Measuring the impact of Bright Beginnings prekindergarten and figuring out whether the recent switch to preK-8 schools benefits students are among top research goals for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes told the school board Tuesday.
The 2010 decision to close three struggling middle schools and add grades 6-8 to eight elementaries raised questions in the affected neighborhoods. Some parents still believe the combined elementary/middle schools endanger the young children and give older students fewer academic options than they'd get in larger middle schools. Proponents say students benefit from the more personalized setting and avoid the academic slump that often comes with the switch to middle school.
In September, Morrison presented a preliminary study of the first year of pre-K-8s that found mixed academic results. Barnes said Tuesday a follow-up is expected in late fall or winter, after results of 2013 state exams are in.
Barnes said CMS is also working with researchers from UNC Charlotte to study the district's prekindergarten: "Is it working, where is it working best and are there challenges?" Most school board members say they support public prekindergarten, but many have voiced frustration that CMS failed to deliver on early promises to monitor how Bright Beginnings students do as they move through school. Former Superintendent Eric Smith created the program in 1998. Tracking of student results vanished during ensuing leadership changes, even as the program's cost has risen.
Other research plans include identifying signs that students are at risk of dropping out and studying the "instructional culture" of CMS schools, part of a research project with TNTP. Barnes said CMS hopes to refine the district's annual surveys of principals, teachers, students and parents. Results of those surveys used to be posted online; Barnes said the 2012-13 results haven't been released yet but should be posted later this summer.
Barnes told the board that he and his staff are still working on a reliable way to report on school success. In 2012, CMS withdrew its school progress reports after the Observer uncovered errors in the data. A subsequent CMS review found even more problems.
Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart asked Barnes how he plans to restore community confidence that CMS can get the numbers right. Barnes said he's working on a system that uses data verified by the state, but new state exams and uncertainties about a proposed letter-grade system are delaying that effort.
"Part of what I recognize is that trust is earned," Barnes said. "I think what we will have to do is season by season, year by year re-earn that trust."