Wednesday, May 30, 2012

New life for New Leaders in Charlotte

After a major setback earlier this spring, Charlotte's New Leaders program is coming back fresh with an infusion of private money from Project LIFT, says Executive Director Eric Guckian.

New Leaders is a 12-year-old national program (originally known as New Leaders for New Schools) created  to develop urban principals with the skills and drive to make transform struggling high-poverty schools. Superintendent Peter Gorman announced its partnership with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2008, with promises that it would put more than 50  "highly talented and motivated new principals"  into local schools in six years.

In March, interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh blindsided New Leaders backers with the announcement that he planned to drastically cut back spending midway through the effort, saying CMS was spending too much money and had gotten only a handful of principals. Not long before, Hattabaugh had renewed a partnership agreement, but changed his mind when federal money that helped pay for it dried up.

Being publicly proclaimed a poor investment of taxpayer money was a serious blow, Guckian says. He credits his local board, the national organization and a panel of local philanthropists for not only keeping the local project alive but helping it develop a new focus on making classroom teachers better leaders.

"While it was indeed a hardship that the district reallocated our funds, other partners and supporters have made clear that there is strong and diverse community support for our work here in Charlotte," he said in a recent email.

Guckian says it was CMS leaders,  not his group,  that pitched New Leaders as a sort of principal factory.  The partnership with Project LIFT,  a philanthropic coalition which aspires to pump $55 million in private donations into nine west Charlotte public schools,  will put five principal trainees into LIFT schools while  providing leadership training for 40 teachers a year.  Those teachers could move into administrative posts or exercise their skills while staying in a classroom,  Guckian said.

"In addition to the LIFT partnership, we recently learned that the Women’s Impact Fund will be supporting us at $100K,"  Guckian noted.  "As you may know, grants from the Women’s Impact Fund are voted on by hundreds of influential women in Charlotte, so it’s a really nice vote of confidence from across the community."

A digital science boost

With all the buzz about digital learning, one of the biggest questions is how much educational bang schools can get for their electronic bucks.  Discovery Education, a vendor to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  has released a study showing its interactive science lessons contributed to significant student gains in high-poverty CMS classrooms.

Discovery Education provides reading passages, videos and virtual labs to get students engaged in scientific exploration.  For instance, fifth-graders studying insect life cycles would look at photos of insects such as butterflies, grasshoppers, beetles and dragonflies. The teacher would get them to talk about different ways those insects grow, and to make predictions about how each changes during its life cycle. Students would watch a digital video on metamorphosis.

CMS uses federal Title I money to provide Discovery Education digital science lessons for all its highest-poverty schools (75 percent or higher), along with training for teachers in how to use those lessons.  But participation wasn't required during the study years (2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-12),  so some teachers in Title I schools opted out.

The study compared results on state fifth- and eighth-grade science exams for students of 457 Title I teachers who used Discovery Education, 295 Title I  teachers who did not and 538 teachers in lower-poverty schools that didn't use Discovery Education. Researchers found that the Title I teachers using the program saw eighth-graders go from 38 percent passing to 57 percent, outperforming both other groups by significant margins (Title 1 non-users went from 19 percent to 32 percent passing, and the non-Title I group went from 41 to 43 percent). The results for fifth-graders weren't as dramatic, but the Title I teachers using Discover Education saw the biggest gains in two years.

The study factored in the benefits that some of the Title I schools got from support provided through CMS' Achievement Zone and/or the strategic staffing program, and there still appeared to be benefits attributable to the digital program.

I'm always cautious of drawing oversimplified conclusions from numbers, especially a study done by an interested party.  But this does seem to reinforce what CMS and many thoughtful commenters have been saying:  Technology can be a helpful tool when it's combined with good training and enthusiastic teachers.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

It's a bird! It's a plane!

Superintendent Heath Morrison may need to move faster than a speeding bullet to deliver on a statement in a recent email to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees: "I intend to visit all schools in CMS during my first three months."

I asked him about the mathematics of that plan.  CMS has 159 schools.  He starts work July 1.  School starts Aug. 27, which gives him 24 days with students and teachers in school by the time his first three months end in September.  He's already been visiting during interviews and follow-up trips to Charlotte,  but even if he knocks 39 schools off the list before the starting bell,  he'd have to hit five schools every school day to meet his goal.

Morrison says his plan is ambitious but not impossible: "I have already visited many and have another visit in June. There will also be summer programs and back to school events in July and early August. Don't forget Saturdays in August and September. I may not make it, but the effort and intent is important."

He's probably right about the effort.  After Peter Gorman made his high-profile entrance in 2006,  I remember hearing grumbles from staff at schools he hadn't visited.  And Morrison makes a good impression in face-to-face meetings.

Classroom Teachers Association President Judy Kidd tends to be skeptical of politicians and officials. She says when she first read Morrison's line about being "a teacher on special assignment,"  it sounded phony.  But after meeting him recently, Kidd said Morrison strikes her as genuine. 

Board member Rhonda Lennon hosted Morrison and a group of north suburban parents and community leaders Friday night (joined, she says, by a few south Charlotte folks).  "He took time to talk to each family who was here -- and they shared the good/bad/ugly about their experiences at CMS,"  Lennon posted on Facebook.  "It was truly amazing watching Heath interact with the students and talk to them about their schools and personal academic accomplishments."

Friday, May 25, 2012

Morrison chooses South Meck zone

Soon-to-be Superintendent Heath Morrison and his family have a contract on a home in the Rea Woods neighborhood in south Charlotte, which means his daughter will enroll as a 10th-grader at South Mecklenburg High.  His son, who will be in seventh grade, has South Charlotte Middle as his home school. But Morrison says Zach is interested in auditioning for Northwest School of the Arts (there was no waiting list after the first magnet lottery, so it shouldn't be hard to find a spot for the superintendent's son).

I asked Morrison if he'd chosen schools, then found a home in the desired zone.  He said he left the home-shopping to his wife and daughter.

Morrison is in town to present his entry plan,  which includes efforts to make sure all neighborhoods and groups  have a voice in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools decisions.  He's having dinner tonight with school board member Rhonda Lennon and some of her constituents from the north suburbs, and lunch Saturday with Carol Sawyer and Pamela Grundy from Mecklenburg ACTS, a group that's focused on equity for high-poverty urban schools.

Here's Morrison's schedule for this visit:

Thursday, May 24, 2012
6:45 pm Meeting with Dan Habrat

Friday, May 25, 2012
7:00 am Meeting with cabinet
8:15 am Kim Brazzell/Teresa Shipman/Vincent Smith – Orientation
10:00 am Meeting with Ericka Ellis-Stewart
11:00 am Press event with Board
11:40 am Meeting with Tom Tate
1:00 pm Principal interviews
2:00 pm Meeting with Eric Davis
3:30 pm Meeting with Mayor Foxx
4:45 pm Meeting with zone superintendents
6:00 pm Meeting with Rhonda Lennon
7:00 pm Dinner meeting with Rhonda Lennon and northern parents, businesses, etc.

Saturday, May 26, 2012
7:30 am Meeting with Ann Clark
9:00 am Meeting with Joyce Waddell
10:30 am Meeting with Richard McElrath
12:00 pm Meeting with Pamela Grundy and Carol Sawyer
1:45 pm Meeting with Sheila Shirley
4:00 pm Meeting with Tim Morgan
6:00 pm Meeting with Amelia Stinson-Wesley

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Omaha paper: Learn from CMS

Like Charlotte, Omaha, Neb., has a large,  urban school district with a new superintendent.  It has tried a battery of programs to solve academic failure among its low-income and minority students.  A team of reporters at the Omaha World-Herald set out to find districts that seem to have answers,  and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is one of seven they're highlighting in a series running this week.

"Leaders of the Omaha Public Schools have tried everything from shrinking class sizes to busing kids between schools to waging political fights for more funding — only to see many of its most disadvantaged students scrape bottom on the latest Nebraska state achievement tests,"  Joe Dejka, Jeffrey Robb and Paul Goodsell write. "Yet, elsewhere in America, some school districts battling similar, entrenched poverty produce significantly better results. A select few districts outscore their urban peers on state and national tests, win national prizes and attract researchers and educators eager for a glimpse inside their playbooks."

The Broad Prize and CMS' performance on the "nation's report card" exams played a role in the decision to highlight CMS as a success story.  The findings won't be much of a surprise to those who follow CMS, and the reporters acknowledge the district has hit snags,  such as a backlash to increased testing.  But it's always interesting to see the district through others' eyes  --  in this case, a "virtual field trip" to glean the best lessons from across the country.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

$4,800 for London networking

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart was on the plane for the ill-fated Chamber of Commerce trip to London last weekend.  But the cancellation due to airplane mechanical problems may have been a blessing, because Ellis-Stewart has already spent most of her travel allotment for this fiscal year.

CMS provides $5,150 a year in travel money for the chair and $3,100 for other members.  Ellis-Stewart took office (and the chairmanship) in December,  about halfway through the budget year that ends June 30.  She had a tad over $2,800 to spend,  and had already used all but $283 on two trips to Raleigh and a National School Boards Association conference in Boston (see the board's spending as of Monday here).

The chamber's trip to London cost $4,800 for public officials. Ellis-Stewart said Tuesday that she had been talking to other board members about letting her use their unspent travel money.  It's not clear whether she'd gotten that money lined up,  or even whether CMS had actually paid the bill.  Rhonda Lennon, who had the biggest chunk of unspent money (just over $3,600),  said Tuesday that Ellis-Stewart asked her Saturday, the day the flight was supposed to depart, to help cover her cost.  Lennon said she declined. She said was concerned about CMS officials spending money beyond what's budgeted, especially while they're trying to get additional money from Mecklenburg County commissioners.

It's not unheard of for board members who don't travel much to offer some of their budget to those who do. Richard McElrath  --  who, like Lennon, has spent nothing so far this year  --  transferred just over $500 to Vice Chairman Mary McCray this year.  Nor is it unusual for board members to join other public officials and executives on the chamber's annual visits to check out business, economic development and government in other cities.  Eric Davis went to Seattle with the group when he was board chair last year.

But the overseas trip and the expense it entailed was unusual.  During the last budget year,  CMS board members spent only about $12,500 of the $29,950 allotted for travel,  with individual spending ranging from nothing for Lennon to $3,847 for Davis (see the 2010-11 travel report here).

Ellis-Stewart said Tuesday she thought the trip was valuable because of the opportunity to network with business leaders.  At a time when CMS is working to build public-private partnerships, "it's good to have them on your side,"  she said.

Lennon was skeptical.  "You can buy a whole lot of lunches for $4,800," she said.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

New era of testing, ratings in NC

Say goodbye to the year-end exams and the N.C. school labels we've gotten to know over the past 15 years, where schools are rated from "low performing" to "school of excellence" based on the percent of students who pass exams. The state will issue its last "ABCs of Public Education" report this summer. Next school year will bring a new set of tests and a new "READY" accountability system.

It's part of the state's Race to the Top push to make testing more meaningful and comparable to other states, while holding schools accountable for a wider array of results and using student results to rate teacher effectiveness.

A lot of this will sound familiar to those who followed Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' efforts to forge ahead on these fronts in 2011. Remember the 52 new tests that drew so much outcry? The state Department of Public Instruction is working on 90 new tests (officials prefer "measures of student learning") to ensure that there's data for teachers in all topics. New versions of high school End of Course exams and year-end language arts, math and science tests for grades 3-8 are also in the works.

State officials who updated me recently say this isn't just about newer and more tests, but better ones.  The "bubble in the right answer" format that has drawn so much criticism will be replaced with online tests that include some open-ended questions. Teachers should get results faster than they do with paper tests, and testing software can offer a more refined gauge of student knowledge by adjusting the level up or down as students get answers right or wrong.  (Next year is a transition year, so it's unlikely all of this will be in place right away.)

The new exams are also designed to reflect the move to national "common core" academic standards, which are supposed to push students across the country to higher-level learning.

The school labels that have graced banners on high-scoring schools since the 1990s will be gone after this year.  So will the promise of  "ABC bonuses"  for principals and teachers based on growth ratings. Those rewards, which provided up to $1,500 for high growth, disappeared from the state budget when the recession kicked in.

There's no money budgeted for a new statewide bonus program, said N.C. Race to the Top Director Adam Levinson, "and none in the foreseeable future."  The state is using Race to the Top money to provide bonuses for teachers with high effectiveness scores at 118 of the state's lowest performing schools, including some in CMS.

After 2012, high schools will be rated on graduation rates and performance on the national ACT college-readiness test, as well as pass rates on the new state exams.

The state is also working on "value-added" ratings of individual teachers,  based on three years of test data. Those individual ratings aren't designed for public release, officials say,  but two consecutive years of low scores could lead to dismissal.

"We're certainly not intending for that to be anything but part of the personnel file," Levinson said. "This is about helping teachers and principals grow and get better."

The change in testing also means that CMS and other N.C. districts will essentially push "reset" on gauging academic success and failure. Scores almost always fall when new tests are introduced, and North Carolina is likely to follow that pattern in 2013, says Angela Quick, the state's deputy chief academic officer. The good news for incoming Superintendent Heath Morrison and the school board:  A climb in subsequent years is almost as predictable.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Which schools got CMS iPads?

CMS has provided a list of the teaching teams that won grants for classroom iPads and training. Groups of educators competed for a share of the $3.5 million in county money Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had available to provide the digital boost.

The classroom iPads, which follow the presentation of iPads to all school administrators in January, are part of the district's push to provide wireless internet access and digital learning opportunities in all schools. The original  plan was a districtwide "bring your own technology" rollout when schools reopen in August, but CMS has slowed its approach because of leadership turnover and the need to prepare.

(I'm wading through a week's worth of emails after taking vacation, so I know there's a lot more going on in the world of education. Keep me posted on what you all know.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Reno grad-rate jump too good to be true?

During Heath Morrison's short tenure with the Washoe County School District, the graduation rate jumped from 56 percent in 2009 to 70 percent last year.  It's perhaps his signature accomplishment there, one that helped him win national acclaim and get the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools job.

It has also raised questions, because it relies on data that his staff recalculated and because it rose so fast. Newspaper columnist and labor activist Andrew Barbano dubbed it "The Mythological Morrison Miracle," and the local NAACP branch is reviewing the data,  with the branch president saying he suspects the jump is too big to represent reality.

By any national measure, the four-year tracking rate that Morrison introduced is more reliable than the old Nevada method (read details of both rates and see the Washoe County numbers here, starting on page 50). It's the one North Carolina and many other states use.

Morrison also introduced a door-to-door campaign to locate the hundreds of students a year who were listed as "vanished,"  along with those who had officially dropped out,  and get them into school. If dropouts who are 18 or older enroll in the Washoe Adult High School, they are switched into the "transfer out" category, which means they're removed from the calculation entirely, counting neither as graduates or dropouts.

Morrison says it's better to have those young adults working on their education than sitting at home,  but he acknowledges it's too early to say whether they'll be successful.

In April, the Reno Gazette-Journal did an extensive "fact checker" analysis of the grad-rate jump. Reporter Mark Robison found that some of the improvement comes from better tracking of students, and he quoted a statistical expert as saying that makes year-to-year comparisons questionable.  However,  he also found experts agreeing that both data-tracking and graduation rates are improving in Reno,  even if one can argue over the amount.

"What rises above in this discussion is the fact that the district is using the same standard measurement in 2011 as it did in 2009. And no one is questioning the accuracy of the numbers," he wrote. "In fact, there is agreement that improving the accuracy of the dropout rate is praiseworthy. Should the increase come with an asterisk? Perhaps. But the numbers are the numbers, and therefore it's fair for the district to report a 14 percentage-point jump in its graduation rate."

Unfortunately, the Gazette-Journal doesn't offer a free link to this article; if you want to pay for an archived copy, go here.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Challenge: Say something nice about CMS

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is marking employee appreciation month with a chance to post compliments about teachers and others who do the work it takes to educate 140,000 kids each year.

This forum tends to draw a lot of complaints.  That's understandable.  CMS is a big, political organization that spends lots of tax money and has its flaws.

But here's a challenge:  If you've commented on what's wrong with the district, take time to honor at least one employee who's worth a kind word. There are more than 18,000 people teaching classes,  driving buses,  serving meals,  keeping the schools clean  --  and yes, crunching data and manning administrative offices.  Surely you can find one who's doing good work for kids or providing good customer service for adults.

If you want to go straight to the CMS appreciation form, here it is.

If you have children in charters, private schools or other districts, I can't give you a link. But it's always nice to drop a thank-you note.  And if you're into tweeting, a reader just shared this Twitter campaign to #thankateacher.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Heath Morrison entry tour

Heath Morrison, who starts as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent July 1, is in town for house-hunting and meetings with key players. Who made the cut? Here's the schedule CMS provided, with some titles and connections added.

10:27 am Arrive in Charlotte
12:00 pm Meeting with LaTarzja Henry (head of communications)
1:00 pm School visit at Dilworth Elementary
2:15 pm Principal Interview
2:30 pm Meeting with Ann Clark (chief academic officer)
3:30 pm Videotaping for Teachers for Excellence
4:00 pm Meeting with Ericka Ellis-Stewart and Mary McCray (school board chair and vice chair)
6:00 pm Dinner with Tyler Ream (area superintendent in charge of Title I elementary schools)

7:30 am Meeting with Hugh Hattabaugh (interim superintendent)
8:30 am School visits at Metro and Morgan
10:00 am Meeting with Harry Jones (county manager)
11:00 am School visit at First Ward
12:30 pm Meeting with Observer Editorial Board
2:00 pm Meeting with Cabinet members
5:00 pm Meeting with Mike Raible (school planning official)
6:00 pm Dinner appointment

7:50 am Meeting with Michael DeVaul (YMCA)
10:00 am Meeting with Harold Dixon (PTA Council President)
11:00 am Meeting with Natalie English (Chamber of Commerce)
1:00 pm Meeting with Bill Anderson (Meck Ed)
2:30 pm Meeting with Scott McCully (student placement director)
3:30 pm Meeting with Dan Habrat (HR chief, tentative)

All day house hunting with family

7:35 am Flight back to Reno

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

CMS board: Who's leaving, why?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is back to pre-recession hiring levels,  HR Chief Daniel Habrat told the school board Tuesday night.

"CMS is open for hire, and we have about every kind of job that you can think of," Habrat said during an update on his department.  "Let our community know that we are interested in strong performers. Come talk to us."

The latest listings show 295 instructional positions  (teachers, counselors, etc.)  and 107 other jobs, including two in the $140,000 to $160,000 pay range:  Chief accountability officer (testing and data) and chief information officer (technology).

Several board members wanted to know more about what's creating the openings.  Rhonda Lennon said she's seen online comments indicating that people are fleeing because the district is so bad.  She asked whether Habrat had information that could counter that claim,  such as a report putting CMS turnover into national context.  He said he'd look into it,  but repeated what he's said before:  The biggest reason for increased turnover is educators seeking jobs in other fields.  "Our people are good,  they're attractive and other people want them,"  Habrat said.

Joyce Waddell asked which employers are luring away CMS employees.  Habrat said exit surveys don't ask that question.

Vice Chairman Mary McCray asked for numbers on teacher and principal retirements.  Habrat said the numbers are "not huge,"  with about 600 teachers retiring this year  (CMS has almost 8,800).  He said he didn't have numbers on principal retirements handy.

"Could we get those?" McCray pressed.

Waddell asked whether assistant principals are getting opportunities for promotion. She said she's been hearing from African American men that they tend to be assigned to handle discipline and get stuck there.

Habrat said principal openings are  "highly competitive,"  with four assistants for every principal job. (The latest payroll indicates a 2:1 ratio, counting assistant principals and deans of students. Habrat said today his calculation includes facilitators, who are also part of the leadership "pipeline.")  Habrat and interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh said assistant principals need to seek leadership opportunities so they'll have a track record when an opening occurs.

Board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart told Habrat that she has been hearing diversity concerns similar to what Waddell voiced,  and urged his department to "do what we can to remove barriers."

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

NYT on Murdoch, Klein and Gorman

Peter Gorman's resignation as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in June put Rupert Murdoch's new educational technology venture on the radar for many of us in this area.  Gorman took an executive post with the new education division of News Corp.,  working for former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein,  shortly before the British phone-hacking scandal rocked Murdoch's empire.

Today the New York Times reports on how the scandal has absorbed Klein's energy and sidetracked him from pursuing the educational venture. Gorman is cited as one of the "biggest names in education" hired to assist Klein.  "They’ll most likely carry out Mr. Klein’s vision without his full attention as long as News Corporation remains caught up in the hacking scandal," writes reporter Amy Chozick.

Meanwhile, yesterday's inbox brought the news that Wireless Generation,  an educational software and assessment company acquired by News Corp. in 2010,  has bought Intel-Assess, a California test-development company.

Intel-Assess  "helps school districts meet their instructional goals by providing well-researched,  rigorous assessment content to drive student achievement,"   the Wireless Generation release says.  "With the acquisition of Intel-Assess,  a premier developer of custom and finished education content,  Wireless Generation will significantly increase the number of assessment items and related tools available to complement its formative assessment platform.  In addition , the acquisition will help Wireless Generation make available high quality assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards to customers in thousands of districts across the U.S."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Magnets and choice in Reno

Reader Ashley Holmes wanted to know what incoming Superintendent Heath Morrison thinks about magnet schools.  His short answer:  "I love having options for students." 

The Washoe County School District doesn't have as many magnets as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  but Morrison recently launched magnet programs for gifted and talented students in four middle schools  (I'll be writing more about that).  Like CMS partial magnets, they're housed within a nonmagnet school.  Morrison said when it comes to the full vs. partial question,  his most important rule is "that form follows function."

Morrison has also started "signature academies" in high schools,  which offer themes ranging from health sciences to International Baccalaureate and offer seats to students who live outside the school zone.  Morrison says they're not the same as CMS magnets,  but it's another form of academic choice.

Like North Carolina,  Nevada also has charter schools  --  including eight that are sponsored by Morrison's district.  They were created about 10 years ago,  well before he arrived in 2009.  While I was in Reno,  Morrison told a parents' group he doesn't think charters are the answer to the nation's educational challenges,  but he supports those that provide a clear benefit to students.

"I am a fan of great schools,"  he said.  "If they're great charter schools I'm happy.  If they're great public schools I'm happy."

I visited the district-sponsored Academy for Career Education, a charter high school that trains students for careers in construction, architecture,  design and diesel technology.  It was created by construction executives and former Washoe County School District employees who thought the district wasn't doing enough career education.  Morrison calls it one of the district's best charters.

Mike Cate,  a contractor who helped create the academy,  said Morrison has been more supportive than his predecessors.  "The previous superintendents,  they looked at us more as a competitive school,"  Cate said.  "As long as it's an environment where the kids learn,  (Morrison) is for it."

ACE students go to school in a converted building at the Reno airport and do a lot of hands-on work -- everything from building houses to using the latest design software.  One advantage of being a charter,  Cate said,  is that students who fight are "fired,"  just like they would be on a construction job. When you have students working with nail guns, hammers and power tools,  he said,  you can't afford discipline problems.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Project LIFT starts making grants

Project LIFT will report on its first round of grant recipients at Tuesday's Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting.

According to the powerpoint, those will include an array of local and out-of-state groups working to recruit and develop staff, provide summer programs for kids and help families tap into technology. Project LIFT, as most of you know, is a public-private partnership focused on West Charlotte High and the eight schools that feed into it.  While the organizing has been in the news for more than a year,  this summer marks the start of services for kids.

Several weeks ago, I requested numbers on teachers who were offered retention bonuses or forced to transfer from the LIFT schools, as well as results on the others who were given a choice.  I've renewed that request and hope to have more to report next week. (Update: Tahira Stalberte said today those numbers will be ready "in about a week.")  I'm also curious about how close the group is getting to its goal of having $55 million pledged by June to spend over the next five years.

While I'm updating (and giving blog readers a respite from Reno reports),  I didn't forget about doing a story on the 2012 CMS payroll.  I had one written and ready to run,  but after I hopped on the plane,  CMS reported that the file they'd given me omitted Race to the Top bonuses.  I'll update the database and the story soon.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bell schedules and Heath Morrison

When a caller asked if I knew the superintendent finalists' stands on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bell schedules, I politely dismissed the question, figuring they had bigger issues to grapple with.

Now that I'm in Reno, I'm thinking that caller was wiser than I was.  Turns out Heath Morrison,  superintendent of the Washoe County School District,  has been dealing with some of the same issues his new district has:  Changing the times schools start and dismiss, and adding more class time for elementary students. The difference in his approach may say something about his ability to sort out hard feelings in CMS.

The short version:  CMS leaders simply announced changes in school hours and added 45 minutes to the elementary day.  Morrison,  who is widely described as a guy who likes to move fast,  decided he needed more time to talk through these issues with faculty and parents.

The situations are not identical.  Former Superintendent Peter Gorman pushed back the hours of some elementary and middle schools to save money on busing and extended the elementary day by 45 minutes, effective this school year.  At the time,  CMS was in turmoil over school closings and possible layoffs,  so those changes got little public discussion.  Now some parents and teachers are saying they were blindsided by changes they should have been asked to help shape.

Washoe has also faced severe budget cuts, but Morrison says that's not what's driving the possible scheduling changes. He wanted to revise his district's complex school calendar and add 30 minutes to the time elementary students spend in class. Like Gorman,  he figured he could keep the kids in class longer without extending the paid day for teachers. And he was hearing from middle school parents who wanted their schools to start later.

Morrison's team launched an extensive public discussion of the calendar changes,  including more than 40 community meetings.  He says he heard from teachers that squeezing out planning time wouldn't be good for them or for students. The result: Washoe slowed down on the changes, with the calendar shift slated for 2013-14 and the others farther in the future.

Morrison says many of the things people are upset about in CMS  --  whether it's bell schedules or testing and teacher evaluations  --  are not bad ideas,  but ideas that were rushed through without listening to people who could have refined them.

It's worth noting that Washoe's unionized employees have more power to push back,  and that it remains to be seen whether Morrison's current district can craft more popular solutions than CMS has. CMS leaders have also made extensive efforts to engage the public on tough decisions,  though many have complained that those efforts fell short.

During the last two days,  I've repeatedly heard that Morrison is good at listening and rethinking his plans when he hears a better idea.  His notion of public engagement seems to go deeper than what CMS is used to doing.

Pretty soon we'll start to see whether that's enough to win hearts and minds in Mecklenburg County.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Teachers: It's not a prank call

You can't blame Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers for being skeptical when some guy calls from out of the blue saying he's Heath Morrison,  the just-hired superintendent.  Morrison says after he introduces himself, he tends to get reactions such as "No, really -- who are you?"

Morrison,  an early riser who makes his Charlotte calls before he starts his job in Reno, Nev.,  is working an entrance strategy and an exit plan at the same time.  He won't be in Charlotte for the CMS budget pitch to county commissioners,  but he says he's left messages for all nine commissioners to make his introductions.

As he was calling civic and political leaders,  he realized the symbolism of talking to them before he connects with his own work force.  So he asked zone superintendents for names of teachers to talk to. Now,  he says,  he's trying to match his contacts with Mecklenburg officials with calls to teachers, principals and parents.

Meanwhile,  in Nevada,  it's been interesting to watch Morrison do an extended farewell tour.  At 6 a.m. Tuesday,  he was at Channel 2,  where he does a monthly TV appearance. He got hugs, handshakes and hearty praise for his three years leading Washoe County Schools from the staff there.

"So you're going South?  Don't mix jelly with your grits,"  one cameraman said.

Morrison on 96.5 radio
Shortly afterward,  he was doing the Bill & Connie morning show on a local radio station,  where the hosts laughed about their introduction to Morrison.  They had done an April Fool's show announcing that his budget-strained district was going to start charging fees to ride the bus  --  as well as offering movies and popcorn during the ride for a price.  People who didn't get the joke deluged Washoe County Schools with outraged calls,  and Morrison asked to go on the show the next day.  He's been a frequent guest ever since,  and the hosts keep a toy school bus with Morrison's photo taped to it.

Morrison didn't bat an eye when asked to join in on a "Hollywood Trash" discussion of Whitney Houston's drug addiction,  using it to talk about making connections with students and staff:  "We owe it to people we care about and love to push past what's visible."

Host Bill Schultz told Morrison he was "super stoked about everything you've done for the last three years, glad to be able to call you friend."

Morrison does have his media critics.  Andrew Barbano,  a labor activist and columnist for the Daily Sparks Tribune, has been writing about what he dubs "The Mythological Morrison Miracle," questioning whether the increased graduation rate Morrison touts reflects reality (Sparks is a city adjacent to Reno, also in Washoe County). But overall,  Morrison is clearly adept at building relationships in the media and the community,  a skill the CMS board hopes to tap as it strives to rally confidence.

(I'm also visiting schools and discussing serious issues while I'm here; more to come.)