Thursday, October 31, 2013

Walk in, walk out or neither?

The Nov. 4 date for a N.C. teacher walk-out and/or community walk-ins to support public education is near. So what's going to happen?

I'm not getting any sense that there will be a big wave of "blue flu"  (or whatever the educational equivalent might be),  let alone an actual walk-out.  As I've written before,  it's risky business for teachers to take such a step,  and a lot of them are as unwilling to deprive their kids of classroom time as they are eager to make a point about pay and working conditions.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools decided not to join Iredell-Statesville in holding a districtwide  "walk-in"  to show support for educators.  CMS will hold educator appreciation events later this month,  while letting individual schools decide whether to mark Nov. 4,  spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said.

I've heard that parents at Elizabeth Lane Elementary in Matthews are planning a festive welcome and breakfast for their teachers on Monday,  and that Ranson Middle School,  the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators and Project LIFT are planning events at the north Charlotte school.  And I'm guessing plenty of people will go with a  "wear red for public ed"  show of support.

Update: Teachers at Northwest School of the Arts are planning a day of silence. "Teachers will still be at school and will perform their duties, but they will do it without a voice,"  says a post on a Northwest protest Facebook page.  "On Monday many teachers will be using worksheet packets to help students review. They hope to show the public that (1) their voices are not being heard, (2) classrooms will be silent when the teachers leave the profession, and (3) we must support our highly qualified teachers."  The teachers are also asking parents and other supporters to join them outside the school before and after school hours  "to show support and unity."

Another update:  My colleague Tim Funk just shared a statement from the offices of N.C. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and Sen. Neal Hunt calling on state Attorney General Roy Cooper to  "protect our children's safety" during this  "planned teachers strike."

The Berger/Hunt statement says that  "the North Carolina affiliate of the national teachers’ union has stated on record they  'affirm the desire, and right, of educators to use tactics like a walk-out or strike' – a clear violation of North Carolina law."  The link leads to the N.C. Association of Educators site,  but with an  "Oops ... Page Not Found"  message.  Meanwhile,  the only thing I can find on the NCAE site is the statement they posted several weeks ago saying the group does not endorse the walkout.

What else are the rest of you hearing?

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

District 1 won't be part of WTVI debate

WTVI's televised school board debate won't include north suburban District 1,  and incumbent Rhonda Lennon isn't happy about that.  Fifteen-minute segments on each of the other four contested races will air from about 4-5 p.m. Sunday,  after the Charlotte City Council debates.

District 1 challenger Christine Mast told me she couldn't make today's scheduled taping because she has  "other commitments with parents."

Lennon says she offered to adjust her schedule to fit with Mast's,  but instead the sponsoring League of Women Voters pulled the District 1 segment.  "The policy is that if one candidate in a 2 candidate race is unable or unwilling to participate there will be no debate,"  emailed Amanda Boo Raymond,  the league's executive producer.  "I appreciate your understanding and best of luck in your campaign."

"I am very disappointed I will not be allowed to participate since my opponent cancelled," Lennon told me. "I would have loved the opportunity to talk about my record and my priorities going forward for CMS."

The league's voter guide has been released, with 15,000 print copies going to libraries and other locations, but there are a lot of gaps from candidates who didn't reply. There's no school board race with all candidates responding, and neither contender for Charlotte mayor replied. I'm not sure what this says about this year's campaign and the way candidates are trying to connect with their voters. But check the right rail on this blog for links to the Observer's voter guide and other sources of more complete information.

And an update on campaign finance: The pre-election reports, which were due Monday, are still trickling in as the mail arrives and the Board of Elections gets them posted. Lennon says her total is more than $4,000. And I just plain messed up on Bolyn McClung in District 6: He reports having $11,337, including $10,800 in loans. We've corrected it online, but the print story is off.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Former CMS leaders in thick of Guilford tablet mess

Peter Gorman and Maurice "Mo" Green,  former superintendent and deputy superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  are facing questions about their roles in a botched purchase of tablets for 15,000 Guilford County students and faculty,  according to the Greensboro-based Rhino Times.

Green left his job as Gorman's deputy to take Guilford's top job in 2008. Gorman resigned as CMS superintendent in 2011 to work for the news division of Rupert Murdoch's education technology company,  now known as Amplify.  That's the company that got a $3.2 million contract with Guilford County Schools to provide the tablets,  which have been recalled after problems with cracked screens,  overheating and exposed wires,  according to various news sources.

The Rhino Times, an alternative weekly that used to have a Charlotte publication, made a public records request for emails between the district and Amplify.  "The emails disclose a close and long-lasting relationship between former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrators,"  especially Gorman and Green,  Paul Clark reports.  Former CMS staffers Nora Carr,  Jocelyn Becoats and Cynthia Shah-Kahn,  who now work for Green,  and Robert Avossa,  now superintendent in Fulton County,  Ga.,  were all part of the email exchange about the selection of Amplify,  the purchase of tablets and/or publicity about the purchase,  according to the article.

"The reason the school board got only one choice appears to lie in the complex web of pre-existing relationships between former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrators,"  Clark writes.  "The Guilford County school board has a terminal case of Charlotte envy.  Almost everything launched at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools finds its way to Guilford County."

I haven't done any reporting on this situation  --  CMS keeps me more than busy  --  but the article raises some important questions about the process in Guilford and the tactics used to sell and promote educational technology.  I had to grin when I saw that Shah-Kahn had rejected Amplify's attempt to get the district to sign off on a fake quote from Green promoting the company.  "The mo quote is awful,"  she is quoted as saying in an email to Guilford administrators.

Every district in America is spending big bucks on educational technology,  which means every taxpayer in America has a vested interest.  The Guilford mess is a good reminder that it's wise to be cautious,  even when the vendor has a familiar face.

Friday, October 25, 2013

When is a magnet not a magnet?

By the time Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rolls out its School Options Fair in January,  it needs to come up with new,  clear labels for its menu,  Superintendent Heath Morrison said this week.

If you've been around CMS,  you know it has neighborhood schools  (or  "home schools"  or,  in Morrison's recent terminology,  "local schools")  and magnets,  where students apply for admission and go through a lottery if demand exceeds supply.  But many of the new schools and programs outlined this week don't fit either category.

Two-year middle college high schools on CPCC campuses,  a four-year early college high at UNC Charlotte and a small health-science high school at Hawthorne seem a lot like magnets.  They won't have attendance zones;  instead,  students will apply to get in.  The difference is that selection won't have to follow the CMS policy for the magnet lottery.  (By the way,  that policy is being revised.  Check out the proposed changes here and the priority policy here. The changes look fairly minor to me, mostly reflecting the end of Title I choice,  but I'm interested in others' views.)

Cato Middle College High: Like a magnet, but not

Then there are opt-in programs that are open only to students in one school zone,  such as the proposed academy of advanced manufacturing and entrepreneurship at Olympic High.  None of these approaches are new  (think Cato Middle College High and Performance Learning Center, which are non-magnet magnets, or Myers Park High's IB program and Olympic's five mini-schools, which are zone-only choices).  But they're proliferating.  And Morrison said it'll be important to help families understand them.

Details about the new plans,  including costs,  will come at the board's Nov. 12 meeting.  Morrison said the Nov. 5 bond vote will shape some of the proposals.  And while he says there will be some cost to taxpayers,  it may not be as great as people think,  he said.  Some proposals,  such as the new Olympic school, will come from rearranging current resources,  he said.  There's state money to help with the college-based schools,  and Morrison said CMS is seeking grants and support from business partners and higher education.  At Hawthorne,  for instance,  he said students will use CPCC medical labs so CMS won't have to build new ones.

It was interesting to hear board member Tom Tate critique the cost-efficiency of charter schools at Thursday's MeckEd candidate forum.  He noted that CMS can education around 2,000 students at a high school,  while a charter school might require the same administration for about 200.  "They money just doesn't work,"  he said.   The same critique would seem to apply at the small schools CMS is creating,  which Tate voiced enthusiasm for.  Here's hoping those questions get aired in November.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Private schools, African American males and American Promise

Last week I went to Trinity Episcopal School to see  "American Promise,"  the latest education film to spark a national buzz.  (The Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture is showing it Nov. 9.)

The documentary takes on the challenges of African American males through the eyes of two boys who enroll as kindergartners in Manhattan's elite Dalton School. Filmmakers Michele Stephenson and Joe Brewster spent 13 years tracking the educational path of their son Idris and his friend Seun.

As a journalist and a parent,  I was fascinated by the chance to watch them morph from little boys cutting up in the back seat to young men heading into their separate futures. Viewers see them struggle with race-consciousness and parental pressure, learning disabilities and family tragedy, social acceptance and college admissions.

Unlike other recent education movies, such as "Waiting for Superman,"  a documentary about the Harlem Children's Zone,  or  "Won't Back Down,"  a dramatized story based on the push for parent trigger laws,  this one doesn't seem to be promoting any one solution or point of view.  One young man sticks with the mostly-white private school,  which his parents hope will be the ticket to Ivy League education and opportunity.  Another goes to a mostly-black public high school.  It wasn't clear to me which student was better off in the end.  The message can be elusive;  a New York Times movie review described the film as exasperating and intellectually murky.

But it can also be a starting point for discussion of real-life challenges that defy simple answers,  where race and class get tangled up in individual circumstances.  That's the hope at Trinity,  which filled the 500 seats set up in its gymnasium for the screening.

We've been hearing a lot about the challenges of African American males in public schools.  Trinity,  a religious school on the northeastern edge of uptown Charlotte,  also sees diversity as a crucial part of its mission.  Every year the school brings in speakers or programs designed to open minds and discussions,  not only among Trinity faculty and families but at other schools and in the broader community.

Jabari Spruill, head of Trinity's middle school, says The Dalton School deserves kudos for opening itself to such scrutiny.  "If this film was made at Trinity,  what would Trinity families say?"  he asked.  In upcoming sessions for faculty and parents,  he'll use the film to launch that kind of talk.

Spruill agreed that  "American Promise"  doesn't offer a simple blueprint for improving the educational success of young black men.  But he said it does raise important questions.  For instance:  What kind of numbers does it take to make diversity succeed? (Trinity is about 20 percent nonwhite).

 Idris and Seun appeared to be among a handful of nonwhite students when they started at Dalton.  In the film,  both talk about feeling like they're always in a racial spotlight at Dalton,  and the parents wonder how much their son's challenges are coming through a racial filter.  Spruill says Dalton has made changes:  This year's kindergarten class at Dalton was 50 percent black or Latino.

The discussion about diversity,  cultural competence and African American males has been most visible in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  for obvious reasons.  It will be fascinating to see how a private school with a thirst to explore  "the way that race and class and education intersect in different ways"  contributes to the community's thinking.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rezone your neighborhood? CMS now has a process

Some of the bitterest battles in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools involve residents who believe that their neighborhood ought to be zoned for a different school.

They bring personal stories and reams of data,  hoping to make their case.  They talk about having to drive past the closest school to get to the one their kids are assigned to,  or about being split from the rest of their neighborhood by a seemingly arbitrary boundary.  Often they're sent away,  and when a neighborhood request does get school board approval it raises questions about why one got through and not the others. Generally,  it has been confusing and frustrating for all concerned.

On Tuesday,  Superintendent Heath Morrison and Student Placement Director Scott McCully told the school board about a new process for handling such requests  (it starts on page 21 of this report).

There's a ranking process to size up the merits of each request,  with travel distance and effective use of resources as top-priority concerns.  Keeping neighborhoods together and protecting economic diversity at schools are a bit lower on the list,  and stability,  predictability and keeping elementary zones intact also factor in.

Jeremy Stephenson of southeast Charlotte's Crown Colony neighborhood described himself as ecstatic to get this far.  That neighborhood has long struggled to get rezoned from East Meck to Providence.

"Dr. Morrison last October met our request, and all others, with the call for such a process map, and now one is in place,"  Stephenson said in an email.  "We view this as a further boost of Dr. Morrison’s credibility with the community writ large."

McCully listed 13 neighborhoods that have made requests for boundary changes.  Four,  including Crown Colony,  have submitted the formal request to start the new review process,  he said.  Morrison said he'll bring any staff recommendations to the board in November.  Even if the staff decides against a  request, Morrison said the board will get the information so members can come to their own conclusion.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Back-and-forth on education bonds continues

Central Piedmont Community College has launched its own  "Vote Yes for CPCC Bonds"  campaign,  in addition to the education bonds campaign led by the Charlotte Chamber and MeckEd.  Mecklenburg voters will be asked to approve $210 million for CPCC and $290 million for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on Nov. 5.

Public bodies such as CMS and CPCC walk a fine line in promoting bonds.  State law prohibits using public money and resources to advocate for a  "yes"  or  "no"  vote,  and CPCC officials acknowledged in September they had crossed that line by forwarding an email from the  "Vote Yes"  campaign on President Tony Zeiss' work account.  But the CPCC campaign is funded by up to $50,000 in private money provided by the CPCC Foundation,  with no government money involved,  said spokesman Jeff Lowrance.

Lowrance said it's traditional for CPCC to run its own campaign in addition to chamber efforts to promote community college and K-12 bonds.

CMS,  meanwhile,  is pushing hard to provide information while stopping just short of advocating for a specific vote. Many schools are sending home copies of bond information from the district's web site,  often with notes like this one from Ballantyne Elementary's Bear Blast:

On November 5th, all registered voters in Mecklenburg County will have a chance to decide whether CMS receives $290 million in school bonds.  If approved, the bond money will be used to add classrooms, build new schools, repair again systems, and renovate older schools across Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.  Please help show our students that every vote counts by taking part in the elections on November 5th.  ... Visit the CMS website for more information about the bond referendum and why strong public schools matter to all of us.  Please let us know if you have further questions and again, make your vote count on November 5th

Christine Mast,  who is running for the District 1 school board seat,  argues that such material is inappropriate.  "School communications are clearly being used for bond advocacy by getting our students to bring these documents home with them,"  she wrote in an email to Superintendent Heath Morrison.   The web site implies that "a  'yes'  bond vote is the only vote that supports public schools,"  she wrote.

CMS Chief Communication Officer Kathryn Block disagrees.  The wording  "informs people about how the bond money, if approved, would be used and the importance of participating in the voting process,"  she said.  "It does not advocate for a specific position."

Meanwhile,  Tom Davis from the north suburban SPARK and Tim Timmerman from the south suburban SMART sent out a statement calling for Mecklenburg's seven municipalities to provide money for a cost-of-living allowance for CMS teachers.  They say they hope to hear Charlotte mayoral candidates Patrick Cannon and Edwin Peacock address that proposal at Wednesday's  "Solving It Together"  public forum.

Davis and Timmerman are urging voters to vote down the CMS bonds.  The only connection to teacher raises is that they're promoting a  "teachers before bricks and mortar"  slogan.  Teachers are paid from the district's operating budget,  which is separate from the budget for construction and renovation,  though county property taxes support both.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Student journalism thriving in CMS

I loved seeing a swarm of eager high school journalists at Friday's Strategic Plan 2018 event at the Booth Playhouse.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools ensures that student reporters get to cover big district events,  and the numbers seem to be growing.  I've recently spoken with students and advisers starting new publications at South Meck and Mallard Creek High,  and even at South Charlotte Middle School. About a dozen high schools had journalists there. (Read a CMS feature on one of South Meck's student reporters, Clarissa Brooks, here.)

The students asked good questions about teacher pay,  crowded classrooms and how standardized testing meshes with the creative approach Superintendent Heath Morrison pushed in his speech.  That last one got one of the best answers I've heard Morrison give.

"I'm not anti-test.  I am for a more limited number of tests,  high-quality tests that measure 21st century stuff,"  Morrison said.  He gave an example:  Old-style testing might ask students to list the first 10 presidents,  something any of them could quickly look up online.  A better question,  he said,  would be asking students to write about important decisions the early presidents made that shape life today.

Coming to these events exposes teens to one of the most exciting aspects of journalism:  The chance to be in the thick of current events and ask questions of people who shape our lives.  Even before Morrison's news conference,  they made connections among the people gathered for the event,  such as  Dorothy Counts Scoggins,  who made history as a school integration pioneer.

South Meck's Alton Peques interviews Scoggins

Journalism certainly needs the fresh ideas and new blood.  But I'm sensing one disconnect:  At a time when communication is increasingly reliant on multimedia,  school journalism tends to be decidedly retro.  Some schools put out print newspapers that take weeks to produce.  Many have online editions,  but few seem able to do real-time reporting,  create and post videos and otherwise develop the skills that would help them get jobs in the field.  Don't get me wrong;  good writing is always going to be vital.  But I marvel to think what these young folks could do with even the tools I have at the Observer.  (Morrison's presentation included a great two-minute example of using video to communicate the point about open-ended vs. fixed-answer questioning.)

School newspaper advisers are doing the best they can with the skills and resources they've got.  But I'm wondering if there's not some way to match up the professionals out there who do multimedia work with the students who could put the technology to such great use  (and make great employees a few years down the road).  I'm trying to put bugs in a few ears.  Meanwhile,  if you're a school journalist or a professional,  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Teacher merit raises: $500 or $5,000?

I'm getting a lot of questions about a story in this morning's paper about the plan to offer four-year contracts to a limited number of teachers as tenure is phased out.

In the past, I've referred to it as a $500-a-year raise, which is the language in the budget bill.  T. Keung Hui,  my counterpart at the News & Observer and the lead writer on today's story,  called it a $5,000 raise.  People are understandably confused.

Hui used the four-year cumulative raise provided by $500 annual bumps.  The first year, a teacher who takes the four-year package will make $500 more than counterparts who don't get the raise.  The second year that teacher gets another $500 bump, so now she's $1,000 ahead of peers.  The third year she's up by $1,500 and the fourth by $2,000. If you add up the extra for those four years,  it comes to a total of $5,000.   The key is that the $500 specified in the law is a pay raise, not just a series of annual bonuses.

Enrollment reports are stalled statewide

By now,  we'd normally know how many students Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other districts have.  N.C. public schools take their official enrollment count on the 20th day of school,  which was Sept. 23.

But as of Thursday,  the 38th day of school,  nothing had been reported.  The principals' monthly report for September,  the formal document that contains the 20th day numbers, has been held up statewide because of problems with PowerSchool,  the data system for all public schools in North Carolina.

Superintendent Heath Morrison says CMS knows how many students it has and feels confident in the numbers.  On Monday,  staff said they could give me the unofficial enrollment count,  but that hasn't happened yet. Update:  Friday afternoon CMS released its total enrollment: 144,140 in K-12, an increase of about 3,000 over last year and about 300 more than projected. The district has not yet released demographics or school-by-school numbers.

Vanessa Jeter,  spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction,  said the state anticipates having the problem fixed this week,  which by now means today. But we've heard that from local officials for at least the last three weeks,  so I'm not holding my breath. Update: CMS now says they're expecting the PowerSchool problem to be resolved  "within the next two weeks."

Jeter says the delay in official reporting isn't holding up state money for schools. But Morrison said this week that it does create some snarls.  For instance,  he said,  until the state releases enrollment for charter schools,  CMS has to pass along county money based on the numbers in their applications.  In some cases that's off quite a bit.  Invest Collegiate,  for instance,  applied to open with 558 students,  hoping to lease the former Professional Development Center from CMS.  When that didn't happen,  the charter resorted to modular classrooms that could only hold about 100 students.

So stay tuned.  Surely we'll get the numbers sometime soon.

And if anyone missed Thursday's online chat about CMS and CPCC bonds,  you can read the questions and answers here.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Home-school inspectors intruding? Well, no ...

This week brought a confusing flap over inspection of home schools in North Carolina.

On Monday, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest sent a strongly worded press release headlined "Random Homeschool Searches Need to Stop."  It said the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education plans to "resume the 1980s-era practice of randomly inspecting homeschools" and raised questions about the constitutionality of such visits.


“This policy is intrusive, unnecessary, and has the potential to infringe on the constitutionally-protected privacy rights of tens of thousands of North Carolina homeschool families,”  Forest said in the release.  It says that Forest,  a Republican,  plans to work with state senators to  "clarify when, where, and how the Department of Non-Public Education may inspect homeschool records under the law without doing so in people’s homes."
Erica Parsons

It certainly seemed possible that the state might revive inspections of home schools.  The question of oversight arose this summer,  when officials learned that Erica Parsons,  who was allegedly being home-schooled by her adoptive parents,  has been missing for two years.  "Parsons Christian School"  never filed progress reports or test results,  and adoptive mother Casey Parsons never met with state officials during regional home-school meetings,  the Observer learned.  Erica has not been found,  and police suspect foul play.

But when I called the DNPE to ask about inspections, spokesman Chris Mears sent me a two-paragraph release that was labeled a joint statement of his division and the lieutenant governor's office  (it's not posted on Forest's web site).

"The Division of Non-Public Education (DNPE) and the Lt. Governor’s Office have conferred with regard to site visits of North Carolina home schools, and agree that it is the joint mission of DNPE and the Lt. Governor’s office to support NC’s home school families,"  that statement says.

"As DNPE communicated to North Carolinians for Home Education, no site visits have been conducted and none are planned. DNPE’s review of home schools includes requesting home schools to voluntarily submit records via email or attend a meeting, typically held in a location such as a church basement, for records reviews. At that time, DNPE asks for review of test results, immunization records, and attendance records showing that schools have operated for nine months. DNPE is mandated to annually inspect records according to State law."

Mears said he couldn't comment further.  I tried several times Wednesday to reach Kami Mueller,  the name on Forest's news release,  and got no response.  I got Forest's chief of staff,  Hal Weatherman,  who referred me back to Mueller.  Update:  I got a voice mail from Mueller on Thursday citing the two news releases.  "We're kind of leaving it at that,"  she said.  "It explains everything anyone would ever need to know."

So what's going on?  The best clue I found came from an interview DNPE Director David Mills gave to Andrew Branch, a freelancer for the Asheville-based Christian magazine World.  Mills is quoted as saying he wanted to revive home visits,  which had fallen by the wayside as the number of home schools increased.  Last year North Carolina had 53,347 registered home schools serving almost 88,000 children,  including 6,573 in Mecklenburg County,  according to a state tally.

Mills told World he considers home visits a way to  "open up a rapport,"  but said some families  "expressed distrust"  over the prospect.  He said he had scrapped plans to inspect homes even before Forest's statement.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Academic growth charts offer parent guidance

The recent  "Education Nation"  summit brought a new digital toolkit for parents,  including academic "growth charts"  that spell out what kids should be learning at each grade level.

The toolkit,  which also offers guidance for parent-teacher conferences,  is also available as a mobile app.  Still to come are grade-level guidelines on social development and health and wellness.

The site,  created by NBC and Pearson,  seems useful to me,  putting the new national academic  "Common Core"  standards into plain English. But my days of monitoring homework and attending conferences are over.  I'm interested in hearing what parents and teachers think.

Bond chat and youth profiles: Get ready for voting

The Observer is hosting a live online chat with key players in the Nov. 5 bond referendum at noon Thursday.

We'll have Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  Public Information Officer Jeff Lowrance from Central Piedmont Community College and Assistant County Manager Dena Diorio from Mecklenburg County available to answer questions about the CMS and CPCC bonds and how the county will pay for the projects.  You can log on to from noon to 1 p.m. to post questions or follow the chat.  If you've got a question that might take some research,  post it here and I'll forward it to the right people so they can come prepared.

We have stories,  maps and other resources related to the bond votes available at the Observer's voter guide page as well.

Students with GenerationNation,  a youth civics and leadership group, have also posted responses to questionnaires for school board and municipal candidates.  There are other candidate surveys out there,  including the Observer's,  but the young people asked some interesting questions.  For instance,  they asked all candidates about how CMS,  local and state governments should work together.  They got a lot of predictable  "collaboration is important"  answers,  but Republican mayoral candidate Edwin Peacock suggested holding Charlotte City Council meetings in schools around the city.

"Start a tradition  where at least 7  City Council meetings each year are being held away from the government center and at a CMS school in one of our 7 Council districts,"  Peacock suggested.  "Each district representative would recognize excellent teachers and students and begin to build that relationship between the city and her schools.  Schools belong to

Instead of asking for political party,  GenerationNation asked for  "political viewpoint,"  intentionally inviting responses that don't fit the obvious labels.  Most gave the party labels anyway,  but they got a few interesting answers,  such as "fiscally and socially responsible which would categorize my views as moderate"  from Democratic mayoral candidate Patrick Cannon,  "speaking for all people"  from unopposed school board candidate Joyce Waddell and "Unitarian"  from school board candidate Queen Elizabeth Thompson.

Naturally,  I was especially interested in another question:  Favorite news source.  It probably does tell you something that school board member Tom Tate cites NPR while Paul Bailey,  a candidate in a different district board race,  cites Fox News.  The Observer got a few mentions,  and quite a few cited  "the internet."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

CMS bus and bell report: How independent?

A consultant's report giving Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools mostly positive reviews on its recent decisions about busing and bell schedules is bound to revive questions about the source.

Some commenters have suggested all along that CMS is paying the Council of the Great City Schools up to $18,000 to get a foregone conclusion. Skeptics note that the council is a membership organization made up of about 65 large school districts,  including CMS,  and that Superintendent Heath Morrison is a member of the board's executive committee.  They say that hardly constitutes the independent review that Morrison and school board Chair Mary McCray touted when they announced the study this summer.

During Monday's video conference with reporters,  Executive Director Michael Casserly was quick to note that the council is known for being tough on member districts that seek advice.  The council has done more than 250 reviews on various subjects,  he said,  and  "the vast majority of them have been extremely hard-hitting and critical."

One of those reports,  Morrison added,  was the organizational review of CMS he commissioned when he started this job in 2012.  That report cited several weak points,  including "illogical and inappropriate"  organizational structures,  "a lack of confidence or trust"  among citizens and employees,  and hiring processes that  "appear to be inadequate or ignored,  labor-intensive,  slow and cumbersome,  and subject to high error rates."

"That was a hard-hitting audit.  People were really shocked that I released that publicly,  but I had made a commitment to do that,"  Morrison said Monday.  "The quality of their work is second to none. You don't go to the Council of the Great City Schools asking them to lift you up and make you feel warm and happy about yourself."

Susan Plaza,  the parent who has been leading the push for change in bell schedules,  said Monday she's optimistic that Morrison is sincere about working with her group to come up with real solutions.  He's gearing up another task force to study school hours,  which will include members of Plaza's group and will meet publicly.

Interestingly,  Morrison's own two children experience opposite ends of the bell-schedule spectrum.  One attends South Meck High, with the traditional 7:15 to 2:15 high school schedule that some say is too early for teens to be fully alert for morning classes.  The other attends Northwest School of the Arts,  which is on the 9:15 to 4:15 late schedule,  which other families say squeezes out evening time for homework,  family and after-school activities.

When asked about his thoughts as a dad,  Morrison noted that he and CMS lawyer George Battle both have kids in late-bell schools.  "Both of us have said we actually like the late bell,"  Morrison said. But he said that doesn't mean he's dismissing concerns.  Instead,  he said,  he's aware that there are legitimate differences of opinion on all the bell questions,  and that's a big reason he wants to hold plenty of public discussions before making changes.

Monday, October 14, 2013

How do you test the tykes?

Remember the math, reading, science and social studies tests CMS created for grades K-2?  They required one-on-one work with an adult,  brought protests from parents and teachers who considered them a waste of time and were quickly dropped.

So we know how tough it is to design good tests for the youngest kids.  But N.C. education officials say it's a vital task to make sure students develop the skills they need before they fall behind.  The K-3 N.C. Assessment Think Tank,  a group of teachers,  parents and education experts convened by the state legislature and state Superintendent June Atkinson,  has released its first report on designing assessments that help young children learn.

"Now, more than ever, a major focus of education must turn to the early years of elementary school (kindergarten through grade 3) when children are poised to begin a trajectory toward success in school and life,"  the report says.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools exams were given at year end and were intended to generate ratings of teacher effectiveness.  These assessments will be given during the year,  with the goal of figuring out what kids need  (formative assessments, in eduspeak).  They'll include observations,  work samples and other measures,  in addition to any pencil-and-paper testing.

The first report outlines the type of skills that should be measured,  ranging from language to health and emotional development.  Another group will be convened to design the assessments.  The goal is to have kindergarten pilot exams in place in about half the state's districts in 2014 and a full program up by 2015-16,  according to the Public School Forum of North Carolina.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

For NC charters, call Florida firm

Charter schools are changing public education in ways large and small,  as I learned last week when I did some reporting for the annual enrollment story.

Normally we report numbers for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  and maybe check with Wake County for comparison.  But with six new charters opening in the Charlotte area this year and 11 more pending for 2014,  it seemed like time to start checking in on their enrollment trends,  too.

When I called the two largest,  Cabarrus Charter Academy in Concord and Langtree Charter Academy in Mooresville,  I was told I couldn't speak to the local principals.  (Another twist of charters is that county lines aren't particularly important;  charters in this area often draw from two or three counties.)  Both are operated by the Florida-based for-profit Charter Schools USA,  and I was directed to a PR company in Fort Myers that speaks for the chain.

Is all information about these N.C. public schools going to have to come through you,  I asked Colleen Reynolds, president of Edge Communications.

"Yes, all media goes through me,"  she replied. "Believe me. It’s much easier that way. I tell reporters that I act as a facilitator – not a gatekeeper. This way, if you need something, I’ll get it for you by your deadline. It’s similar to when you go to the district for district schools, you go to me for our charter schools. I will help you in any way that I can."

I feel like I ought to be chagrined.  But the thing is,  I had answers  (including a follow-up about waiting lists)  from Reynolds while I was still playing phone tag with local staff in three other charters.  Both Charter USA schools had applied to take 661 K-6 students this year.  Both filled.  Cabarrus Academy has 838 students on the wait list and Langtree has 664,  according to Reynolds.  (Overall,  three of the six new local charters fell short of the numbers in their applications.)

As for CMS,  when I left Friday I still had no information on the 20th-day tally taken Sept. 23.  Wake hadn't released anything, either.  The rocky rollout of the statewide PowerSchool data system is apparently creating a holdup. 

So stay tuned.  And if you're a family having first-hand experience with the growing number of charter start-ups,  let me know how it's going.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Where do 2007 CMS bond projects stand?

Want to see which projects are finished, which are still in the works and which fell victim to changed plans?  Check out this interactive map of the projects Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders promised when voters approved $516 million in bonds in 2007.

Screen shot -- click link in copy for interactive map

More coverage is coming this weekend on the 2007 bonds and the $290 million plan on the Nov. 5 ballot.  But I thought I'd go ahead and share the maps  (here's another one plotting the proposed 2013 projects).  My colleague April Bethea has created a voter guide page to serve as a one-stop source for information about the bonds, school board election and municipal elections this year.

Remember that Friday is the deadline for registering to vote in the Nov. 5 election,  and early voting starts Oct. 17.

Some notes for anyone who's taking a close look at the 2007 map:  I got CMS to provide initial budget and final/current costs for this list on their bond page.  In some cases,  the final numbers are different from what you'll find on the CMS construction page  (check elementary,  middle and high school updates).  Construction planner Dennis LaCaria says that's because the bond numbers that I used for the map reflect only the part of the project done under the 2007 bonds.  In some cases,  design and site work and other preliminaries had already been done with other funding sources.

You'll also find West Charlotte High on the CMS list but not on the map.  That's a decision,  not an oversight.  When I wrote about the CMS  "Promises Made,  Promises Kept"  report several weeks ago, a West Charlotte booster called outraged that I has listed that school as getting renovations under the 2007 bonds.  She insisted that school had no recent work and is long overdue.  On closer look,  I decided she was right.  While all the other projects are in the millions,  West Charlotte is listed because it got less than $200,000 in electrical work.  Normally that would fall under the miscellaneous  "bundled"  work,  such as roofing,  paving and fire alarm improvements that are spread among several schools.  It doesn't make sense to me to describe that as a significant school renovation.

A note about my responsiveness  (or lack thereof)  this week.  I'm sort of time-traveling here.  I wrote a slew of school board and bond stories (including this post) last week and now they're running while I'm taking a week off.  That means I'll be filtering comments and posting them as I get a chance,  but it won't be as quick as usual.  Likewise,  I won't be answering calls and emails,  but it's not for lack of interest.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Who's behind "thank a teacher" campaign?

You may have seen the full-page ad in today's Observer directing people to  "It's a tough time to be a teacher,"  the copy says.  "With virtually no raise for five years,  looming larger class sizes,  the loss of many teaching assistants,  the end of salary increases for advanced degrees,  and the continual charge to do more with less,  it's more important than ever to express appreciation for those who labor in our classrooms.

The web page asks people to write and post short tributes to teachers who changed their lives. Neither the ad nor the web site says anything about who's behind it,  other than to credit The Creative Stack for designing the web page.  But Heather Johnson at Creative Stack gave me the answer.

Turns out John Tate,  a longtime Charlotte education advocate who's a member of the N.C. Board of Education,  started talking to people this summer about  "ways to say thanks because we couldn't give them money."  He says about 130 people wrote checks for the campaign to let teachers know how much of a difference they make.  Jennifer Appleby,  president of Wray Ward advertising agency,  created today's ad and another that's slated to run Sunday,  which Tate says is "poignant."


Tate wanted to highlight the challenging conditions that are emerging in our state, but he says there's a reason he didn't make his name prominent.  "I worked hard to depoliticize this ad.  It is not a backhand swipe at anybody,"  Tate said.  "It's designed very simply just to say thanks and let the teaching ranks know there are a lot of people who support them."

Tate declined to say how much the campaign is costing.  And he said he won't know for a few days how many views and testimonials the site is generating.

Two fiery teachers return to national forum

Butler High biology teacher Joanna Schimizzi will take part in a nationally televised "teacher town hall" this weekend,  part of the NBC Education Nation summit taking place in New York City. The town hall,  moderated by Brian Williams,  will air live on MSNBC from noon to 2 p.m. Sunday.

Schimizzi got a kick out of the  "teachers on fire"  label I gave her and Rob Leichner when they returned sizzling with excitement after last year's summit. And she chafed a bit at comments suggesting that the two young teachers weren't likely to stick around long. She and Leichner sent a joint  email to let folks know that both are still teaching  (Leichner is at West Meck)  and still enthusiastic.

Both are advising the U.S. Department of Education,  served on CMS task forces and are working on Common Core academic standards. Both were chosen as CMS STEM all-star teachers and are returning to the summit this year.

"We are so proud to represent our students,  our schools,  our district,  our state and all the dedicated teachers who are answering NBC's 2013 question 'What does it take?' "  they wrote.

The summit starts at 8 a.m. Sunday with a student town hall and includes a range of panels and speakers Monday and Tuesday.  You can catch parts on various NBC shows or look for the live stream on, the NBC News YouTube Channel and YouTube’s Education Channel.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

N.C. voucher applications open in February

North Carolina will start taking applications in February for new Opportunity Scholarships to help low-income families send their children to private schools,  according to an update on the plan that state lawmakers created this summer.

For 2014-15,  students who qualify for federal lunch subsidies -- currently $43,568 for a family of four  --  are eligible for up to $4,200 a year in public subsidy for tuition (aka vouchers).  About 2,400 students are expected to get the scholarships that year. In later years,  eligibility will rise to 133 percent of that threshold,  or $57,945 at current levels.

As many have noted,  that's not enough money to cover tuition at most Charlotte-area private schools.  And the March notification may come a bit late for families who have to make applications in January.

But for now, I'm excited to have found this much information to pass along.  I asked the N.C. Department of Public Instruction who would handle the applications and was referred to the College Foundation of North Carolina. I hadn't managed to find any kind of live contact on the CFNC web site or penetrate its automated calling system.

Then Craig Smith, an assistant principal at Gastonia's Ashbrook High,  tweeted me about a blog he posted exploring what happens if voucher money goes unclaimed  (he was told officials expect there to be plenty of demand).  That prompted me to tweet him  --  and @CFNC -- to ask about a contact for applications. CFNC steered me to the N.C. State Education Assistance Authority,  an agency I'd never heard of.  And that's the link to bookmark for updates on the Opportunity Scholarship front.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Grading N.C. schools: A preview

As the state of North Carolina gears up to issue letter grades to schools based on student test scores, the advocacy group CarolinaCAN is rolling out its own version today. The group's report cards label each public school  (including charters)  and school district on an A-F scale,  based on 2012 performance on state exams.

As I told Executive Director Julie Kowal after previewing the report,  people are going to love this or hate it.  It's hard not to have a visceral reaction to seeing big red Fs  (for neighborhood schools serving the most impoverished areas and charters serving at-risk students, on my spot check)  and big green As  (often for low-poverty suburban schools and selective magnets).

Spoiler alert:  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools rated Cs and Ds as a district,  while its individual schools rate among the best and the worst.  Ditto for charters in this area.

CarolinaCAN is an offshoot of the Connecticut-based 50CAN, created to promote choice,  accountability and flexibility.  Kowal said the N.C. grades promote transparency while giving parents access to important data in an easy-to-grasp format.  "We designed these for the general public in North Carolina,"  she said, acknowledging that the grades and the data points don't give the full picture of school quality,  let alone a district's performance.

She said the grades highlight overall performance,  achievement gaps and performance of low-income,  African American and Hispanic students,  who tend to lag behind peers.  There are Top 10 lists recognizing schools with the biggest gains and the best performance in those groups.  Morehead STEM Academy, Piedmont Middle and Irwin Academic Center,  CMS magnets with admission requirements, and Sugar Creek Charter,  a Charlotte school serving a high-poverty population,  stand out on those lists.

Time for all the caution flags.  First,  the numbers are stale.  It wasn't a typo to say the grades are based on 2012 exams.  The 2013 results that would give us a snapshot of the most recent school year won't be released until November,  as state officials figure out how to deal with new exams.  The state's school report cards,  which give a more comprehensive set of school data,  won't be updated until January.  For consistency,  CarolinaCAN used 2012 graduation rates,  though you can get 2013 rates online.

Second, the grades and lists don't just compare apples and oranges,  they pretty much throw in the whole produce section.  There are neighborhood schools,  magnets,  charters and alternative schools;  rural districts, urban districts and everything in between.  Schools that serve the most disadvantaged kids are graded on the same curve as those where most kids have college-educated parents who send them in prepared and motivated to learn.

Third,  the report cards are a work in progress.  When I first looked at the lists last week I was befuddled.  CMS' Metro School,  which serves severely disabled students ages 3-23, was listed as one of the best elementary schools based on performance gains.  There were numerous errors linked to the school closings and other changes CMS made in 2011-12.  Kowal rechecked after I raised those questions and found ways to fix most of the problems.  She's asking anyone who uses the ratings to email her (julie.kowal@carolinacan.orgwith questions and issues.

To trot out one of my favorite sayings,  crunching school data doesn't provide answers, but it helps you ask better questions.  One of the biggest questions may be:  Can the state create a grading system that benefits students, educators, voters and taxpayers?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Walkout? Contract rejection? N.C. teachers simmering

Talk about a Nov. 4 North Carolina teacher walkout is floating on social media,  but will anything happen?

That's hard to tell.  Five hundred people have clicked "coming"  on the Facebook page for the walkout,  created by Mike Ladidadi  --  a false name,  according to a Huffington Post article on the walkout posted on Ladidadi's page. An unsigned  "NC Teacher Walkout" blog was recently added to the mix.

Online comments and conversations I've had with teachers reflect a tension between the desire to jolt lawmakers and the public and fear that staying home will jeopardize jobs and harm students.

 "I am not sure that walking out is the the thing to do, but sure am motivated to do something," said  Beverly Woods Elementary teacher Marie Calabro, who has been trying to rally teachers and their supporters to stand outside schools every Wednesday afternoon to demonstrate support.  "To be honest, I think having a walkout may be a bit premature, and I wish teachers would either join NCAE and/or write their officials."

The N.C. Association of Educators isn't endorsing the walkout,  and is reminding members that striking or taking part in a "sick out"  is risky business in a right-to-work state.

"NCAE understands that this walkout is the consequence of the General Assembly and Governor McCrory for failing to live up to their constitutional requirements to enact budgets and policies that provide for a sound, basic education for all students in North Carolina’s public schools," the group's statement to members says. "NCAE is working within the legal and political systems to hold the politicians accountable for their actions this past year, including replacing them with elected leaders who will stand up for public education."

Judy Kidd, president of the Charlotte-based Classroom Teachers Association, isn't endorsing the walkout either.

But regardless of whether they're willing to take that kind of action,  many educators say they're far from ready to forget about a 2013 legislative session that brought sweeping changes for public education,  from the abolition of tenure and master's degree pay to the perpetuation of a pay scale that's gaining North Carolina a reputation as among the nation's worst places for teachers.

Kidd and Charles Smith, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, say the next battle may come when districts follow the state mandate to offer four-year contracts to 25 percent of teachers for 2014-15.  Those contracts will offer a $500-a-year raise for those four years in exchange for teachers signing away all rights to tenure.  Superintendent Heath Morrison recently told the school board he's trying to figure out how the state expects the selection process to work.

Kidd and Smith say they both expect the tenure changes in this year's budget to be challenged in court.  "I encourage anybody who's offered a four-year contract with a $500 raise to turn it down and let the courts rule,"  Kidd said.

Smith said the NCAE and CMAE haven't taken a position yet on the new contracts. But personally,  he's with Kidd.  Anyone who signs away tenure won't be eligible to get it back if the courts rule against the new system,  he said.

"If you offer me (the four-year contract) I'm going to tell you 'no thanks,' " Smith said.  "To paraphrase the old saying,  you can have my tenure when you pry my cold, dead fingers from it."