Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Gorman Show goes off the air

Since WTVI's "Final Edition" ended, I've always been surprised when people say they saw me on TV. Turns out quite a few folks watch Superintendent Peter Gorman's weekly news conferences on CMS-TV.

Not anymore. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board voted to eliminate the station with the start of the 2010-11 budget year tomorrow. This morning the departing staff was busy packing up equipment. For the first time since Gorman arrived in 2006, he talked to a crew that didn't include his own TV station.

Gorman wasn't sure what people will see on Channel 3 now -- at one point he'd joked about putting school board meetings on a continuous loop.

The first fresh material will come at the school board's regular meeting July 27 (the board takes a summer break earlier in the month). It'll be filmed by the crew that does all meetings in the Government Center, and will continue to air on Channel 3 for now. Eventually, Gorman said, CMS will have to relinquish the channel.

A week before that, the school board will start another round of special meetings focused on changes in student assignment and related topics for 2011-12. The budget doesn't include money to record those meetings, so they won't be on the air or streamed on the Internet.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Big voice for CMS magnets

Only about 1 in 8 students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools attend magnets. But from the turnout at four public forums on student assignment, you might think it was the other way around.

The discussion group on magnets was so consistently in demand that officials joked about charging admission. Last night at Hopewell High, a neighborhood school in Huntersville, 90 of approximately 200 people squeezed into the room where magnets were discussed. That compares with 22 who gathered to talk about schools close to home. (Read CMS summaries of the first three forums here; the Hopewell notes will be posted soon).

Magnet families have a reputation for being passionate and organized. They've already prepared spreadsheets for the school board to argue their case that the cost of magnets is relatively low, and the benefits great.

There's another factor at work: Nothing mobilizes a crowd like anger. And magnet families got a big poke in the eye this spring, with a cost-cutting move that eliminates neighborhood bus stops for 11 popular magnets in the coming year. CMS heard plenty of complaints about that at the forums.

But officials have also heard from people who worry that the success of magnets comes at the expense of neighborhood schools. For instance: Magnets with admission requirements have seen test scores rise, while the weaker students land in neighborhood schools.

I saw both sides of that coin when I recently spent time at Bishop Spaugh Academy, a low-performing neighborhood middle school on Charlotte's west side. Teachers there used magnet admission to motivate kids to work for success. Pass your eighth-grade exams, they told students, and you can get into Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology or Harding's IB and math/science programs.

This year Spaugh saw gains in students passing reading, math and science exams -- clearly a good result for a neighborhood school.

But the eighth-grade promotion program indicated that virtually every student who passed all exams was also admitted to a magnet. That means the roughly three-quarters who failed one or more subject will head to West Meck or West Charlotte, neighborhood high schools also working hard to boost performance.

That's the challenge, as the board goes into this afternoon's four-hour meeting to set priorities. There's strong agreement that all student assignment policies should boost academic success. Figuring out how to make that work for all schools won't be easy.

(Note if you're going: It's from 1-5 p.m. today at the Education Center, 701 E. Martin Luther King Blvd., not at the Government Center where previous sessions have been.)

Friday, June 25, 2010

Door-buster in Huntersville?

Will 500 people pack into Hopewell High's auditorium tonight to tell the school board what they think about student assignment?

That's what one of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools organizers is predicting. If true, that would be by far the biggest turnout, after three forums that have already shattered skeptics' predictions that the summer doldrums (and vacations) would keep the public from getting engaged.

That forecast could be on target. The north suburbs have a longstanding love-hate relationship with CMS. Remember the 2005 "split up CMS" movement that drew hundreds to talk about seceding from a district they saw as driven by an uptown Charlotte bureaucracy? Plus, some residents are still smarting from a recent boundary vote that will bring drastic change to North Mecklenburg High in August.

Check details about tonight's forum here.

Meanwhile, board members are trying to keep up with a flood of ideas from last week's three sessions. Paul Yeh, who attended Thursday's forum at South Meck, sent a list of questions and suggestions to board Chair Eric Davis, a fellow engineer and Wachovia employee.

Among Yeh's questions: Why isn't student achievement listed anywhere among the guiding principles the board is studying? How is input from tonight's meeting going to factor into decisions the board will start making this afternoon and wrap up on Tuesday? Will the board post a draft of any changes for the public to view before Tuesday's vote?

Davis said the comment about student achievement has been a common thread at all forums. "I expect it will be included with the (new) guiding princples, but I'm not sure how," he said.

But as for putting a draft out for review, that's expecting too much too fast, Davis said. "We asked for comments on the front end," he said. "Now we're going to use them."

Bright Beginnings: Where's the data?

I felt a flash of deja vu this week when school board member Trent Merchant pressed CMS officials for data on the kids who pioneered the district's prekindergarten program in 1998.

Two years ago, I asked similar questions for an article on the costs and results of Bright Beginnings. The biggest thing that has changed since then is the money. At the time, Bright Beginnings was costing Mecklenburg County more than $11 million a year.

An influx of federal stimulus money dropped the county's tab to about $2.6 million in the current budget year. That money goes away in 2011, reviving the debate over long-term benefits.

The first Bright Beginnings tots will graduate from high school next year, if they've stayed on track and been promoted every year. Thing is, no one seems to know if they have, or how they've fared.

It's worth noting that neither Peter Gorman nor any of the current board was running CMS when then-Superintendent Eric Smith launched Bright Beginnings.

I was covering children's issues for the Observer, so I remember the back-and-forth with child-care providers, who said they could provide good pre-K services for less money. Smith insisted that CMS could do it best, maintaining the quality to produce long-term results and monitoring to prove it.

Smith left Charlotte in 2002, and the monitoring faded away. That may or may not have had anything to do with the fact that the edge the Bright Beginnings kids showed when they entered kindergarten was also fading as they moved through elementary school.

Gorman told Merchant and the board that it's difficult to prove or disprove any benefits from pre-K so many years down the road, with so many other factors shaping each student's academic path.

Fair enough.

But it's also worth noting that the very first document posted for the CMS review of pre-K is a national projection saying each dollar spent on high-quality pre-K nets $7 in savings, based on better results that run through adulthood.

And that CMS has run similar cost-benefit saying each Bright Beginnings dollar saves taxpayers $2 to $3 in long-term costs, based on the assumption they're more likely to graduate and get jobs. A CMS projection that included reduced crime shot the savings to $15 for every dollar spent.

Which raises a question: If officials say a year of good prekindergarten produces adults who stay off welfare and out of jail, shouldn't those officials track whether it produces successful middle- and high-school students?

Welcome to Your Schools

An education blog is long overdue in Charlotte. I've held off, not for lack of interest or material, but for fear that a blog would be one more plate than I could keep spinning.

What changed my mind?

I figure if the school board is crazy enough to think they can reinvent Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in a few months, I'm just neurotic enough to tackle one more thing.

I'm joking about the "crazy" part. Sort of.

I'm not sure whether Eric Davis and his crew can wrangle meaningful change out of the stampede of ideas and emotions that's emerging.

I'm pretty sure they'll tick off a lot of folks, no matter what they do.

But I believe they're sincere when they say they want to listen to regular people. Even in the first week, there have been stumbles. But the leaders seem willing to dust themselves off and try something different.

Hundreds of people have already turned out to give CMS an earful. Some are boosters, some skeptics.

Uncounted others are keeping tabs and weighing in by other means.

That's not just nice. It's vital.

Because no one who's trying to keep up with the entire school district -- not the superintendent and his staff, not board members, not journalists -- knows all they need to know about life in the classrooms and neighborhoods that will be shaped by the change that's looming.

That's where you come in.

CMS posted a truckload of data in preparation for the ongoing study.

This week staffers added even more.

It's a prime chance for citizen watchdogs and advocates to step up and shape decisions.

Let me know what you're thinking. And I'll keep you posted on what I know.