Friday, February 28, 2014

Details on N.C. PowerSchool problems

The glitches in North Carolina's school data system are intensely interesting to some readers and deadly dull to others,  depending on how much they affect your life. This post is for the first group.

Teachers,  administrators and parents around the state have been complaining about the new system since the start of the school year.  Keung Hui with the News & Observer got state officials' attention with a story last week detailing some of the frustrations,  including those in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  The state is now asking Pearson to refund some of the agreed-on $7.1 million first-year fee because of the problems.

Hui and I had both been asking our districts for details on the ongoing problems.  Wake County Public Schools came through first. After the story ran,  Philip Price,  the Department of Public Instruction official in charge of PowerSchool,  provided this response to the Wake issues,  which are similar to those detailed by CMS this week.

For those trying to follow the twists and turns, here's Price's take on the issues and solutions,  followed by the CMS list provided by data analyst Jay Parker.

From Price: 
We have gone through the list of issues from Wake County and have responded to each of them below. We are happy to talk with you further about any of the items.
In short, there were no real surprises. We know that some issues exist with the system and some with the districts’ data. We are working with Pearson and with the districts to resolve all the known issues. While I see the progress of the system from planning , transition, and implementation as being very successful, the users are the individuals who rely on the system to accomplish their assignments.  Their frustrations are real and need to be addressed.  As I mentioned before, we know problems will continue to surface as we progress through this transition year.  The key is to minimize (or better eliminate) problems from recurring.  I can say that we are doing an excellent job in that area, and we are doing all of this within budget.

Athletic Eligibility – At this time, DPI has not provided the ability for a district to run eligibility for athletics for students in PowerSchool
·              The athletic eligibility requirements for North Carolina do require development work for our version of PowerSchool .  This was known when the contract was signed.  The scheduled delivery date is in March 2014.  The fall eligibility was based on data in NC Wise.  To accommodate the spring eligibility, 3 reports were created to review attendance, grades, and residency.  Only those determined to be ineligible are listed on the report.  The districts were able to review those students to determine if they also should be eligible.
·              The posted schedule for upcoming releases can be found here.

Inadequate Progress - DPI has not provided the ability to generate a progress report needed for the school district so they can submit the needed data to the NC DMV
·              This is a customized report for PowerSchool (to comply with North Carolina’s law) and is scheduled to be available in the April/May timeframe
·              Meanwhile, all data necessary for LEAs to certify driver’s ed eligibility is available in PowerSchool. It does require an individual to review the student status for the following 3 areas and to manually complete the DMV required form:
      • Academics – passing 70% of courses
      • Dropout – haven’t dropped out
      • Discipline – haven’t participated in specific disciplinary infractions like bringing incendiary device to campus

Mid-year GPA - DPI has not provided a midyear GPA calculation and Transcript.  The current NC Weighted and NC Unweighted GPA Calculations in PowerSchool do not include Semester 1 averages for yearlong courses.  This causes inaccurate GPA information for any student who is schedule in a yearlong class.  The schools are also not able to produce an accurate class rank list.
·              The PowerSchool software does not allow grades to be included on the transcript until the course is completed.  They can  add the course to the transcript (through a specific procedure); but, the grade cannot be  included.  This is how the software works in all locations where it is used as an entities student information system.
·              School districts have requested that a grade be included before the course is complete.  There are no current requirements for mid-year GPA calculation in statute or Board policy; therefore, this was not included in the State’s required deliverables for PowerSchool.
·              Without a grade, an estimated GPA cannot be calculated.  Without an estimated GPA, you cannot create an estimated class rank.
·              DPI is researching and working with Pearson to identify the changes necessary to allow interim grades for year-long classes (not completed) and how they can be outlined on a transcript.

PMR - DPI has not been successful in providing the ability for a school district to accurately run and approve the Principals Monthly Reports
·              The PMR has been completed.  We are now working on allotment adjustments and projecting ADM for FY 2014-15.

Dropout - The Dropout Report does not exist in PowerSchool
·              The dropout report is missing two key fields from the Previous Enrollment Screen within PowerSchool.  These fields will be added during the March 14 maintenance weekend.  The fields are Dropout Reason and Dropout Verified indicating the LEA has validated the student is a dropout.
·              DPI and SAS are creating reports which include the appropriate Dropout data for review including prior year data elements that are required for the report. 
·              This all should be completed by the end of March.  This is a transition year issue and will not be the process in future years (because prior year data will be in PowerSchool).

RPG – (Retention, Promotion, Graduation) an RPG report does not exist in PowerSchool to date
·              This is a system issue.  This report compares where a student was the previous year with where they are this year. The historical data for prior years needs to be loaded into PowerSchool to make this report useful.  Significant conversion issues have been encountered with bring in this data into PowerSchool.  We are looking at ways of correcting conversion problems or how we can utilize eSis (NC Wise) to try and avoid requiring districts to enter the data directly into PowerSchool.  This is a transitional year issue and will not be an issue in future years.

SAR - The student Activity Report does not exist in PowerSchool
·              This report requires two system issues to be resolved before it is 100% operational
·              The software needs to be able to manage cross enrollment between school districts (taking courses in multiple LEAs).  This ‘fix’ is currently in DPI quality review and, if passed, will be in production soon.  This ‘fix’ will also enable virtual school enrollment through PowerSchool (currently the registration process continues as it was in previous years).
·              Extended course attributes (properly defines courses at a detailed level) are being added to PowerSchool by Pearson.

Gradebook - Teachers assigned to a large number of sections.  The gradebook will not load for these teachers.  If it does load, it does not always function as expected.  The grade scale may not be attached, the teachers may not be able to save the grades, and they may not be able to make changes to grades that are already entered.  Dropdown boxes may not populate with the choices.  In elementary schools, the standards may or may not be listed or populate as expected. Teachers with a large number of assignments experience issues similar to teachers with large number of sections. Teachers that have had a large number of students dropped from sections experience issues similar to teachers with large numbers of sections. Grade Scales are not always attached to the sections; however, the grade scale is set up for the course appropriately in PowerSchool.  Other teachers with the same course have the grade scale attached. Poor/Slow/sluggish performance.  Users must save frequently, the saving function is slow. Grade Scales are not always attached to the sections; however, the grade scale is set up for the course appropriately in PowerSchool.  Other teachers with the same course have the grade scale attached. Gradebook freezes so it requires the teacher to shut down and restart.  Therefore, data entered and not yet saved is lost.  Also, Gradebook freezes when saving grades, so data is lost. Gradebook will not launch.
·              Issue with gradebook not loading for teachers with large number of sections should be fixed in March maintenance weekend (March 11).
·              No one has reported the other issues that Wake mentions. However, we might assume that these issues will similarly go away after the March maintenance weekend. We are asking for additional information.
·              Exception – “gradebook won’t launch” issue has not been replicated outside of Wake

EOG/EOC - EOG/EOC test scores are not in PowerSchool
·              EOC historical test scores were made available to import before 12/31/13. EOGs – Feb/March.
·              12-13 test courses were never in eSIS and will be made available to import in Feb/March.

Historical Data - No historical data for any student exists in PowerSchool from the 2002-2003 school through the 2011-2012 school year.
·              Historical data for students active in 2012-13 have been imported into Powerschool.
·              Data for students active until before 2012-13 are currently being uploaded into ODS.

At-Risk Report - The At Risk Report does not function in PowerSchool
·              More information is being requested from the school district. It appears to be the discipline part of the report that requires a software adjustment to target incidents.

NC Diploma - Not all NC Diploma tracts are present in PowerSchool
·              Future Ready Core (FRC) diploma path is available in Powerschool
·              The non-FRC paths did fail testing, but we are expecting them to pass a second round of development/testing within the next couple weeks.

NC Transcript - The NC Transcript does not display the true graduation date, but rather displays an expected date
·              Student’s actual graduation date can be entered on “student academic screen”

Historical data for transfer students - When transferring a student into WCPSS, none of the historical data for that student get transferred
·              All immunization and demographic info has been transferred
·              Historical grades and related fields will be brought over in March maintenance release provided it passes QA

If you're still reading, you're a PowerSchool die-hard. So here's what Jay Parker with CMS reported:

Athletic Eligibility
We cannot determine eligibility with the PowerSchool application at this time. The functionality does not specifically meet requirements nor does the logic on work around processes defined by DPI meet the needs of LEA’s for eligibility. CMS created local reports to meet business needs at this time.

Inadequate Progress
Districts have not been provided a procedure or report within PowerSchool  for NC DMV eligibility of student drivers.

Mid-Year graduation/GPA
The functionality does not exist within PowerSchool to produce transcripts with this mid-term criteria reflecting .5 credit and GPA calculations. At the Symposium, DPI indicated this would be provided soon for use with schools. (no ETA)

PMR functionality did not work until February 7th, 2014 maintenance weekend, creating a timeline for districts to resolve fatal exceptions to enrollment data with approval by February 20th. We are still not comfortable with the warnings within PMR as rendering correct logic for enrollment counts; however, we continue to analyze this each day.

Drop out Report
This does not exist at this time. I am seeing communications of this arriving soon by Ken Gattis (DPI business owner) and functionality of reporting to follow.

Retention, Promotion, Graduation report does not work at this time in PowerSchool.

School Activity Report that determines both classroom to teacher ratios and highly qualified teachers for instruction is not functional at this time. CMS has work around reports and external custom built applications performing this action. DPI has not implemented the code for this to be active.

Electronic Gradebook
We do not have the same issues as Wake due to not using the standards based features with CMS gradebooks.  The grade scales, assignments, and report cards all work, even parent portals reflect the same information.

Class rank and GPA
Both work in CMS due to the effort of reviewing and modifying historical grades.

There is still a transcript issue. At the last maintenance weekend, many of the corrections to course history that were made by counselors were lost in the weekend.  This means we have not been able to run new GPAs in HSs. 

Will National Board pay survive?

Earlier this week I got an email from a Butler High teacher worried about losing North Carolina's pay supplement for teachers who earn National Board Certification.  Last summer's session brought unpleasant surprises for teachers,  including the elimination of extra pay for master's degrees and the phase-out of tenure.  With changes to teacher compensation a near certainty for the 2014 session,  she wondered if anyone was eyeing the National Board pay as a pool to tap.

Jennifer Lunsford at Rocky River
The question came up the very next day at a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools news conference at Rocky River High,  where Superintendent Heath Morrison celebrated the large numbers of board-certified teachers in CMS and North Carolina.

Morrison said he and leaders of other N.C. school districts would resist any move to cut the supplement.

"It is a way to show the commitment to quality teachers in our state,"  he said.  "It's working really well the way it is now."

Jennifer Lunsford,  a math teacher at Rocky River,  talked about the work she did to earn her certification.  She had to video and critique her own work in the classroom, analyze her lessons and provide evidence of her impact on student learning.  She fell short the first time,  then worked with advisers to improve her skills and try again.

"The process helped me become more honest with myself,"  she said.  "It's hard to deny what you see on the camera."

Morrison noted that his wife has twice earned the certification  (no, she doesn't work for CMS).  The work load is staggering,  comparable to earning an advanced degree,  Morrison said.  "It's like the best professional development,"  he said.  "It makes you look in the mirror and say, 'How do I improve my craft?'  "

CMS hasn't yet analyzed whether board-certified teachers rated higher than others on new state value-added ratings,  which crunch student test scores to determine how much teachers contributed to their gains.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Another mysterious ed reform group emerges

Education advocacy groups that are fuzzy about their origins and funding seem to be trending in North Carolina.

Yesterday reporters in Charlotte and Raleigh got a round of calls about BestSchoolsNC,  "a new movement with one ambitious goal:  Make N.C. schools the best in America."  The group has hired New Hanover school board member Tammy Colvil as executive director and debuted with some interesting polling on public views on teacher pay. Colvil describes the organization as a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization focusing on common-sense solutions.

You won't find specifics about funding or founders on the web site.  Matthew Faraci of Fusion Strategies,  a Raleigh PR firm,  said backers want to remain anonymous because "they don't want to get hit up for donations."

If this sounds familiar,  it may be because I wrote last month about Aim Higher NC,  an equally vague group petitioning state lawmakers for higher teacher pay.  In that case,  the PR person pushing the cause,  who is affiliated with the Democratic party and labor,  said funders feared being targeted for retribution.  And October's  "Thanks to a teacher"  campaign had an anonymous approach, too,  though I tracked down N.C. Board of Education member John Tate as an organizer.

Faraci,  after some prodding,  said he has "a Republican background."  His company's web site doesn't mention any party alliance but does seem political:   "We have more than 75 campaigns under our collective belts, working with candidates and causes at the local, state, and national levels. We’ve worked with multiple presidential, gubernatorial, senatorial, and congressional efforts as well as scores of issue advocacy organizations, political committees, associations and major corporations."

BestSchoolsNC's  "rules of thumb,"  the only guide to the group's vision,  are as broad and hard to argue with as the quest for great schools:  Strong teachers,  high standards,  empowered parents and  "smart,  commonsense public policies."  The only one that hints at an angle that anyone could take issue with is  "choice, competition and accountability,"  which some view as buzzwords for privatization.

Colvil cited her involvement as the mother of four public school students and says she's interested in working with people regardless of political persuasion.  "We're just focused on starting the conversation,"  she said.  She did mention that BestSchoolsNC is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit  --  the kind that can lobby for legislation and engage in political campaigns.  So I'm guessing that conversation may get less bland before long.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

N.C. charter scrutiny getting tougher?

There's a new crew vetting the latest batch of N.C. charter applications,  and the early signs hint that they're tough judges.

Seventy-one boards applied to open charter schools in 2015-16.  Panels are currently reviewing those applications,  each of which can be more than 100 pages,  to recommend which should be interviewed by the new N.C. Charter School Advisory Board.

So far those subcommittees,  made up of advisory board members,  N.C. Office of Charter Schools staff and hired consultants,  have reviewed 24 applications and endorsed only eight, according to a tally kept by Eddie Goodall of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.  The advisory board,  made up mostly of charter school leaders,  will meet as a whole this spring to decide who actually gets an interview and which applications are recommended for approval by the N.C. Board of Education.

On Monday I listened in as a subcommittee reviewed two Charlotte applicants:  FOCUS Charter School and Heritage Learning Academy.

The FOCUS board wants to open a high school in west Charlotte's Severville neighborhood.  It would cater to students who have been incarcerated or failed ninth grade,  according to its application.  The school would have a STEAM theme  (science, technology, engineering, arts and math),  and groups of no more than 25 students would work together in 20-day instructional sessions.

Advisory board members Helen Nance, Paul Norcross and Mike McLaughlin and charter school staff Robin Kendall and Deanna Townsend-Smith said the group has an innovative approach for meeting a serious need.  Panelists praised the strong board and the positive attitude toward working with at-risk teens.

But they questioned the plan to mix what sounds like an alternative school with a STEAM program catering to the general population.  They voiced doubts about the staffing and the plans for 12th graders to finish at Central Piedmont Community College.  Several said the plan to open with 600 students in grade 9-11,  expanding to 800 in 9-12 the second year,  is too big for this kind of start-up.

In the end,  panelists said they hope this group will revamp its plan and bring it back next year,  but they didn't recommend that FOCUS get an interview this year.  "There are just too many questions,"  Kendall said.

The group was even more critical of the Heritage Learning Academy plan,  which was rated  "inadequate"  in many categories.  That board wants to open a K-12 school,  starting with about 150 elementary students the first year,  in southwest Charlotte.  The application said the school would relieve crowding in CMS' Berryhill and Reid Park K-8 schools.

The Heritage plan is based on the Charlotte Mason education model,  which the application describes as "developing the habit of narration"  and using  "relational education"  to develop each student's talents.

Subcommittee members said the application didn't explain the method clearly enough,  didn't articulate how it would be different from what students can get in CMS,  didn't describe the demographics of the students the school hopes to serve and didn't include specific,  measurable academic goals.  They voiced concerns that salaries budgeted seemed unrealistically low,  that the bylaws lacked a clear conflict-of-interest policy and that the board didn't bring enough financial know-how to run a school.

Not surprisingly,  the subcommittee didn't recommend an interview for Heritage, either.

How this plays out remains to be seen.  Last year's charter advisory panel got 70 applications,  eliminated 25 as incomplete,  interviewed 45 and recommended approval for 26.

Some charter critics had complained that the new advisory board,  appointed by the state legislature last fall,  might be too easy on applicants because it was so heavy on charter administrators and board members.  Instead,  those members seem to be trying to strike a balance between expanding access to charters while screening out applicants they believe aren't ready to pull of a venture they know is difficult.

"You've got charter school leaders who have excellent charter schools,"  Goodall said.  "They know what they're doing and it's pretty tough for an applicant."

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

NC superintendents send message to lawmakers

Create a five-year plan to get N.C. teacher pay to the national average.  Kill the new voucher program. Commit to the Common Core curriculum and adopt nationally-normed exams.

Those are among the recommendations prepared by superintendents of the state's 10 largest school districts,  including Heath Morrison of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and James Merrill of Wake County Public Schools.  The coalition, which also includes Cumberland,  Durham,  Gaston,  Guilford,  Johnston,  New Hanover,  Union,  and Winston-Salem/Forsyth, has created position papers on Common Core, vouchers and teacher pay.

After a 2013 legislative session that brought dramatic changes to public education,  the superintendents got together to let legislators and the N.C.
Board of Education know their thoughts on key issues.

Among the recommendations:

*In addition to boosting base pay,  lawmakers should scrap the bonus plan for 25 percent of teachers and instead work toward a more comprehensive performance pay system.

*Restore pay supplements for teachers who earn master's degrees in teaching or their academic subject.

*If the General Assembly isn't willing to rescind the Opportunity Scholarship program,  which was put on hold by a judge last week,  it should at least add more oversight for the private schools that take the public money.

*Provide assurance that the state will not change its academic standards for at least seven years.

*Adopt nationally-normed exams  (North Carolina has been working with the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to create such tests)  and try to reduce the burden of mandated testing.

Morrison will present the report to the CMS board Tuesday

Monday, February 24, 2014

CMS board working on self-evaluation

A lot has changed in the 17 months since the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board started talking about how to evaluate itself.

The board has yet to create a self-evaluation process,  but the tone at Friday's planning retreat was festive and congratulatory when the seven members present talked about how well they work together. That's a sharp contrast with the September 2012 session where members did a self-evaluation questionnaire and gave themselves low marks on such crucial functions as researching decisions,  keeping confidentiality and supporting majority decisions.

This time around,  board members laughed frequently and celebrated their cohesiveness as a team,  as Superintendent Heath Morrison and consultant Betty Burney from the Center for Reform of School Systems showered them with praise.  Burney,  a member of the Duval County (Fla.) Board of Education,  assured the board they're positioning CMS to win the Broad Prize for Urban Education for a second time when the district becomes eligible again.

Morrison says he hears good things about the board from local and state officials,  as well as educators around the nation.  The Council of Urban Boards of Education honored the CMS board as its 2013 Board of Excellence last fall.

"But it is so easy to lose it,"  Morrison said.  "You don't want to lose the way you're being perceived right now."

That's one of the reasons the board is working on ways to formally identify the group's strengths and weaknesses.   "If you want to be a healthy board and remain a healthy board,  you've got to do a periodic check,"  Burney said.

Vice Chair Tim Morgan noted that unlike employee evaluations,  which are confidential under state law,  this rating would be a public matter.  Members worried about giving ammunition to critics,  noting the coverage they got in 2012 for the self-inflicted low ratings.  But they also said the evaluation could help educate the public and identify areas for improvement.  Member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said it will work only if members trust each other enough to use the opportunity for review of the group's work,  rather than finger-pointing or reliving clashes.

Paul Bailey,  a former Matthews town commissioner elected to the CMS board in November,  said admitting mistakes can help turn critics into allies.  Thelma Byers-Bailey,  the board's other newcomer,  agreed:  "At least you take the sting out of it when you confess to it rather than having somebody else pick it up and throw it at you."

Members looked at self-evaluations used by other boards around the country.

The CMS board has been working with the CRSS for several years on improving governance.  The district paid $5,625 for Burney to work with the board at this retreat,  which took place at the CMS Leadership Academy near Vance High.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Teacher ratings: Best and worst in Charlotte region

The teacher effectiveness ratings released this week provide rich material for analysis and debate. I just got the spreadsheet from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, and I'll be poring through it to see what trends emerge.

But I couldn't resist a quick search to see which schools fall at the top and the bottom for our area. First I looked for those with the highest percentage of teachers who exceeded the state's goals for student growth on state exams. I eliminated those with fewer than 20 teachers, where percentages are so dramatically swayed by one or two individuals. That shuts out most elementary schools, because state testing starts in third grade and only fourth- and fifth-grade teachers have students with a previous year's scores to base growth projections on.

Here's what came up:

1. Weddington Middle (Union County), 77.8 percent of 45 teachers.
2. Highland School of Technology (Gaston County magnet), 73.9 percent of 23 teachers.
3. South Point High (Gaston County), 68.9 percent of 45 teachers.

Porter Ridge High
4. Ridge Road Middle (CMS), 60.9 percent of 46 teachers.
5. Marvin Ridge High (Union County), 60.5 percent of 38 teachers.
6. Mount Holly Middle (Gaston County), 59.3 percent of 27 teachers.
7. Lake Norman High (Iredell-Statesville), 53.6 percent of 56 teachers.
8-9. Winkler Middle (Cabarrus County), 52.5 percent of 40 teachers.
8-9. Porter Ridge High (Union County), 52.5 percent of 40 teachers.
10. South Charlotte Middle (CMS), 51.4 percent of 35 teachers.

Statewide, 23 percent of teachers exceeded the target.

I also sorted for schools with the highest percentage of teachers who failed to meet the growth target. Again eliminating schools with fewer than 20 teachers, they are:

1. Hopewell High (CMS), 56.8 percent of 44 teachers.
2. Vance High (CMS), 54 percent of 50 teachers.
3. Harding High (CMS), 53.2 percent of 47 teachers.
4. Statesville High (Iredell-Statesville), 51.5 percent of 33 teachers.
5. North Meck High (CMS), 50 percent of 44 teachers.
6. West Meck High (CMS), 48.4 percent of 62 teachers.
7. Friday Middle (Gaston County), 47.8 percent of 23 teachers.
8. Grier Middle (Gaston County), 46.2 percent of 26 teachers.
9. Hunter Huss High (Gaston County), 45.9 percent of 37 teachers.
10. Independence High (CMS), 44.3 percent of 61 teachers.

Twenty-one percent of all N.C. teachers fell short of the growth target.

My search included district and charter schools in Mecklenburg, Union, Cabarrus, Iredell, Catawba, Lincoln and Gaston counties.

I'm intrigued by these numbers, but I want to be clear that this is not a definitive picture of academic quality at these schools.  It's worth noting that all schools on the "worst"  list had teachers with top ratings,  and most on the  "best"  list had teachers who fell short.  There's still plenty of room for debate on whether the value-added formula can really turn student test scores into a meaningful measure of how good a teacher is.  But these ratings are shaping education decisions and teachers' careers,  so they're worth exploring.

Testing boycott and teacher ratings

A snowstorm, an earthquake  --  and now we have Pamela Grundy and Pat McCrory on the same side of an education issue. The end times must be here.

Grundy, a founder of Mecklenburg ACTS and Parents Across America,  is urging parents to boycott state exams this spring,  part of a national  "Testing Resistance and Reform Spring"  protest against excessive testing.  Other sponsors are FairTest,  United Opt Out,  the Network for Public Education and Save Our Schools.

Grundy and Carol Sawyer of Meck ACTS
So far there aren't a lot of details about the boycott.  Charlotte-Mecklenburg parents have talked about keeping their kids out of testing in the past;  the official stand is that tests are part of the curriculum and parents aren't allowed to opt out.

McCrory,  the Republican governor,  probably doesn't support the boycott.  But he did get vocal about the hazards of overtesting at last week's Emerging Issues Forum on teachers.   (Speaking of which,  anyone interested in issues raised at that forum can sign up for a free online course on world-class teaching,  sponsored by N.C. State's Emerging Issues Institute.)

No one's arguing against kids taking tests to show what they know.  The controversy springs from the barrage of N.C. exams designed primarily to rate teachers and schools.  A lot of folks who want solid data about the quality of public schools say the state is going too far in the quest to generate numbers that may or may not capture teacher quality.

Meanwhile,  we just got a first look at how those test-generated ratings play out for N.C. schools and districts.  I'll be eager to hear what people are thinking as they check out data on their schools.  The state's site makes it easy to look up schools and districts,  but it's tough to do any kind of big-picture comparison and analysis looking up one data point at a time.  State officials say they'll send me a spreadsheet as early as today.  If you'd like a copy,  shoot me an email at with  "spreadsheet"  in the header.

I caught up with Julie Kowal,  executive director of CarolinaCAN,  after I'd filed the story on value-added ratings.  Her group is big on data and accountability,  so it was no surprise to hear her say that  "the wonk in me"  loves this report:  "It is so valuable for the state to make this publicly available in the way they have. We need this data to be able to make responsible decisions."  But she added a note of ambiguity:  "The parent in me thinks it's very difficult to know what it's good for."

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Diversity in charters: Another view

After spending some time exploring the start-up struggles of StudentFirst Academy,  a charter serving disadvantaged kids in west Charlotte,  I swung by the other end of the charter spectrum this week.

Pine Lake Preparatory School is an established charter with strong academic results,  located in Iredell County between Davidson and Mooresville.   Most of the 1,700 students are white,  and few live in poverty.  When people complain that charters are publicly-funded private schools,  this is the kind of school they're talking about.

Terrill at Pine Lake Prep's new art building

Chris Terrill,  who was hired as head of school in 2012,  invited me to visit and hear his thoughts on North Carolina's charter system.  His previous experience was with charters in Florida,  a state many N.C. leaders look to for models of school reform.

In Florida,  Terrill said,  charters could use race as a factor in lottery selection to get closer to the area's demographics.  Here it's luck of the draw  --  and with 550 children applying for about 50 kindergarten seats next year,  there's a lot of luck involved with getting in.  He says the racial makeup of Pine Lake  --  89 percent white,  5 percent African American,  4 percent Hispanic and 2 percent Asian  --  is pretty close to that of the surrounding area.  The school offers busing from  "depot stops"  in Huntersville and Mooresville to give opportunities to families who can't drive their kids,  he said.  Pine Lake doesn't participate in the federal lunch program,  he said,  but low-income students admitted through the lottery can get aid for lunches and field trips.

Pine Lake pulls about half its students from Mecklenburg County,  with the rest coming from Iredell-Statesville,  Mooresville,  Cabarrus and Catawba.  For most,  he said,  Pine Lake provides an alternative to crowded district schools,  not failing ones.  When Pine Lake opened in 2006,  CMS had neglected to keep up with north suburban growth.  North Mecklenburg High was the state's largest school,  with some 3,100 students sprawling into trailers,  and Torrence Creek Elementary was overcrowded as soon as it opened.  While 1,700 students is hardly a small school,  Pine Lake covers K-12, which means 125 to 140 students per grade level.  Many parents see it as a safer,  more personal environment,  Terrill said.

Coincidentally,  I had also spoken with state Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville this week about the state's school calendar law.  Jeter has three children at Pine Lake,  and he said crowding at Torrence Creek prompted the move.

Both Jeter and Terrill said they see charters as a supplement to traditional public schools,  not a substitute.  As Jeter put it,  "charter schools should be the icing on the cake;  they shouldn't be the cake."

Terrill,  whose wife is a principal in Cabarrus County Schools,  said the ideal situation is when charters spur innovation in school districts.  He cited Iredell-Statesville Schools' decision to create an International Baccalaureate magnet at Mount Mourne Middle School,  less than a mile up the road from Pine Lake.

Terrill says he's watching with hope and trepidation as North Carolina revs up an expansion of charters,  with much of the growth centered around Charlotte.  His first experience with Florida charters came when he took a job with founders who had more ambition than expertise;  he says he found himself running seven underfunded,  low-performing charters.  He had moved to a much better setting when Pine Lake recruited him,  he said,  but he saw how easy it is to get into trouble.  If the state can't provide supervision and support for its growing roster of schools, he said,  start-ups may fail and hurt the charter movement,  the district schools that take those students back and the families who vest their hopes in the school.  "While I am a charter school proponent,"  he said,  "I cannot support the effort of every charter school."

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Talking with and about teachers

With the 2014 legislative session less than three months away,  State Rep. Tricia Cotham is launching a series of forums to talk with teachers about supporting schools and shaping state policy.  The first will be at 2 p.m. Saturday,   Feb. 22,  at the Plaza-Midwood library branch,  1623 Central Ave.

She'll hold another session for teachers at 6:30 p.m. March 11 at the Matthews library,  230 Matthews Station St.,  and a third for students and teachers on March 16 at the Independence library,  6000 Conference Drive.  That session starts at 1:30 p.m. for students and 2:30 for teachers,  according to Cotham's web site.

Cotham,  a Mecklenburg Democrat,  was a teacher and administrator in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools before joining the General Assembly in 2007.  She notes that the sessions are not limited to CMS employees;  all teachers are welcome.

At 8 a.m. March 6,  MeckEd will host a community conversation on  "Valuing N.C. Teachers,"  with Cotham,  state Rep. Charlie Jeter,  a Huntersville Republican,  and Eric Davis,  an unaffiliated Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member.  Click here for details and to RSVP.

And while you've got your calendars out,  here are a couple more education-related events coming up.  You can be one of the first to catch the CMS 2014-15 budget overview from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 26 at West Charlotte High,  2219 Senior Drive.  More sessions around the county will be held through April;  click here for the schedule.  You can also take the CMS online budget survey through Friday.

And for those with an interest in services for students with disabilities,  the N.C. Department of Public Instruction will hold a public hearing on proposed changes to state policies from 5:30 to 7 p.m. March 19 in Davidson.  Click here for details.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Can governor save the (makeup) day?

Plenty of teachers,  parents and other school employees are eagerly waiting to hear whether Gov. Pat McCrory can provide a waiver to help school districts avoid cutting into spring break or holding Saturday school to make up for last week's snow closings.

McCrory in emergency mode Friday
The question is how much ability he has to tinker with the state's school calendar law. The staff at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction was delving into that issue Friday.  The conclusion:  The latest version of the calendar law removed the ability of DPI or the state Board of Education to waive makeup days,  said spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter.

But can the governor do it?  "I do not know,"  Jeter said.

If that decision rests with the General Assembly,  the timing could be tough.  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other districts facing shortened spring breaks have those makeup days scheduled in April.  The legislature convenes May 14.

Update: State Rep. Ruth Samuelson, a Mecklenburg Republican, called after a Monday afternoon meeting with House Speaker Thom Tillis, where legislators discussed ways to "tweak" the plan to allow more flexibility.  She said the consensus was that most districts already have the leeway they need if they focus on meeting the minimum 1,025 hours of instruction,  rather than counting days.

The makeup-day hullabaloo illustrates how different discussions can be when an issue is immediate,  rather than abstract.  Invite people to spend time pondering all the limits and trade-offs that come with the state calendar law,  and most say "no thanks."  Put the plan that's approved by those who do care into effect,  and boy,  do people have better ideas.

Likewise,  no politician wants to call for reducing the time kids are required to spend in class  ...  unless the alternative is a makeup schedule that people hate.  Then the person who saves spring break may look like a hero.

After spending two snowy days reporting on the scheduling dilemma and reading lots of opinions on social media,  I had pretty much decided that scrapping a couple of makeup days  --  either through state waiver or tallying classroom hours instead of days  --  was the only option that wouldn't make anyone mad.  But I'm not sure that's true.  People like bus drivers and teacher assistants,  who tend to need their whole paycheck,  lose hours and money when schools close.  Eliminate the makeup days and you eliminate their chance to make up the wages.

There's just no such thing as a popular weather decision.

Friday, February 14, 2014

CMS snow-day tweets exercise the brain

Students playing around on their phones during snow days may actually be learning,  my colleague April Bethea says. While she was monitoring social media and keeping our online report fresh,  she got intrigued by #CMSsnowED tweets and filed this report:


Charlotte-Mecklenburg students have been out of class for most of this week. But the district has tried to keep some lessons flowing - all in 140 characters or less.

For four hours each snow day, students have answered questions on subjects like chemistry, math and literature or shown off their haiku writing abilities through a Twitter Q&A the district has tagged #CMSsnowED.

At the top of the hour from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. -- Note: today's will start at 11 a.m. -- , the district tweets a new question from its @CharMeckSchools account. The first person who tweets back the correct response gets a shout out from the district and a promise of CMS swag (a water bottle, umbrella or other district memorabilia).

"It's just a way to keep students engaged while schools are closed and to have fun with students online during the storm," said Tahira Stalberte, CMS' executive director for communications.

The virtual Q&A first launched in late January when CMS closed for two days because of snow. Stalberte said the idea came from the district's social media team, which uses Twitter and other tools to try to connect more with students or promote CMS initiatives.

The #CMSsnowED questions come from a variety of sources, including from district teachers, SAT study guides and other online resources, said Stalberte.

One of the first questions asked students to calculate the square root of the combined jersey numbers for a group of Carolina Panthers' players. And this week, students were asked, among other things, the following question about the novel Moby Dick:

LITERATURE: "Call me Ishmael" then call me a cab! Know the name of the boat I was on when it was destroyed by that albino whale, landlubber?

The question drew more than a dozen replies. (The correct answer is "Pequod.")

CMS is not the only district to communicate with students engaged during the snow break. Many districts used social media to help communicate news about school closings. Some, like Durham Public Schools and and Iredell-Statesville Schools, asked students to share photos of what they were doing during the snow day -- DPS called them "snowfies" -- and retweeted some of the replies.

Stalberte said the district has received a lot of positive feedback from students and parents about #CMSsnowED. She said the district plans to do the Q&A each day students are out of class because of the

"We have to meet students where they are," Stalberte said, "and they are on social media."

Ann here with one more item while we're on snow days and social media: A great school-closing announcement, made by the private Durham Academy, went viral Thursday.  On the chance you missed it, here it is. (I just realized this video displays on my computer but not my iPad, so if you're seeing a blank, here's the link.)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Snow days and PowerSchool: Let's talk

We all know the kids love a snow day,  but I suspect this winter of delays,  early dismissals and closings is putting a strain on the grown-ups.  I've been hearing that teachers,  assistants and others are struggling with how this affects their leave time,  and I'm sure working parents are in a continual quest for emergency child care.

I'm also interested in tracking down more information about the blizzard of problems related to the state's PowerSchool data system  (I know,  lame transition).  I keep hearing about things in bits and pieces,  and some of you have voiced frustration that I haven't pulled back to do a big-picture look at what problems remain and how we got into this mess.

Let me know your thoughts,  experiences and questions on either topic or both.  Anonymous comments can be helpful in shaping queries,  but I'd especially appreciate anyone willing to talk for a story.  Email me at or call 704-358-5033.  If you get voice mail, leave a message.  Once the flakes start falling,  I may go outside and play.