Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Meck, Wake on new school choice index

When it comes to educational choice and competition,  Mecklenburg County ranks about in the middle of the pack,  while Wake County is among the leaders.  That's the conclusion of The Brookings Institution, which today released ratings of the nation's 25 largest school districts,  along with the charter and private schools that offer alternatives in those counties.

Brookings worked from the premise that students benefit when their families have alternatives to their assigned neighborhood schools,  whether in the form of magnets,  charters,  affordable private schools or online learning.  Too often , study author Grover "Russ" Whitehurst writes,  real choice is available only to families who earn enough to move to neighborhoods with the best schools or pay private-school tuition.

Whitehurst created a 13-item choice and competition index that includes such things as the number of alternatives available in each area,  the quality and clarity of data available to help families make choices and the willingness of school districts to let family choice influence decisions about school budgets and even closings.   New York City took the top spot with a B grade.  Wake was No. 4 with a B-,  and CMS was 11th with a C+ . Orange County,  Fla. , was last with a D.  (Read the list here.)

Both Mecklenburg and Wake rated high on options available and accessible online information about school quality . In both N.C. counties,  roughly 80 percent of school-age children attend regular public schools,  with the rest divided among charters,  private schools and home-schooling.  Both districts offer an array of magnets.

Wake County Public Schools rated high on closing schools that aren't popular with parents,  while Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools landed at the bottom of that list.  Mecklenburg got a low rating on providing transportation as part of school choice.  CMS recently cut back on busing to magnets,  and N.C. charter schools are not required to offer transportation.

In an interview Tuesday,  Whitehurst said he was impressed with the data CMS offers families to help them compare and choose schools.  But he said he's disappointed that the district backed away from the "choice plan" that rolled out in 2002,  offering families options to switch their kids to other nonmagnet schools.  That plan created crowding at some schools and underenrollment at others,  which led CMS leaders to limit choices.  Whitehurst, who directs Brookings' Brown Center on Education Policy,  said CMS would have served students better by closing the schools that families fled and expanding those that attracted students.

"It was disappointing to see a good choice system in place  ...  kind of collapsing because of the difficulty of dealing with the demand,"  he said.

Brookings, a nonpartisan research and policy group based in Washington, D.C., hopes the index sparks discussion of ways to increase choice.  Whitehurst said he plans to update the index to include the 100 largest districts and their environs by this time next year.

Choice is a front-burner issue in North Carolina, with the legislature's recent decision to lift the 100-school cap on charters. Earlier this fall, Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina held meetings around the state to encourage people of color to launch charters; the Charlotte session drew more than 350 people.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What's Finland doing right?

Imagine a place where teachers are so highly paid and respected that top students must compete for spots in schools of education,  where an  "accountability movement"  would seem laughable because everyone expects teachers to be doing good things for their students.

That's what N.C. education,  business and political leaders saw when they visited Finland this fall.  It's no secret that Finland is widely viewed as one of the best countries for public education;  that's why the 31-person delegation made the trip in September.  I'm just getting caught up on some of their reports,  and it's worth reading the blogs filed by Tony Habit of the N.C. New Schools Project in Raleigh and this report from N.C. Board of Education member John Tate of Charlotte.

Both men note the long-term dedication the people of Finland have shown to improving education,  as a matter of economic survival and commitment to equal opportunity.

"Finland’s consensus model stands in stark contrast to the United States,"  Habit wrote . "If policies for education that are central to the future of the nation change with each election cycle,  as they seem to do in North Carolina and the United States,  what chance do we have to achieve and sustain a world-class educational system?"

Tate sounds a similar theme:  "This culture of learning,  this willingness to invest,  this pride & trust didn’t just happen overnight,  but rather as a result of a sustained stay-the-course mentality that survived both political & economic change  —  in this case over 40 years.  How do we effect such stick-to-it-iveness?  Where is the common vision to which we as a state bind together through time for the benefit of future generations?"

In case you're wondering whether the taxpayers of North Carolina sent this crew overseas,  the answer is no.  The Public School Forum of NC organized the trip,  along with the UNC Center for International Understanding.   Forum President Jo Ann Norris says the Burroughs Wellcome Fund paid for the official delegates,  while various other privately-funded groups and businesses picked up the tab for their own travelers.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Needed: Help for education advocates?

Newly-elected school board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart has been tweeting links to school advocacy guides she's coming across as she prepares for her new job.


Ellis-Stewart,  who has spent a good bit of time on the other side of the dais trying to sway board members' views , suggests it could be helpful for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to produce something similar to this  "Parents' Guide to School Board Advocacy"  created by the ACLU in Washington state.  She also tweeted this  "Education Advocacy Toolkit"  done by the League of United Latin American Citizens.

I forwarded the ACLU guide to Bill Anderson of MeckEd,  asking if he's seen anything like this geared toward North Carolina or Charlotte . "This is actually a very good idea and something we will certainly consider,"  said Anderson,  whose group is doing a presentation on advocacy for the Mecklenburg PTA Council tonight.

Meanwhile,  people who want a voice in the direction of CMS will have an opportunity at a series of public meetings next week to discuss the superintendent search.

At the moment,  there don't seem to be the kind of controversies that bring large crowds out to lobby the board on specific issues.  But a trio of community groups recently met to try to boost the voice of minority and low-income families in CMS decision-making.  And a coalition of families from various elementary and middle schools have been pushing the board to rethink the longer elementary school hours and later starting times rolled out this year.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

NC pay freeze hits outside hires, too

Reader Maggie Dunne has been urging me to look into a question that's likely on the mind of many teachers and people who care about them.  She wonders if the state's pay freeze puts N.C. teachers at a disadvantage compared with people hired from outside the state:  "I have been told by friends who are teachers that if someone with 4 years’ experience is a new hire from out of state this year, they are being paid for their experience.  So then you have 2 teachers with the same training and the same experience and in the same field getting entirely different pay."

Not true,  says the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools human resources staff.

The state pay scale is based on experience and credentials.  During good times,  teachers generally get a raise for adding a year of experience.  But starting in 2009-10,  legislators said there wasn't enough money for those raises.

The concern Dunne raises assumes that a N.C. teacher who had five years of experience in 2008-09 remains classified as a five-year teacher,  even though he or she now has eight years' experience,  while an outsider with the same experience hired this year would be classified as an eight-year teacher.  But CMS says both would be classified as eight-year teachers  --  at a scale that has been adjusted downward so that pay level now matches what five-year teachers were making before the freeze.

"The state legislature votes on the teacher tables every year as part of the NC budget.  Since they have voted to give a year’s experience but have frozen salaries they have in effect adjusted down the pay scales,"  wrote Pat Rocca,  a CMS compensation specialist.

The good news for teachers,  then,  is that those who stay put aren't being paid less than new arrivals.  The bad news is that their pay is unlikely to jump dramatically when the economy recovers.  Instead,  it's a good  bet that lawmakers will start nudging the current scale up in small increments when money is available.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Klein: Philanthropy drives innovation

Money from philanthropic foundations such as GatesBroad and Dell may be a small part of school district budgets,  but it's essential to innovation,  Joel Klein says in this SmartBlog on Leadership video.

Klein is the former chancellor of New York City schools.  In Charlotte he's also known  as Peter Gorman's new boss;  Gorman left Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this summer to join Klein in working for the Education Division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Klein says private grants let public school districts try new approaches, while public money covers the cost of running schools.  "Our basic R&D venture money has come from private philanthropy,"  he says in the three-minute video.

Gates and Broad money has helped CMS explore new ways to evaluate, pay and develop the skills of teachers.  As the school board seeks a successor to Gorman,  the role of philanthropic "venture money" is likely to be a point of public discussion.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

CMS slipping on per-pupil money

North Carolina's 2011 school report cards show Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been losing ground on per-pupil spending compared with other N.C. districts , including its largest ones.

In 2006-07,  with the economy thriving,  CMS spent $8,118 per pupil,  $95 above the state average.  Last year it spent $7,994,  about $400 below the state average.  The state tally includes local,  state and federal money to operate schools;  it doesn't count construction and other capital costs  (read details here).

CMS relies heavily on county taxpayers.  In 2006-07,  CMS'  local money came to $2,517 per pupil,  $568 above the state average.  That put CMS ahead of Wake,  Cumberland and Forsyth  (Guilford County,  the state's third-largest district after Wake and CMS,  has consistently had higher per-pupil budgets than any of the five biggest districts.)

Last year CMS was down to $2,048 per student in local money  --  $146 over the state average,  but less than Guilford, Wake and Forsyth got.  As anyone who has followed budget news knows,  CMS took a big hit in county spending when the recession took hold.  This year  (which is not reflected in state report cards)  Mecklenburg County commissioners approved a $26 million increase.

The link between spending and student achievement remains murky.  Guilford,  despite its consistently large budget  ($8,820 in federal, state and local money last year)  trailed CMS,  Wake and state averages on high school test scores.

CMS saw its pass rates slip in 2011,  but the report cards show it held onto a respectable position compared to other districts,  especially at the high school level.  For instance,  the pass rate for CMS black and low-income high school students slipped from 77 percent in 2010 to 73 percent in 2011,  but that compares with a 68 percent pass rate for the same groups in Wake and 63 percent in Guilford.  Well over 90 percent of white and non-poor students in CMS and Wake passed the high school tests.

But one big conundrum remains.  While CMS has made big strides in helping teens pass their state exams,  it continues to trail most districts on getting them to graduate.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Broad didn't seek CMS "naming rights"

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees and parents who are wary of the influence of The Broad Foundation have been grumbling about the district's decision to display a  "Broad Prize for Urban Education"  logo on electronic communications,  and to ask employees to attach the logo to their CMS emails.

Those concerns ratcheted up this month,  when the CMS communications office sent this follow-up:

"Thank you for spreading the good news about CMS winning the Broad Prize by changing your email signature.  In order to be in compliance with Broad guidelines,  we are asking all employees to use the revised  CMS/Broad logo in their signature.  We appreciate your cooperation."

Some people read that as a mandate from the Broad Foundation, which in September dubbed CMS the nation's top urban district and will hand out $550,000 in scholarships to the Class of 2012.  "I don't work for the Broad Foundation!  I work for the State of North Carolina and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools!"   wrote a teacher who forwarded the CMS directive.

Departing board member Kaye McGarry said people are asking,  "Since when did the Broad Foundation purchase naming rights to CMS?"   Keith Hurley,  a CMS parent who sought an at-large seat,  has also objected:  "Please, no more propaganda sent to my home for Eli Broad!"

LaTarzja Henry,  head of CMS communications,  said the decision to display the logo came from her,  not the Broad Foundation.   CMS could choose not to use it at all,  but if the district does display the Broad logo,  the foundation wants to make sure it's the official one.  The November mandate was just an effort to make sure employees had the updated attachment,  Henry said.

Henry said CMS has spent no money displaying the logo;  it has only been added to electronic material.  And the district must not be strictly enforcing its request for employees to use it.  I scanned my inbox and found emails from half a dozen teachers sent from their CMS accounts this month.  None included the Broad logo.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Cheaters, bathroom news and a dead skunk

Delving into online high school newspapers has proven fascinating.  As links have come in  (see rail at right)  I've read about dress codes,  wrecks outside schools and students taking part in Occupy Charlotte.

In the Providence Prowl,  Arjun Gupta produced a sophisticated report on cheating on senior exit projects.  It's fine traditional journalism -- but the most intriguing online reporting I saw is this snippet posted Oct. 27 by Norah Richmond of the Hopewell Siren:

This morning Hopewell Titans were welcomed by a perplexing prank. The entire 500 hall smelled of an angry skunk smell. When trying to find the source teachers were told by students that there was a dead skunk and banner hanging from the wall outside of room 506. Hough High was responsible for the prank, obviously noted by their banner.

No, it's not meaty investigation or deathless prose. But it gets to what online news does best: It's an immediate report on the thing everyone was talking about that day.

Meanwhile, I got a chuckle hearing from Jeff Joyce,  whom I met a few years ago while covering his elaborate role-playing Civil War trivia contest at Northwest School of the Arts.  Now he chairs the social studies department at Hough,  and he emailed to let me know the school doesn't have a full-fledged newspaper yet,  but he has started a "bathroom press."

Um ... what?

"We write one-page articles on things we think are relevant to students and post them in the bathroom stalls ... kind of fun and funny at the same time. My kids are doing some really cool articles," he explained.
No word on whether the skunk prank made bathroom headlines.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Year-round school: It's complicated

In theory,  it seems obvious that the summer-off school calendar is ripe for change.  But listening to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials talk about converting one elementary school to a year-round schedule shows how complicated the change can be.

Last year the board voted to turn First Ward Elementary into a year-round school starting in August 2012,  with University Park Elementary,  another arts magnet,  closing and becoming part of First Ward.  After a presentation on what that's going to take,  the board agreed to wait another year.

First Ward is slated to become a four-track year-round school.  That means students and their teachers will have 45 days of class followed by 15 days off  --  and at any given time,  three-quarters of the students and teachers will be in class and one-quarter will be on  "intersession,"  as the breaks have been dubbed.

There will still be schoolwide breaks in the winter and spring,  but no long summer break.  Part of the goal is to avoid the learning loss that often happens over the summer.  Officials said they're looking at options for the kids who are on break to keep learning.  They're hoping uptown arts groups might help.  Still unclear is whether CMS or families would pay for those opportunities.

The staggered  "tracks"  mean a building can hold more students.  But it also means teachers may be living out of boxes;  instead of having one classroom for a full school year,  they'll have it for one quarter,  then move out to let another teacher step in.

Choosing tracks will be part of the 2013 magnet lottery.  There will be measures to keep siblings on the same schedule,  but any year-round schedule will put students out of sync with siblings at other schools and/or parents who work for any other school  (of course, most working parents are used to school calendars that are out of step with their jobs).

The big round of changes that included the University Park/First Ward merger was driven partly by the prospect of a shrinking CMS budget.  But Tyler Ream,  the area superintendent in charge of First Ward,  told the school board that providing year-round busing to a school that takes students from across Mecklenburg County will add an estimated $400,000 to transportation costs.

Ream said so far reaction from First Ward and University Park families has been mixed.  One reason he and other leaders want another year is to hire a principal to lead the transition and try to get families on board with the new venture.

Monday, November 14, 2011

School newspapers: Got links?

Recent discussions about the need for high schools to teach online journalism inspired me to add a feature to this blog:  Links to student newspapers.

I've only got two so far,  the online versions of the Providence Prowl and the East Meck Eagle.  I'm sure there are more,  and I think it's a boost for student journalists and a service to adult readers to share them.  So if you are involved with an online student publication  --  public,  private or charter,  Mecklenburg or surrounding counties  --  shoot me the link and I'll add it to the rail at the right of this blog.

Update: Got the Charlotte Country Day School link from alum Paul Kardous, who worked for his high school paper in the 1990s, went on to become online editor of his college paper, The Auburn Plainsman -- and is now an architect. "You can learn great skills from operating as a journalist no matter what your chosen profession!" he says.

Friday, November 11, 2011

CMS precinct map: Who won where?

Our new database reporter Gavin Off has created a map showing which school board candidates took first place in each precinct.  Click on any precinct to see how all 14 candidates fared there.

Gavin and I are working on a story for Sunday looking at what it all means;  I just figured I'd give the election junkies who read this blog a sneak preview.  Not surprisingly,  the four top finishers  --  Ericka Ellis-Stewart,  Mary McCray and Tim Morgan,  who won the three at-large seats,  and Elyse Dashew,  who ran a close fourth  --  claimed the top spot in most precincts.  Aaron Pomis,  who placed fifth,  took one precinct,  and Larry Bumgarner,  who placed sixth,  took three.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

High school journalism stuck in print age

The news world may be going electronic,  but high school journalism programs still rely more on yearbooks and print papers than online reporting,  the Kent State University Center for Scholastic Journalism reports.

The 2011 Scholastic Journalism Census of more than 4,000 high schools found that 96 percent offer some kind of student journalism program, with yearbooks in 94 percent of schools and student newspapers in 64 percent.  Only one in three reported any kind of online student media.  "These data suggest many scholastic media programs are neither exposing students to the media landscape they will confront once they graduate from high school nor teaching students the skills they need to succeed in a multimedia world,"  the report says.

That's unfortunate.  Producing a student paper was painfully slow back in the 1970s; now it's even  more out of sync with the real world.  Online reporting would seem to offer cost savings, though I suspect it also requires significant staff training.

My sense is that opportunities vary widely within CMS, often based on the initiative of faculty advisers.  I recall how impressed we were in 2009,  when Alan Vitale, a teacher at the small Olympic Renaissance High,  launched a student newspaper and brought his print and web editors to visit the Observer.  On the other hand, I've heard a young friend who attends South Meck talk about her frustration that the school has no student newspaper.

Meanwhile, a high school newspaper adviser in Iowa won a free-press victory on Wednesday, when a court ruled that his principal couldn't punish him for letting students publish "offensive" items, including an April Fool spoof issue .

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

CMS board: Big change, little participation

The totals are in, and the overwhelming winner in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board election was "let someone else decide."

About 86 percent of Mecklenburg's registered voters opted out of a race that had 14 people vying for three board seats. To break that down: 609,941 people are registered, and 98,338, or 16.1 percent, voted Tuesday. It's likely that a significant number cast municipal ballots but skipped the school board race (230,451 board votes were tallied, but each voter could choose up to three candidates).

Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who won a decisive first place, got 35,000 votes -- less than 6 percent of all registered voters. Tim Morgan advanced from a district seat to a countywide one, allowing the board to choose his replacement for District 6, with just under 25,000 votes, representing the support of 4 percent of possible voters.

To make the will of the voters even more baffling, 10,400 voted for DeShauna McLamb, who said nothing and made no appearances after filing for office. More than 11,300 chose Lisa Hundley, a newcomer who announced in early October that she would be too ill with cancer to serve.

What all this means for students, parents and taxpayers remains to be seen, but it's bound to be significant. The current nine-person board has been led by a moderate tri-partisan coalition  (Democrats Joe White and Tom Tate, Republicans Rhonda Lennon and Tim Morgan, and unaffiliated Eric Davis and Trent Merchant). The new board will have five Democrats, as newcomers Ellis-Stewart and Mary McCray join district representatives Tom Tate, Richard McElrath and Joyce Waddell. If they vote as a block, they could push the board significantly to the left.

It's the nature of school board work and a divided community that decisions spark complaints. There are plenty of tough issues ahead. It'll be interesting to see how quickly people start to howl about the choices they let their neighbors make.

Next CMS leader: Lots of public opinion

Cleaning out paper files for a recent desk shuffle,  I came across reports from the 2005-06 superintendent search that led to Peter Gorman's hiring.  At that time,  Ray and Associates search firm posted an online survey asking people to rate the most important superintendent qualities,  choosing from a list of 32.  They got 2,210 responses,  plus those from  "more than 120 people"  who attended various public meetings in December 2005.

This time around,  the school board and its new firm,  PROACT Search,  will have far more public opinion to work with.  The online survey created by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute got responses from just over 8,800 adults before it closed at midnight Monday,  and more than 500 high school students completed a slightly shorter version.  It's a far more extensive questionnaire,  asking people to rank the most important issues facing CMS and several aspects of what they'd like to see in the leader who succeeds Gorman in 2012.

There's still room to debate the questions,  though.  Gary Pender,  who describes himself as a parent who pulled his kids out because of  "the ridiculous standardized testing CMS instituted last year,"  wonders why neither performance pay nor testing was among the 19 options for top issues  (for those who remain concerned about those issues,  which sparked so much controversy,  "teacher evaluations"  is the closest choice).

"Either the survey is just poorly put together or CMS (or its vendor) has rigged it because this is a phony effort to make it seem like the board wants feedback or suggestions from the community,"  Pender wrote.  "Either way, it makes CMS look bad."

The survey was compiled by the Urban Institute,  with consultation from representatives of other local universities.  Results will be presented at a series of public forums on the superintendent search, slated for the first week of December (no details are set).   "Once the results are made public,  we’ll be making ourselves available as the researchers to answer any questions that anyone has about the data," said Jeff Michael, director of the Urban Institute.  

Monday, November 7, 2011

CMS poverty up again

The districtwide poverty level for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has nudged up one percentage point,  to 54.4 percent this year,  according to a new report on students eligible for lunch subsidies.

The numbers show poverty increasing at all grade levels.  The new preK-8 schools,  created when CMS closed three high-poverty middle schools,  range from 87 percent poverty at Ashley Park to 95 percent at Reid Park.

Harding High, which used to be a full magnet and picked up neighborhood students when Waddell High closed, rose almost 16 percentage points, to 79 percent poverty.  South Meck,  which also added former Waddell students,  rose 8 percentage points,  to 43 percent.  North Meck,  which is seeing its demographics shift because of the opening of nearby Hough High,  rose 11 points to 54.5 percent poverty.

The use of lunch-subsidy numbers to gauge school poverty remains controversial.  The guidelines, set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,  allow a family of four with an income up to $29,055 a year to get free lunches;  up to $41,348 a year,  children from that family would get lunch for 40 cents instead of the full $2.05.  Students who get either free or reduced-price meals are counted as economically disadvantaged.  The USDA sets strict guidelines for how districts can monitor and verify eligibility;  some say those numbers should not be used for other purposes,  such as allocating extra teachers and academic aid,  because they are not more rigorously checked.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tossed fliers, online comments and other campaign tidbits

Are Tim Morgan and his campaign manager subverting the voting system?  Do Ken Nelson's online comments support white supremacy and violence?  Is Elyse Dashew aligned with outside groups?  And where in the world is DeShauna McLamb?

 Now that the issue pieces and profiles are out of the way,  it's time to delve into some of the other questions floating around the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board race.

As commenters have noted and TV stations reported,  Morgan's campaign manager,  Larry Shaheen,  got caught tossing out campaign literature for Keith Hurley and Ken Nelson at an early voting station in mid-October.  Shaheen says he believed fellow Republicans Nelson and Hurley had put their material on Morgan's table,  which in his view made it fair game for the trash can.  In fact,  it was a Republican Party table,  which the others had a right to share.  Vice Chair Pat Murray saw the incident,  salvaged the material and took Shaheen to task.

Shaheen says he goofed and has apologized to the party and the candidates.  Morgan says he talked to Shaheen about the incident and has elected to keep him on board as manager.  I finally caught up to Mecklenburg Party GOP Chair Gideon Moore today to get his take. He says Shaheen was banned from staffing the GOP tables but is free to continue campaigning for the two candidates he represents (Morgan and Charlotte City Council candidate Curtis Watkins).

Shaheen "made a poor choice in the heat of the campaign. It happens,"  Moore said.  "I really don't consider it a big deal."  Moore added that he was a bit disappointed that Hurley,  who became a Republican too late to be in the running for an endorsement,  opted to go public with the conflict after Moore thought it had been resolved.
Some have also chided Morgan for seeking an at-large seat when he already holds a district seat.  There's nothing illegal or unusual about that;  George Dunlap tried it in 2003.  If he's elected,  the board will launch the application process after Morgan is sworn in for the at-large seat Dec. 13.  The eight members of the new board would vote on a new District 6 representative to serve until the 2013 election.


Commenters have also raised questions about the things Nelson posts in online forums as knelsud92.

I read through quite a few, and if you don't like Nelson's style and views, you won't like them much.

On illegal immigrants, one of his favorite topics:

No mas illegales, por favor 
Get out the country, bar the door! 
Start 'em marching to the border 
Then we can restore order.

On academic achievement gaps:

It's the school's fault that "fathers" abandon their children before birth and end up in prison or dead.  It's the school's fault that a culture values violence over peace.  No amount of money can fix a culture. Hence, we do not have an achievement gap, we have a culture gap.
On the departure of conservative blogger Jeff Taylor: "You've always been a voice of reason in this city full of moochers and looters."

And on a story about 11 Garinger students, including the valedictorian, getting diplomas, only to learn belatedly they hadn't met the graduation requirements:  "He thought he passed English, but when it was realized that Ebonics doesn't qualify as a substitute, he lost the credits."

Nelson says he's a guy who sees many issues in black-and-white terms, and who sometimes aims his online comments to get a laugh from supporters and a rise from opponents.  He notes that he grew up outside New York City,  which makes him  "by nature sarcastic and bombastic  --  that's just the way we are."

But Nelson vehemently denies that his comments show him to be racist or violent.  He argued for the right of a white supremacy group to rent a room and meet in Charlotte, he said, but he does not support white supremacy.  He said he would support  "a second American Revolution"  if the country "becomes like the Soviet Union,"  but says other commenters are wrong in saying he has urged shooting people over election results.  And he says that if his comments have appeared on the White Nationalist web site Stormfront,  it's because someone cut and pasted them from his comments on a Ron Paul site.

"I am certainly not a racist,"  Nelson says.

Some have also asked about links between Dashew's MeckFUTURE and philanthropies and advocacy groups.  Dashew and fellow CMS parent Doug Swaim formed the alliance of families from about 40 schools in January to lobby for money to avert drastic budget cuts.  The group,  which is currently inactive,  has no national alliances and no funding other than a collection members took up to pay for fliers, she says.

Dashew says she believes people are confusing MeckFUTURE with Mecklenburg ACTS, which is affiliated with Parents Across America, and/or MeckEd, which conducted a CMS budget information campaign using money that then-Superintendent Peter Gorman provided from a Spangler Foundation grant.  All three "Mecks" were part of a "55 for 5" coalition that lobbied county commissioners and state legislators to provide about $55 million to avoid cutting five high-priority items from this year's budget.


Finally, the case of the missing candidate remains a mystery.  Last winter and spring,  when the debate over school closings and fairness to minority neighborhoods was raging,  I got several emails from Prophetess DeShauna McLamb of Beyond Ministries promoting efforts to get people engaged with public education.  She announced her board candidacy in March,  filed in July  ...  and disappeared from the campaign.

Having failed to reach her by phone,  email and a visit to the address she listed when she filed,  I tried another address we found on a public-records search.  A man who answered the door this morning said McLamb lives there but wasn't in.  He gave me a new phone number that gets a voice mail for McLamb.  I've left a couple of messages, but so far, no response.

McLamb has never withdrawn from the race, so she'll be on Tuesday's ballot.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

CMS tests still spark skepticism

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is building some support for its quest to do a better job of evaluating teachers and helping them develop their skills.  But the slew of new tests the district created last spring still seems to pose a barrier to public support for the  "talent effectiveness project."

That was my take-away from last night's public conversation on " How Should We Grade Our Teachers,"  sponsored by WFAE.  More than 100 people  --  most of them CMS teachers or parents, from the show of hands  --  turned out to talk with teachers and the district's human-resources chief.

Panelists Larry Bosc,  a teacher from East Meck,  and Courtney Mason,  a teacher from Piney Grove Elementary,  agreed the new state teacher evaluations are better than the old version, providing a broader view of what teachers do for their schools and students. Bosc,  however,  noted that they impose a huge time demand on the school administrators who have to perform them.

Mason,  a fourth-year teacher,  voiced enthusiasm for the latest quest to get teachers involved in figuring out how to gauge effectiveness and help teachers improve.  Bosc,  who has taught 34 years,  was more wary.  He said he fears talent effectiveness is just a new name for performance pay,  and decided not to commit 90 minutes a week through April to volunteer for a study group whose suggestions might be ignored.

Chief HR Officer Daniel Habrat insisted CMS is serious about learning from last year's mistakes and listening to teachers.  "We have an opportunity to correct a misstep and start anew," he said.

Panelists and audience members agreed on the need to respect and pay teachers like true professionals  --  though many said handing out small rewards based on performance means less than boosting the overall pay scale.  Most of the audience comments focused on the dozens of new year-end tests CMS launched last spring as part of its performance-pay push.  One mother cried as she talked about how the tests squeeze out time for art and music.

"What I have seen go on last spring and this fall I find totally unacceptable,"  she said.  "I promised my husband if I saw the same thing happen this spring,  I would pull  (our daughter)  and just home-school."

Habrat said as a CMS parent,  he was "not a fan" of last spring's testing,  either.  But he noted that the state is getting ready to develop additional tests,  which will also be used to evaluate teacher performance.  And he said the full slate of CMS testing will continue this spring,  though the tests should be somewhat shorter.

Ultimately,  it will be up to the school board and the new superintendent to decide how much testing the district will do beyond what the state requires.  Habrat told the group that if the district abandoned its new year-end tests, it would not derail the push to come up with better evaluations and support for teachers.

WFAE plans to post audio of the discussion and take comments on the topic at this site,  though it could take a day or two.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Campaign money and a new Broad prize

The last round of campaign finance reports before the Nov.  8 Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board election are in,  and Elyse Dashew continues to lead the 14-candidate crew.  As of Oct. 24,  she reported raising almost $35,000  (plus $3,000 in loans).  Following her in fund-raising are Tim Morgan, who has raised almost $19,000,  and Aaron Pomis with about $17,500.

Unless there's some heavy-duty giving in the last couple weeks of the campaign,  this is turning out to be a much lower-budget affair that most insiders predicted.  Going into the race, many expected it would take $50,000 or more to win.


The Broad Foundation, which recently awarded its 2011 prize for urban education to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, announced today it's creating a new award to recognize excellence among charter-school chains. At the September event where CMS was awarded $550,000 in scholarships for the Class of 2012,  philanthropist Eli Broad voiced frustration with the slow pace of progress among school districts and hinted that he planned to create a charter prize soon.

The Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools,  to be awarded next year,  will provide $250,000 for college-readiness efforts in a large charter management group that demonstrates gains and achievement among low-income and minority students.  The 20 groups on the eligibility list include KIPP,  or the Knowledge Is Power Program,  which has a school in Charlotte.