Thursday, March 22, 2012

R.I.P. FOCUS schools

A program that was once at the heart of this community's effort to cope with the consequences of high-poverty schools was quietly laid to rest at this week's Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools budget session.

The most noteworthy thing about interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh's acknowledgement that CMS no longer has FOCUS schools is that anyone raised the question.  Like so many efforts launched with great fanfare, it has been quietly nudged to the sidelines as leaders and strategies changed.

The program, originally knows as Equity and created under Superintendent Eric Smith, came out of the court battle over race-based assignment. When the old assignment plan was overturned and the school board hashed out a race-neutral "choice plan,"  the board and county commissioners agreed to provide extra aid to schools with the highest levels of students on lunch aid.  It was an acknowledgement that the new plan was likely to create more schools with higher levels of poverty (it did) and that those schools would need extra help for students to succeed.

The first few CMS budgets I covered,  starting in 2002,  brought heated debates over whether the county was paying the full cost that commissioners had agreed to.  The Equity schools were renamed,  bizarrely,  EquityPlusII schools.  Under Superintendent James Pughsley, they became FOCUS schools, for Finding Opportunities: Creating Unparalleled Success.  Those schools got about 30 percent more in their budgets for teachers and supplies,  and many argued that wasn't enough.

When Peter Gorman became superintendent in 2006,  he launched new strategies,  such as providing "weighted" faculty formulas that take into account poverty levels at all schools.  He argued that it didn't make sense to provide all-or-nothing aid based on whether a school fell just above or below an arbitrary percentage of students getting free or reduced lunches.  Whenever I and others asked about the FOCUS program,  Gorman said it existed in a more limited form.  But it stopped coming up during recession-driven budgets that focused on cuts and layoffs.

On Tuesday,  when the board reviewed Hattabaugh's plan for 2012-13,  Tom Tate, who has been on the board since 2005, asked about the FOCUS schools.  Hattabaugh said the FOCUS program is gone,  replaced by the weighted staffing formula and efforts to recruit strong educators to the most challenged schools.

The challenge of promoting success at schools where most students come from impoverished homes remains,  of course. In just a few weeks,  the board will choose someone to succeed Gorman,  and that person will no doubt bring a new set of tactics.


Wiley Coyote said...

He argued that it didn't make sense to provide all-or-nothing aid based on whether a school fell just above or below an arbitrary percentage of students getting free or reduced lunches.

Good grief!... Gorman, nor anyone else, has a clue as to where any FRL line is.

Arbitrary is about as close as anyone will get to defining the line using current criteria...

Anonymous said...

I'm glad I didn't know that being poor meant I couldn't do well in school.

For some reason that never occurred to me, so I just studied.

It's good that educrats have figured all that out for today's youth so they aren't deluded into thinking they can do better than their ZIP code.

After all, we wouldn't want any of our poor thinking they might have a shot at making something of themselves due to their own efforts.

Christine Mast said...

Huh?? When did this happen?

The Per Pupil Expenditure Reports for 2010-2011 still show a column for FOCUS Schools.

Not to mention, I just found ANOTHER error in the footnotes to this report. If you look at the Elementary Schools tab, the footnote for FOCUS schools reads:

(2) 2009-10 Focus School criteria based on percentage of EDS students only.

The Middle and High School tabs have this footnote:

(2) 2010-11 Focus School criteria based on percentage of EDS students only.
(2) 2010-11 Focus School criteria based on percentage of EDS students only.

Seems "someone" didn't update the years on the Elementary tab footnote.

But does it really matter?

First of all, there aren't any more FOCUS schools, right?

And secondly, I've already been told that the 23 "missing pre-K" children at Metro School don't really matter until "next year"... per Ms. Shirely:

We will add the footnote to the Special Schools tab about the pre-k students at Metro School (23 this year) to future reports.

Christine Mast said...

Ugh. That's Ms. SHIRLEY.

Anonymous said...

Actually CMS is the one who butchered the use of Title 1 funds. The feds figure Title 1 funds on schools with greater than 40% FRL. CMS had scarfed all that money up and "focused" it on the those schools with greater than 75% for political points. But as we all know, the more you do for the demographic, the less they acknomledge it and the less they appreciate it.

Clean up the budget and allocate equal $ per pupil at all schools and let the fed money and targeted state money go to buy the votes and be done with it.

Wiley Coyote said...

....and people think I'm crazy for continuously bringing up the FRL issue.

Like I have said a gazillion times, FRL touches every aspect of funding and other resource allocations, including teachers and when you have the level of potential fraud that exists, it's disgusting.

Anonymous said...

Come on folks Focus School is a old buzz word that changing with the release of iPad 2012. Its now called LIFT and has no structure or content measurements. This of course is the main reason that CMS went into the Joint Venture they are now in bed with LIFT. Better yet they bought it from a former employee who left them a few years back. CMS would buy a bridge with no water under it if you told them kids could learn and improve test scores if they sat on it for 6 hours a day in traffic. I give LIFT 2 years at best until its out of money and has nothing to show for those 24 months. Keith W. Hurley

Anonymous said...

The sad thing is LIFT will duplicate what some of this "FOCUS", SSI, WWS monety did and we have so many other schools that need help beyond West Charlotte feeder area. As we all remember, a good many strategies have been tried over the years and worked in some schools, rarely worked in West Charlotte feeder schools and schools with no special assistance saw similar gains (without any strategic program).

Pull this CMS money out of West Cahrlotte feeder schools and give some other schools some more resources. Of course my preference is to give it to schools so no classes are over 35 students. Additioanlly, if I have schools getting only $k per student, I'd like to see if more money can boost performance from 80's% to over 90%. That is worth spending more money rather than the few tenth's other schools are getting.

Anonymous said...

WC I don't necessarily think your crazy, but I don't understand why you don't take this whole argument about FRL somewhere that has control of it. Its a federal program-CMS can't audit more that a small percentage. Go national with your griping. Or get off your computer and do something about it....
And do you really doubt the income level of most of those kids??? Seriously?

Wiley Coyote said...

Anon 5:03...

Based on sample audits at CMS and many school systems across the country, up to 60% of those who were checked do not qualify based on responses.

The USDA in its own report estimates they overpay benefits each year by $1.5 Biliion dollars.

I have made several attempts to get information from the USDA, but of course received no reply.

As soon as some of my workload dies down, I plan on taking a different approach to get policy makers more involved in getting the USDA to allow full audits of the system.

This could probably have already been accomplished, but there are those who don't want to lose the goose that laid the golden egg, yet whine about not having enough funds for programs.

In the past, some on the CMS BOE tried to push the envelope to do more audits but were voted down.

Others are too scared to deal with the issue.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I got lost somewhere between FOCUS schools and ACHIEVEMENT zones. The good news is we have project LIFT to carry us through one more superintendent tenure. After this, maybe we can SOAR or PINPOINT or SUCCEED or something.