Thursday, May 30, 2013

Reshuffled list of CMS bond projects

News that the county has re-ranked the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools list of bond projects had some of you asking,  understandably,  what the new list looks like.  As of Wednesday night,  the report presented Tuesday wasn't online;  keep checking this link and it should be posted soon under "Update on proposed capital improvement and operating budget,"  with the list on page 7 of that document.

The 10 CMS projects that would be included in a three-year bond package are,  in order of county priorities:
1.  Replacing Alexander Middle School  (no. 3 on the CMS ranking).
2.  Renovating Myers Park High (no. 8).
3.  Expanding/renovating Olympic High (no. 2).
4.  Building a new preK-8 school in west Charlotte to relieve Berryhill and Reid Park (no. 5).
5.  Reopening Oakhurst and Starmount as elementary schools (no. 1).
6.  Building a new K-8 neighborhood/magnet school in east Charlotte (no. 4).
7.  Replacing Nations Ford Elementary with a new school on the Waddell Language Academy campus (no. 9).
8.  Replacing Statesville Road Elementary  (no. 16).
9.  Expanding/renovating East Mecklenburg High  (no. 10).
10.  Renovating South Mecklenburg High (no. 12).

In addition,  the CMS report says the county is willing to renovate Northwest School of the Arts (no. 7 on the CMS list) using pay-as-you-go money,  though it wouldn't be part of the bonds on the November ballot.  (Read more about the CMS proposals here.)  And a plan to add a building on Central Piedmont Community College's Harper Campus for a middle college high school,  originally no. 6 on the CMS priority list,  has been moved to the CPCC package.

If the county decides to put four years worth of projects on the November ballot,  that would add renovations at Selwyn Elementary and six preK-8 schools to the CMS list,  with renovations at Northridge Middle added to the pay-as-you-go list.

The projects that appear to be losing out are career-tech renovations at four high schools,  conversion of Davidson Elementary to a K-8 school and construction of a new K-8 magnet in the Ballantyne area.

But nothing is locked in yet.  County commissioners haven't approved a 2013 bond,  and CMS board members are trying to rally pressure for them to override county staff and stick with the CMS priorities.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Evaluating Project LIFT

The decision to revamp N.C. testing put a major kink in Project LIFT's plan to chart five years of academic trends at West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools. Test scores from 2012,  which were supposed to form the baseline for measuring changes that started this year,  won't bear much relationship to results on new tests that will be evolving over the next couple of years.

In a report to the school board Tuesday,  Zone Superintendent Denise Watts outlined an evaluation plan that will be carried out by Research for Action,  a Philadelphia-based nonprofit.  The delay in 2013 test results means the first-year report won't come out until January.  While the change between 2012 and 2013 might not mean much,  the researchers will compare performance with similar  "comparison schools."  They'll also look at attendance, retention and behavior  --  measures that should have some continuity with past years.

For anyone who has missed it,  Project LIFT is a $55 million,  five-year investment from foundations that want to make a significant difference in long-struggling westside schools.  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools created a groundbreaking public-private partnership that gives the private donor board a strong role in hiring, firing and other key educations decisions.

As you might imagine,  when you have groups such as the Bank of America Charitable Foundation,  the Leon Levine Foundation and the C.D. Spangler Foundation putting up $10 million each,  they want solid data on whether their money is making a difference.  And CMS leaders want answers about whether Project LIFT strategies,  from teacher recruitment efforts to year-round schools,  produce strong enough results to justify spending public money to expand them.

One year isn't nearly enough to prove the project a success or failure,  but it'll be interesting to see the tracking start.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Extraordinary match for Clark?

How often do you get a second chance at an ideal match?

Ann Clark, deputy superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, has spent the last several years  preparing herself to be a superintendent.  She doesn't want to leave North Carolina,  the state where she has lived for all but three years of her life.


When Peter Gorman resigned as CMS superintendent in 2011,  Clark went for the top spot in the district where she has worked for 30 years.  She was a finalist,  but Heath Morrison got the job.

Now she's a finalist in Wake County,  the only N.C. district larger than CMS.  She and two other candidates will meet employees,  community leaders,  the media and the public today,  with a final school board interview on Wednesday.  (Follow the News & Observer's coverage of the search here.)

Clark will make the pitch that she and Wake County are  "an extraordinary match."

Clark wants to lead a large N.C. district with strong achievement,  high aspirations and a community that cares about education. Check.

Wake wants a career educator with expertise in curriculum and urban education.  Check.

Wake is going through student assignment turmoil.  Clark has been there,  done that with CMS.  Both districts struggle to balance urban and suburban interests  (Wake has 12 municipalities, Mecklenburg seven).

Clark said as she pored through background material,  including 133 pages of survey data about what the Wake community wants,  she felt a growing sense that this was the right place.  For instance,  the community put a strong value on educating students with disabilities,  she said.  Clark,  whose older brother has special needs,  started her career teaching students with behavioral and emotional disabilities.

"I have a goal not just to be a superintendent but to be superintendent in the right district,"  Clark said Friday.  Wake, she says,  is just that.

Few who know Clark doubt that she has the expertise,  intelligence and dedication to run a major school system.  But the one role she hasn't filled is that of politician-in-chief.

And boy,  is Wake County political.  This is a district that has flipped leadership and direction with the last two school board elections,  hiring its last superintendent on a 4-2 split,  then firing him two years later when Republicans lost their board majority.

Clark,  who is registered as a Republican,  says she's not naive about partisan politics in Raleigh,  but she believes she can surmount the rifts by focusing on the needs of students.  The district needs to  "put the face of a kid,  a teacher and a principal on each and every decision we make,"  and bipartisan support will follow.

"I'm a collaborative leader,"  she said.  "I don't do it from district headquarters.  I do it in the community."

During the 11 years that I've been covering CMS,  Clark has been in high-level administrative posts with lots of responsibility.  But an unwritten rule of such jobs is that you don't grab the spotlight from the boss.  Perhaps because of that,  Clark has tended to come across as cautious,  even a bit wooden.  It was intriguing to watch her loosen up and speak with a new flair during the CMS superintendent interviews.

Clark says she remembers those two days as one of the most invigorating times of her life.  For once,  she said,  "I could be me,"  giving her own views without stopping to parse how she's representing someone else.

She'll be doing the same in Raleigh today.  And we'll find out whether the community there sees Clark as an extraordinary match.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Fair share from CMS?

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Matthew Ridenhour last week asked Superintendent Heath Morrison for a breakdown of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools spending by voting district. Such a breakdown,  he said,  might help address concerns that lead some people to talk about splitting the countywide district into smaller ones.

Ridenhour, a Republican elected last year,  is jumping into a longstanding debate over the fairness of how and where CMS spends its money.  The gist:  Schools in low-income neighborhoods get extra money to help overcome student disadvantages.  They tend to have higher per-pupil spending than suburban schools,  partly because of that extra aid and partly because suburban schools are generally larger,  spreading basic operating costs among more kids.  But residents of more affluent zones tend to pay more in property taxes,  leading to rumblings about unfairness.

Morrison,  who started the CMS job in July,  said he'll try to answer Ridenhour's question.  I'll be curious to see what he comes up with.

His predecessor,  Peter Gorman,  calculated per-pupil spending at each school as part of a CMS equity report.  The county has used those numbers to create a per-pupil average for each district.

But Morrison's crew didn't do an equity report and hasn't released updated per-pupil spending numbers.

And as County Commissioner George Dunlap,  a Democrat and former school board member,  noted,  school locations don't correspond to services that residents of a voting district receive.  Many students live in one district and attend school in another,  especially if they're in magnet or alternative schools.

"This is one community,"  Dunlap said.  "I don't think we ought to be trying to split it up by district."

One of the drawbacks of covering education for more than a decade is that some of the back-and-forth starts to feel like watching an old married couple argue.  County Commissioner Bill James, an accountant and a Republican, has been arguing for years that CMS gets too much money and doesn't provide enough results.  This time around,  he didn't seem to find the energy for critiquing the numbers.

"I just don't really feel that educational achievement is getting better,"  James said after watching a presentation on CMS academic gains.  "Maybe it's a lack of PR on the part of CMS."

"Feelings are not facts,"  responded Dunlap.  "Just because you feel a certain way doesn't make it true."

Dunlap urged his colleagues to look at the data and see how much progress CMS has made toward narrowing the performance gaps between black, Hispanic and white students and between poor and middle-class students.

At the risk of being a party-pooper  --  and the even bigger risk of getting in the middle of a political spitting match  --  I'd note that those numbers aren't as meaningful as they look.  That's because the CMS charts compare results from 2008,  when students took state exams only once,  with those from 2012,  when students who failed the first time retook the test.  The state launched that requirement in 2009,  and the result was an immediate jump in pass rates.  Groups that had more students falling just below the grade-level cutoff  (such as black, Hispanic and low-income students)  saw big gains,  while the change was smaller for groups where most students passed on the first try  (white, Asian and middle-class students).

At the time, Gorman blasted the retesting as artificial inflation of results.  For the first couple of years he offered comparisons of pass rates before and after the retest bump.

That's probably not practical now.  But if CMS wants to make a fair comparison,  all it has to do is use 2009,  rather than 2008,  as the baseline.  If the gaps have still narrowed,  it says something about student achievement,  not just changing rules.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

New tests bring twists, frustrations

It's hard to miss the irony:  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools didn't have enough confidence in new state exams to stake students'  grades on them,  yet student performance on those tests will be used to evaluate teachers.

That's not necessarily a sign of hypocrisy from the district.  Local officials had a choice about counting the tests toward student grades,  but the state has mandated that value-added ratings generated by the SAS Institute's EVAAS system be part of teacher evaluations.  Still unclear is whether lawmakers will use scores from the new exams to assign letter grades to schools this year.

CMS leaders aren't saying the new exams are bad.  They're just saying there are too many unknowns this year,  with teachers having little information about what would be on the new tests and how to prepare students.  (Those of us who have been around awhile know the state has a history of discovering glitches after kids take a new test,  and these have not been field-tested.)

Rather than risk a student failing a class,  which could potentially jeopardize or delay graduation,  CMS decided the state exams won't count toward grades this year.  That's frustrating to some teachers,  who believe students will put little effort into an exam that can only benefit or harm their instructor.  To top it off,  teachers have to spend unpaid time scoring new items on the tests.

CMS created a parent guide to explain the exams students are taking now  (some exams started earlier in May and some will run through June).  In addition to the familiar terms  -- end-of-grade exams in elementary and middle schools, end-of-course exams in high school  --  you'll now hear about  "common exams,"  sometimes called MSLs,  for measures of student learning.  The difference is that EOGs and EOCs will be used to grade schools,  while common exams will only be used for teacher evaluations.

I'll be curious to hear what parents and teachers think as the exam period plays out.  If there's one consolation for those who think this is too much testing,  it's that the new state program doesn't include the K-2 tests CMS tried in 2010,  requiring adults to administer the tests one student at a time.  However,  officials do expect an early-grades reading test in 2014.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Rumor buster, hot topics and CMS en Español

No one can accuse Heath Morrison of being stingy with communication.

The superintendent's web page has added a "Heath's Hot Topics" feature,  with graphics suggesting someone was drinking a lot of caffeine during the design. Early topics include the budget process, an update from Raleigh and the threats at Hough High earlier this month.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has also added a "Rumor Has It" feature for district officials to address questions and controversy.  I can claim the distinction of kicking it off;  the first entry was in response to my reporting on a Providence employee who was still listed on the CMS payroll 10 years after he left on worker's comp.  Other posts have addressed questions about extra pay for National Board Certification and the raises proposed for 2013-14.

(The item about  "selective raises" reminded me of the flap over last year's market-adjustment raises,  which bumped up some salaries by as much as $17,000.  Chief Financial Officer Sheila Shirley says there are no market adjustment raises in the 2013-14 plan.)

The CMS web page has also added a prominent link to  "CMS en Español,"  with several key documents translated.  It's a recognition of the growing international population here,  with Spanish speakers as the largest language minority.  It'll be interesting to see whether CMS adds options for some of the other 165 languages spoken by students.  The Portland Public Schools site,  for instance,  has links for Chinese,  Russian,  Somali,  Spanish and Vietnamese.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Success in sight for school-nurse advocates

A year ago, Teri Saurer went to a county budget hearing and made an impassioned pitch for more school nurses in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. It went nowhere.

She's learned a lot since then.  After a year of lobbying, she was overjoyed to see that Interim County Manager Bobbie Shields is recommending that commissioners spend $1 million to add 11 school nurses  (see his budget proposal here).  Now she's trying to rally for a final push for approval at next week's budget hearing.

"Getting to the point we're at now to me is amazing,"  Saurer said this week.

Teri Saurer and her family
Saurer has two daughters at Ballantyne Elementary.  As I reported last fall,  she never thought about the presence or absence of a nurse until the younger girl,  who has severe food allergies,  started school.  That's when she found out Ballantyne,  like many other CMS schools,  has a nurse for only half the week.

Last May,  Saurer went to the county's 2012 budget hearing to talk about how a nurse's presence could be a matter of life and death.  She now realizes it was naive to think commissioners would hear her speech and make a last-minute addition.  The county manager had already winnowed the highest priorities into his proposal,  and commissioners were looking at cuts to some of those items.

So she geared up for 2013.  She worked with other parents of children with medical issues,  in Mecklenburg and Union counties,  to create N.C. Parents Advocating for School Health.  They connected with the School Nurses Association of North Carolina. They gathered statistics and personal stories to make their case,  developed contact lists of elected officials and got active in the 2012 county commissioners' campaign.

"It's become like a part-time job,"  said Saurer,  a working mom.  She also learned that it's tough to build a grassroots movement that spans 159 schools in CMS alone.  She feels sure that even after a year,  there are parents with similar concerns that she never connected with.

Shields'  recommendation won't get Saurer to her goal of a full-time nurse in every school.  She estimates that would take $2.4 million.  But it's a big step for one tight budget year.

Approval isn't guaranteed.  Shields' plan includes a tax hike,  which may not sit well with commissioners.  That's why Saurer is now urging anyone who wants more nurses to show up for the budget hearing at 6 p.m. May 30 at the Government Center,  600 E. Fourth St.  She already has speakers lined up;  she just wants a crowd wearing red and carrying signs,  which she'll have on hand.

"You can make a difference,"  Saurer said.  "You just have to be persistent. The minute you're not,  your issue's gone."

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

KIPP ready to grow in Charlotte, state

KIPP,  a national charter chain that strives to prepare low-income and minority students for college, is poised to expand its presence in the Charlotte region and at UNC Chapel Hill.

The Knowledge Is Power Program,  founded in 1995 in Houston and New York City,  has 125 schools across the country,  including a Charlotte school that opened in 2007.  Tiffany Flowers,  co-founder of that school,  was recently named executive director of KIPP Charlotte as the chain prepares to launch more schools in the region.

"As a KIPP regional organization, KIPP Charlotte will be eligible to grow and add more schools, serving hundreds more students in underserved communities in the Charlotte area,"  Flowers wrote when the new position was announced.  Proposals for new KIPP schools, like all other new charters,  must go through the state charter screening process.

Meanwhile, UNC has partnered with the national organization to recruit and support five KIPP alumni each year, starting with 2013-14.  For now, the focus is on KIPP Gaston,  the state's first KIPP school  (it's in the town of Gaston,  near the Virginia border,  not nearby Gaston County).  The oldest "graduates" of KIPP Charlotte,  which serves grades 5-8,  are still in high school,  but KIPP Gaston has alumni who are moving into college each year  (KIPP Gaston has its own high school).

Officials from UNC Chapel Hill and KIPP Gaston say the partnership meets a goal of both organizations:  Helping students from underserved communities complete college.  Chapel Hill is pledging to "address the full financial need"  of accepted alumni,  help them find housing and match them with mentors and other support. UNC Chapel Hill already has 19 KIPP alumni enrolled,  with one who graduated last year.  Nationally,  KIPP has partnerships with 22 other universities,  but this is the first in North Carolina.

For the most recent academic results from all the KIPP schools,  check the recently-released 2012 report card.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The absent teacher and reader questions

It's been an interesting week on the ed beat.  On Monday I posted an item about a Providence High teacher,  listed on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools salary database as earning more than $69,000 a year,  who hasn't worked in a decade.

It quickly became the most-read item I've ever posted,  and generated enough public questions that both CMS and the teacher are providing explanations that had been withheld. Short answer:  CMS and the teacher's lawyer agree he's actually getting worker's comp checks  --  about $35,000 a year worth  -- and not being paid by CMS.  The salary listing is the amount he'd get if he returned,  an unlikely prospect given that he's 71.  (Update: On Friday CMS added a new "Rumor Has It" feature on its web site,  debuting with a statement on the "phantom employee.")

The post also frustrated some of you.  You knew or figured out the teacher's name.  You had questions and speculation about the circumstances of his departure.  And you wanted to post them.

Here's the thing: There is no indication that the teacher in question has done anything to scam the system.  As it turns out,  he was just the one CMS employee among some 200 currently on unpaid leave whose case dragged on long enough and got the attention to shine light on something employees have been wondering about for years.

Some of you will still think I was wrong to withhold his name.  That's not surprising;  it's a tough decision.  In this case,  understanding a public policy issue required access to confidential information beyond the salary listing. That doesn't make for tidy solutions.

I'm about to frustrate the active commenters more.  The follow-up on the teacher will be published soon,  along with a big piece on a Project LIFT school.  And if you log on here to weigh in on those hot topics,  you'll find that I have disappeared and turned off comments.

It's tempting to let everyone speculate about whether I've been fired,  furloughed or whisked off by The New York Times  (sigh --  OK, that last one never comes up).  But the truth is this:  I wasn't thinking about the cycles of education coverage when I planned my wedding in 1983.  And now that my husband has put up with me for 30 years,  I figure he deserves a nice anniversary trip.  So weigh in today,  and I'll rejoin the fray in mid-May.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Will CMS hold its market share?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is forecasting that it can hold onto 81 percent of the educational  "market"  through 2021.  How realistic is that?

One of the challenges of making a 10-year construction plan is figuring out how many students the district is going to have.  When CMS made a 10-year plan going into the 2007 bond campaign,  the economy was robust and enrollment was increasing by some 5,000 students a year. The district projected it would add another 58,000 in the decade ahead.

Then the recession hit,  and growth slowed to about 2,000 a year. The new plan projects adding about 17,800 CMS students in the next 10 years.

CMS is predicting that charter schools will have 10,900 Mecklenburg students in 2021 -- up from 8,281 in 2011, which CMS is using as the base.  That sounds low to me.  Half a dozen new charters are slated to open in or near Mecklenburg in August,  and they're projecting their total enrollment at roughly 2,500 the first year. Charters tend to open small and add grades,  so their enrollment often grows even when no new schools open.  And there are applicants lining up to open new schools.  The surge in charters presents planners with a wild card:  No one knows how many of them can deliver on their plans,  how many will be approved in coming years and how many of the students will come from Mecklenburg  (charter students can cross county lines).

Home-schoolers will increase from about 5,900 to 6,700 if the CMS projection holds. And here's the most puzzling one:  CMS is forecasting a decline in private school enrollment,  from 19,545 to 18,700.  I asked Superintendent Heath Morrison about that last week.  He referred me to planning honcho Scott McCully,  who hasn't yet provided an explanation.  The only thing that comes to mind is a recent report from the U.S. Census Bureau on declining private-school enrollment.  But, as discussed in a recent blog post,  that trend hasn't held true in Mecklenburg. And as some of you noted after delving into that study,  the bureau's tally for North Carolina didn't match state reporting on private-school enrollment.

As Morrison noted when the board approved the 10-year plan,  it's hardly locked in for a decade.  Plans call for updating on a yearly basis.  Each year will likely bring new insights about who's living here and what choices families are making.