Friday, December 21, 2012

Threepeat for Gaston teachers

A band director from Gaston County Schools has been named Teacher of the Year for the Charlotte region, the third straight year that district has claimed the title,  the Gaston Gazette reports.

Julian Wilson,  band director at Gastonia's York Chester Middle School,  will represent the Southwest region when the state teacher of the year is named this spring.  That region includes Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the city of Kannapolis and Anson, Cabarrus, Cleveland, Lincoln, Stanly and Union county districts.

Wilson follows a teacher from Gaston's Forestview High School last year and one from the district's Woodhill Elementary the year before that.  Gaston County Schools,  a district less than one-fourth the size of CMS,  claimed the regional prize four of the nine years listed on the state Teacher of the Year web site  (the CMS teacher topped the region once, in 2004-05).  This year makes five of 10 for Gaston (the state hasn't posted the latest winners yet).

So what's going on across the river?  With the holidays looming,  I couldn't find anyone at the state available to discuss the competition on Thursday.  Ironically,  Gaston tends to look pretty bad on test-score comparisons with the rest of the Charlotte region.

But the teacher honors aren't based on numbers. According to the site,  the selection committees look for candidates who are  "dedicated, highly skilled (and) proven capable of inspiring students of all backgrounds and abilities to learn,"  as well as  "poised,  articulate and energetic."

All contests are a bit arbitrary,  and I suspect many teachers in all the competing districts meet that definition.  But clearly Gaston teachers deserve a salute.  In this competition,  they've become the powerhouse to beat.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Choice and charters

Once holiday shopping ebbs, some families start school shopping for 2013-14.  Charlotte Parent magazine has released its annual Education Guide,  which contains listings on private,  charter and district schools in the Charlotte region.  You can find it online or free in boxes around town.  State report cards offer more details about public schools.

The charter-school boom in North Carolina and the Charlotte region is creating some challenges this year.  The 25 new charters that got preliminary approval earlier this year  (including seven in or near Mecklenburg County)  won't get a final vote from the state Board of Education until March.  Eddie Goodall of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association says that's creating problems because those schools can't admit students or sign contracts for staff or buildings until they're actually chartered.

Joel Medley of the N.C. Office of Charter Schools says next year the final charter vote will be moved up to January,  but yes,  the schools opening in 2013 do have to wait until March.  While the schools can't do formal admissions in January and February,  when the CMS magnet lottery and many private-school admissions are going on,  they can take letters of intent to apply.

There's another important twist for people hoping to open charters in fall 2014:  Applications are due March 1,  2013,  but there's a new requirement that prospective applicants must file a brief letter of intent by Jan. 4, 2013.  Miss that deadline,  and the application will be deferred for a year.

Medley says his office is still working on all the new requirements that are a spin-off from the General Assembly's decision to lift the cap on charters.  His advice:  If you're considering a charter school application,  keep monitoring the state web site for details.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

See you on the other side

The Observer launches its online pay wall  --  excuse me, the Observer Plus digital package --  on Wednesday.  Some of you have said that will end your relationship with and this blog.

I hope that's not true for most of you,  and not just for financial reasons.  If you care enough to read Your Schools,  you're part of the dialogue about education in the Charlotte region.

I launched this blog in July 2010,  as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools began its Comprehensive Review of Something They Couldn't Quite Define. I believed  (correctly, as it turned out)  that process would generate far more data,  news and discussion points than we could handle in print.

Pretty quickly,  I realized this forum would be more of a discussion group than a lecture series.  Since its debut,  there have been more than 893,000 page views and almost 15,400 comments.

"Boo! CMS stinks and so do you!"
Sometimes the negative tone gets me down.  As I recently told a Providence High journalism class,  on bad days the online comments remind me of the old hecklers in the Muppet Show.

But the good stuff outweighs that. Comments on this blog have helped me break important news on testing, technology and personnel changes.  I'll always remember live-blogging from Peter Gorman's January 2011 announcement that he planned to cut 1,500 jobs,  with readers sending me crucial data that CMS had emailed to employees but "forgotten" to include in the media handouts.

More recently, a reader tipped me off that there would be no retesting on state exams this year. The comment implied I was an idiot for not already knowing that.  But you know what?  Good information delivered with a sour tone is still good information. The result was a well-read follow-up post.

You challenge me  --  and each other -- on sensitive and painful topics.  But we also have fun.  After all,  the regulars include a guy who uses Looney Tunes aliases and a woman who showed up at a school board meeting dressed as a cow.  If you missed it,  it's worth scrolling to the bottom of the comments on a post last week to see a tongue-in-cheek collection drive to keep Wiley Coyote online and an extended riff on what it might be like to get your education news from CMS and the (now defunct) Rhino Times.

About those options.  Here's my view on the alternatives,  with no pretense that it's unbiased.

You can get education news free from the broadcast folks,  but you'll lose a lot of depth and detail.

You can rely on CMS'  beefed-up efforts to spread the word on itself.  Terry Abbott,  the consultant who just did a communications study for the district,  has urged school districts to use  "the slow death of great American newspapers"  to take control of education coverage.  With due respect to Abbott (and Monty Python),  we're not dead yet,  and I don't think that's an option most readers will settle for.

You can create your own blogs to air your opinions.  Or you can find an existing one that suits your views,  whether that's the conservative Pundit House or Pamela Grundy's "Seen from the 'Rock."  But you won't get the audience or the diversity of opinions that the Observer pulls together.

After almost 11 years of keeping an eye on CMS,  I think I bring a pretty good value to the party.  I know you readers do too.  So here's hoping we'll stay together to ring in another interesting year.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The value of volunteers

The volunteers from New Charlotte Church crowded the library at Greenway Park Elementary  --  and they're only one of 17 groups supporting the southeast Charlotte school.  On Tuesday,  when Superintendent Heath Morrison invited reporters to the school to showcase partnerships,  the church volunteers were distributing new coats and shoes to every student.

Kindergartners get shoes and coats
As Greenway Park shows,  Morrison isn't starting from zero in his quest to build partnerships with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  But a strong support network often depends on a principal with the time and skill to cultivate it,  and/or outsiders with ties to a school and resources they want to share.  Morrison says he wants LaTarzja Henry,  the new assistant superintendent in charge of partnerships,  to get a clearer idea of which schools have needs and what the community has to offer.

Paula Rao said she inherited half a dozen partnerships when she became principal at Greenway Park last year. She sought out others  --  for instance,  asking residents of Carriage Club,  a nearby retirement community,  to volunteer as reading buddies  -- and other groups came to her.  When a school welcomes volunteers and puts them to good use, "it's kind of a snowball effect,"  Rao said.

New Charlotte Church alone has provided books,  food,  school supplies and clothing for students  (more than three-quarters of the roughly 600 kids come from low-income homes).  Volunteers read with children and provide support to the faculty.

When former Superintendent Peter Gorman launched his own partnership push about six years ago,  he talked about finding ways to measure the academic benefit of volunteer efforts.  That never materialized,  and Morrison said he's not sure it's possible.  It's one thing to establish that students are making gains  (even that may prove challenging this year,  with all the new testing)  but another to prove that any one effort caused them.  "The direct contribution to increased student performance,  that's difficult,"  Morrison said.

Still,  Rao is certain volunteers are making a difference at Greenway Park.  One example:  After she matched some of her struggling students with mentors,  the number of students being sent to the office for discipline problems dropped from 100 a month to 23,  she said.

Chris Payne,  pastor of New Charlotte Church,  didn't seem to feel a need to have numbers attached to the church's work.  The church's mission is to change the city,  he said,  and working with children is a particularly joyful way to do it.

"Each one of us is never more alive than when we serve,"  Payne said.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Testing transformed

Imagine a third-grader taking a math exam.

First she watches a short video about barnacle collectors and the hazards they face. Next she reads a handout about people who collect barnacles, king crab, honey and alligators -- jobs that expose workers to risks ranging from hypothermia to gator attacks.  The handout includes the working season, the average amount collected per day and the per-pound reward for each job.

The first question seems easy enough: Given the earnings by midday for each collector -- ranging from $120 for crab to $690 for alligator -- figure out how much each collector must earn to reach $1,000.

Next, she's told that on a bad day, each collector gathered only 2 pounds.  "Did they make more than $500 altogether? Show how you know."

Then she must estimate the total earned for one pound of each product -- first by rounding the per-pound prices to the nearest 10,  then to the nearest hundred.  "Which estimate is most accurate?  How do you know?"

Finally, she must choose one of the collecting jobs and create a postcard to persuade her parents that this job is the best choice. She must compare the number of days worked,  the earnings and the risks,  and draw a picture of herself doing the job.

If you're thinking this is nothing like the state exams you've seen or heard of,  that's precisely the point.

North Carolina,  like most of the nation,  is trying to transform teaching and testing.  Lessons are supposed to move beyond rote work and put skills to use in challenging,  real-life contexts.  Tests are being designed to supplement multiple-choice questions with short answers,  essays and  "performance tasks."

The example above is a sample performance task created by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teachers.  It's designed to test third-graders' ability to round whole numbers,  add and subtract,  model with math,  conduct viable arguments and critique others' reasoning.  Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark presented it to the school board Tuesday to give them an idea of what N.C. testing may eventually look like.  (I've condensed from a seven-page handout she gave them,  so it may have lost something in my translation.)

One challenge is obvious:  An item like this is much harder to grade than a bubble-sheet that can be whipped through a computer scanner.

Another is more subtle:  Many students are weaker in reading than math,  so they may struggle with math problems that require extensive reading and writing.

State and local officials are still sorting through a range of issues related to the new testing this year,  including what it will take for local districts to score them and how the delayed results will affect students.  Superintendent Heath Morrison said he hopes to have answers ready for families soon.

This year looks like a rocky road,  but the destination is intriguing.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Rallying around Billingsville

There's a quest afoot to rally families in the Commonwealth Morningside neighborhood to send their children to struggling Billingsville Elementary, according to this article forwarded by reader Jeff Sawyers.

Amy Hawn Nelson of the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute writes about the  "save our school"  effort in the context of neighborhood revitalization.  The neighborhood between Central Avenue and Independence Boulevard in east Charlotte has something in common with many others in Charlotte's urban belt:  Desirable homes and undesirable neighborhood schools.

Billingsville Elementary is caught in an all-too-familiar cycle:  It has a history of low academic performance,  which means families with choices opt for magnets, charters or private schools.  More than 95 percent of its students are nonwhite and from low-income families,  some of them homeless or recent refugees.  That increases the academic challenges and decreases the likelihood that middle-class or white families will send their kids.

Neighborhood organizer Michelle Estrada Abels is trying to break that cycle  --  in part because the demise of No Child Left Behind in North Carolina means families will no longer have a guaranteed placement in a higher-performing school, according to Nelson's article.  Abels has created Charlotte Neighbors for Education to lobby Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to add a magnet program that might attract residents with the assurance of a challenging education for high-performing students.

It's tough to get families back to a school that's perceived as failing.  Abels is pinning her hopes on a similar campaign that brought significant changes at Shamrock Gardens Elememtary,  which I recently reported on.

One thing is clear:  The group's timing is good.  Superintendent Heath Morrison is talking about bringing school leaders and neighborhoods together to make public schools more competitive.  It's a smart time for neighbors across Mecklenburg to be thinking about what improvements they'd like to see and talking about what they can do to help.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

CMS board's leadership vote looms

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will decide today whether to keep Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Mary McCray in the chair and vice chair posts.

It was just one year ago that the two at-large members were sworn in,  both fresh from first-ever political campaigns,  and won those positions.  Speculation that the leadership switch was a preview of sweeping change for CMS hasn't panned out.  Whether you view it as cause for celebration or dismay,  the board has stuck with the core beliefs that were in place a year ago.  Members are now working with Superintendent Heath Morrison to get a lot of public advice before revising the district's strategic plan in August 2013.

Early on, Ellis-Stewart's take-charge style and the new dominance of Democrats on the board raised some hackles among the board's non-Democrats. Since then the whole crew has been working with consultants to understand everyone's strengths, challenges and leadership styles and move forward as a team.

The annual board leadership vote may provide an interesting checkpoint on how the nine individuals are meshing,  but we probably won't see it.  Jockeying for chair and vice chair traditionally takes place behind the scenes.  Board members are being characteristically tight-lipped this year;  the few who took my calls didn't have much to say.

Who bangs the gavel -- and especially who holds the vice chairmanship -- means more to board members than it does to the average citizen.  But how well the members work together is significant.

It's worth noting that in the past year,  the school board has demonstrated less drama and conflict than the Mecklenburg County commissioners or the Charlotte City Council.  They came together to hire Morrison and persuaded county commissioners to kick in money for a 3 percent staff raise.  They've started taking some of their meetings on the road in an effort to be more accessible,  and they'll tackle another round of extensive public meetings in 2013.

How that will play out in the leadership vote I can't predict.  My guess is Ellis-Stewart will want to stay at the helm;  the agenda also includes a vote on supporting her nomination as a national steering committee member for the Council of Urban Boards of Education.  You can tune in at 6 p.m. online or on CMS-TV Cable 3.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Competition and common ground

Can leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, private schools and charter schools in the Charlotte area find common ground that will help students?

CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison has asked the heads of the other schools to start exploring that question at a Tuesday meeting, which isn't open to the public or press.  The goal is to have something to report publicly in January, Chief Communications Officer Kathryn Block said Friday. She says Morrison invited about 45 school leaders and 31 had confirmed attendance as of last last week.

Morrison, who started in July, is trying to strike a balance.  When he rolled out his vision for CMS recently, he made it clear he wants his schools to compete and win back students who are opting for other alternatives.  He says he caught flak from some charter-school supporters after the CMS board unveiled a legislative agenda that includes asking lawmakers to give local school boards,  rather than the state Board of Education, the authority to issue charters to independent groups that run the publicly-funded schools.  But Morrison blames an Observer headline that referred to CMS seeking "control over charters" for creating that friction.

Morrison says being competitive doesn't have to mean being at odds:  "It’s competition, but it’s good competition."

Block said she anticipates more than one meeting before the group is ready to announce anything.

Read more here:

Friday, December 7, 2012

Preaching, teaching and race

Imagine you're trying to create standards for effective preaching.

You watch a Southern black Baptist preacher engage his congregation with a sermon that relies on rhythm, gesture, emotion and humor as much as words. He expects and encourages his members to call out in response.

You also watch a white Episcopal minister deliver an intellectual, tightly-structured sermon with little humor or emotional tone. His congregation raptly follows his words, but doesn't respond aloud.

Which is most effective? There's no one answer,  according to Lisa Delpit,  who offers an extended analogy between preachers and teachers in her book "Other People's Children:  Cultural Conflict in the Classroom."

"Suppose we set out to evaluate and certify ministers nationally,"  she writes.  "(W)hat could we do with the plethora of cultural styles of preaching?  Can we try to evaluate,  for example,  Bishop Sheen,  Billy Graham,  and Reverend Ike  (a Southern black Baptist minister)  within the same conceptual construct?  Or would we be better off asking what good preaching looks like in different cultural settings and for different audiences?  After all,  Bishop Sheen would not be much of a hit in most black Baptist churches,  and Reverend Ike would not be likely to impress the denizens of Harvard Square."

I ordered the book after it showed up on the recommended reading list of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison. Delpit's chapter on  "Cross-cultural Confusions in Teacher Assessment" struck me as particularly helpful in trying to understand what Morrison means when he talks about the need for educators and the community to become more culturally competent.

Delpit is an African American who has spent her adult life in white-dominated academia and done research in schools for Native Alaskan children.  The book explores the differences in those three cultures and talks about the harm done to children and teachers of color when the middle-class white communication style is treated as the standard for everyone.

African American children, especially those from low-income families, are raised to be sensitive to body language and nonverbal messages.  They may be more motivated by their relationship with a teacher than by a need to achieve,  she writes.  Teachers expecting them to respond to words alone may judge these children as low achievers or behavior problems.  Teachers of color who display emotion openly or spend time trying to build relationships may be judged as out of control or disorganized,  Delpit says.

Job interviews and teacher evaluations can also be derailed by cultural differences,  Delpit writes. For instance,  Native and Anglo Americans have different patterns of storytelling,  with Native Americans expecting to take longer turns speaking,  with longer pauses in the midst of a story.  If a Native American begins an answer,  pauses and is interrupted by a white person,  both may end up frustrated.  The white person thinks the Native American has given a pointless response,  while the Native American finds the white interruption rude.

Delpit acknowledges that it's no simple task to tease out cultural differences while zeroing in on standards that are important to successful education.  But she insists we've got to do better than,  in essence,  letting Bishop Sheen's board hire the minister for Reverend Ike's congregation  -- and then blaming the congregation when it's a bad match.

"We must consciously and voluntarily make our cultural lenses apparent,"  she writes.  "Engaging in the hard work of seeing the world as others see it must be a fundamental goal for any move to reform the education of teachers and their assessment."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

CMS taps 48 to lead studies

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has named 25 community members and 23 employees to lead the task forces that will help Superintendent Heath Morrison and the school board chart the future of CMS.

A news release says CMS has already gotten hundreds of requests to take part.  Morrison wants to keep membership to about a dozen on each of the 22 panels to ensure each group can work effectively. That means some won't get a requested assignment  --  but everyone will have a chance to attend public meetings with the task forces in 2013.

District leaders plan to announce membership later this month,  with task force meetings running from January to June and helping shape the 2013-14 budget and the five-year strategic plan.

Here's who has been named to lead the groups:

*Closing the Achievement Gap:  Marian Yates, former principal of South Mecklenburg High,  and Karin Dancy,  CMS director of grant innovation.

*Extended Learning Opportunities:  Brian Collier,  senior vice president of Foundation for the Carolinas,  and Anna Renfro, CMS executive director of curriculum and support programs.  ("Extended learning" covers after-school and summer programs and the possibility of longer school days or years.)

*Early Childhood:  Anna Nelson,  a leader of the C.D. Spangler Foundation and co-chair of Project LIFT,  and Julie Babb,  CMS director of prekindergarten services.

*African American Males:  Eric Watson of Food Lion; Nick Wharton, identified by CMS as "community member;"  and Deb Kaclik,  CMS director of arts,  health and physical education.

*Limited English Proficiency Students:  Esteban Echeverria, board chairman of the Latin American Coalition,  and Kathy Meads,  CMS executive director of English as a Second Language.

*Special Education:  Gil Middlebrooks,  a former CMS parent and a lawyer who has represented CMS in special-ed cases,  and Laura Hamby,  director of exceptional children.

*Gifted Students:  Molly Griffin,  former CMS board chair and parent,  and Kathleen Koch,  CMS director of advanced studies.

*College and Career Readiness/Reverse Engineering Pathways for Success:  Bill Anderson,  former CMS principal/administrator and current executive director of MeckEd,  and Karen Thomas,  CMS executive director of student services.  (Free branding tip:  Spend the first two minutes shortening the name of this task force, folks.)

*Professional Growth System:  Tim Hurley, executive director of Teach for America's Charlotte office,  and Nicole Priestly,  executive director of CMS' central elementary zone.

*Compensation:  Bo Boylan,  a CMS parent and business consultant, and CMS program manager Jaronica Howard.

*Parent Engagement and Involvement:  Ellen Martin,  a former CMS parent who served on the now-defunct CMS Equity Committee,  and Paul Holden,  executive director of CMS' Parent University.

*Proactive Community and Faith Partnerships:  Mike DeVaul,  a CMS parent and a senior vice president of the YMCA of Greater Charlotte;  Rabbi Judy Schindler of Temple Beth El;  and Chiquita Lloyd,  administrator of the CMS minority, women and small business enterprise program.

*CMS Foundation:  Jay Everette of Wells Fargo and CMS partnership coordinator Phyllis Croutch.

Arthur Griffin
*Culture,  Engagement and Shared Values:  Former CMS board chairman Arthur Griffin,  who now works for McGraw-Hill Education;  Gwen High  (CMS did not release any information about her);  and Alvin Griffin,  CMS director of graphic production  (no, I don't know if he's related to Arthur Griffin).

*Cultural Competence Framework:  Dianne English,  executive director of the Community Building Initiative,  and Maria Petrea,  former principal of Collinswood Language Academy and current executive director of CMS' east zone.

*Accountability Framework:  Natalie English, CMS parent and senior vice president of public policy for the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce,  and Danielle Miller,  CMS director of information,  visualization and innovation.

*Process and System Improvement:  Leslie Johnson,  associate general manager for Mecklenburg County,  and Janelle Jenkins,  a Broad Fellow working for CMS.

*Choice, Alternatives and Magnets:  CMS parent Joel Gilland,  CMS magnet director Jeff Linker and CMS executive director of alternative education Lisa Barnes.

*Higher Education Partnerships:  Former CMS board chair Wilhelmenia Rembert and Kathy Elling,  executive director of CMS' southwest zone.

*Technology and Blended Learning:  Gwen Simmons,  Mecklenburg County's chief technology officer,  and Kay Hall,  CMS director of business systems.

*Public Trust,  Marketing and Branding:  Jerri Haigler,  a former CMS spokeswoman who is now a communication executive for United Way of Central Carolinas,  and CMS communications director Tahira Stalberte.

*Time,  Capital and Resource Management:  Julian Wright,  a CMS parent who once chaired the CMS Equity Committee,  and LuEllen Richard,  CMS executive director of financial services.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

No second chances on 2013 exams

There will be no second chances for students taking North Carolina's new end-of-year exams this spring.

That's not because the state has abandoned its policy of requiring students who fail the first time to try again. Peter Gorman,  former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  fought that approach when it debuted in 2009,  but state officials stuck to their guns.

This year,  though,  retesting is suspended for practical reasons:  The state won't know who failed in time to administer a second test.  Because North Carolina is revamping its tests,  the results will be delayed "to allow for the necessary statistical analyses and standard-setting process,"  says Tammy Howard of the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.  Scores won't be ready until October,  she said, well into the next school year.

That's bound to be an inconvenience for schools that use scores to assign classes in the fall.  And the lack of retesting adds to the likelihood that many schools are going to look worse on the 2013 report than they have in years.  Schools with a lot of students on the bubble have seen their pass rates surge with the addition of  students who pass on the second try.

Thanks to the anonymous commenter who tipped me off to this.  There's a huge amount of change afoot,  and I've long known that my readers who are on the front lines have the best insights.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Do you snoop your kid's phone?

If your child or teen has a smartphone, tablet or iPod,  do you check it to see how they're using the internet?

It's a question raised by Kenny Lynch, the detective in charge of investigating computer crime and complaints for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools police department.  He's also the father of a fourth-grader who doesn't have a digital device yet.  But CMS is encouraging students to bring their own technology for classroom use,  and that means more and younger students will be heading off to school with gizmos that link them to the web.

"Be that nosy parent and go into that phone,"  Lynch advised.

Most parents have pondered the threat of online predators.  But our conversation came in the context of a new state law that creates criminal penalties for students who  "cyberbully"  school employees.  Something that might seem like a clever stunt to a student  --  say, creating a bogus Facebook page for the principal,  signing a teacher up for some kind of sleazy email list or snapping an unflattering cell-phone photo and sharing it on Instagram  -- can get your child in trouble with the police,  not to mention school authorities.

A personal tip:  Don't assume only  "bad kids"  would do this kind of stuff.  I vividly remember being part of a group of eighth-grade  "brains"  who decided we were smarter than our teachers.  Breaking rules and taking risks became an adventure.  Our IQs and grades may have been impressive,  but our judgment and empathy were not.

Fortunately,  most of our schemes to prank teachers fell apart when we had to decide who would risk humiliation and punishment to carry them out.  I shudder to think what might have happened if we could have huddled around an iPad,  convinced that our superior tech knowledge would let us anonymously razz those old fogeys online.

I'd love to hear how parents are handling this.  Have you found good technological safeguards?  Can you share strategies for old-fashioned human monitoring?

And if any teens are reading,  please weigh in.  You may not be smarter than your teachers, but you understand the digital world better than most of us old fogeys.

Friday, November 30, 2012

CMS is hiring in HR

If you want to help Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools do a better job of recruiting staff and serving the folks they've got,  now's the time to put in an application.

Superintendent Heath Morrison is reorganizing the human resources department after three studies he commissioned identified that office as dysfunctional.  He announced today that will mean a number of new hires.  Among the jobs now posted are three executive directors  (salary range from about $82,000 to $105,000 a year),  a talent acquisition manager and two support team leaders ($62,000 to $79,000).

According to a news release,  the cost of new positions will be offset by cuts elsewhere.

A footnote for die-hard readers:  Despite the leadership shakeup, some traditions live on.  It's Friday afternoon and I'm waiting for school poverty numbers (already postponed by two weeks) and the leaders of the 22 new task forces.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Gorman, CMS and testing: Together again?

When Peter Gorman resigned as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last year to take a job with Rupert Murdoch's education technology company,  some people wondered how long before he'd be back as a contractor.

On Wednesday,  an announcement came out that his company has been hired to track student results from new exams being developed for North Carolina and several other states.

The threads get a bit complicated here:  Some of you will recall that under Gorman, CMS launched a new testing program designed to produce a wealth of data about what students were learning and how effective their teachers were. Gorman's vision met with resistance from many teachers and parents over the quality of the new tests and the time it took to administer them.

After Gorman left,  CMS backed away from that testing program, letting the N.C. Department of Public Instruction take the lead. North Carolina is part of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, a state-led coalition working on new exams that will be linked to the national Common Core academic standards. The state is also working on its own exams for subjects other than English and math  (see the Ready program).

On Wednesday, the consortium announced it has awarded a contract to Wireless Generation to track  results from the new exams. "The reporting system will provide student-level results from the Smarter Balanced interim and summative assessments, as well as growth data showing whether students are on track to be college- and career-ready. Reports summarizing student achievement and growth at the classroom, school, district, and state levels will also be available to authorized users,"  the news release says. (The grammar cop in me wants to whack the consortium with a billy club for shortening its name to "Smarter Balanced." Folks, you need a noun.)

Murdoch's News Corp.  (best known as the parent company of the Fox network and the source of England's phone-hacking scandals) acquired Wireless Generation shortly after hiring Joel Klein,  former chancellor of New York City schools,  Gorman and others to launch a new education division.  Wireless is part of what is now known as Amplify,  with Klein as CEO and Gorman as senior vice president for education services.

Meanwhile,  Gorman's successor,  Heath Morrison,  is rolling out his plan for CMS,  which includes better use of data,  intense focus on individual student results and better recognition of the most effective teachers. He'll be relying on the state for much of the testing and data he needs to move forward. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Longer LIFT year faces tough questions

Will some or all students in the nine Project LIFT schools have a 200-day year-round calendar next year?

Denise Watts,  who is in charge of the public-private quest to boost achievement at West Charlotte High and its feeder schools,  had hoped to answer that question this week.  It's taking a bit more time for her to craft a recommendation,  and the year-round project illustrates the challenges of juggling dramatic change,  community buy-in and fiscal responsibility.

If you missed it,  Watts proposed spending up to $4.7 million a year to add 20 days to the school year in hopes that the extra time,  coupled with smart teaching strategies and academic enrichment during breaks,  would yield academic benefits.  The state legislature granted special permission,  but specified that no state money could be spent for the extra days.

Project LIFT,  for Leadership and Investment for Transformation,  has $55 million in private donations pledged over the next five years.  But after I wrote a recent story on year-round options,  co-chair Anna Nelson called to make sure I understood the donors' board has not signed off on covering the cost either. Committing almost $25 million over the next five years would seriously crimp the money available for other aspects of the plan, from teacher recruiting bonuses to family engagement and student technology.

"We don't know where the money would come from,"  Nelson said.  "It's just a constant conversation."

One possibility would be limiting the extended-year calendar to a few schools,  which would cut costs.  Another would be working out a plan with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to find public money for part of the cost,  Nelson said.

Meanwhile,  Watts has said she'll only move forward with the year-round plan if she gets "overwhelming support"  from families and faculty.  She held several public forums in October,  then tapped CMS' agreement with K12 Insight to survey employees and families.  The survey was offered online,  but many parents used paper,  which takes more time to tally.  "Everyone on my team is entering as fast as we can go,"  Watts said Tuesday.

Her goal is to hold a community meeting to report on what she's found  -- what level of support was voiced,  what solutions she may have found to community concerns -- before taking a proposal to the school board Dec. 11.  If a revised calendar is going to take effect in 2013-14,  the board needs to approve it then so it will be in place for the January magnet lottery.

The process is worth watching,  even for those with no stake in the West Charlotte schools.  Watts is doing exactly the kind of thing Superintendent Heath Morrison is talking about across Mecklenburg County:  Taking bold steps to improve low-performing schools,  working to overcome barriers and reaching out to employees and families,  including those who don't have ready access to digital communication.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A glimpse at CMS reform details

Bummer.  I finally got Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools'  Race to the Top grant application on Friday and skim-read the massive proposal for changes at 27 schools.  Before I could write a story Monday,  the feds released a list of finalists and CMS didn't make the cut.

Iredell-Statesville and Guilford County are the only N.C. districts among the 61 remaining in the race for about $400 million in federal money, designed to prompt reform in individual districts (read a summary of the Iredell plan here).  North Carolina got a state Race to the Top grant in 2010.

Even though CMS won't get the $27.8 million it applied for, it's worth reading the plan for boosting achievement at Harding, East Meck, West Charlotte and the schools that feed them. (Here's a one-page synopsis, for those who don't want to tackle the whole thing.)  It offers some details on how Superintendent Heath Morrison may carry out plans he unveiled Monday,  such as creating personal education plans for all students,  recruiting and encouraging highly effective teachers and using technology to help the best instructors reach more students.  Among the intriguing tidbits:  Using a point system "similar to the immediate feedback received in a gaming environment" to motivate students to track and advance their own skills.

The plan also outlines a new approach to teaching math,  which would have been used at four middle schools,  and a  "wraparound"  plan for providing services to students and families in the Harding zone, modeled on the Reid Park project.  I think we'll see all these ideas resurface,  though things may move more slowly without the infusion of federal cash.

Of course,  I'm also eager to hear people's thoughts on the plan Morrison outlined Monday.  I asked him to put his STEM schools to work on cloning reporters,  because otherwise I have no idea how to keep up with all the work that will be going on in 22 new task forces.  If you're wondering,  no,  there's not a place to sign up for membership.  Morrison said he wants to hold the size to about a dozen members per task force,  and he noted that CMS critics will be among the appointees.  The district plans to release names of the leaders  (one CMS staffer and one community member per group)  this week,  with full membership released in December and meetings taking place January to June.

Monday, November 26, 2012

School partnerships aren't easy

Expect a renewed call for partnerships when Superintendent Heath Morrison unveils his plan for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this evening.

If  Coach Joe White were still on the school board, he might give this observation his trademark "Duh!"  It's pretty obvious that helping kids succeed takes support beyond the schoolhouse.  Charlotte thrives on partnerships, and CMS has a history of working with volunteers and outside groups.

Those of us who have been around awhile know there have been some impressive collaborations. But we've also seen grand coalitions rolled out with fanfare,  only to fizzle.

Last week,  Morrison spoke with Enlace (en-LAH-say, Spanish for "connection"),  a group of Latin American advocates.  Many represent agencies that work with young people.  The Q&A session displayed a great desire to work together,  but also illustrated some of the challenges.

Audience members talked about how difficult it can be to get CMS staff to listen to outside agencies -- or even to find the right person to talk to.  "For nonprofits,  especially minority nonprofits,  working with CMS can be a nightmare,"  one said.

Morrison said groups that want to help can get caught up in turf battles,  especially if two potential collaborators are competing for the same grant.  And he said outside agencies sometimes prepare grant proposals for working in schools without consulting CMS.

"If there were easy answers to this work,  there wouldn't be a need for great people to come do it,"  Morrison said.

He said his staff is working to make the CMS website easier to navigate,  and he's thinking about creating a help desk to provide personal guidance. But his big move is launching a department of community partnerships and family engagement. Communications director LaTarzja Henry will officially make the move to that post Dec. 1.

It's not a new idea to put someone in charge of volunteers and partnerships.  But strengthening these connections is one of Morrison's signature issues,  and he says he's seldom seen anyone as passionate about this kind of work as Henry.  "LaTarzja has a heart as big as this state," he told me.

I've worked with Henry for more than a decade,  spanning a vast array of triumphs,  troubles and change in CMS.  Henry takes the work very seriously,  herself not so much.  Maybe because my own style is similar,  I've found we can work together and stay focused on the big issues,  even when we don't get exactly what we want from each other. That seems like a good start for building partnerships across this sprawling and fractured community.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Give thanks -- let's dance!

"The Gratitude Dance" recently popped up on a friend's Facebook page.  I've watched it several times,  and it always makes me grin.

At this time of year,  it's worth remembering that every single school has things going on that ought to make us dance.  If you've ever seen a student learn to read or suddenly realize that algebra makes sense, you might want to pump your arms and stomp your feet.  If you know a teacher who stays up late trying to craft a lesson, a parent modeling hard work and respect, a volunteer giving up precious time to have lunch with a student or a principal going the extra mile to make the staff feel good, go ahead and do a jig.  And yes, let's do a few steps for the public officials who give their best in an often-thankless job.

Hope (left) and Holly waiting their turn
I always get a personal kick out of meeting students who think journalism is cool.  Just before school let out for Thanksgiving break,  Superintendent Heath Morrison closed out his tour of 159 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools with a news conference at Hawk Ridge Elementary. Among the crowd of reporters,  microphones and cameras stood fifth-graders Holly Wade and Hope Reynen.

Holly asked the superintendent about the best part of his job  (meeting young people, he said),  his inspiration for becoming a superintendent and how the Board of Education works.

"Do you ever feel nervous knowing that your decisions affect every school in CMS?"  she concluded.

Not exactly nervous,  Morrison said,  but  "I worry about it,  absolutely.  It's an incredible responsibility."

Hope handed him a copy of the Hawk Ridge News and they walked away beaming.  Holly said afterward she was plenty nervous,  but thrilled about getting the interview for their next edition.

A reporter in the making?  "It seems like fun,"  Holly said,  "and I like writing."

Yep. I'm doing the gratitude dance.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The crystal ball on Morrison

Heath Morrison marks his 100th day as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on Wednesday,  and will present his strategic plan for the district on Monday.  Here are my predictions for what we might see,  based on what he's said and done so far and what was in a plan for his previous district in Reno, Nev.

*More choices, from new magnet programs to alternatives for struggling students. I'm guessing some will focus on top performers  (Morrison created new magnets for gifted students in Reno)  and some will create small settings where at-risk students can get back on track to graduate.

*A study of how well CMS graduates fare in higher education and,  to the extent there's data available,  the work force. Morrison has been emphatic about a dual focus: Boosting graduation rates but also making sure CMS diplomas are a meaningful predictor of success.

*A push to change the way teachers are recruited, assigned, rewarded and,  when necessary,  removed.  The state is driving some of this,  and Morrison has jumped in with talks to principals and a major shakeup of the CMS human resources department. I wouldn't be surprised to see something similar to Reno's "hiring for attitude" program,  along with some version of the "culture of respect" work done there.

*Efforts to confront low expectations for minority students, based on Glenn Singleton's "Courageous Conversations About Race." Morrison worked with Singleton in each of his last two districts,  and has distributed the book to CMS board members.

*A beefed-up parent engagement push,  including efforts to reach families who don't speak English.  Morrison has said Parent University is a good first step, but not enough.

*New efforts related to school safety and bullying,  with students playing a role in shaping their own programs.  CMS hasn't faced a crisis on this front in Morrison's short tenure,  but he has identified safety as a perennial top issue.

*Creation of a new set of data and goals to measure CMS progress.  Morrison opted not to pursue the  CMS school progress reports this year,  instead relying on the state's version.  But there's no way he'll let the state-mandated letter grades debuting this year stand as the only or main gauge of school success.

*Administrative reorganization, which is already underway.  Morrison lights up when he talks about process and procedure.  It's deadly dull to many of us,  but the organizational framework will shape how well the rest of this stuff works.

*A huge roster of task forces, public meetings and surveys designed to make sure everyone with an interest in CMS has a voice. If you care about the many issues on the table,  it's a safe bet you'll have a chance to step up and get involved in the coming year.

Monday, November 19, 2012

N.C. teacher unions: Weak, but ...

The impact of North Carolina teacher unions,  or even whether there is such a thing,  is a frequent point of debate on this blog.  A recent study on the strength of U.S. teacher unions,  done by The Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now,  indicates there's good reason for the back-and-forth.

North Carolina got a weak overall rating  (read the state profile here),  with relatively low membership and financing for the N.C. Association of Educators and  "the most restrictive bargaining laws in the nation."

"It is one of only five states that prohibit collective bargaining in education," the report says. "No union or professional association may collect agency fees from non-members. The state does not allow teacher strikes."

But the study notes that many in North Carolina perceive the influence of the union to be strong,  and that the state's laws are more aligned with traditional union interests than those of most other states.

"North Carolina does not support performance pay, does not require districts to consider teacher performance in determining layoffs, and does not include student learning in tenure decisions. Further, teachers are dismissed due to poor performance at a lower rate than most other states."

The report,   released just before the election of Republican Pat McCrory as governor,  notes that union influence is likely to decline further with the departure of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue.

South Carolina's union standing was rated among the nation's weakest  (read the S.C. profile here).

Friday, November 16, 2012

Does CMS face media attack pack?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is the victim of relentless and unfair negative news coverage, according to many of the employees and community members who talked to Terry Abbott for his study of CMS communications.

"Asked their thoughts about the news media's coverage of CMS, it didn't take long for district officials,  staff,  and parents to respond,"  Abbott wrote.  "The media coverage of the district is considered almost universally among these groups to be negative."

Analysis of news coverage is a healthy thing.  But the tendency to sort it into  "positive"  and  "negative"  is a lot like a doctor using  "sick"  and  "healthy"  as the only diagnostic categories  --  it just doesn't tell you much.  Some stories are clearly good or bad news, but most don't fit the labels.  A straightforward news report can make you happy or tick you off,  depending on what you think of the information being reported.  Much of what I write  --  including the recent front-page article on the studies commissioned by Superintendent Heath Morrison  --  includes  "negative"  information about problems and  "positive"  information about efforts to solve them.

Abbott,  a former press secretary for the Houston Independent School district who now runs Drive West Communications,  didn't try to analyze actual coverage.  He was looking for,  well,  problems and solutions.  While his report makes it clear there's significant frustration over coverage,  it also shows the same people acknowledging that the controversies my colleagues and I have covered are firmly based in reality. One of the most fascinating things about the 56-page report was getting a glimpse of some of the behind-the-scenes tension surrounding school closings, market-adjustment raises, unexplained principal departures, the launch of "bring your own technology" and the rollout of 2012 test scores.

The report makes it clear that rebuilding confidence will take more than pumping out more positive press releases and reviving the CMS cable channel  (though those are among the recommendations).  Morrison says he's working to make sure departments work more efficiently together, get their facts straight, understand public concerns and communicate clearly with employees, reporters and the public.  One sure-fire way to reduce  "negative"  coverage is to avert the errors, delays and missteps that spawn it.

Morrison may also be trying to strike a sterner stance with the press corps.  Every time he talked about the studies and employee survey results released this week,  he told reporters he considers this  "a test case" for coverage.  He said he's taking a risk by being open about reports critical of CMS,  and noted that it would be easy to pick out a few lines and sensationalize them.  He told his  "media partners"  to consider it a homework assignment to take a more balanced approach.  "I will be watching who does a good job with that and who doesn't,"  he said at the school board meeting.

I'm not sure how the superintendent envisions that playing out.  But if nothing else, it was a brilliant strategy for making sure time-crunched reporters wade through dozens of pages of institutional analysis in search of those lines he doesn't want us to use.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

CMS hiring: What went wrong?

Human resources is a vital function of public education that remains largely hidden from public view.  This week's audit of HR in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools confirms what a lot of employees and applicants have been saying:  The system designed to get top teachers and administrators into crucial jobs hasn't been working for a long time.

"The HR Department has been struggling for a number of years  --  most speak frankly in the system about HR's functionality as disappointing and counter-productive to the reform effort the rest of the system is experiencing,"  consultant Elizabeth Arons of the Urban Schools Human Capital Academy concluded after interviewing about 50 CMS employees and community members.

A lot of rules and regulations come with the turf  --  remember, CMS depends on state, federal and county governments for its money  --  but Superintendent Heath Morrison says much of the  "compliance culture" that has dragged the department down is based not on legal constraints but on tradition and systems that make supervisors' lives easier at the cost of the people they're supposed to be helping.

"We're going to be looking at every opportunity to remove barriers,"  he said at a Wednesday news conference.

One school of thought holds that the best way to bust government bureaucracy is to bring in people from private industry.  The last two CMS HR chiefs took that route:  Mo Ambler had worked for Blockbuster, Cox Communications and Pepsico,  and Daniel Habrat came from Wachovia.  Both left under unfavorable circumstances. Former Superintendent Peter Gorman declined to renew Ambler's contract in 2010, and Habrat resigned just before the highly critical report on his department was released.

Morrison is turning to an educator  --  former teacher, principal and central office administrator Kelly Gwaltney  --  to restore confidence in HR. He calls her "unorthodox in a good way,"  with a knowledge of what principals need and a management style that's driven by customer service.

Morrison says it's too simplistic to conclude that outsiders can't do the job.  He said he expects Gwaltney to create a leadership team that taps the strengths of education and private industry.

Some of the recommendations she'll be working with make obvious sense,  even to a layperson like me.  For instance:  "Immediately redesign the applicant process so that a one-time online application makes the applicant available for all positions. ... There is a strong perception throughout the district that applicants have to  'jump through hoops' and that HR  'does not take good care of applicants.'  "  Yep.  I've heard that many times.

Many of the others are focused on processes and procedures that are no doubt important,  but not as obvious to folks outside the system.  I'll be eager to hear from those of you inside CMS about how the coming changes play out.   The fate of a whole lot of children and families rides on this.

I suspect a lot of you,  like me,  are working your way through more than 150 pages of reports released Tuesday  (read the communications report here,  the organizational review here and the results of the employee survey here). Pass along your thoughts and questions. There's a lot of change ahead for CMS,  and these reports are an early road map.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hooray: Raleigh-to-English translation!

I found something on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools website that makes me want to cheer:  A  "2012 legislative update"  that summarizes all the public education bills the state legislature approved this year.

Keeping up with the action in Raleigh,  looking up legislation,  trying to decide whether I have the correct final version and deciphering the legalese has always been challenging for me,  and I have more training and experience in these things than most folks.  The new 10-page guide summarizes each bill in plain English,  with a link to the actual legislation.

I learned,  for instance,  that starting Dec. 1 it will be a crime for students to "cyberbully" teachers,  including creating fake websites and posting private information or altered images.  I got the clearest explanation I've seen of how the new third-grade literacy requirements will work.

In the "On the Horizon" look ahead to the 2013 session,  I found a good synopsis of likely developments on performance pay and teacher tenure.  And this explanation made me realize why so many of us founder in the maze of Raleigh lawmaking:  "During the short session this past summer, the Senate leadership supported a bill called the Excellent Public Schools Act (SB 795)  –  not to be confused with the Excellent Public Schools Act incorporated into the Budget Bill (HB 950).  While SB 795 did not pass,  it is almost guaranteed to resurface in the upcoming session,  which begins on January 30, 2013."

If these updates continue in real time next year,  they'll be a boon to all of us trying to understand and/or influence the state decisions that shape our schools.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Will extra school days pay off?

Project LIFT is looking at spending up to $4.7 million a year to add 20 school days for students in nine west Charlotte schools. When Zone Superintendent Denise Watts recently updated the school board on the prospect, board member Eric Davis had a question:  How will you measure the academic value of those extra days, apart from all the other improvement efforts?

"That's something we struggle with,"  Watts said.  The $55 million, five-year project to improve the life prospects of some 7,100 students is working on several fronts, from recruiting better teachers to strengthening family involvement.

If it works,  one of the challenges will be teasing out the value of each change.

When it comes to shrinking summer break and adding school days,  Watts and her crew start with the premise that the kids who are most at risk of failure are the ones most likely to lose ground during long school breaks. They're showing this video to illustrate the problem.

They're also looking at reports and research,  including this American School Board Journal article about summer programs that work, this WestEd summary of efforts to extend the school year, and this 2010 summary of the academic research on the benefits.  Short version:  There are signs that extra time in school can make a difference,  but it's no silver bullet and it costs a lot.

This past summer,  LIFT went with the less radical option of offering voluntary summer programs to about 1,700 students,  at no charge to their families.  Some went to BELL camps (read an Observer article about this summer's BELL programs here).  That program did pre- and post-testing that showed some benefits, Watts said.  But about 100 students who were offered the chance to attend didn't accept,  illustrating one of the challenges of optional summer camps,  Watts told the board.

Other students went to Freedom Schools, a summer reading program that's growing in the Charlotte area (read an Observer article here).  That effort got "mixed reviews" and doesn't have the same kind of data on academic gains,  Watts said.

Skeptics and cynics have been vocal about Project LIFT.  Some of you will say all this shows that it's a waste of money,  that  "those kids"  are destined for failure and  "those families"  aren't pulling their weight.

At this point,  I'm willing to give the leaders of the philanthropic board and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools credit for being candid about the immensity of the challenge they've tackled.  Breaking the cycle of poverty and school failure is extraordinarily difficult. Even measuring the results is going to be tough.  If the leaders were whipping out glowing reports at the outset,  I'd be much more wary of their willingness to do that work.

Davis told Watts that he expects her to ensure that CMS can measure the value of investing in a longer school year.

" 'Ensure' is a strong word,"  Watts said.

"It sure is,"  Davis replied.  "That's why I'm using it."

Youth vote for leadership and food

Almost 100,000 Mecklenburg students cast ballots in the Kids Voting mock election this year. Like real voters in this county, they gave President Obama a wide margin over Mitt Romney and Pat McCrory the slenderest of victories over Walter Dalton for governor.  The kids liked the Libertarian candidates more than their adult counterparts,  though.

The most interesting part was their take on questions posed by local officials.  Students who voted are strongly in favor of city/county consolidation (61 percent).  Many want county commissioners to use any extra money to improve services for people in need (48 percent),  though tax cuts followed with 23 percent.

As Superintendent Heath Morrison ponders broadening the educational options in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, he asked the youth to weigh in.  Chief of Staff Earnest Winston says the three questions submitted by CMS reflect some early discussions about additions to the public-school menu.

When asked about their favorite option for a new magnet program, "leadership" was the most popular (26 percent), followed by "museum" (20 percent) and "broadcast/communication"  (18 percent).  The "residential" option was a definite last place with 7 percent,  though it's hard to say whether students didn't like the idea of a public boarding school or just didn't know what the unfamiliar term meant.

The career/tech program that got the most votes was culinary (25 percent),  followed by cosmetology and construction (20 percent each).  And when asked what they need most in the classroom,  technology topped the list of four options with a hefty 52 percent  (there was nothing about teachers on the list).

The results aren't binding,  of course,  but Winston says Morrison will look at them.  "Engaging students is nothing new for us,  but Dr. Morrison has placed a greater emphasis on that,"  he said.  "We want to engage them in the conversation about their education."

I'm seeing partnership potential here.  The Observer has quite a bit of free space these days,  including an inactive cafeteria.  I've tasted the output of East Meck's culinary arts program,  and feel confident that our staff would provide eager taste-testers if CMS wanted to locate a culinary/communications magnet here.  For that matter, we could turn one room into a dorm,  add the residential component and help staff those pesky night and weekend shifts.

Friday, November 9, 2012

CMS crafts rules for school visits

How open will Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools be to visitors,  what are the rules for such visits and what can lead parents or others to being banned from school property?  Those are some of the questions Superintendent Heath Morrison and the school board are taking up in a new policy that's up for a public hearing Tuesday.

Morrison says CMS needs to be more thoughtful and consistent in its procedures,  and this looks like an early example.  The proposed policy calls for the superintendent and principals to craft rules to encourage openness while protecting the educational environment,  including  "reasonable limits on the frequency or conditions of school visits by parents or other visitors." The policy also addresses people on the sex-offender registry and the type of behavior that's prohibited,  such as threats,  vandalism,  disorderly conduct,  "rude or riotous noise"  and  "profane, lewd, obscene or abusive language, gestures or other written or electronic communication."

The policy also addresses how schools should deal with violators and calls for the superintendent to develop procedures for banning people from CMS property.

None of this strikes me as new or shocking.  Schools already have their own processes for handling visitors,  and parents and others have been banned for various violations.  (Remember the "Myers Park Mooner"  who was banned after dropping his pants during the 2011 graduation ceremony?)  The board policy,  combined with any procedures that follow,  just spell out the terms more clearly.

Families may want to take note and get engaged.  I've seen several parents come before the board to complain about being banned from their children's schools.  Anyone who wants to speak can sign up by calling 980-343-5139 by noon Tuesday,  or do so at the meeting.  There should be a second public hearing before a vote in December.

Bonus link:  A reader passed along this EdWeek blog summarizing five big issues facing U.S. Education Arne Duncan in the next term.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

How safe is your school?

The updated North Carolina school report cards are out,  bearing a wealth of data for families who are thinking about where their kids should go to school next year.

School safety is always a big question,  and these reports offer a couple of key data points.  The most meaningful one in my eyes is the short-term suspension rate  (once you've gone to a school's report card,  click the  "Safe, Orderly & Caring Schools"  tab).

These numbers always remind me of the time a teacher friend called to chew me out:  "You've listed some schools as having more than 100 suspensions per 100 students. That's obviously wrong."  You'd think so,  but sadly,  every year some Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools have so many repeat offenders that they end up with more suspensions than students.  This year I checked CMS high schools and found West Charlotte with 176 suspensions per 100 students and Harding with 157  (on the low end were Providence with 4.56 and Ardrey Kell with 7.55).

If you're a regular reader of this blog,  you know what's coming next:  Numbers never tell the full story, but they help you ask good questions. Low suspension rates can indicate a principal is overlooking offenses to make the numbers look good.  High ones may signal a faculty that's cracking down to change a culture.  But when suspension rates are high,  parents and students deserve good answers about what's going on.

The more eye-catching number is the one at the top of the safety page:  The number and rate of criminal and violent acts at each school.  My quibble is that it takes too long to compile and report this data.  The numbers you're looking at in late 2012,  potentially to judge school selections for 2013-14,  are from the 2010-11 school year.  This is also a category where you definitely want to get beyond raw numbers.  Here's the state report that breaks down the type of offenses at each school.  Even then,  ask more questions about what happened and how it was handled.  "Assault on school personnel,"  for instance,  can be anything from a teen attacking a teacher to a kindergartener lashing out during a tantrum.

There are detailed breakdown of test scores under the "High Student Performance" tab.  They're pretty self-explanatory.  One warning:  The numbers listed under the end-of-grade performance breakdown for elementary and middle schools won't match the more familiar composite score.  The composite is the combined pass rate for reading,  math and science.  The report-card breakdown lists the percent of students who passed both reading and math,  which is almost always lower.  That's arguably the best measure of students who are ready to move up to the next grade;  it just tends to make me do a double-take.

The  "Quality Teachers"  tab offers a lot of data about credentials and experience.  I'm not convinced it tells much about how good the faculty really is, but it's worth knowing.

The district report card,  found by clicking the district name at the top of the list of schools,  offers some additional information,  such as the principal turnover rate.  With all the talk about CMS principal churn last year,  I was curious how that would look.  The tally shows 15 percent of principals left the district in 2011-12,  up from 9 percent the previous year.  That's well over the state average of 11 percent and Wake County's 8 percent rate.  But it's close to the turnover rates for Union County (14 percent)  and Guilford County (13 percent).