Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Concrete Roses looking for money to pay teachers

Two weeks after Concrete Roses STEM Academy suddenly shut down, administrators at the charter school are trying to find a way to get more money to pay teachers for their last days of work.

WBTV, the Observer's news partner, reported earlier this week that school teachers and staff were growing worried that they won't ever see their final paychecks.

Now, an email to faculty and staff at Concrete Roses provided to the Observer lays out a few ways CEO Cedric Stone is hoping to secure the money to pay teachers.

First, some financial background: The school was originally authorized by the state to spend about $479,000 based on how many students were expected to attend. As enrollment dwindled and the school failed to turn in reports of how it spent money over the summer, the state Office of Charter Schools froze Concrete Roses' access to cash.

The school had already spent $285,170, much of it on payroll. But teachers and staff at the school say they had yet to receive paychecks for the last two weeks of classes before the school's funding was cut off.

Stone's email lays out three ways he hopes to get more money to pay them:

  • Asking the Office of Charter Schools for permission to use some of the school's allotted money.
  • Selling equipment and other assets the school still has.
  • Asking Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for money based on its enrollment through the first 20 days of class
All three methods face challenges. The Office of Charter Schools had already frozen Concrete Roses' account, and was going to be clawing back money anyway had the school stayed open.

The office also told me earlier this month that the assets of the school immediately become property of the state. And CMS is dealing with its own budget challenges related to charter school projections, and isn't going to want to give money to a school that's closed.

Stone's email ends with a warning for teachers to contact him with questions, and not to call the state or the news media.

"Allow me to leave you with a biblical verse that is very dear to to me," Stone writes. "There's a verse in the bible which states 'Never bear false witness against your neighbor!' Also, please ceast [sic] all use of the school email system immediately. Thanks in advance."

Stone didn't respond to a phone message left today.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Early CMS enrollment numbers leaves questions unanswered

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools released an early count this past week of how many students are enrolled in the district, and it seems to have raised more questions than it answers.

The district reported that it had 145,112 enrolled on its 20th day, which was last Monday. That's an unofficial figure until the state Department of Public Instruction compiles numbers from every North Carolina county and publishes them all. Generally, that's sometime in October.

CMS declined to give me a demographic breakdown of the student body. The N.C. charter school office said it couldn't provide any early enrollment numbers. That leaves a few key questions open for the next month.

1) Did charter school enrollment really come in below expectations? That certainly was the implication from CMS officials at the school board meeting Tuesday. Anecdotally, we've found that several of the 11 Charlotte-area did in fact come in below their projections. 

This will mark the second year that a significant number of new charters have opened up after the state legislature lifted the long-standing cap. The 20th day figures there will show whether they're catching on or struggling.

2) Will CMS grab a larger share of the county's students? Hand in hand with that, the official numbers will help show what the new charter schools will do to the CMS "market share." That refers to the percentage of students in the county attend the public school system as opposed to private schools or charters.

As of last year, CMS lagged behind several other major urban districts in North Carolina, according to figures published by Wake County business group Wake Education Partnership this past week.

About 79.1 percent of students in Mecklenburg County attended CMS, compared with 10.8 percent in private schools, 6 percent in charters and 4.1 percent home schools.

CMS had a smaller market share than the public school systems in Wake, Forsyth and Guilford counties, but exceeded that of Durham County.

That's below the goal the district set out for itself. Last year, CMS projected it would hold an 81 percent market share through 2021. That was a key provision of their capital need projections.

On the flip side, CMS has more students this year than those projections called for the district to have. They were counting on 144,209 in that plan.

3) Where are the new students? I'm also after a school-by-school enrollment breakdown that will show us where in the county the biggest jumps occurred. A number of readers have also asked me whether an influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America is a part of the unexpectedly high enrollment numbers this year. Yes, Charlotte has hundreds of children coming to the city from those areas.

CMS does not verify the immigration status of children looking to enroll. Some groups will use the number of English as a Second Language students as a rough approximation of immigration. CMS would not provide a number of ESL students this year, deferring to the official report.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Schools boost PTA membership through student fees

Parents generally have to lay out money for their children at the start of the year in school fees. Some schools are taking the opportunity to boost membership in the parent-teacher organization at the same time.

I'm not sure how widespread the practice is in CMS, but I've come across at least a handful of cases where schools have combined locker, planner and PTA charges into a single fee marketed to parents before classes begin.

Bailey Middle School, for example, sent an email to parents reminding them to send a $20 check to school with their kids for the student fee, covering locker fee, agenda and a PTA membership.

Doing it that way gets results. At Huntersville Elementary, the new $15 "Back To School Bundle" included a planner, logo magnet and PTA membership. It boosted membership in the parent-teacher organization from 372 to 632 this year, according the group's website.

Of course, parents aren't forced to pay the PTA fee if they vehemently don't want to join. But when it's bundled together, it's hard to say no. At Huntersville Elementary, only 67 parents declined to join.

Perhaps this is a good way to get more parents involved in the school. But I've already gotten a few messages from parents who don't like the way it's all marketed together.

I'll expect more thoughts from parents in the comments.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Some teachers concerned about security at Olympic High

Olympic High School has lost its security guards this year, sparking some concern among teachers about safety at the school.

Every middle and high school in the district is assigned a school resource officer. Schools often are also assigned some of the district's 110 "security associates," who aren't sworn officers but are in charge of protecting the campus.

I asked Randy Hagler, head of the CMS Police Department, about the change in security guard staffing at Olympic. He acknowledged that two security guards had been moved out of Olympic High but said it's because the school already has many more administrators than is normal. Because the high school is technically a community of five schools, it has five principals and five deans of students that can help out if a situation arises.

I've also heard from a few people close to the school who asked not to be named to protect employment. They said the moves have put the responsibility on teachers to handle violence that arises.

Olympic isn't a particularly violent school. Of its five schools, only one of them had a violent crime rate that exceeded the district and state averages. The other four fell significantly below.

But that doesn't mean incidents don't happen.

Earlier this month, a teacher at Olympic sustained a serious injury while breaking up a fight that occurred on campus.

According to police reports, Paul Hamilton was punched in the face while intervening in a mid-day altercation between what appears to be a student and someone who was not enrolled there (the aggressor was charged with trespassing as well as assault). Details on what specifically transpired are scarce in the report.

Hamilton was treated in the emergency room and released.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Two from CMS named to state commission on Common Core

Two Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrators have been included on the final 11-person team that will review what North Carolina will do with Common Core standards, the state said Tuesday.

The state legislature set up the Academic Standards Review Commission as a sort of compromise on what to do with the controversial standards. Plenty of legislators wanted to do away with the Common Core, and the N.C. House passed a bill that would not let any of the current standards be considered. The final outcome is a group that will study the standards and come up with a recommendation for a rewrite.

The final list of who's to serve was just released this week. From CMS: Deputy superintendent Ann Clark and Project LIFT zone supervisor Denise Watts.

Their appointments at least indicates that the outcome of the commission might not be predetermined. Superintendent Heath Morrison and other administrators in CMS have been on the record about supporting the Common Core standards.

A few other members have been upfront with their opposition to the standards. Retired math professor John Scheik, for example, told N.C. Policy Watch that he thinks they include "ludicrous" methods of teaching.

The group will meet for the first time Monday up in Raleigh. Here's the full list of appointments, courtesy of the N.C. Department of Administration. I've added in parentheses a brief description of how they ended up on the list.

House Appointments

Tammy Covil, New Hanover (New Hanover County school board member)

Dr. Jeffrey Isenhour, Catawba (principal of Bunker Hill High School in Claremont)

Katie Lemons, Stokes (South Stokes High School teacher)

Denise Watts, Mecklenburg

Senate Appointments

Ann B. Clark, Iredell

Dr. Laurie McCollum, Rockingham (assistant principal, Western Rockingham Middle)

Jeannie A. Metcalf, Forsyth (Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board member)

Dr. John T. Scheik, Wake (retired UNC math professor)

State Board of Education Members

Chairman William “Bill” Cobey, Durham

Dr. Olivia Oxendine, Robeson

Gubernatorial Appointment
Andre Peek, Wake (IBM executive and leader of the N.C. Business Committee for Education)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Parents pushing for partial magnets as schools reopen

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to re-open two elementary schools next year, and parents who live in both areas are pushing to create new partial magnet schools there.

Both cases center around fast-growing areas of Charlotte that are drawing more high-income families, but are districted to schools with a large percentage of low-income students. Partial magnets take kids from the immediate area as a home school and then have lottery spots for the magnet program.

Oakhurst Elementary, at Monroe and Commonwealth Avenues, was closed in 2011 as CMS sorted through massive budget cuts. The district will re-open the school in the fall of 2015. That's sent parents in three nearby neighborhoods in front of the school board over the past month -- including a half dozen at Tuesday night's meeting.

Chantilly, nestled between the Elizabeth and Plaza Midwood neighborhoods, has rapidly gentrified and become what real estate agents call "highly desirable" in the last few years. Homes currently listed for sale there are going for $500,000 or more. The Commonwealth/Morningside area is just across Independence from there, and the Oakhurst neighborhood is to the east. Homes on the market there are in the $300,000s range.

The neighborhood is home to Chantilly Montessori, a tiny magnet school. The area is districted to Billingsville Elementary, which was made up of 95.5 percent economically disadvantaged students last school year, per CMS data. The school also performed well below the district and state average on End of Grade tests.

The parents from the area who spoke at the meeting said they and their neighbors don't find that a good option.

"Parents win the (magnet) lottery, go to private school, or move away," said Scott Thomas, who lives in Commonwealth Morningside and is the father of boys aged 2 and 3. "At this point, they have no good options of schools to attend."

One parent, Lyndsey Kenerley, said she gave Billingsville a chance and then sent her child to a charter school. "We just need a great neighborhood school back."

The answer, they said, is to re-open Oakhurst Elementary as a partial magnet with a science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) program.

Parents near Huntingtowne Farms Elementary had a similar story. Starmount Elementary is set to re-open next year as well, and the Huntingtone Farms parents want their school switched a partial magnet with a STEAM program as well.

Huntingtowne Farms was 85.5 percent economically disadvantaged last year. Montclaire Elementary, also in the area, was 92 percent economically disadvantaged.

Erin Pushman told the board that the concentration of poverty was a negative both for low-income children and the more affluent children at the school.

"It is not an issue of our children and their children, of us and them. This is an issue for everyone," she said. "The stakes are high. All children at Huntingtowne Farm are at risk."

The board didn't respond directly to any of the comments. I spoke with Scott McCully, executive director of student placement at CMS, after the meeting.

He said the district still has a community meeting or two left to go before any decisions start being made. A potential STEAM program at Oakhurst has come up in some of these meetings that have already been held.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Steps forward and back in high school graduation rates

CMS celebrated its increasing graduation rate this week. It hit a new high at 85.2 percent, edging out the state of North Carolina as a whole and Wake County.

It wasn't until the next day that the school-by-school numbers came out, and as you'd expect there's both good news and not-as-good news.

  • Hawthorne High near uptown Charlotte had the biggest leap in graduation rate, to 90.6 percent from 65.9 percent the year before. The school is a bit of an unusual case, though. For years, Hawthorne was an alternative school. CMS decided last year to turn it into a medical science academy magnet school, and brought in some new students this year in that program. The graduating classes each year are also exceedingly small: only 29 students this year.
  • Lincoln Heights Academy posted the lowest graduation rate at 66.7 percent. It's a school designed for students with behavioral issues. You can't compare this year's rate with past performance, however. The school was formerly known as Lincoln Heights Elementary, and only re-opened with high school students in 2011. That means a full class of seniors hadn't come through until this year.
  • West Charlotte High posted another sizable increase in its graduation rate year, moving from 71.1 percent to 78 percent. The school made headlines last year by jumping 15 points in a single year. It's still the lowest graduation rate among high schools with a traditional population, however.
  • Fifteen schools had graduation rates above 90 percent, just more than half of the 29 total schools with reported figures.
  • Seven schools had graduation rates above 95 percent this year, which is the cut-off point where the state no longer gives a specific figure but instead just reports that the graduation rate was somewhere above that line. Ardrey Kell, Mallard Creek, Northwest School of the Arts, and Providence were repeats from last year. The Military and Global Leadership Academy and the Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology were new entrants on the list. The Performance Learning Center fell off the list, coming in at 93.2 percent this year.
  • Garinger High took the biggest step back this year, falling from 92.2 percent to 87.6 percent. 
Here's a full table I compiled, for your perusal:

Ardrey Kell High> 95> 95
Butler High91.893.4
Cato Middle College High> 95> 95
East Mecklenburg High83.583.8
Garinger High87.692.2
Harding University High87.687.6
Hawthorne High90.665.9
Hopewell High87.586.5
Independence High88.684.4
Lincoln Heights Academy66.7n/a
Mallard Creek High> 95> 95
Military and Global Leadership Academy> 9592.6
Myers Park High91.385.6
North Mecklenburg High92.388
Northwest School of the Arts> 95> 95
Olympic High - Biotech Health Pub Admin88.585
Olympic High - Intl Study, Global Econ8576.2
Olympic High - Renaissance School91.583.8
Olympic High -Intl Bus and Comm Studies82.585.5
Olympic High-Math Eng Tech Science92.893
Performance Learning Center93.2> 95
Phillip O Berry Academy of Technology> 9591.8
Providence High> 95> 95
Rocky River High88.992.6
South Mecklenburg High90.888
Vance High84.281.3
West Charlotte High7871.1
West Mecklenburg High8577.4
William Amos Hough High92.492.2