Friday, January 31, 2014

Rating NC and charter schools

A lot of folks are weighing in on the state of charter schools this week.  The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked all 43 states with charter laws,  based on 20 components they say account for strong charter systems.

North Carolina was 19th,  up from 23rd last year.  The lifting of the 100-school cap and increase in charters counted in the state's favor.  (Get the report here; the rating scale is on pages 6-7 and details on North Carolina on page 68-69.)

Meanwhile,  the Center for Education Reform issued a survey of the state of America's charter schools,  though it doesn't seem to include state-by-state analysis. It does refer to letter grades issued last January,  when North Carolina got a C.

Both of the above groups consider charter growth a good thing.  Education Week offered a different perspective with an article about concerns related to North Carolina's rapid charter growth.

National School Choice Week rally in Charlotte

It's no coincidence that all this is landing now.  It's National School Choice Week,  and I was intrigued by this article in Nonprofit Quarterly tracking down the funding for this national road show.  The "choice week" buses outside the Carolinas Aviation Museum and the logo-bearing yellow scarves being handed out at Charlotte's observance indicated there was plenty of money behind the event.

Meanwhile,  my personal award for worst choice week observance goes to PR Newswire,  which hacked off reporters across the country Tuesday morning by emailing separate notices of every choice week event going on in schools across the nation,  clogging inboxes at a rate of about one a minute.  I chose to filter their emails directly to trash.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mystery group pushes higher teacher pay

Aim Higher NC is holding a press conference in Charlotte today to urge people to petition state officials for higher teacher pay.  The group has logged more than 26,500 electronic signatures since organizing in response to a January op-ed piece by former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt urging state lawmakers to get the state's teacher pay up to the state average.

"Not talk about it, or vaguely promise it, but do it,"  Hunt wrote.  "Our hard-working teachers deserve it. Today their pay ranks 46 among the 50 states. They could make as much as $10,000 a year more just by moving to South Carolina, Virginia or Tennessee to teach."

So who is Aim Higher?  The web site provides no clue,  saying only that it is  "paid for by Aim Higher NC."

Mecklenburg teachers Andrew Shimko and Jasmine Newsom,  Union County teacher Dawn Moretz and Union County parent Jill Carilli are listed as speakers.  (Carilli's own teacher-pay petition on has logged almost 22,000 signatures.  She seems to have moved to the area from Arizona last summer.)

I asked Rob Black,  who sent the news release about the Charlotte event,  to explain more about the group.  Black said he's employed by Aim Higher,  which is made up of teachers,  parents and others,  but he declined to say who's footing the bills.

"Our funders have asked to remain anonymous,"  he said.  "You see what happens when people speak out.  They often end up targeted for retribution."

He wouldn't be more specific about what kind of retribution he's talking about.  The N.C. Association of Educators has a page promoting the Aim Higher push,  but Black said Aim Higher is not affiliated with NCAE.

Rob Christensen,  the News & Observer's political columnist,  says Black is a longtime political operative generally working with labor and Democratic politics.

Update: Joe Nolan,  House Speaker Thom Tillis' chief of staff,  got curious enough to look up the group's application for incorporation with the secretary of state's office. The applicant is listed as Sabra Faires,  an attorney for Bailey & Dixon law firm,  which Nolan describes as "the go-to law firm for all liberal advocacy." 

Pushing for better teacher pay strikes me as neither nefarious nor particularly risky. But  "grassroots"  groups that hide their financing make me wary.

Read more here:

Check out NC schools: Data reports are up

North Carolina's school report cards for 2012-13 are in  --  perfect timing for those who are school-shopping for the coming year or who just have some extra time on a snow day.

The report cards compile the most recent data on test performance, teacher turnover, class sizes, student suspensions, criminal and violent acts at school and other key checkpoints. They're available for every public school  (that includes charters)  and district.

Update: A reader's comment about the best data being buried reminds me that I forgot to include a basic step that many people miss. The first page that displays is the school profile. To find the best info,  you need to click the dark blue tabs at the top of each school or district's page for high student performance;  safe, orderly and caring schools;  and quality teachers.

You can also check past years,  but don't expect test results to match up.  Remember,  the state introduced new exams last year,  leading to much lower proficiency rates across the board.

You'll also find a line about how many Annual Measurable Objectives,  or AMOs,  each school met,  instead of the AYP goals listed previously.   I won't bother detailing the difference because I don't think  those measures tell you anything about academic performance that you won't get more clearly from the other breakdowns.

As always:  Remember that numbers provide a great framework for asking questions and fact-checking what you may hear from people pitching an option.  But they never give the full picture of a school.  If you assume the best numbers equal the best education,  you may miss a school that's right for your child.

As for this year's enrollment and demographics for Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools  ...  still waiting.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Hot topic for 2014: Common Core and testing

As state legislatures convene in 2014,  look for renewed debate about Common Core academic standards and the testing that comes along with it,  says Pam Goins, director of education policy for the Council of State Governments.

"Rising numbers of stakeholders are questioning the Common Core State Standards Initiative, state assessment systems and teacher evaluation models. Of the 45 states that adopted the common core, as many as 20 states may re-open the discussion on rigorous academic standards,"  Goins wrote in a news release last week. "The remaining states likely will review their commitment to overhauling state assessment and accountability systems."

That's certainly true in North Carolina,  where questions about testing are raging and the state is moving toward new exams developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium that will provide cross-state comparisons of higher-level skills.

In addition to assessment and accountability, the council pegs the top five education issues for 2014 as expanding access to early childhood education,  increasing college/workforce readiness,  figuring out the best uses of digital learning and increasing college completion.

Those all sound on target for our state,  though I'd add teacher compensation and charters/choice to North Carolina's hot-topic list for 2014.  Any other big items on your radar?

Friday, January 24, 2014

McCrory's 3Rs: Results, rewards, respect

Gov. Pat McCrory said Thursday he'll soon unveil a strategic plan for education that focuses on three Rs:  Results for students,  rewards for the best teachers and respect for  "families, educators and local communities."  And of course he brought up a fourth big R earlier in the week: Raises.

McCrory at Charlotte school choice rally
The governor didn't offer details,  and that's where the challenge lies.  Efforts so far to reward teachers have met with more controversy than celebration,  whether it's the legislature's plan to give small raises and four-year contracts to 25 percent of qualified teachers or McCrory's earlier talk of offering $10,000 stipends to 1,000 master teachers  --  about 1 percent of the 97,000 teachers working in the state.

McCrory said he'll roll out his plan  "in coming weeks."  And the legislature's advisory panel on teacher pay and effectiveness is finally ready to schedule its first meeting,  now that the senate has appointed members.

Meanwhile,  on the respect theme,  organizers of Wednesday's Education Summit urged the 400-plus participants to show support for educators by tweeting messages of support to @CMS_schools using the hashtag #CMSappreciation, emailing or posting pictures and videos to the CMS Facebook page.

I'm curious about what teachers think of such mass appreciation efforts,  including an earlier push funded by state Board of Education member John Tate and other local backers that got a long list of tributes posted to  Do these kinds of messages boost morale?

I'm inclined to favor personal contact.  It doesn't even have to be the big  "you changed my life"  letter, though I'm sure those are welcome.  I bet parents can provide a much-needed boost to teachers just by shooting them an email when the kids come home excited about a lesson or proud of mastering a skill they've struggled with.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Licking and grooming: Hope for kids?

If you hear talk of  "licking and grooming"  in Charlotte education circles,  don't be startled.  It's nothing kinky,  just a phrase that author Paul Tough used repeatedly in his keynote speech at Wednesday's Education Summit.

Tough cited research showing that mother rats who lick and groom their babies instill lifelong benefits.  Tough, the author of   "How Children Succeed,"  had fun with the notion of delving into rat research while exploring his own role as a first-time father. He assured the audience he never actually licked his son.

But his point was serious:  The human version of licking and grooming  --  holding,  soothing,  talking and singing  -- is the real  "secret weapon"  for creating successful students and adults.  The flip side of that,  he said,  is "daunting and even depressing":  Children who lack that support and grow up surrounded by chaos, trauma and stress often face a lifetime of ill effects.

After a series of data-driven talks,  it was fascinating to hear Tough say out loud what so many educators already know:  Parents  --  and life  --  have stacked the odds for or against children long before they reach school,  and our obsession with testing academic skills isn't likely to change that.

Tough was definitely not waving the flag for a "blame the parents and write off the children"  mindset.  He said adolescence brings a second chance for teachers,  volunteers and other caring adults to help kids develop the grit and optimism they'll need in life.  The success stories he writes about all involve a crucial adult who helped students learn to deal with setbacks.  "None of them were able to do it alone,"  Tough said.

Even as he talked about a once-troubled young woman making her way through college,  he acknowledged the sadness of looking honestly at the lives of struggling children.  "They just can seem so rare and random,  these success stories,"  he said.

"I hope this research doesn't make us fatalistic,"  Tough concluded.  "I hope it makes us want to help even more."

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Are charter boards accessible to public?

One side effect of the surge in school choice around Charlotte is that it's getting harder to keep track of public education decisions and spending.

Mecklenburg County currently has about two dozen public school boards,  though only one of them gets much attention. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board,  which has responsibility for more than 144,000 students and controls a $1.2 billion budget, gets regular coverage from the news media and scrutiny from others interested in public education. The folks who serve on that board go before county voters every four years.

But about 10,800 Mecklenburg students,  or roughly 7 percent of the total public-school enrollment,  attend charter schools,  which are run by independent boards.  Members aren't elected but those boards are public bodies,  subject to N.C. Open Meetings and Public Records laws.

I'm not about to add all those charter board meetings to my calendar,  but I got curious enough to check the web sites for the 16 charters currently operating inside Mecklenburg County  (a fuller tally would include those in nearby counties which draw Meck students and the 11 new charters just authorized to open in 2014).  Could I find information about their board members and meetings?

The best site I found was Lake Norman Charter's,  where I easily located information about the board members,  times and locations of meetings,  agendas,  minutes and process for signing up to speak.  Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy also has a notably strong board presence on its site,  though I had to search the school calendar to locate meetings.

At the other end of the spectrum were Invest Collegiate and Crossroads,  where I could find nothing about board members or meetings. You might be able to get that information by calling or emailing,  but nothing about the web pages tip you off that these schools are open to public scrutiny or participation.

The rest fall in between.  I managed to find meeting times and locations for 11 of the 16,  though sometimes it took some hunting.  Some don't list board members at all,  some list only names and some give biographical and contact information.

State law requires public bodies that have web sites to post notice of their meetings  (agendas aren't required).  Amanda Martin,  attorney for the N.C. Press Association,  says charter boards need to be aware of their public role.  "They need to be as transparent as the Mecklenburg County school system,"  she said.

Joel Medley, director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, says his staff  "hammers on"  the need for charter board to comply with the Open Meetings law.  Some post meetings on bulletin boards at school,  he said,  but if they have a web site,  the board meetings should be listed.

Regardless of how well those schools post their meetings,  none are likely to get regular media coverage.  Which poses the next question:  What kind of reception do parents,  community members and other interested parties get if they seek to attend charter board meetings?  If you've attended meetings or requested public documents from charters, let me know how it has gone.  Choice and innovation are cause for celebration,  but public spending without public oversight is cause for concern.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Questions about state's final exams

The "incomplete" grades expected to show up on Charlotte-Mecklenburg high school report cards soon may be just the start of an uproar over state exams that are causing delayed grades.

North Carolina created 30 final exams that will be used to evaluate teacher and school effectiveness  --  and which have to count for 20 percent of students' final grades in those courses. After I wrote last week about delays in translating those scores to letter grades,  I heard from a handful of teachers and parents who said the exams don't match the material being taught.

"My son is a junior in high school and this past week had to take his honors pre-calculus exam.  On that exam were four questions never covered in the curriculum," wrote Anita Gimon of Union County. "Why is there subject matter on a test not in the curriculum during the semester? This was a problem as well last year. Students who normally made 80s & 90s on their tests were averaging 40s because the test did not match the curriculum. This seems to me to be a system that sets our kids up for failure."

"My daughter took the Math 3 exam yesterday and was pretty upset afterwards," wrote Susan Flynn.  "Half of the material was familiar to her, about half was not."

"The passages from the test last year  --  the only available preparatory material released by the state  --  are incredibly difficult and would be considered challenging in an AP-level course.  I know, because I teach standard, honors, and AP English 12,"  wrote Tiffany DiMatteo, a national board certified English teacher at Myers Park High.  "It feels as though NC wants to prove that students and teachers are failing by providing a terrible test that is being poorly planned, administered, and scored."

Chuck Nusinov,  executive director of learning and teaching for CMS,  says he has checked into that kind of concern.  The tests do appear to match the curriculum introduced last year,  which reflects national Common Core and N.C. Essential Standards,  he said.  The academic standards and the exams are designed to ensure that students learn more rigorous material and express that knowledge in more sophisticated ways on tests,  he said.  That should be a good thing in the long run,  but in the short run it means scores are down.

Nusinov says the challenges and confusion are particularly strong in math,  where the state also switched from a series of algebra and geometry classes to a new progression of math classes that incorporate various skills each year.  He said CMS is working to make sure teachers know what's expected,  but he knows teachers and students are struggling with the transition.

Students took the new finals last year,  but CMS opted not to count the scores toward grades because the tests were new.  This year it's not optional.  So first-semester report cards are expected to come out with incompletes for classes with state finals,  to be replaced with letter grades that factor in those tests once the state completes its tables for converting raw scores to grades.  That's bound to come as a shock to students who are used to making higher grades and who are watching their grade-point averages for college admissions.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Read or flunk: It's way more complicated

In a summer headline,  I dubbed North Carolina's  "Read to Achieve"  program the  "read or flunk plan."  The mandate from the state legislature does threaten third-graders with retention if they can't pass reading tests.  But six months later,  as state and local officials grapple with options,  it's becoming clear that the route from third grade to fourth grade is more like a maze than a forked path.

The first branch,  as it turns out,  has already happened.  Soon after this school year began,  third-graders took new Beginning-of-Grade reading exams  (yes, we now have a BOG test).  Late last week,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools learned that students who scored at third-grade level on that test will be eligible for promotion without having to worry about the barrage of tests they encounter during the rest of the year,  spokeswoman Kathryn Block said.  CMS is working on a count of how many children cleared that hurdle.

Students who pass the End-of-Grade reading test in May will also be cleared for promotion.  But last year fewer than 50 percent of third-graders in CMS and North Carolina cleared that bar.  That means some 6,000 students in CMS alone are at risk of getting bad news at the end of the year,  and it's impossible to be sure which students might fall short.

That's why districts like CMS and Wake County are planning to make sure all students who might be at risk have a chance to get onto another path to promotion by demonstrating grade-level skills on a series of smaller  "portfolio"  tests.  The current plan means those students will have to read 36 passages and answer questions on them between now and May.  CMS is going to the state Board of Education next month to seek approval for an approach that involves fewer tests.

Another fork comes for students who fall below grade level on the portfolio and the final exam.  They'll be offered the chance to attend summer reading camps,  which by state mandate will be three hours a day for six weeks.

If parents decline to send the kids, they'll be held back.

Think about that one for a minute.  As a working parent who doesn't get summers off,  I know how hard it would have been for me to get my son to a three-hour program,  then find another place for him to be for half the day and get him there.  If parents can't or won't do it for whatever reason,  their children don't move up to fourth grade.

CMS is seeking state permission to substitute a three-week,  six-hour camp,  a schedule officials hope will be more practical for parents and more attractive to the skilled reading teachers they want to hire for those sessions.

For those who do go to summer reading camp,  there is  (what else?)  another chance to take a test.  If they pass, great.  If not,  they can be assigned to a combined third/fourth-grade class or to an "accelerated learning"  class with extra reading instruction.  Those kids can be deemed ready for mid-year promotion to fourth grade.

And if all that isn't complicated enough,  there are also exemptions for students with disabilities or limited English proficiency.  And here's the one that had steam coming out of some CMS leaders' ears:  Charter schools have more flexibility about participating in the Read to Achieve maze.  Read the CMS presentation here or view the school board's discussion here  (because of a problem with video archiving,  the recording starts in the middle of the staff report on Read to Achieve,  but the full follow-up discussion is available).

Friday, January 17, 2014

Appreciating Clark Kent

Talking to Paul Pratt about Berryhill School this week made me ponder our vision of school reform.

The education documentary  "Waiting for Superman"  gave us an image of reformers flying in,  shaking up old systems and bringing hope to the children of the inner city.

Pratt,  a 60-year-old principal,  evokes mild-mannered Clark Kent more than his alter ego.  He retired as a principal in Clover, S.C., 11 years ago, then came to the school on Mecklenburg's western edge.  It stands out as one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's most successful high-poverty schools,  but Pratt says his edge is neither flashy nor dramatic.  He and a core group of strong teachers just keep coming back,  year after year,  building relationships with students,  parents and each other.

"I've been here 11 years because I want to be,  not because I have to be,"  Pratt said.

It's a pattern I've seen before:  When you find schools that beat the odds,  the key seems to be the front-line educators,  not a reform program.  Unfortunately,  that's what makes success so hard to replicate.

Last year I looked for the highest-performing high-poverty school in CMS and stumbled across Windsor Park Elementary,  where principal Kevin Woods and his faculty had managed to stay under the radar and out of the CMS reform vortex.

Former Superintendent Peter Gorman got national acclaim for his strategic staffing program,  which brought in new principals and gave them money to provide hiring bonuses to recruit high-performing faculty.  But a close look showed the most significant gains were at two schools run by veteran principals who had a track record with urban schools,  Suzanne Gimenez at Devonshire Elementary and Nancy Guzman at Sterling Elementary.

Just months before Gorman left,  Berryhill was added to the strategic staffing program.  Gorman and the board had just decided to close troubled middle schools and move those students to eight elementaries,  including Berryhill.  Instead of bringing in a new principal,  Gorman kept Pratt but provided money for recruitment bonuses as he sought middle school staff.

Pratt was blunt when I asked if strategic staffing had helped Berryhill succeed:  "No."  He hired his new teachers through normal channels,  he said,  and used the extra money to award bonuses to the teachers who had stuck with the school.

Every five years or so,  CMS searches for a  "superman"  with the charisma, energy and vision to rally our diverse community around public schools.  We need those leaders,  and the superintendent's job demands extraordinary skills.

But it's good to remember the work being done by all those Clark Kents outside the spotlight.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Why sue? Just tweet

The frontiers of social media expanded just a little during Tuesday's school board meeting,  when three public officials tweeted plans to solve a problem that was still under discussion.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board was getting a staff briefing on the challenges of the state's  "Read to Achieve"  mandate.  A flood of new testing for third-graders and rules that give charter schools more flexibility than traditional public schools drew strong criticism from board members.

I was tweeting from that discussion.  State Rep. Tricia Cotham,  a Democrat and former CMS educator,  and state Rep. Charles Jeter,  a Republican who serves on the House education committee,  were following from a distance.  So was school board member Rhonda Lennon,  from her computer at the dais.

At one point,  board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart asked if the board was willing to sue to block the most onerous portions of the law.

I tweeted Superintendent Heath Morrison's response: Morrison on legal action: Better to work with legislators, who seem receptive to revising . Lawsuits are last resort.

Jeter responded: Absolutely willing to work together to resolve these issues. If something needs fixing, let's do it together.


Lennon: Charlie let fix this ... Read to Achieve creating chaos for traditional LEAs, charters not burdened by same laws

Jeter: Rhonda, I'm in, let's fix it.

Lennon: will you join us to fix this ?

Cotham: Of course!!

Lest someone think that Lennon should have been voting instead of tweeting, let me note that there was no action required. In fact, a reasonable person might conclude that staff reports about controversial state mandates, such as Read to Achieve and teacher tenure changes, are more of a public performance than a chance for the board to get up to speed. Members get the details in advance, and the staff presentations tend to be followed by board members' remarks about hardship to CMS and the importance of mobilizing the public to weigh in.

I'm not naive enough to think Tuesday night's Twitter flitter will solve a very complex problem. But I am hopeful enough to think there are officials on both sides of the aisle, at the state and local level, who want to work past the significant snarls in last summer's state mandates to tease out the valuable goals.

Before our lawmakers return to Raleigh in May, it's a smart time for parents, teachers and others who care to get up to speed on the issues and let their representatives know what they want. It's easy to look up contact info at the N.C. General Assembly web site (if you aren't sure which district you're in, look up your voter registration).

I'd suggest you also check out the CMS presentation on Read to Achieve, but oddly, the version posted online eliminates six crucial pages on testing and other "challenging points" from the version that was presented to the board and reporters that night. (Update: A full version has been posted.) Even more perplexing: The video of the meeting starts well into the session, with one of deleted pages on screen and Chief Learning Services Officer Valerie Truesdale reviewing summer school requirements.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

State's big issue: Teachers and money

Next month policymakers and opinion-shapers from around the country will gather at N.C. State University to discuss  "Teachers and the Great Economic Debate."

Each year since 1986,  the university has convened a forum on  "big issues that affect North Carolina's growth and prosperity."  Recent topics have included health care, manufacturing and  "investing in Generation Z."

This year the Institute for Emerging Issues is zeroing in on teachers:  How they're treated,  how they're paid and how well they inspire learning,  around the globe and here at home.

Ron Clark and students
State leaders such as former Gov. James Hunt,  who co-chairs the institute,  and state Board of Education member John Tate will share platforms with such national education celebrities as Ron Clark,  whose founding of Atlanta's Ron Clark Academy was turned into a TV movie,  and Diane Ravitch,  one of the most prolific and controversial voices in the education scene.  Gov. Pat McCrory and Phil Berger,  president pro tem of the state senate,  have been invited to speak,  and a panel of legislators will discuss next steps for North Carolina.

The forum is Feb. 10 and 11. Registration costs $400  ($275 for higher education, nonprofit and government representatives),  which puts it outside the reach of many teachers.  The Belk Foundation is addressing that by footing the bill for 150 teachers from around the state.  There's also an option to watch online;  staffers say last year's forum drew about 1,000 in-person participants and 1,200 online viewers.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Where's church/charter line?

Heidi Magi,  a parent in the UNC Charlotte area,  started digging into information about new charter schools as soon as the state gave preliminary approval in September.  She was delighted to find one scheduled to open at United Wesleyan Church,  near her neighborhood.

But as she read the application for United Community School and checked the web,  she found something puzzling.  Erika Hedgepeth,  named in the application as director of the charter school opening in 2014,  was also director of an existing school at the church,  which seems to be listed as both United Community School and Minds Engaged Christian Academy.  N.C. law allows private schools to apply for conversion to a charter,  which means they get public money instead of relying on tuition or private donations.  But the United Community charter application said it wasn't a conversion.

Magi emailed me wondering what was up.

"Reading the application and the very brief description of the private Christian school,  it looks like these two schools are very much the same school," she wrote.  "I guess I have a broader concern  --  if this ostensibly publicly funded, and therefore secular, school is this closely tied to a religious school, will UCS have a truly secular character?"

It was a great question. 

"Charter schools, as public schools, must meet the state statute which clearly says they are to be nonsectarian,"  says Joel Medley,  director of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools.  "Several charter schools have started in churches to attain a facility for the first year or so.  The religious iconography is to be removed (i.e. purple cloths put over crucifixes in Catholic parishes) in order to meet the tenets of the law.  Proselytizing is not allowed within the classroom."

Medley noted that both the current school run by Hedgepeth and her proposed charter school center on the Basic School method developed by the late educator Ernest Boyer.  It's a non-religious approach that focuses on parent-teacher partnership and seven core virtues,  and it's already in use at Community School of Davidson and Corvian Community School,  charters in northern Mecklenburg County.  The state's charter school advisory board noted the link to the church school and made sure United Community's board understood the need to be  "a separate and totally secular institution,"  Medley added.

I spoke with Hedgepeth last week,  while reporting a story on new charters.  She said she and her husband came across the Basic School model while looking for the best way to educate their own children.  She opened the small church-based school  --  it currently has 16 students, she said  --  while working toward a charter.  She hopes to have about 200 K-2 students in August,  eventually expanding to about 650 in K-8.  The school will incorporate her family's love of the arts,  she said,  with piano theory taught to all students.

I also looped back to Magi.  She had talked with Hedgepeth and liked what she heard.  Magi plans to enter her rising first-grade son in the lottery for United Community School and Pioneer Springs Community School,  a nearby private school that also uses the Basic School model and just got permission to convert to a charter.  

It's a textbook example of what parents need to do these days,  as choices and changes abound.  Magi read up on options,  delved into details,  made connections,  asked smart questions  --  and followed up with personal contact.  Her experiences,  and those of hundreds of other families out there making similar searches,  can help us all figure out how the rapidly changing world of public education is working.  Please share your questions,  comments and observations as the choice season progresses.

Monday, January 13, 2014

CMS gears up teacher recruiting

Want to teach in a place with great weather,  exciting roller coasters and Swedish meatballs?  Then you might want to get in touch with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  which is recruiting for current vacancies and the 2014-15 school year.

CMS recruiters have already visited Pennsylvania, New Mexico, New York, Illinois, Michigan and Virginia,  as well as events in the Carolinas,  according to a recent report to the school board.  And the district has created an  "I Am CMS"  marketing campaign that includes fliers,  postcards and such attention-getters as  "I am 'mint' to work for CMS" candies.

The postcard highlights such quality-of-life factors as sports, Carowinds amusement park,  EpiCentre nightlife and the chance to shop for furniture and eat meatballs at IKEA.

On a more serious front,  CMS is hoping the expansion of highly paid  "opportunity culture"  jobs for classroom teachers will help lure top teachers from around the country.  Starting next year,  17 more schools will offer opportunities for their best teachers to take on expanded duties working with other teachers and more students.  Details will vary by school,  but the four-school Project LIFT debut this year offers supplements up to $23,000 a year.

If you want to read more about that program from someone who's in the thick of it,  check out this blog by Ranson Middle School math teacher Romain Bertrand,  who holds one of the new jobs leading multiple classrooms.

"For years, a sad reality has been hurting our educational system, at least here in North Carolina:  If you are good at teaching and you truly enjoy it, the only way for you to expand your impact and advance in your career is to … leave the very same classroom where you currently excel,"  Bertrand writes.  "This paradox has become a dirty little secret that we all whisper:  At one point, I am going to have to leave the classroom."
Bertrand explains how his new job offers a way to work around that paradox  --  without having to move into a  "facilitator"  or administrative job that keeps him from regular contact with kids.
Even as Superintendent Heath Morrison celebrated the Belk Foundation grant to expand the opportunity culture program,  he cautioned it's not the sole solution for enticing great teachers to CMS. North Carolina's low pay scale threatens to undermine the best efforts,  he said:  "We can't be $10,000 below the national average and think the opportunity culture is going to solve that."  Morrison is among many voices calling for a sustained statewide effort to make teaching a higher paid, better respected profession in North Caroilna.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Should charters reflect race, poverty?

Mark Edwards,  superintendent of Mooresville Graded Schools,  posed a question to the state Board of Education on Wednesday:  What is the state doing to ensure that charter schools reflect the demographics of the surrounding school district?

It's a polite way of voicing the concern that the independent public schools  --  especially those that choose not to offer buses or participate in the federal lunch subsidy program  --  might screen out disadvantaged students and become publicly-subsidized private schools for privileged white kids.

Edwards,  who serves as the state board's superintendent adviser,  raised the demographics question during a discussion of the pending approval of 26 new charter schools.  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison has been asking the same question in talks with state and local leaders.

State board member Wayne McDevitt noted that while the state's charter law used to say that charters should reflect the district's demographics,  it has been revised to say they  "shall make an effort"  to reflect the racial composition and poverty levels of the surrounding area.  The real question,  McDevitt said,  is whether charters are truly reaching out to all types of students.

MeckEd has compiled racial breakdowns for Charlotte-area charter schools.  A scan of that report shows that some suburban charters,  such as Community School of Davidson,  Corvian Community School and Socrates Academy,  are more than 80 percent white.  Meanwhile,  urban charters such as Sugar Creek,  KIPP,  Kennedy and Crossroads are more than 90 percent black.

Neither group reflects the overall demographics of CMS,  which was 42 percent black,  32 percent white and 18 percent Hispanic last year.  (What's this year's breakdown?  Good question.  Halfway through the school year,  CMS continues to insist that lingering problems with the PowerSchool data system prevents the district from reporting those tallies.)

The thing is,  CMS schools follow the same pattern.  Only two elementary schools,  Davidson and Beverly Woods,  topped 80 percent white last year.  But plenty of suburban schools have strong white majorities  (and low poverty levels)  while even more urban schools show the opposite pattern.  And test scores tend to track demographics,  whether in traditional public schools or charters.

Joel Medley,  director of the state Office of Charter Schools,  told the state board that while charter schools don't have to provide buses or free lunches,  they are required to ensure that any child who applies and gets in through the admission lottery isn't denied access for lack of transportation or parents' ability to provide lunches.  Strategies can include helping parents create carpools,  paying for van service for kids who need a ride and having some type of meal on hand for kids who don't bring a lunch or can't afford to buy from vendors.

As a practical matter,  I've heard from parents over the years that some charters discourage disadvantaged families from applying when they emphasize the need to provide your own meals and rides.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Wake crafts plan to pick top 25 percent of teachers

The Wake County school board got a briefing Tuesday on the superintendent's plan to reward 25 percent of teachers with four-year contracts and $500-a-year raises.

The  "25 percent rule,"  created by state legislators last summer,  is part of a program to phase out career status,  also known as tenure.  It's posing challenges for districts across North Carolina as they try to figure out how to make it work.  The biggest issue is choosing among teachers who meet the mandated requirements for three years' experience and proficient job evaluations.

Echoing a discussion by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board last month,  Wake board members gave the state-mandated program thumbs down.

“This is a bad way for rewarding teachers,” said Wake board member Jim Martin, according to the News & Observer. “This is a bad way for just about everything.”

Read more here:

Wake's plan creates separate eligibility pools for each school,  dealing with the concern that  districtwide selection could leave some schools shortchanged.  Wake also plans to ask eligible teachers whether they want to participate.  That's a good question,  given that accepting a four-year contract means voluntarily surrendering tenure.  Some teachers say they'll refuse the contract and the raise if it's offered,  and the N.C. Association of Educators is suing to protect tenure.

Once each school has a pool of eligible and willing teachers,  selection will be done based on the highest job ratings in the past two years,  with seniority as a tie-breaker.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to unveil its plan later this month.  The school board discussed  issues and challenges at a December meeting (read the CMS presentation here).

Cold-weather delay: What do you think?

We know what everyone's talking about this morning:  The two-hour school delay because of frigid temperatures. (Update: CMS has just announced that schools will open two hours late again on Wednesday.)

Such delays are part of the winter routine in surrounding counties,  but rare for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  which decided Monday to join the late-start crowd.  Officials say the delay will keep buses off possibly icy roads and protect kids from standing outside during the pre-sunrise cold.

Previous leaders of CMS had decided the district's bus schedule was too big and complex to accommodate late starts or early dismissals.  For about a decade, it was all-or-nothing when bad weather hit.  Last January,  with new leaders in place,  CMS pulled off an early dismissal with no major problems  (blog readers had fun trying to figure out when the last such event happened; it proved surprisingly hard to document).

By making the call Monday afternoon,  CMS gave families time to prepare for the schedule shake-up.  And delays,  unlike closings,  don't require makeup days.

But as any superintendent will tell you,  there are two decisions guaranteed to make you unpopular:  Student assignment changes and dealing with bad weather.  The delay is bound to cause strain for parents who don't get a two-hour delay in their work schedules.  And we'll certainly hear from some folks from northern regions who can't believe we consider this cold.

So if you're sitting at home watching the thermometer,  let us know what you think and how the delay works for you.  Winter has just begun.  Should delayed starts become part of the CMS routine?

Monday, January 6, 2014

Big menu, little info for school shoppers

The new year ushers in a time of unprecedented school choice in the Charlotte area.  And unfortunately for families trying to sort it all out,  school data is harder than usual to find.

Twenty-six of North Carolina's 127 charter schools are in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties, and this week the state Board of Education is poised to approve 11 more to open in August. That includes four near the Meck/Cabarrus line that plan to draw students from both counties.

The nonprofit MeckEd has provided a boost for families interested in charters, with an updated report on local charters.

2012 magnet fair

CMS kicks off its month-long magnet application period Saturday with a school options fair from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology,  1430 Alleghany St. A dozen new magnets and other programs for 2014-15 will be among the options showcased.

And new N.C. Opportunity Scholarships will help low-income families pay for private school in 2014-15.  Applications will be taken starting Feb. 1 for $4,800 vouchers.

It's the time of year when families traditionally scour data on academic performance, demographics and other measures of school performance,  trying to figure out the best option for their kids in the coming year. But a confluence of new state tests and problems with the new PowerSchool data system have made that unusually difficult.

Halfway through the school year,  CMS has yet to release any enrollment numbers or demographics for individual schools, or to post  long-promised school data reports.   N.C. school report cards,  usually a great source of information, haven't been updated to reflect 2012-13 data.

I've got 2013 proficiency results for CMS and Mecklenburg charters in the School Data maps at the right of this post,  but families tend to want a lot more.  I'm expecting state and local resources to be updated this month,  and as fresh information arrives I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile,  I'd love to hear from those of you who are exploring your choices.  With so many new and untested options,  how are you checking them out?  What kind of questions do you have about the rapidly-changing school choice scene,   and what tips do you have for fellow seekers?