Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Director of Lake Norman Charter School resigns

We're a bit late on this one, but the Huntersville Herald and WFAE radio have reported that Tim Riemer, managing director of Lake Norman Charter School, resigned effective Aug. 16 -- the day before classes for the K-12 school began. Click here and here for stories with more details. A call to the school from the Observer on Tuesday wasn't immediately returned.

Monday, August 22, 2011

School board chair defends CMS reforms

I called school board chairman Eric Davis this morning to ask about the two workshops the board has scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday (both at 1 p.m. in Room 527 of the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.). The workshops center on the search for a new superintendent -- more particularly, finding the right search firm to lead the hunt for one. Makes for a busy week for the school board, which will also meet Tuesday evening (6 p.m. at the Government Center, Room 267) for one of its regular monthly meetings. It plans to talk then about redistricting, the opening of schools and the board's Strategic Plan 2014, among other issues.

Mention of that last topic prompted Davis to offer a brief but impassioned defense of the educational reforms driving the 2014 plan, the board's roadmap for improving local schools. As much as former Superintendent Peter Gorman was vilified for the dozens of controversial new tests CMS rolled out this spring, the impetus behind those tests came more from the board's 2014 plan than from Gorman. Gorman was carrying out the board's orders. Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh says he'll do the same. Davis said that, as the board begins looking for a new superintendent, he feels it's doubly important for the community to understand the 2014 plan. He said Hattabaugh and other staff members will take time during Tuesday night's meeting to spell out what the plan is, what it does, and the rationale behind it.

Davis called the plan "fundamental" to the selection of a new superintendent. He noted that about five or six years ago, the school board shifted its overarching philosophy of reform from a focus on "managed instruction" (i.e., a regimented system centered on making sure all kids were getting lessons) to "managing performance" and "empowerment" (that is, not just making sure lessons get delivered, but making sure the lessons are delivering results and that the educators delivering the lessons are held accountable). Thus, you get the current drive for dozens of new tests, and the push toward performance pay for teachers. "It's about the end result, whether the child's learning or not," Davis said. "So much of that gets lost in the individual tactics, what it means to me as an employee, or the impact on my child's school." He wants people to look not just at the new tests, but at the 2014 plan overall. He seems to believe if they do, they'll see the validity.

Obviously, critics of CMS' reform program see things differently. They want the board to rethink its direction -- or, more accurately, they want to elect three new board members this November who will force a move away from the test-heavy approach CMS is employing. Davis doesn't sound like a man who's thinking the school board needs to change course. He said: "When there's criticism about the direction we're going in, I think a valid question is, 'What's the alternative?'"

It will be interesting to see how the tensions play out in the upcoming school board race, and in the selection of a new superintendent.

No after-practice bus rides for preK-8 student-athletes

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials this morning clarified a point they made last week about transportation at the eight new preK-8 campuses: student athletes at those schools will get bus rides to the middle schools where they will play sports, but they won't get transportation back to their home school. The new preK-8 schools won't have athletics on their own campuses, but parents at the new schools made it clear they want their middle schoolers to have the same sports opportunities as kids at "regular" middle schools. So CMS has paired the preK-8 schools with "regular" middle schools for athletics, allowing middle schoolers from the new campuses to participate in sports at their paired schools.

At last week's press briefing, transportation director Carol Stamper pointed out that the district will give preK-8 athletes bus rides to their paired middle school for tryouts, practices and games, but CMS won't give them bus rides back to their home campus. (A handout CMS provided reporters at the meeting said transportation back to the home schools would be provided, but CMS officials today say that was in error).

The paired schools look like this:

Ashley Park and Bruns Avenue -- Sedgefield
Berryhill and Reid Park -- Kennedy
Druid Hills and Byers -- Eastway
Thomasboro and Westerly Hills -- Coulwood

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Back to school for CMS teachers

CMS teachers are back on the job today. They'll be getting their classrooms ready, even as a blur of other getting-ready activities are going on around them. At the district's back-to-school press briefing yesterday, Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain said the district still has about 57 mobile classrooms that need to be put in place as CMS scrambles to increase its number of teachers and class space in accordance with late-arriving state and local budget dollars. (Another 80 that weren't previously being used are being put back into commission on the campuses where they were sitting).

When I asked which schools have the greatest need for extra teachers and/or class space, CMS human resources chief Dan Habrat said elementary schools in the central zone (near the uptown area) have the greatest need. Chamberlain this morning e-mailed me the following list, which shows that Mallard Creek Elementary, which officials said was still trying to hire 13 teachers, also needs another six mobiles in place. Sounds like lots of work still to be done on that campus. Here's the list of schools and mobiles needed (they're almost all elementary schools).

Anybody notice any other items/patterns of note?

Barringer 4
Briarwood 2
Cotswold 2
Crown Point 1
Elon Park 1
Hidden Valley 4
Highland Creek 2
Huntingtowne Farms 4
Washam 2
Landsdowne 1
Lebanon Road 3
Mallard Creek 6
Merry Oaks 2
Montclaire 3
Pineville 2
Polo Ridge 2
Reid Park 1
Sharon 3
Sterling 2
Stoney Creek 4
Whitewater Middle 2
Westerly Hills 3

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

School board candidate headed to White House

Aaron Pomis, one of 16 candidates vying for three at-large seats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, is joining other former members of the Teach for America program at the White House today, where they are slated to meet with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other senior policy advisors.

According to a press release from Pomis, the event is organized by Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit group that supports Teach for America alumni as they engage in civic activism and public leadership roles. The group will visit the White House, then have meetings at the education department with Duncan and other officials.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

CMS reform: Thumbs up or down?

I recently reported on the results of the first three years of strategic staffing,  former Superintendent Peter Gorman's quest to let top principals and proven teachers turn around struggling schools.  It's tough to render a verdict, given that promising gains are mixed with widely varied results.

That's disappointing.  Three years feels like a very long time in a world where urban superintendents seldom last much longer.  It's a safe bet that whoever gets Gorman's job will come in with new strategies  --  nobody gets hired saying "Things are pretty decent here;  I think I'll maintain the status quo"  --  and we'll have to start the clock again to see if anything really works.

Folks who study such things say there's seldom a simple answer.  Sometimes you just end up with new and better questions.

Cheryl Pulliam,  research director of the Public Education Research Institute at Queens University,  has worked with CMS on evaluating strategic staffing.  She and the CMS crew have done some smart comparisons of the gains at strategic staffing schools compared with those at other CMS schools serving disadvantaged kids;  the results have been inconclusive.  She's familiar with the tension between the approach of principals such as Sterling's Nancy Guzman,  who swooped in demanding change and got quick results,  and those such as Reid Park's Mary Sturge,  who thinks slow and steady is the way to build lasting change.

Pulliam's questions, as the effort moves forward:

  • Can principals like Mary Sturge keep teachers there long enough  (that is , reduce turnover to practically zero)  so she can build that capacity and buy-in she needs to build the culture she needs,  or will it be a continually rebuilding? 
  • Have Devonshire and Sterling  (the highest-performing strategic staffing schools)  reached a plateau so that it makes it even more difficult to raise the scores even higher?  If so,  what’s next to get them up and over any plateaus?
  • Has CMS developed that succession plan needed for all these schools so that progress isn’t lost when the principal moves/retires/is transferred?
Ross Wiener of The Aspen Institute's Education and Society Program gathered superintendents from around the nation last year to learn more about strategic staffing in CMS.  When I emailed asking for his take on the three-year results,  he,  too,  replied with more questions,  and some interesting thoughts:

You're asking an important question that will come up more and more often:  What is success in a turnaround school?  What is success for a district that is managing multiple schools?  Is it success if performance is better than trends would have suggested without the intervention? Being among the fastest gaining/progressing schools?

The sector has a pretty bad track record with sustained turnarounds,  but nothing compares with the scale of efforts over the last few years  --  so we'll have a lot more data points and more info on which to answer the question of what constitutes success.

I still think there are important innovations in the Strategic Staffing model and that others will continue to look to it for guidance.  There are few other places I know of where the district put together such a comprehensive change package.  Two particular aspects seem promising:  CMS was able to give high status and prestige to working in a turnaround school,  and managed some of the most sensitive parts of the process at the district level  (e.g.,  staffing,  including removing teachers the principal didn't think were a good fit;  assigning accomplished central office administrators to support roles).  In most other places,  each school has operated as a "one-off" and had to solve lots of issues on their own,  while SSI took the step of making the turnaround a district responsibility.

None of that is to diminish the focus on results.  I'm not in a good position to do comparative analytics from here,  but if the results aren't what was anticipated,  then CMS needs to dig in and understand what distinguishes the most successful from the least successful and average.  Were any of the hypotheses for improvement implemented with rounds 2+3?  What can be learned from other turnaround efforts in NC and other states?

Others will still seek to learn from SSI because it is at the vanguard of what are still-nascent efforts to turn around the lowest-performing schools at scale.  Unfortunately,  there are not models that have worked consistently and at scale.  So we have to pay attention to serious efforts and modify based on results and on local context.  Better alternatives have to be created, they can't merely be chosen from among existing alternatives.

When things go well in turnaround schools,  it's always because educators on the front lines responded to thousands of unexpected challenges with the right mix of sensitivity,  tenacity,  and flexibility  --  each in just the right measure at just the right time.  There is no formula for doing that well,  but CMS has made some smart bets in creating the conditions where this work can flourish.  We need to learn from these efforts and keep getting better.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Who should handle CMS supe search?

Choosing a superintendent for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is a big deal.  It will shape educational opportunities,  teacher morale,  public spending,  local confidence in CMS and the nation's image of Charlotte.

But the process can be a bit of a snooze.  The school board has had two special meetings,  focused mostly on finding a search firm.  HR Chief Daniel Habrat said about a dozen have already approached CMS,  including the five or six national companies that tend to place superintendents in large districts.

"The minute Pete announced what he was doing,  (companies) were sending us their dossiers,"  Habrat said,  referring to the June resignation of Peter Gorman,  who built a high national profile in his five years with CMS.

The board agreed Tuesday to allow local firms to have a crack at the job,  even if they aren't experts in superintendent hiring.  Details were a bit fuzzy;  the plan seems to be that local firms will learn from the media that they can apply.

Board member Trent Merchant,  a headhunter with Coleman Lew & Associates,  has been advising his colleagues about search tactics.  He said today that the president of his firm has expertise in education;  when Gorman resigned,  Merchant said, he and the president agreed not to talk about the CMS opening.  If Coleman Lew were to land in consideration for the CMS search,  Merchant says he'd probably recuse himself from voting.

Board member Richard McElrath said a local firm could help increase trust in CMS.  And former board member James Ross (he served an appointed term from 2008-2009) was sitting in Tuesday,  hoping his firm might get the business.  Ross said he thinks he could find a leader who's less bureaucratic and better able to connect with Charlotteans than the last few.

Current board members have also talked about how to make sure that the three at-large members chosen in November will be ready to dive in the minute they take office in December.  The departure of Merchant,  Kaye McGarry and Joe White,  who aren't seeking re-election,  means everyone but District 5 Representative Tom Tate will be doing their first search.  Even Habrat,  hired in March from Wells Fargo/Wachovia,  is exploring new territory.

So far, the 16 people seeking the at-large seats haven't been flocking to the search meetings,  a point that has raised criticism from some current members.  (Tim Morgan, a district representative seeking an at-large seat, has been at the sessions.)   After a reporter tweeted White's jibes about absent candidates in July,  Elyse Dashew and Ericka Ellis-Stewart dashed to the meeting and began tweeting. On Tuesday,  Jeff Wise and Hans Plotseneder attended part of the search meeting. (I admit, even I haven't been sitting through the whole meetings, which tend to last hours.  Bloggers Bolyn McClung and Susan Spaulding seem to be the most devoted followers of the early process.)

Tuesday night,  Ellis-Stewart asked the board to consider holding search meetings in the evening "so that working parents and working adults can attend."

p.s. Sorry we haven't been feeding the blog much lately. When one reporter is covering CMS, it's hard to keep up. As a makeup, here's a little blog humor: Paul Simms in the New Yorker on what commenters would have said if God blogged the creation.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Civil rights lawyers joining anti-testing forces in CMS

Add the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, to the list of organizations pushing back against the expansion of high-stakes testing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The Washington, D.C.-based project, which bills itself as a civil rights "action tank," has been in Charlotte this week interviewing parents at the local NAACP office. Jasmine Harris, a staff attorney with the project, said the group believes high-stakes tests like North Carolina's end-of-grade and end-of-course exams are narrowing the curriculum, squeezing out creativity and frustrating minority students.

Harris said the new 50-plus local tests CMS rolled out this spring to help evaluate teacher performance won't help matters. She said parents from all backgrounds and colors told the project about their frustrations with the new testing regime, which sparked protests from teachers and parents who called the new exams too ill-prepared, costly, time-consuming and unnecessary. Harris said the Advancement Project plans to produce a report by year's end summarizing its findings, and hopes to help push for alternative ways of judging student and teacher performance. She mentioned portfolio-style assessments as one. Asked if the Advancement Project might file some sort of lawsuit against CMS, she suggested that was unlikely, or at least a last resort. She voiced hopes that Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who presides over the long-running Leandro school-quality lawsuit, will hold a hearing on high-stakes testing and allow the group to present its findings.

The group's presence comes as the NAACP plans what it calls a "March Against Educational Genocide" on Saturday Aug. 13 at Marshall Park. The NAACP says it is calling the march to bring attention to the "grave inequities" in CMS concerning effective teachers, fair discipline, equitable resources and challenging curriculum. N.C. NAACP President William Barber will speak. CMS has won praise nationally in recent years for narrowing the achievement gap, but judging from the title of the march, the civil rights group isn't impressed.