Friday, March 28, 2014

County education money: Whose is it?

A sign of the changing education landscape:  For the first time in 13 budget cycles I've covered,  Mecklenburg County commissioners sat down to talk about charter schools.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  which briefed the commissioners,  has posted that report online. It includes a lot of interesting items for anyone who cares about the issue,  including a map of where Mecklenburg's charter students live,  a list of which schools they attend and a demographic comparison between CMS and the students attending Mecklenburg's charter schools.

The presentation got me thinking about the way I've always reported on county funding as an allocation for CMS.  There's good reason for that.  The superintendent,  top administrators and school board spend weeks crafting a request,  which commissioners scrutinize and vote on.  While everyone knows that there's a pass-through to charters,  it's CMS that gets the scrutiny, praise and heat.

Given the work that CMS puts into getting that allocation,  it's easy to understand why officials and supporters might resent about being forced to give up some of their money  --  especially when that pass-along is expected to top $30 million next year.

But if you look at is as the county's allocation for public education,  it makes more sense.  If CMS projections materialize,  about 157,000 Mecklenburg students will enroll in public schools next year.  CMS will get about 91 percent of them, and 91 percent of the county money.  The charters that serve the other 9 percent will divvy up that portion.

The big question is whether that's a smart way to spend local money. CMS board member Eric Davis took issue with my recent post critiquing his comparison of CMS and charter spending projections.  I said it was a false premise to assume that the per-pupil share passed along to charters meant anything about the actual cost of operating those charters.  Davis said I missed his point:

While there are many charter schools that are well performing, my comments were solely based on financial efficiency of charter schools versus CMS.

CMS is better positioned to absorb another 2300 students within our existing network of 160 schools than opening 10 charter schools, each of which will need a new principal and other support staff. That staff already exists in CMS.

Moreover, CMS per pupil funding continues to go down, dropping over the past 5 years by 7.2% in state funding and 5.4% in county funding. Since charter schools receive the same per pupil funding as CMS, they offer no possibility of reducing per pupil expenditure when another charter school opens. Hence, charter schools are a less efficient way to educate an expanding student population than the existing system.

In a time when we hear that our state does not have money for public education due to other issues such as increased health costs, it would seem that our decisions would be guided by how to improve the efficiency of the existing system. Charter schools, while they provide choice, do so in a more expensive way than increasing choice within the existing system.

Davis might be right  --  if CMS were,  in fact,  planning to absorb all the new students into its existing schools.  But CMS is doing exactly what Davis and Superintendent Heath Morrison have criticized charters for doing:  Creating small schools.  They're counting on the state to approve $922,000 in the 2014-15 budget to launch the UNCC Early College High  (100 students),  Levine Middle College High and Harper Middle College High (69 students who have so far applied for next year's debut on a combined campus).  That's in addition to the local and state money CMS would normally spend for those students,  and the county money to set up mobile classrooms.

CMS is also creating Hawthorne Health Sciences, a magnet high school with 87 students enrolled so far,  and a new Montessori magnet in Huntersville with 92 enrolled so far.

The state requires a minimum of 65 students in each charter school.  Even the small charters generally try to open with more than that.  And most plan to add grades and build enrollment in coming years,  exactly as CMS plans to do with its small start-ups.

Bottom line:  Large schools generally have lower per-pupil costs than small ones,  whether they're charters or CMS.  Schools with low poverty and few kids with special needs are cheaper than those at the other end of the spectrum,  regardless of who's running them.

And CMS is opening small schools for exactly the same reason the state is authorizing charters:  They believe it's the right thing for students.

When I pressed Morrison about the per-pupil cost of his small schools,  he noted the success of existing ones such as Cato Middle College High.  "How do you put a price tag on the overall quality?"  he asked.

That's a question that bears thoughtful exploration,  for charter and district schools alike. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Student's seizure highlights role of nurses and family

When a 9-year-old had a seizure on the playground Wednesday,  University Park Creative Arts School got an illustration of the importance of school nurses and parent communication.

When the child collapsed,  school staff rushed into action,  calling 911,  clearing the area of other children and summoning the teachers trained as "first responders."  The west Charlotte school,  which has about 400 students,  has a nurse only two days a week,  so trained faculty must fill the gap.

After getting a dispatcher who provided medical guidance by phone,  Principal Janice Davidson says her staff called nearby schools in hopes of finding a nurse.  West Charlotte High's nurse rushed straight over,  arriving just after medics and firefighters,  Davidson said.

"I feel all schools need a full-time nurse  --  all day,  every day,"  Davidson said after the child had been taken to the hospital.

Teri Saurer and a group of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parents have been lobbying for two years to get just that.  As my colleague David Perlmutt recently reported,  their persistence is making an impression on county officials,  who are thinking seriously about spending the $2.5 million it would take to meet that goal next year.

In this case,  the child's parent had recently informed the school about the medical problem and brought seizure medication.  It couldn't be administered,  however  --  not because a nurse wasn't present but because the paperwork from the child's doctor wasn't complete.

That's the second important lesson,  Davidson said.  Parents whose children have medical issues need to make sure schools are fully informed and authorized to provide assistance.  In this case,  she said,  once the authorization was complete the nurse would have trained the designated teachers.

Bolyn McClung,  who was doing volunteer work at University Park when the incident occurred,  says he was impressed by how well the school responded.  "If nothing else,  the staff knows how to handle an emergency,"  he said.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Winners and losers in CMS lottery

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' beefed-up menu of options for 2014-15 drew more than 24,000 students for the first lottery,  with 20,287 of them getting assignments at requested schools,  newly posted lottery results show.

The report shows some new offerings,  such as a high school on the UNC Charlotte campus and tech-oriented magnets for lower grades,  opening with strong interest.  Many perennial favorites remain popular.  But enrollment continues to slump at some struggling magnets,  such as Marie G. Davis Military/Leadership Academy and Harding High's IB program.  And it looks like some new programs,  including a middle college high at CPCC's Harper campus and a Montessori school at Long Creek,  will have to keep recruiting to be ready to open in August.

Morehead STEM remains popular
Before the details,  a caution:  A lot can change between now and August.  Many families apply for CMS magnets,  charter schools and/or private schools to see what their options are before making a decision.  Some students who got seats in magnets may fail to meet the admission requirements.  CMS will keep recruiting for underfilled programs.  We'll hear more about upcoming plans at a Wednesday news conference.

Here's what strikes me looking at the list  (find CMS lottery results for the last five years here and check the CMS plans for new options here).
Cotswold Elementary's IB magnet appears to be the toughest to get into,  with 238 waiting for only 190 seats that were filled.  Morehead STEM, a K-8 magnet,  has the longest waiting list,  with 668 waiting and 1,180 seated.

The new early college high based at UNCC's energy and engineering center had originally planned to open with 65 ninth-graders in August.  Instead CMS placed 100 ninth-graders,  with 94 on the waiting list.  Students will be able to attend up to five years of high school and receive two years of tuition-free college credit along with their diplomas.

Students will have a similar option at three middle college high schools at Central Piedmont Community College,  although these schools are open only to 11th- and 12th-graders.  Cato,  the model for the two new clones,  filled 220 seats with nine students waiting. But only 14 were seated at Harper Middle College and 55 at Levine Middle College.

A new health sciences magnet at Hawthorne High pulled 87 students.  CMS had hoped to have about 250 students at Hawthorne,  which is transitioning from an alternative school to a magnet,  but the current list shows only about 160 including the nonmagnet students.

A STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) magnet in the new elementary school opening in the southwest Pallisades area filled its 150 seats and has 63 waiting.

Cochrane Middle School's new iMeck Academy drew 152 students, and McClintock Middle's new STEAM Academy  (that's STEM plus arts)  pulled 107. Coulwood's new STEM magnet, which was created partly to offset the loss of sixth-graders who will stay at Mountain Island Elementary as it becomes a K-8 school,  drew only 38 sixth-graders. CMS had hoped for 150.

One has to wonder:  Has the high-tech craze sapped enthusiasm for other options?

CMS'  existing Montessori schools drew hefty waiting lists,  as usual.  The new Long Creek Montessori,  opening as a separate school next to the neighborhood elementary on the same Huntersville property,  drew 50 prekindergarteners and 37 kindergarteners,  but only five students for grades 1-3  (oddly,  the list says there's one first-grader placed and five on the waiting list).

Northwest School of the Arts, a 6-12 magnet with a long tradition and national reputation, slipped in this year's lottery.  Only 48 sixth-graders applied,  down from 99 last year,  with the total seated slipping from 941 to 854. Update: Student placement director Scott McCully says there's no decline in applications. Students who apply must audition to be admitted, he said, and that has gone more slowly than in past years. Once applicants complete their auditions, he said, the number of sixth-graders will rise.

The  "hub"  plan for high school students to transfer into North Mecklenburg High for career-tech programs didn't get much interest. Seven each applied for seats in the cosmetology and culinary arts programs, two for automotive, one for horticulture and none for carpentry.

Marie G. Davis Military/Leadership Academy, a K-12 magnet that has long struggled to attract students to the school south of uptown Charlotte, had 701 students seated,  down from 847 in last year's lottery. Only 12 kindergarteners and 39 first-graders applied,  compared with 34 kindergarteners and 82 first-graders last year.

East Meck now has the largest high school IB magnet with 1,009, up from 845 in last year's first lottery. North Meck is second at 615, also up slightly. Harding's IB magnet,  which has been struggling since CMS ended the westside school's full-magnet status in 2011,  drew 297 students,  down from 393 last spring and 744 in 2010.  West Charlotte IB is holding steady with 231.

Myers Park High still has an IB program, but since it stopped taking students from outside the attendance zone it isn't part of the lottery.  Likewise,  there's no listing for Olympic's new Advanced Manufacturing and Entrepreneurship school because it's an internal assignment for students living in the Olympic zone.

As noted,  we'll have a chance to hear more from CMS officials on Wednesday,  so if you see interesting patterns or have questions,  please post them.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Charters, tenure, testing and Project LIFT

It's a good week to learn more about education, with an array of public meetings and forums taking place.

At 3 p.m. Tuesday,  Mecklenburg County commissioners will hear a presentation from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools about the county money that's passed along to charter schools.  Some commissioners want to know more about how that money is being spent and whether they can exercise any control.  As required by law,  CMS is passing along about $25 million from this year's $356.5 million allocation to cover costs for almost 11,000 Mecklenburg students enrolled in charters.  With 11 new charters opening in the Charlotte area in 2014-15,  CMS projects it will take another $7.5 million to cover almost 2,300 more charter students.

Pine Lake Prep in Iredell County serves Mecklenburg students
The special commissioners' meeting,  in room CH-14 of the Government Center,  is open to the public.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday,  the CMS board will vote on its version of the controversial  "25 percent plan" to phase out tenure (details of the CMS plan have not yet been released)  and the district's 2014 legislative agenda.  The agenda also includes a report on academic achievement at the Project LIFT schools. That meeting,  in Room 267 of the Government Center, is also open and streamed online.

At noon Wednesday,  Wingate University Ballantyne kicks off a "lunch and learn"  series with assistant professor Chris Cobitz talking about  "What's all this testing in schools about?"  Cobitz is a former testing official with CMS and N.C. Department of Public Instruction.  Bring your own lunch and attend the session at Suite 150 in the Harris Building, 13024 Ballantyne Corporate Place.  (It'll be like Throwback Wednesday if I can make it; I worked extensively with Cobitz and Lloyd Wimberley,  director of the graduate school of education, when they were with CMS.)

As they say in the late-night infomercials ... but wait!  There's more!  You can cap off this education marathon by hoisting a mug at  6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Heist Brewery in NoDa,  where there's a  "Policy and Pints"  session scheduled.  Just keeping up with new education advocacy groups these days is a challenge:  This one is sponsored by N.C. Policy Bridge,  a  "grassroots and top roots"  organization trying to get teachers more engaged in public policy discussion.  Kayti Stuckenberg,  a CMS middle school teacher,  is one of the organizers.  Adam Rhew of MeckEd,  which is helping promote the meetings,  says the core group is young teachers associated with Teach For America.  To attend,  RSVP here.

Update: Just found out CMS lawyer Jonathan Sink and CMS administrators will also be at the Tuesday Breakfast Forum this week  (8:30 a.m. at the West Charlotte Rec Center) speaking about the state's charter school law and the district's desire to have similar flexibility.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

School technology theft is booming

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools introduced a  "bring your own technology"  program,  some predicted that it would lead to a surge of lost and stolen gadgets at schools.

CMS Police Chief Randy Hagler says such thefts have indeed become common,  to the point that they frustrate his counterparts in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.

"It just drives their property-crime numbers out of sight,"  Hagler said this week.  "It affects what the community sees as crime trends."

But Hagler doesn't think the problem is driven primarily by students bringing digital devices for classroom use.  While student laptops and tablets occasionally go missing,  smartphones are by far the biggest target for thieves.

The solution?  The simplest one is to activate a tracking app,  Hagler said.  Most often,  that leads to a successful recovery.  Schools are also working on individual strategies to discourage opportunities for thieves, he said.

And CMS is getting security cameras installed in elementary and middle schools,  which officials hope will deter thefts and identify those who swipe someone else's technology.  They should all be in place when school starts in August.

Lost, stolen or broken devices are the responsibility of the family,  not CMS.  Parents and teachers,  what are you seeing and thinking?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

CMS raises and charter costs: A math challenge

School board members delved into math questions about employee raises and charter school costs at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' first budget work session Tuesday.

Tuesday's presentation  (CMS plans to post it on the budget page today)  included a preliminary suggestion of $17 million to $18 million in county money to provide raises for all employees.  A board member asked what size raise that would cover.

Superintendent Heath Morrison and Chief Financial Office Sheila Shirley said it's too early to say.  Most CMS employees are paid by the state, but others are paid with county,  federal or grant money.  When the state gives an across-the-board raise,  CMS traditionally uses county money to make sure all employees get that raise.  So if state lawmakers were to approve a 2 percent raise,  CMS would need $4 million to $5 million in county money to match it,  they said.

On the other hand,  if the state provides nothing,  CMS would spend about $18 million to give employees a 2 percent raise with county money alone,  according to the presentation.  Plus,  Morrison noted that the plan to boost starting teachers' pay proposed by Gov. Pat McCrory and legislative leaders may bring yet-unknown county costs.

In that case, a vague answer was the right one.  But when it came to the cost of sending students to charter schools vs. CMS, a teacher should have stepped in.

The presentation projected 2,296 additional charter students next year,  with CMS passing along $7.5 million in county money.  It also said CMS would need $400,000 from the county for an additional 754 CMS students.

New board member Paul Bailey asked whether such disproportionate numbers could possibly be right.  It was a good question.  The charter allotment breaks down to about $3,267 per student, while the CMS total is $530.50 per pupil.

Morrison and Shirley said the costs aren't directly comparable. They explained the system that requires CMS to pass along a per-pupil share of the county allotment for each Mecklenburg student who attends one of the independently-run public schools.

When Eric Davis got his turn,  he looped back to those numbers,  saying how much more cost-effective it is to send students to CMS than to create new schools for them.  Describing himself as a former Republican,  the unaffiliated Davis said he would be aghast at spending so much to finance new charters when the state is  "starving"  traditional public schools.

It was a dramatic speech based on a false premise.  The per-pupil pass-along to charters has nothing to do with the cost of operating those schools,  as Davis most likely knows.  In fact,  that cost is precisely and by definition the same as the average cost for CMS students, new and existing.  That's how it works:  However big the county  "pie"  for education is,  each student gets a proportionate slice.  The only thing that drives up the size of a charter student's  slice is county commissioners' generosity in responding to the CMS request.

I'm not sure exactly what's included in the $400,000 estimate for the addition of 754 CMS students,  but it's clearly not the full county cost for their education.

Many of us would love to know which schools deliver the best academic value for the dollar.  But looking at those two lines in the CMS presentation won't give us the answer.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Survey: Lawmakers are in the doghouse

People who answered a recent UNC Wilmington online survey are plenty mad about the N.C. legislature's recent changes to education, according to a recent report.

With the 2014 session looming,  we seem to be getting a poll a week,  and most of them show what the sponsors go in looking for.  So let's be clear up front:  This was a self-selected group of more than 2,350 people who responded to links shared by PTAs and social media,  including,  apparently,  the Observer's Facebook page.  Participants were skewed toward middle-class women who have kids in public schools and/or have worked in public education.

Respondents trust teachers ...
Still,  it's always interesting to hear what folks have to say.  More than 95 percent said they trust teachers and principals to make decisions about education,  compared with just over 60 percent who trust their local school board and just over 3 percent who trust the governor and state legislature.
... a lot more than they trust these guys.
More than 90 percent said North Carolina is headed the wrong direction when it comes to public education.  Especially unpopular: Increasing class sizes,  decreasing per-pupil spending,  giving schools letter grades,  cutting pay for advanced degrees,  providing private-school vouchers and lowering the percentage of certified teachers required at charter schools.  Among people who have never worked for a school system,  there were mixed reviews for Teach for America,  the Read to Achieve program and the controversial  "25 percent plan"  to replace teacher tenure.

About 30 percent of the parents who responded said they've considered private or charter schools for their children. “We are actively searching for private school options to escape the ridiculousness that has become the NC school system!”  one reported.

And,  of course,  the overwhelming majority think teachers need a raise.  It's looking like the only debate on that point is going to be who gets how much  (and that debate will be a doozy).

The survey by UNCW Professors Robert Smith and Scott Imig follows one that tallied educators'  reactions to the legislative session in December.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Network helps with charter start-ups

When Lauren Tucker read about start-up problems at a nearby charter school,  she says she was especially thankful for her network.

Tucker is director of Aristotle Preparatory School,  a charter that opened in August on the outskirts of uptown Charlotte.  It's one of 14 schools that make up TeamCFA,  a network created by the Colorado-based Challenge Foundation.

Aristotle Prep
As charters expand in our area,  I'm getting a crash course in the organizations that are shaping them.  There are nonprofit charter chains like KIPP,  which has a school in Charlotte,  and for-profit management companies like Charter Schools USA,  which opened Langtree and Cabarrus academies this year.  Then there are charter networks such as TeamCFA and Prestige Preparatory Schools,  which provide support to area charters while those schools maintain independent identities.

TeamCFA has schools in Phoenix, Indianapolis and western North Carolina  (Aristotle Prep is the easternmost school in that group) and is working to expand.  Tucker was a math teacher at Piedmont Community Charter School,  a network school in Gastonia,  and the network trained her to launch a new school.

Tucker says the network has provided support with everything from governance to getting the building ready to creating a web site.  The Challenge Foundation also provides $100,000 grants for the first three years to help with starting expenses. The network has some requirements for all schools:  Students wear uniforms,  and all schools teach the Core Knowledge curriculum and use MAP testing to size up student progress.

Aristotle currently has almost 100 K-3 students in converted Sunday school classrooms at Christ Presbyterian Church.  "Support in the network is vital,"  says Tucker.

Individual schools have different specialties.  Piedmont has a fine-arts focus,  while Brevard Academy is breaking out grammar and Latin classes to improve writing,  says Tony Helton,  southeastern regional director for TeamCFA.

I don't claim to fully understand what chains and networks will mean for charter education in our area.  The liberal-leaning N.C. Policy Watch,  for instance,  has raised questions about the conservative political affiliations of Challenge Foundation founder John Bryan.  But as new schools continue to open,  affiliations such as Aristotle's with TeamCFA will help provide families some guidance in what to expect  --  and examples to check out nearby.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Discipline disparities: A national push

Last year West Charlotte High and Martin Luther King Middle School reported more than 90 suspensions per 100 students. Providence High and Robinson Middle had fewer than four per 100.

Those are extremes within Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, but I doubt anyone is surprised by the pattern or needs a hint about the demographics of those schools.  Across the nation,  African American students are far more likely than white classmates to be sent home from school.  And the schools where low-income and nonwhite students are concentrated tend to have the highest suspension rates of all.

This week a national team of researchers, educators and policy analysts who have spent three years studying this phenomenon released a series of briefing papers summing up their findings.  The Discipline Disparities Collaborative,  founded by Indiana University's Equity Project and financially supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies and Open Society Foundations,  concludes that the disparities are driven by flaws in school discipline more than by differences in behavior.

Some will say that black students get suspended more because they behave worse,  and that changing policies to reduce that trend amounts to giving a free pass to troublemakers.  This group says that's a myth.  If African American students were actually doing more bad things,  the researchers say,  they'd be more likely than white students to be suspended for serious offenses such as bringing guns,  drugs and alcohol to school.  But they cite data showing that racial gaps disappear for those offenses but open up when judgment is involved,  with offenses such as disrespect or disruption.

The group also says it's wrong to believe that suspending the  "bad kids"  is the best way to protect the learning environment for the good students.  In fact,  better alternatives for dealing with minor offenses  --  or creating environments where such clashes are less likely to occur  --  benefits all students,  they say.

All of this is consistent with what Heath Morrison has been saying since he was hired as CMS superintendent in 2012.  The challenge,  he says,  is helping educators learn better ways to deal with cultural differences without labeling anyone a racist or making teachers feel like they're expected to overlook serious offenses.  Those discussions are going on in various schools and with other community groups,  such as the Race Matters for Juvenile Justice Initiative.

To look up suspension rates for N.C. schools,  go to the school report cards and select the  "Safe, orderly and caring schools"  tab.

And on the data front,  CMS has posted school poverty levels for this year.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

CMS survey shows enthusiasm for technology

Most parents who responded to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools online budget survey are willing to send their kids' digital devices to school and want to lease a computer for home and school use,  according to a presentation to the school board.

The survey,  which got about 12,100 responses,  is intended as a starting point for budget talks and a means of getting the public engaged.  Like most numbers,  the results pose as many questions as they answer.

One Laptop Per Child project

Eighty-three percent of responders said they want the county to invest more in school technology,  the most popular option for increasing revenue.  All the other options had to do with bringing in money from other sources,  such as ad revenue,  cell tower leases and rental fees,  so it's not clear why a  "more county spending" item was on that list.

Seventy percent of parents said their child has  "a mobile device,  such as an iPhone or an iPad,"  and 72 percent said they support letting their kids bring such devices for classroom use.  Two-thirds said they'd be willing to pay $30 to $50 a year to lease a computer from CMS for classroom and home use.

And 98 percent said they already have home Internet access.

So what does this all mean,  beyond the fact that people were clicking  "yes"  to a lot of technology questions?  Do people really want more spending for classroom technology and continuing use of  "bring your own technology"  and school laptops for kids to lease?  And they want all this even though they're already wired at home?

The first question,  of course,  is who took the online survey.  Two weeks ago board member Tom Tate pressed Chief Communication Officer Kathryn Block on how the district is reaching people who don't have Internet access.  There were some stifled chuckles when she replied that community partners were getting the word out  ...  through web sites and social media.

Board member Thelma Byers-Bailey brought up the issue again Tuesday.  "That's 98 percent of people who have Internet who say they have Internet,"  she said.

Block said some people used school and public library computers to respond to the survey,  but the high degree of Internet access in homes is  "consistent with what we see"  from other sources.

Project LIFT Zone Superintendent Denise Watts had left the meeting before that presentation.  I was curious to hear her take on that,  given that the public-private partnership is channeling significant private money into giving low-income families and students digital access.  Is it true that most already have it?

Watts says there's no way 98 percent of CMS families have Internet at home,  especially in impoverished neighborhoods.  "I would almost bet my next paycheck on that.  I would love to see the data source."  She agrees that many students have smartphones,  but  "that's not a work/education device."

Superintendent Heath Morrison told the board that in addition to the online survey,  members of the public have had a chance to speak in person at three town hall meetings on budget planning  (two more are coming up in April).  The board will hold a two-hour budget work session next week,  and Morrison will present his 2014-15 budget proposal April 8.

Here's the one prediction I feel confident making:  Technology will be a big item in that budget.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Commissioner irked at paying charter debt

Mecklenburg County Commissioner Dumont Clarke was not happy to read that county taxpayers could be on the hook for repaying $600,000 in debt that StudentFirst Academy has amassed in its opening months.

The school's board of directors met Monday with the N.C. Charter School Advisory Board to talk about the school's survival in the wake of financial, management and educational problems that led to the firing of two founders and top administrators in December. StudentFirst leaders said they can repay the debt over the next 2 1/2 years,  relying on county money because state money can't be used for that purpose.  The board also hopes to raise private donations to help, board members said.

Clarke emailed County Manager Dena Diorio and other county officials Tuesday asking for a report on how much county money is going to StudentFirst and what options the county has to avoid paying for the independently-run public school's mistakes.

"I would ask you to monitor developments involving this non-profit organization closely and consider being prepared to take all necessary and appropriate steps, including legal action should the Board decide to direct you to do so, to prevent the board of this non-profit from using future County tax dollars for a bailout of these current year debts,"  Clarke wrote. "...(W)hen the government gives money to non-governmental entities (whether they be non-profit or for-profit) to provide public services such as education, the government should take steps to make sure that the money is not wasted or misused.   If a non-profit charter school can get into financial trouble this quickly after it opens  (less than seven months)  and need a local government bailout of its debts, it appears to me that the regulatory oversight that is in place for charter schools,  particularly considering the rapid expansion of them that is underway for next year and the following year,  is wholly inadequate."

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is required to pass along a per-pupil share of its county allotment to all charter schools that serve Mecklenburg students.  This year CMS got $356.6 million from the county and must pass along money for just over 10,800 charter students.

In a recent report to the N.C. Office of Charter Schools,  StudentFirst said it gets $74,780 a month in local money for just under 300 students enrolled there.

Paying back the debt,  which includes bank loans and overdue bills to vendors,  wouldn't force the county to pay StudentFirst extra.  Instead,  the payment plan would eat into the money available to pay for the education of next year's students.  The StudentFirst board has already cut back staff and sacrificed many of the academic extras that were promised so they can bring spending under control.

The state advisory board has given StudentFirst's board until April to present a detailed financial and academic recovery plan. Based on that,  the advisory board will decide whether to recommend that the N.C. Board of Education revoke the charter or let StudentFirst remain open.

County Commissioner Bill James agreed that he'd like to protect county money  --  "I am generally in favor of oversight for everyone,  even CMS"  --  but voiced skepticism that the current system allows that.

Clarke said he expects county and CMS officials to continue talks about oversight of charter schools and local spending.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Tenure resolution on CMS board agenda

A resolution asking the General Assembly to defer its controversial  "25 percent plan"  so Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools can craft its own plan for teacher pay and contracts is on tonight's school board agenda.

The request seeks a reprieve from the mandate to choose 25 percent of teachers who meet requirements for experience and job ratings to receive four-year contracts and $500-a-year raises.  Instead,  CMS will ask lawmakers to save the money designated for the first year's raises and combine it with additional state money for a revamped pay scale and contract plan to be designed by CMS.

It's a less confrontational approach than that taken by Guilford and Durham counties,  which have voted to take the state to court to block the 25 percent plan.

Teachers applaud Wake's vote
Wake County's board drew a large, enthusiastic crowd of teachers and supporters when it passed a resolution last week seeking repeal of the law.  The resolution didn't appear on the CMS agenda until Monday,  so it's unclear how much audience response this one will draw.  But there's still time to sign up for the three-minute public comment period;  call 980-343-5139  by noon or sign up on site before the meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. at the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Irwin mom: This isn't good enough

A parent voicing concern about test scores isn't unusual,  but Colette Forrest's email grabbed my attention.

She was writing about Irwin Academic Center,  a magnet for gifted students and other children whose parents want them to learn from techniques developed for the most talented kids.  The school  (formerly at Villa Heights)  routinely tops most Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools on test scores and is generally viewed as a haven of high achievement for students of all races.  Just before Forrest emailed school board members and other elected officials,  Irwin received a national magnet school award.

But Forrest was up in arms about a state report card showing that 67.5 percent of Irwin's black students and 54.5 percent of its Hispanic students had passed both reading and math exams last year,  compared with more than 95 percent of white students.

"That is not acceptable!"  Forrest wrote.  She said she had raised the issue at a PTA meeting,  volunteering to reach out to minority parents whose children are struggling and suggesting that the school recruit mentors from groups that have a record of helping such students.

Forrest said her own 6-year-old son is testing well above grade level.  But she can't accept failure for his classmates:  "I will do whatever I can for ALL the kids at Irwin, because it is NOT just about my African-American son, but ALL children MUST succeed and yes, especially his fellow African-American peers."

When I started covering education more than a decade ago, I was taken aback by what seemed to be a double standard:  Scores that would barely rate as adequate for schools with mostly white and affluent students were celebrated for high poverty schools populated mostly by black and Hispanic ones.  Now,  for better or worse,  I've internalized the reality that pervades public education across the country:  Those gaps are so huge and so pervasive that it's hard not to celebrate even modest progress toward closing them.  Superintendent Heath Morrison's staff recently rolled out goals for his five-year strategic plan.  One is to get black students' pass rate on reading and math exams to within 22.5 percentage points of white students' rate by 2018.  Last year that gap was 45.1 points.

By that standard,  Irwin is a resounding success.  Black students there are almost five times as likely to pass reading and math tests as black students across North Carolina.  The black-white gap at Irwin is around 30 percentage points,  but that's partly because white students did so well.  Morrison hopes to get the districtwide gap down to that level in a couple of years.

Some people will tell you that certain types of kids from certain types of families just can't or won't excel. 

Forrest isn't buying that.  She says she's the child of unmarried teen parents,  both of whom died before they turned 20.  The grandmother who raised her hadn't finished middle school,  Forrest says,  but stressed the value of education.  Forrest became her family's first college graduate.

"At 40 I had my first and only child,"  she writes,  "and now my son and I know we are poised to excel because we know our strength and it is our job to strengthen others."

Here's what strikes me:  She didn't write to public officials to say,  "You're failing my child; what are you going to do about it?"

She said,  "We're failing our children.  What can we do about it?"

Imagine what might happen if more people asked that question.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

CMS high school teachers hosed on ratings?

The irony was obvious last spring:  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools didn't trust the state's new final exams enough to count them toward high school students' grades.  But those tests were created to rate teachers,  so teachers not only had to give the exams but spend hours grading new open-ended questions.

Now the results of the teacher effectiveness ratings are in,  and they indicate something went awry in rating CMS high school teachers.

Across the state and in CMS,  more than three-quarters of all teachers met or exceeded the goal for student gains.  But when I broke that out by grade level,  more than 80 percent of teachers in CMS elementary,  middle and K-8 schools met or exceeded the goal,  compared with just over 60 percent of CMS high school teachers.

Erlene Lyde at West Charlotte

I also ran the numbers for more than 12,700 non-CMS high school teachers around the state,  and 78 percent of them met or exceeded the target.

It's possible that these numbers reveal a real shortcoming unique to CMS high school teachers.  But a handful of  teachers and principals I spoke with questioned the results on two grounds:  The validity of the tests and the fact that CMS teens knew they had no stake in scoring high.  Erlene Lyde, a West Charlotte High teacher and vice president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators,  put it most bluntly:  "Flawed data generated from flawed tests administered in flawed conditions and graded using a flawed scoring mechanism."

Thus, the perpetual challenge:  I think it's important to analyze and report on education data.  But at the same time,  you have to question what the numbers really mean.

I'm still not sure how well the EVAAS formulas from SAS Institute turn student test scores into meaningful measures of school growth and teacher value. But the EVAAS site for looking up school growth ratings is one of the best public data presentations I've seen.  It's a simple matter to look up schools and make comparisons in a number of different ways  (fellow geeks, check out the scatterplot option under comparison reports).

School growth and teacher effectiveness are both based on students'  year-to-year progress on state exams.  As you'd expect,  schools that score well on one measure are likely to look good on the other.  But they're not identical for a number of reasons.  One of them is that school growth is based only on End-of-Grade and End-of-Course exams,  while the teacher ratings include more tests.

Some of you asked excellent detail questions when those ratings first came out. I asked Jennifer Preston of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to clarify the tests used and the way student results were assigned to teachers.  Here's her report,  for those who are interested in diving deep:

  • The Department of Public Instruction and the SAS Institute were able to provide teacher-level value-added data for a pretty expansive list of grades/subjects and courses.  They are: Reading/ELA in Grades 4 – 8, Mathematics in Grades 4 – 8, Science in Grades 5 – 8, Social Studies in Grades 5 – 8, Biology, Earth/Environmental Science, Chemistry, Physics, English I, English II, English III, Algebra I/Math I, Geometry, Algebra II/Integrated Math III, World History, Civics and Economics, United States History, American History I, and American History II.  These estimates are all based on the administration of End-of-Grade assessments, End-of-Course assessments, and NC Final Exams.  North Carolina has also had a well-established Career and Technical Education assessment program for many years; teachers of more than twenty-five Career and Technical Education courses received individual value-added scores.  
  • In order to ensure that all value-added estimates are fair and valid, we do have some safeguards in place around minimum student counts.  For End-of-Grade Assessments in Science, End-of-Course Assessments. NC Final Exams, and the CTE State Assessments, teacher must be connected at least ten students and the equivalent of six "full students," defined as students with 100% instructional responsibility claimed by one teacher.  This point is most easily explained with examples.  Let's say that an Exceptional Children's teacher has claimed 20 students at 10% instructional responsibility for each one.  While the teacher is connected to ten students, he is only connected to the equivalent of two "full students" (20 students X 10% each = 2 full students). The teacher will not have a value-added score because he is connected to fewer than six "full students."  A different Exceptional Children's teacher has claimed 20 students at 50% instructional responsibility for each one.  This teacher is connected to at least ten students, and is connected to the equivalent of 10 "full students."  He will have a value-added score.  Each of the students must have at least three prior test scores (in any grade/subject or course) in order to be used in the analysis.  For End-of-Grade Assessments in English Language Arts and Mathematics (Grades 4 – 8), a teacher must be connected to six "full students," using the same terminology as described above.  These business rules are to ensure the quality of the value-added data – if a value-added estimate is calculated using a very small number of students, it's simply not valid.  While a bit complicated, these rules simply reflect the reality of teaching today – there are lots of cases in which teachers share instructional responsibility for students and work as a team to provide them with the services they need.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Project LIFT site: Hello flash, goodbye substance

While finishing a weekend story,  I added a link to the Project LIFT web site.

I routinely link to groups mentioned in articles,  but in this case,  I cringed.

Once upon a time, that site was rich with information.  It described the emergence of a philanthropic group seeking school improvements, detailed the data they used to target West Charlotte High and its feeders,  reported on big donors and outlined how the group planned to spend its money and measure success.  The contract with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools giving the private donor board unique power to help operate public schools was there as well.

Then the site got a makeover.  It is,  as you can see at a glance,  "Bold.  Innovative.  Unconventional."

It's also almost entirely free of substance.

The closest thing I found to any kind of detail about what LIFT is doing was an infographic on first-year milestones.

You can see scrolling logos of big supporters,  but nothing about how much they're kicking in or why they're doing it.  There are catchy branding slogans like "Are you #READY2LIFT?" and   "Our approach to education:  (LIFT) 5 = 903."  But if you want any details about what that means, too bad.  How are they spending money?  How are they scrutinizing results?  Who's on the board that helps run public schools?  Not there.

I should note that Project LIFT staff have consistently been helpful about answering my questions. So I asked what had happened to all the great information that used to be available to the public at a click.

Community engagement coordinator Denada Jackson said the new site was designed to be  "for all visitors and fast.  Those docs slow it down."

Hmm.  I'm no web designer,  I'm pretty sure all the moving visuals on the new site are more taxing than a few links to PDFs.

Jackson promptly sent me all the documents that I asked for.  But I still wondered:  About two years into the five-year project,  am I the only one who still wants details?  Has the public stopped asking?

"No, I get inquiries weekly from a myriad of people,"  said Denise Watts, executive director and Project LIFT zone superintendent.  She said she's going to  "determine the capacity for the website."

These are the folks who drew national attention for finding a way to link big-money private donors with the power of a large public school district.  Here's hoping they can also find a way to wed style and substance.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Check enrollment at CMS schools

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has posted official enrollment for all schools; here's where to find the numbers.

I'm seeing comments on previous posts that indicate some of you would like to discuss the balance of enrollment at individual schools,  such as Community House Middle,  which had 1,631 students at the 20th-day count in September.  I haven't had time to do any analysis or year-to-year comparison,  but I'm interested to hear thoughts.  Short answer to a question about why Community House is so much larger than nearby Robinson Middle (1,107 students):  Changing boundaries is a school board decision.

Community House is biggest middle school in CMS

Spokeswoman Kathryn Block and student placement head Scott McCully didn't have many specifics about why the total enrollment growth was less than half what the district reported in October,  based on internal reporting systems when the state's PowerSchool system wasn't working. But Block did take issue with implications that CMS was partly to blame for delays in official reporting.

Last Friday,  when the state was saying that all PowerSchool issues related to the monthly enrollment reports had been cleared up,  McCully found CMS enrollment listed in two different places on the state web site with totals that were off by thousands of students,  Block said.  That's why it took a couple more days to resolve that issue.

The state is still checking on about 8,000 students across the state whose race or ethnicity listings are in question.  Block said about 3,000 of them are in CMS,  enough to skew district and school totals.  That's why CMS is waiting until a March 14 system maintenance to run and report demographics,  she said.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Tales from another era of education

The death of Leroy  "Pop"  Miller provided a reminder of the difference great educators make, along with a glimpse of a very different era in education.

Leroy "Pop" Miller
Miller,  who made his mark at East Mecklenburg, West Charlotte and Carmel Junior High,  was long retired when I arrived in North Carolina.  His East Meck students are my contemporaries,  and the tributes they've posted evoke a time when the only controversy over paddling was who deserved it and who didn't.

"The man earned my respect, especially after a few cracks from the leather strap he carried!"  wrote Toby Brundage.

This account posted by Katherine Magnotta was especially vivid:

When Pop Miller arrived at East Meck, he came into an integrated school full of turmoil and strife. The riots were fierce. Pop came in with vision and determination in his eyes and the fully armored riot squads behind him. He took control over the school and the students.

He did not see color, he saw students that needed love, discipline and education. He brought all three. If a student got in trouble, one of the punishments was for men, to wear a shirt and tie and for a girl to wear a dress. This seemed cruel in the hippy era where conservative dress was out of place, but it did something to us that defied logic. It made us walk different, hold our head up and act like a lady or a gentleman.

He was so wise in our dealings. I remember one day four of us were caught smoking weed in the parking lot (yes we did). We were taken to Pop Miller's office, where we were lined up against the wall while he just stared at us for quite a while, no words. It seemed like eternity and all the while Pop's lips were doing the in and out pursing motion. I wanted to burst out laughing but I knew it would be the end of us all. Then all of a sudden Bubba opened his mouth and said something sarcastic to Pop and before we knew it, Pop had grabbed Bubba's jacket and whipped him with it! Back in those days, students could be spanked and disciplined. It was not a bad thing. Pop did not hurt him, but it sobered us up enough to realize Pop meant business. We all had to dress up for a week and sweep the smoking patio everyday (yes, we had a smoking patio in high school). Pop made a point to tell how wonderful we looked and to comment on what a good job we did on the patio. His punishment was always to make us better people and not to degrade us.

Leadership like what Pop Miller brought to the table is not about race, color, economic status, politics or education. Leadership like Pop came from a heart filled with a deep level of wisdom, love and respect for the fellow man/woman. Pop has left us East Eagles with wonderful memories and respect for a job well done.

The online guest book brought other memories. Juanita Craig wrote about being a  "very wild and over the top tomboy student"  at West Charlotte High in 1960.

"Speaking for many students in the Greenville community Pop really had something to deal with because we were a very special bunch,"  Craig wrote.  "When we graduated we all were model students. Thank you Pop a zillion times for being in my life. I don't know where or what I would be doing now if you hadn't sat me down in your office and let me know I didn't need to do the things I was doing to be respected."

Several women remember how Miller called all the girls his princesses:  "One thing that I always remember was his Princess speech,"  wrote Joy Greene.  "He would use it to praise you when you succeeded and to let you know your were capable of doing better if you messed up. After all. we were all his Princesses and Princes."

Pop Miller started teaching in 1945.  In 2014,  people are still telling their children and grandchildren about the life lessons he provided.  If you're a young teacher,  think about that for a moment.  For all the stress and hassles you're enduring today,  it's got to be awe-inspiring to imagine being remembered in the 2080s by students whose lives you're shaping now.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Dr. Seuss as education agitator

The U.S. Department of Education probably thought it would start a nice book chat when it celebrated Read Across America day by asking on its Facebook page what people are reading.  Instead,  it got a barrage of posts from teachers and parents protesting the Common Core standards and/or Education Secretary Arne Duncan's test-driven approach to education reform.

"I'm reading Reign of Error,  Mercedes K. Schneider's blog,  EduShyster,  Jersey Jazzman and everything else I can get my hands on that informs me as a parent to help my children escape from the pseudo-science of the corporate reform movement's nonsense curriculum," read a typical comment.

Diane Ravitch's "Reign of Error:  The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America's Public Schools" was cited by many of the 184 people who had posted as of Tuesday afternoon.  

Some got more creative.   “Race To The Top of Gates Mountain" and  “Harry Plotter:  Similarities Between the U.S. Department of Education and The Ministry of Magic,"  replied Jacob Rosecrants,  a former high school teacher.

Michael Bohr, whose Facebook page identifies him as a "contemporary insurgent,"  wrote a poem,  apparently inspired by the Dr. Seuss theme that's part of the official Read Across America event:

I am busy reading all the writings on the wall
Of which I doubt you've read any of that at all.
For if you did, I'm sure that you would probably see

That the Common Core is as bad, as bad as it can be. 

Thanks to Vivian Connell,  a former Providence High teacher who's now a lawyer working with Public Schools First NC,  for the heads-up on this entertaining thread.

Who's to blame for CMS data delay?

More than six months into the school year,  I still can't tell you the poverty level,  racial breakdown or school-by-school enrollment for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The cause of that delay has become a point of contention between state and CMS officials.

Staff at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction agree that the troubled PowerSchool rollout delayed the principals' monthly reports that normally generate that information in September or October.  CMS officials say several schools were unable to run those reports for months.

But state officials say the hold-up is no longer on their end.  On Feb. 21, spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter said all the monthly reports had been run and the state was working with districts to clean up any final errors  (a clean-up that was needed in 0.0031 percent of all monthly reports, she said).

Last Friday,  she asked if I had gotten any numbers from CMS.  "I understand that their PMRs have been run, numbers double-checked with NCDPI-CMS staff and all came up correct,"  she emailed.  "That should clear the PMR issue in PowerSchool as far as I know."

Not so fast,  says CMS.  When I prodded again for the report,  spokeswoman Kathryn Block said Scott McCully,  executive director for student placement, had uncovered  some additional concerns with the reports.  "Scott is scrubbing the numbers one last time and, barring any additional issues, we will share the information early next week,"  she said.

"Also,"  she added,  "DPI confirmed that GRS report is not functioning statewide so there is no grade, race or sex data to share at this time for any NC school district."

Huh? That has always been part of the 20th-day report released in September or October;  each school and the district as a whole is broken down by grade level and race  (poverty levels come in a separate report tallied in October).

Jeter and Philip Price, chief financial officer for DPI, say it's wrong to say there's no race/ethnicity data.  There is a quirk having to do with reconciling end-of-month enrollment with average monthly enrollment,  they say.  That will be corrected during the next system maintenance weekend,  March 14.

And the state is looking into about 8,000 students across the state who were once classified as Hispanic but are not this year.  "That would represent .0053333 percent of the student body,"  Jeter reports.

"We do not believe this is an issue that distorts the data at a specific (school districts),"  Price wrote.  "The validation is important for federal reporting. We expect other corrections as we work to complete our federal reporting requirements. All this means, we have race and ethnicity data for all our students."

Bottom line:  We have a collision of two forces here.  There's little doubt that PowerSchool has created a battery of problems for local districts.  Meanwhile,  Heath Morrison was hired as superintendent in 2012 on the heels of a series of CMS data errors that embarrassed leaders and hurt the district's credibility.  He and his staff have been wary of releasing anything that isn't also available in state records,  forestalling errors but also making it unusually difficult to get data we've all gotten used to finding at the click of a mouse.  He says he doesn't want to post numbers only to have the state make a PowerSchool adjustment that requires CMS to retract its information.

So,  as soon as I know what the numbers looked like last fall,  I'll let the rest of you know.

Then maybe we can hope to see results of the 2014-15 magnet lottery, which should be sending notification letters about now.