Day.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fewer students taking Advanced Placement tests

This probably doesn't rank as a big shocker, but it appears fewer Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school students will be taking the Advanced Placement tests for college credit this spring. Many would say that stands to reason, since cash-strapped CMS has opted not to pay the $87 testing fee on behalf of students this year. (The state pays for low-income students).

CMS estimates that about 9,800 students will be taking the tests at the end of this school year, including 2,500 being paid for through a grant to the state to cover economically disadvantaged kids. That 9,800 figure is down from the 13,362 AP tests administered by CMS in 2009-10.

Could it be that there are just fewer kids enrolled this year in AP classes? Nope. Last year there were about 12,700. This year there's about 13,000. (I know it looks like there are more tests administered last year than there were students in the classes, but some International Baccalaureate students could have taken the tests, or AP students might have taken tests multiple times seeking higher scores).

Students and parents have told the Observer the fees pose a big financial burden, especially to students taking heavy AP courseloads. Chris Cobitz, head of testing for CMS, said it was more likely due to students who might have "stretched" to try AP classes, and now don't feel confident about taking the test since they have to pay for it.

I tend to suspect more the former, myself. What do you think?

Friday, March 18, 2011

Gorman on Rahm Emanuel short list?

The Chicago Tribune reports today that Rahm Emanuel, who recently left the White House to become mayor of the Windy City, may be looking outside for someone to lead the city's troubled schools.

The article says he's looking at inside candidates, but "many believe he wants to nab a proven leader or education innovator from outside Illinois." Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Peter Gorman is among four outside candidates said to be on Emanuel's "short list," along with Jerry Weast, who was superintendent in Guilford County in the 1990s and retired as superintendent in Montgomery County, Md.

Gorman's response to the speculation: "Not interested in being superintendent anywhere else!"

This is becoming a familiar drill, as superintendent jobs come open and people speculate about names that are prominent on the national education scene. Next comes the part where I remind you that superintendents always say they're not interested in leaving right up until they make a public finalist list, and you weigh in on whether Gorman's departure would be a tragedy or a cause for celebration.

The thing that's got me grinning this time is imagining Gorman, after five years' immersion in ever-so-polite Charlotte, dealing with Emanuel's infamously earthy tirades. Talk about culture shock!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Rethinking schools

Revamping public education is often compared to fixing a plane while it's in the air. Perhaps that's why so many reform efforts feel more like screw-tightening than redesign.

So I thought I'd share a couple of items on ways to shake things up. (An aside: Does it drive anyone else crazy when people use the hackneyed "thinking outside the box" to describe originality?)

Tamela Rich passed on a link to a New York Times op-ed piece about a Massachusetts school that let eight teens design their own school-within-a-school. They launched scientific inquiries, set themselves a rigorous course of reading and tackled individual and collective projects.

"Perhaps children don’t need another reform imposed on them," concludes author Susan Engel. "Instead, they need to be the authors of their own education."

Colleague Gary Nielson urged me to watch this video in which Salman Khan describes "flipping the classroom," with students watching professionally-made video lectures on their own time and using class time with teachers to do "homework." Khan has created a nonprofit academy of video tutorials that spun off from YouTube videos he made to help his nephews study.

He argues that many students are more comfortable watching videos at their own pace, and the technology allows the best instructors to lecture an unlimited number of students. "If Isaac Newton had done YouTube videos on calculus, I wouldn't have to," Khan says.

Real-life teachers, meanwhile, are freed to "humanize the classroom" by spending their time helping kids apply the lessons.

As a certifiable old fogey, I've always viewed video teaching as a second-rate substitute for the real thing. But this got me thinking: What if my high-school science lectures had been delivered by, say, Carl Sagan or Oliver Sacks? Would that have been better than what I got? Absolutely.
That's my food for thought. If you're reading, watching or hearing about other creative ideas, please share. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Revamped schools drawing interest

Families apparently aren't rebelling against the money-saving school closure/consolidation plan the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board approved late last year. If they were of a mind to opt out of the new K-8 campuses or the revamped Harding high school, it might easily show up as a surge in magnet school lottery requests.

But at their weekly press briefing, Superintendent Peter Gorman and his aides said they don't see any sign of higher-than-normal magnet school applications from children bound for the revamped schools. They said, for instance, that they saw no evidence fifth-graders zoned for K-8 campuses are applying in higher-than-normal numbers for middle-school magnet programs. Harding, a previously all-magnet school that will accept Waddell's students next fall, also showed strong enrollment numbers. Harding's International Baccalaureate magnet drew 714 students, nearly as many as it had last year.

Of course, pessimists could argue that many parents might not have seen magnets as a practical option, now that CMS requires them in many instances to ferry their kids to less-than-convenient shuttle stops to catch magnet buses. CMS officials prefer the non-pessimist view. "The response of the community has been positive to the changes we've made," said Mike Raible, facility planning guru for CMS.

For more details on the issue, see Ann's story from last week, which also includes a link to a CMS page with all lottery results for all the magnet schools.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Trying to simplify value-added ratings

As debate continues over the Charlotte-Mecklenburg quest to crunch teacher-quality numbers, one of the district's officials has forwarded a link to an explanatory slide show on value-added ratings.

As you may recall, those ratings are a way of analyzing student test scores to tease out how much progress can be attributed to teachers. CMS started running a preliminary formula to calculate those ratings based on 2010 results. By 2014, the district hopes to have a more sophisticated value-added formula in place and use it, along with other measures of teacher quality, to base part of teachers' pay on student results.

Susan Norwood runs a performance-pay pilot in 20 high-poverty CMS schools. She shared the link to a presentation from the Value-Added Research Center (part of the University of Wisconson-Madison education school) that she uses to help explain her program. She thought readers might find the oak-tree analogy helpful.

"Based on some of the online comments, there's still a lot of confusion about the measures and what their corresponding numbers represent," she e-mailed.

I'd be skeptical that anyone would watch a 13-minute slide show on value-added ratings. But a memo from CMS performance pay director Andy Baxter trying to explain the CMS calculation has gotten more than 2,000 views since Sunday, so evidently interest is high.
Eventually I hope CMS will be able to explain its calcualtion as clearly as the hypothetical oak-tree example. I know students are more complicated than trees, and variables such as absences and learning disabilities may be harder to quantify than sunlight and soil. But as long as the calcualtions are so convoluted that they boil down to "trust us," I suspect a lot of teachers won't.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Broad and Gorman advising Raleigh superintendent

Here's an interesting twist in the great sibling rivalry between North Carolina's two largest school districts: Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Peter Gorman will spend the next year acting as "executive coach" to Wake's new leader, Tony Tata.

Both are graduates of the The Broad Superintendents Academy, founded by philanthropist Eli Broad "to transform urban school districts into effective public enterprises."

“The executive coach is much like a teacher mentor,” Tata (pronounced TAY-tah) said in a press release today. “The focus of the relationship is on the mechanics of the role of the superintendent and providing support.”

The mentoring match was announced as part of a communications audit the academy provided as part of its support to Tata in his first year as a superintendent. According to the News & Observer, one of the biggest recommendations is for Tata to try to end public feuding among school board members.

“The superintendent and the leadership of the board should work with board members to make a concerted effort to tone down inflammatory rhetoric at the board meetings and, when disagreements do arise, to deal with those disagreements in a courteous and professional way that better communicates to the public the reasons for board member decisions and helps encourage more consideration by the news media of the important positive work the board is doing,” said the audit report.

Gorman didn't get Broad audits when he came to CMS in 2006, but the issue sure sounds familiar. In June, about a week before he officially started work, Gorman toured Philadelphia with a Chamber of Commerce group. I tagged along and quoted him as saying that business leaders were peppering him with complaints about bickering board members.

"If nothing changes, that impacts my efficiency so much that I have to step back and evaluate my superintendency," Gorman told me. (Afterward, he said he'd learned something about being in the kind of high-visibility job where he can land on the front page criticizing his employers.)

Since Tata took the Raleigh job Jan. 31, he's also been part of a Broad-led retreat with the school board to develop a mission, vision and core beliefs statement. The CMS board has done the same at Broad retreats (here's the CMS statement).

It's just one more sign of how much has changed in Wake County since the 2009 election of a board majority with a new vision for student assignment and management of the district. For many of the old guard, CMS was the cautionary example of a "resegregated" school district and all the accompanying woes. Today, it's looking more and more like a crystal ball hinting at Raleigh's future.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Value-added formula: It's complicated

While trying to understand and explain CMS' formula for value-added teacher ratings, I asked Andy Baxter, the district's performance-pay guru, if he could show me the calculation for one student. I was hoping for something simple enough to fit into a box to attach to the main article.

He said he'd give it a try. The result ... well, it wasn't short and simple.  But with so much riding on these numbers, I figured some of you would like to read the full document.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Teachers in trouble and school-board lines

Just over 200 Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers have performance and/or misconduct problems bad enough to merit warning letters, and almost 700 more relatively new teachers don't meet the standards to earn tenure, according to a report Superintendent Peter Gorman sent the school board today.

The tally comes in response to school board questions about the standards being used to evaluate teachers and decide who's in line for performance-based layoffs.

The weekly report to the school board also contains this nugget from Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh: 345 teachers from schools that will close next year applied for transfers to other CMS schools, and less than half of them -- 153 -- got offers.

To answer an anticipated question: No, I don't know what all those "special meetings" on Gorman's calendar are.

In an unrelated item, the school board decided earlier this week not to change the structure or terms of the board, which now has six district members and three at-large representatives serving staggered four-year terms. They tapped planner Mike Raible, the district's latest go-to guy on all things complex and controversial, to draw new lines for the electoral districts based on 2010 Census data. He'll bring back options for board discussion and approval.

The school board decided not to focus on creating boundaries that coincide with county commissioner districts. However, at the end of the process they will confer with county folks and, if the two plans look similar, see if they can make minor adjustments to keep the lines the same.

"It may be better than we go down parallel paths and find that our destination may not be all that different," Rhonda Lennon said.

That's a wrap for this week.  If you're reading a schools blog on Friday evening or the weekend, you're probably hard-core enough to look forward to Sunday's paper, when I'll have an in-depth look at CMS's quest to crunch teacher value into a number. There's a school-by-school list of how effective each faculty looked based on the 2010 CMS formula (no listings for individual teachers).

Will Bill Gates come courting me?

Parent activist Pam Grundy shared this link to a Washington Post education blog about the Gates Foundation's latest quest to "win over the public and the media to its market-driven approach to school reform."

According to Valerie Strauss's blog, a grant proposal outlines plans to build “strong ties to local journalists, opinion elites, and local/state policymakers and their staffs” and ensure "frequent placement ... in local media coverage" of stories about teacher effectiveness, performance pay and value-added ratings.

Well! I had a front-page article about Charlotte-Mecklenburg's push toward performance pay in last Sunday's paper, with another coming out this Sunday looking at value-added ratings. I'm tempted to post an address where the Gates folks can mail a big ol' check.

Seriously, this is just another glimpse of the tangled world of education reform. You've got a billionaire philanthropist not only paying to promote his vision for better schools, but sponsoring a group to drum up "grassroots" support. Meanwhile, a local mom who's moving onto the national stage is keeping an eye on such developments and alerting the local media about the plan to woo us.

I may get confused, but I will never get bored on this beat!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Spring contest season: Help!

The trees are blooming, the birds are singing, and I'm thinking about crawling under my desk and hiding for the next few weeks.

Academic competitions are cranking up and pretty much every school and education-related group in the greater Charlotte area is planning year-end recognition events.

As a mom and a human being, I love the celebration of talented kids and caring adults. As a reporter, I feel like the only air-traffic controller staffing a busy day at LaGuardia.

Even during the Observer's flushest times, we never figured out a great strategy for handling the spring onslaught of contests and awards. These days, shrinking staff and an ever-changing array of Neighbors and community publications make it a mind-boggling task to get items to the right place.

I'm hoping y'all can help. Here are some tips that I hope you'll pass along to anyone seeking coverage:

*Eric Frazier and I are charged with covering news that's of interest to tens of thousands of readers. In general, we do stories on national awards and briefs on state winners. But there's always room for stories that have great human interest. Think about whether you'd be interested in this story if you didn't know the people or have a stake in the school.

*Neighbors sections (published on Sundays) and community sections (Wednedays) are great alternatives for school news that doesn't make the main paper. Contact info is below.

*It's great to submit digital photos for those sections (jpeg format preferred). But pleeeeeease don't copy me or Eric on those e-mails. We have very limited inbox storage and a big photo file can shut us down until we purge it.

*If you submit a photo, make sure caption information is attached, including names of people pictured (please check the spelling).

*Make the local connection clear in your header. I spike dozens of extraneous e-mails every day. If your header says something like "News release" or "Big event," the click of oblivion may strike before I find the local information in the fourth paragraph (or worse, in an attachment). The more specific you are about the geographic location (school or neighborhood), the quicker it can get channeled to the right publication.

*If you've submitted a great idea and you don't get a response, don't be afraid to nudge us. I recently did a front-page story on McClintock Middle's award-winning pre-engineering program. The story pitch was perfect -- and I almost overlooked it because it landed when I was immersed in breaking news.

Here's the contact list (also see this list of individual staffers and phone numbers): with submissions for School Notes in all Neighbors sections. for Huntersville, Cornelius, Davidson, west shore of Lake Norman, Iredell County and Cabarrus County. for southern Mecklenburg (Pineville, Matthews, Ballantyne, Mint Hill), Union and York. for the rest of Mecklenburg, including Mountain Island Lake, west Mecklenburg, University City, uptown, Myers Park, Dilworth and East Charlotte. for Gaston, Catawba, Burke, Caldwell, Alexander, Cleveland and Lincoln

For the Wednesday community publications:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tumultuous times in CMS

Tuesday's approval of teacher layoff guidelines starts a season of turmoil and trauma for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees and families.

As principals try to line up 2011-12 staffing and class schedules, hundreds of teachers and their students face uncertainty. Many teachers will have to switch schools to keep working, Superintendent Peter Gorman said today, while others are likely to get layoff notices in May only to be called back this summer, a pattern that has played out the previous two years.

"We're going to give people (layoff) letters that may get rescinded pretty quickly," Gorman said at a news briefing. "I hate that process."

Gorman and Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh said they'll start notifying hundreds of non-educators whose jobs are at risk by next week. Those with access to financial and other sensitive data will be asked to leave immediately, they said, while others will work through the school year and may be able to compete for a smaller number of new jobs.

Laying off teachers requires board approval, which Gorman says has to start this early to meet the requirements for notice and appeals. Meanwhile, he said, state legislators have promised a better budget projection in April, and county manager Harry Jones will present his recommendation for CMS spending to county commissioners in May.

CMS, which has about 135,600 students this year, expects to add about 2,000 more next year, Gorman and Hattabaugh say. That means new jobs in schools that see enrollment grow. Meanwhile, with 10 schools closing, many teachers are trying to figure out where they'll land.

High school principals are already doing class schedules. But with the work force shrinking, they have to make tough choices. Small enrollment for specialized classes may mean cancelling those offerings. That could leave teachers looking for a new job and students having to reschedule classes.

The shuffle will continue through May, when layoff letters go out. Nontentured teachers -- generally those with four years' experience or less -- will be selected based on low performance ratings, licensure problems or short-term employment arrangements. If that doesn't cover the need, nontenured teachers in good standing will be cut.

Tenured teachers can be dismissed for performance reasons, or could end up jobless if there's no position left that fits their qualifications.

Teacher assistants also face the prospect of massive layoffs, and some have been rattled by a recent demand that they meet new standards for credentials. Until now, the credentials were required for new hires and assistants working in high-poverty schools that get federal Title I money, but teachers in lower-poverty schools hired before 2008 didn't need them.

Gorman said today he's been urging all assistants for years to get those credentials. The current plan calls for eliminating about 350 assistant jobs in grades one and two, leaving stiff competition for the remaining kindergarten jobs. Decisions about who stays and who goes will be based on job evaluations, Gorman said, rather than the assistant's current grade level.

Teachers who lack the credentials won't be automatically dismissed from a low-poverty school, Gorman said, but they could have a tough time landing jobs at other schools if they're forced out of their current post.

"We're running out of options for where to place people," he said. "We never in the world thought we'd lose all these TAs."

But he offered some encouragement to families of severely disabled students, who have worried that the new requirement could lead to the loss of assistants and personal aides who have expertise with the special needs of the students they work with. Special-education assistants will not be part of the overall teacher-assistant cut, Gorman said. But he said he is pushing them to get the credentials, too.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Smart student journalism

Normally I'm not keen on admitting that another journalist has gotten ahead of me, but I'll make an exception when the reporter is a high-school student.

For several months, I've been chipping away at making sense of CMS' moves toward teacher performance pay. A blog reader suggested I find out how much the district is spending to create new tests that will be used to gauge teacher effectiveness. I put in that query, along with a lot of others, and awaited an answer.

In the meantime, Myers Park High journalism teacher James Scott called to raise some questions about the cost of performance pay, including the new tests. Feeling smug, I told him I was expecting that information any day.

"One of my students has already gotten it," he said.

Susanna Booth
Back in mid-January, Susanna Booth, a junior in Myers Park's International Baccalaureate program, had gotten wind that new end-of-course tests were coming for electives such as journalism. She e-mailed a series of smart questions to Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark, who forwarded them to Chris Cobitz in the testing office. Among her questions: Are these tests coming from CMS or the state? Why? How much will they cost? How will they affect teaching?

I love that a young reporter is running hard at such significant news. She's definitely onto something: CMS folks told me they're spending just over $1.9 million to design tests for every course that doesn't have a state End of Grade or End of Course exam (see the story in today's paper).

I am impressed that Cobitz gave Susanna prompt and detailed answers. She e-mailed nine questions on a Thursday; he answered her on Sunday night and urged her to contact him with any follow-ups.

And I positively beamed to see that Susanna responded just the way I would have: "Thank you so much! And yes, I actually do have a couple more questions ..."

She sent him 10 more.

I'm honored to count Susanna as a colleague. Her reporting helped me get better answers faster.

Here at the Observer, we've talked about how to make better connections with student journalists. If you have any thoughts, pass them along. I suspect the best of our high-school reporters could keep us all better informed.

Friday, March 4, 2011

No fear at East Meck?

It's never been scarier to be a teacher in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, with layoffs becoming a rite of spring and all sorts of new ratings kicking in.

So why are the teachers at East Mecklenburg High so bold about speaking up on controversial issues?

I wondered that as I headed to a meeting some of those teachers organized Tuesday to talk about performance pay and testing (read more about that in Sunday's paper).

In nine years on this beat, countless teachers have told me they're afraid to raise public questions or criticism. It's not always clear where the threat originates, but there's no doubt the fear is real.

So why do these East Meck folks stand up at public meetings to challenge student assignment proposals and job cuts? How dare they summon colleagues, parents and students to their auditorium to air concerns about one of Superintendent Peter Gorman's pet projects?

On Tuesday, veteran teachers Larry Bosc and Kevin Strawn were joined by the youthful Gariann Yochym as lead speakers. With passion, intelligence and professionalism, they laid out their qualms about Gorman's plan to use student test scores to evaluate teachers. Several students were in the audience, and had helped spread the word via Facebook. Seniors James Whalen and Patrick Wilkenloh spoke about their personal views of testing. Parent activist Pam Grundy introduced a petition.

All in all, it was a textbook exercise in democracy.

Near the end, a teacher who didn't give his name asked how the East teachers could take such a risk. He said he was wary of even sharing information about such meetings: "I've been warned by various people to be sure it doesn't come from me."

Simple, said Bosc: "Our administration has been supportive of us speaking out."

I caught up with East Meck Principal Rick Parker afterward. He sounded delighted to take credit for an outspoken staff. Parker says he strives for an atmosphere of "mutual respect and dignity," and that includes having teachers who air their opinions. It's fine to question or criticize, he says, as long as it's done professionally: "We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem."

Has he ever worried that one of his teachers will land him in hot water? Parker answered by talking about Strawn's critical comments about value-added ratings at a recent school board meeting. Gorman and Board Chair Eric Davis called Parker afterward -- to offer "rave reviews" of Strawn's candor.

"That right there, people listen," Parker said. "That's what we need more of."

Amen. It's an act of courage to take a stand on tough issues, especially when they affect your livelihood. Teachers who take that risk -- and administrators who support them -- help us all make smarter decisions.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Amid CMS' woes, student's hopefulness shines

As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools struggles to close an estimated $100 million budget gap, there's been lots of controversy and debate over how the budget cuts and school closings are affecting low-income students. Sometimes, the adults shout so loudly the voices of the students themselves get drowned out.

Communities in Schools, the drop-out prevention program, is producing a series of videos about students it's helping in local schools. I watched this one, about Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology student Jarvis Williams. I've never met the young man, but I was inspired by his quiet determination to succeed, despite his family's less-than-ideal financial circumstances. Maybe you will be, too.