Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Morrison hears about transfers, raises

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison left Monday night's employee meeting with a list of new things to look into,  including the fairness of the teacher transfer process and questions about combined elementary/middle schools.

"My concern was that people weren't going to put issues on the table,"  Morrison said after the meeting,  which was closed to the public and press.  But he said about 150 employees showed up,  and many were eager to tell him how he needs to fix morale and trust.

Morrison,  who started July 1,  wasn't defending old practices or laying out new plans.  The latter will come sometime after his meetings with the public and employees end in mid-November.

That won him high marks with some who attended.  Lachone Winston,  a teacher at Bruns Academy,  said Morrison seemed intent on getting each speaker's point,  rather than giving an  "OK, but ..."  type response.  "He is a listener,"  she said.

Among the issues that came up,  according to Morrison and participants,  was whether the teacher transfer process works as it should and whether students in the growing number of K-8 schools are prepared for the transition to high school.  Morrison said he didn't have answers yet,  but  "trust me, tomorrow I'm going to be asking questions."

Of course,  raises came up as well  --  in particular,  the fact that some administrators got large market adjustment raises in addition to the 3 percent given to all employees.  Teachers were not eligible for the market bumps,  which are based on a 2007 study of jobs comparable to some CMS salaried and hourly posts.  "In our break-out session,  we were hot about that,"  Winston said.

After the session,  Morrison voiced frustration that the market hikes are creating resentment just as teachers finally get their first raise in three years.  But he declined to say whether interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh and his staff erred in pushing through those raises.

The market adjustments,  which cost a little over $4 million in county money,  were part of the raise plan Hattabaugh started pitching in January.  The board approved a specific plan in late June,  just before Morrison officially started work,  and approved a final budget last week.  Morrison said he was mainly aware of the 3 percent raises for everyone,  and started looking into specifics of the market hikes as public questions arose.

"In theory I agree with the market adjustment.  It's the right thing to do,"  he said.  But he said "the timing of it is not good,"  and the district was too slow to offer details and answer questions.

Some of the specifics are continuing to raise eyebrows.  Market raises went to principals who had already gotten significant raises when they were promoted,  in the five years after the study was done.  At least a couple of people in temporary jobs,  including one in a two-year Broad Foundation management training program,  got raises.  And perhaps most confounding,  state Rep. Tricia Cotham,  who isn't currently working for CMS,  is listed as getting a $6,883 annual raise.  Cotham was an assistant principal at East Mecklenburg High when she went on unpaid leave to serve in the state House.  CMS agreed to keep her on the payroll so she can return without penalty.  Her raise would kick in only after her return.

Meanwhile,  those who want to hear from Morrison or ask him questions will have plenty of chances Thursday.  He'll be on WFAE's Charlotte Talks that morning.  He's the speaker at a lunch sponsored by the Ballantyne and SouthPark branches of the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce at the Ballantyne hotel;  it's open to nonmembers who register and pay $45 for lunch.  And at 6 p.m. he'll hold the first of his public town hall meetings,  at Rocky River High in Mint Hill.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Classroom tech clock is ticking

With less than a month before school starts,  it's time to catch up on plans for the digital revolution that's looming in classrooms.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is still moving toward a  "bring your own technology"  environment with wifi in every school,  though the pace has slowed somewhat during this summer's leadership transition.  Many public and private schools around the region are considering similar moves.  I'll be getting an update from educators soon.  Meanwhile,  if you're shopping for tablets, smart phones or other devices for your kids to take to school  --  or wondering what to buy  --  please give me a call  (704-358-5033)  or shoot me an email (ahelms@charlotteobserver.com) for a weekend story.

The CMS board will hold a public hearing on revisions to its student internet use policy on Aug. 15.  That "digital citizenship" policy,  designed to prepare for students to use their own devices at school,  generated lively commentary when I blogged about it in June.  So I was surprised and dismayed when a public hearing last week drew absolutely no speakers.  I felt like I bore some of the blame  --  I took a vacation right before the meeting and didn't alert readers it was coming.  The good news is there's another chance,  and I'll highlight it again closer to the time.  The hearing will come right before the board's vote,  so if you want to weigh in sooner,  consider sending a written comment.

Hundreds of CMS students will have new classroom iPads in August,  thanks to the district's program offering the devices to teaching teams with good plans for putting them to use.  As many of you have noted,  such devices can be both a blessing and a challenge.  THE Journal (it stands for Technology Horizons in  Education) offers this list of  "Five Things Not To Do During an iPad Rollout."

And as always,  keep me posted on questions, issues and trends you're seeing as schools go digital.  I'm solidly in the digital immigrant generation and some of this flies right over my head,  but tech-savvy readers are a big help.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

A supercharged CMS newsroom?

Terry Abbott,  who comes to town this week to review Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' communications program,  has strong views about school districts shaping how they're viewed.

"School districts must create their own supercharged newsrooms to find and deliver compelling, dramatic stories about success  —  and failure too. The sea change occurring in the news business gives school districts more opportunities to find and tell their own great stories and get more positive coverage in the media,"  Abbott wrote in a 2009 District Administration article titled  "Taking Control of Your District's News."

Superintendent Heath Morrison is paying $20,000 for a communication audit by Abbott, who chairs Drive West Communications.  Abbott is a former chief of staff for the U.S. Education Department, former press secretary for Houston Independent School District -- and even a former newspaper reporter.

Communication audits Abbott did for Wake County Schools in 2011 and for Washoe County Schools when Morrison was hired to head that district in 2009 may offer a glimpse of what he'll be looking at and thinking when he scopes out the scene in CMS.  Two years later,  Morrison described the "communications transformation"  that followed from that audit  (you've got to love an official PowerPoint that includes the header "Official Test Score Reports = SNOOZEFEST!").

Covering a communications audit poses a unique challenge for education reporters.  Abbott will likely be critiquing our coverage and how well it conveys the CMS message.  And he has invited a group of education reporters to provide input for the audit.  It's a sensible request from someone who wants to get the full picture,  and after 10 years of covering CMS I'm chock full of opinions about what works and what doesn't. But reporters don't participate in issues we cover,  and after talking with my editors,  we decided the Observer would not attend.

Morrison says the findings of this audit will be made public as he prepares his plans to move forward.  I'll be eager to read and report on what Abbott says about CMS,  and even more curious to see how his recommendations play out.

Friday, July 27, 2012

CMS helps launch suburban coalition

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is among 10 large countywide and suburban districts nationwide launching a coalition to make sure the needs of suburban schools aren't overlooked in federal policy, according to a recent EdWeek report.

"The needs of some of these larger,  suburban,  very successful districts are different from some of the  'crisis-of-the-moment'  issues you see in some of the city districts," coalition chairman Jack Dale of Fairfax County, Va., is quoted as saying.

Robert Avossa,  who left CMS to become superintendent of Fulton County Schools in suburban Atlanta, is quoted as saying districts like his face some of the same challenges as urban districts,  including a growing number of students from low-income or non-English-speaking homes.  But they're sometimes left out of policies focused on aiding the most distressed schools.

Ericka Ellis-Stewart,  chairman of the CMS board, said Superintendent Heath Morrison participated in a conference call about the coalition and plans to brief the board soon.

Thanks to the MeckEd newsletter for the heads-up on this article.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

CMS raises: Quirks and ironies

The release of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' market adjustment raises has raised questions and highlighted some strange twists in the system.

Let's start with principal pay, a hot topic for years.  Teachers, principals and assistant principals are all on state pay schedules, leading some to wonder why the administrators were eligible for market bumps while teachers were not.

That's because the state scales prescribe exactly what a teacher makes based on experience and credentials,  but give a range for administrators,  says CMS Human Resources Chief Dan Habrat.  CMS used the market raises to bump 58 principals and 34 assistants higher in their range.  Thus, East Meck Principal Rick Parker,  whose $93,000 salary was apparently the most out of whack based on the 2007 study,  ends up with a 19 percent raise after a $14,744 adjustment and the 3 percent across-the-board raise.

I was surprised to see strategic staffing principals on the adjustment list.   In his five years with CMS,  Peter Gorman made that program his showcase,  tapping top principals to bring a team into struggling schools.  Those principals got 10 percent raises,  and even in the midst of the recession he and the board found money to keep expanding that program.  Does this mean those top performers were still below 2007 market wages,  even after their 10 percent hike?

Well,  no.  Habrat told me last night that strategic staffing is considered a  "bonus program,"  with the 10 percent an add-on for taking on that specific challenge.  The market raises were calculated based on "core salaries" before the 10 percent hikes,  he said.

So does that means the 10 percent raises go away when the three-year strategic staffing term is completed and/or the principal moves to another school?   Again,  no.  Principals keep the 10 percent strategic staffing raise and the market hike as long as they're in a principal job with CMS (or even if they're reassigned but not demoted,  as witnessed by the fact that an assistant principal who was briefly a high school principal is consistently one of CMS' highest-paid employees).

An irony emerged when CMS released the long-awaited word on who got the top market raise of  $17,202.  It went to an executive director leading a five-year,  federally-funded pilot program designed to see if teacher performance pay could boost student achievement.  The job Susan Norwood now holds didn't exist when CMS did the 2007 study and won't exist by the end of this school year.  There's no sign yet that the TIF-LEAP merit-pay program yielded clear evidence on student achievement  --  but that doesn't matter,  because the market raises aren't based on program results or individual performance.

Back in 2007,  Deloitte Consulting looked at eight CMS executive director jobs  (transportation, public information, professional development, employee relations, human resources, budget, accounting and partnerships)  and compared those wages with pay for similar jobs in education,  government and nonprofit agencies.  The market scale they came up with is what was used to determine whether today's executive directors needed a bump to make competitive salaries,  Habrat said.

Finally,  it's worth noting that Superintendent Heath Morrison is launching studies of the effectiveness of his communications and HR departments,  saying both are crucial to the strategic plan he'll unveil after his first 100 days.  Without pointing fingers at individuals,  I think it's fair to say this provides a case study in room for improvement.

A month after the school board approved this pay plan,  CMS released specifics to employees and the public.  On Wednesday,  all employees got an email saying they could check their individual raise eligibility on the CMS  "employee self service" system.  But that system told teachers they weren't eligible for even the 3 percent raises.  Habrat said last night that was an error;  updating the teacher pay scales is more complicated and will take a few more days,  he said.  CMS is following up today with a correction.

Likewise,  I left the office at 8 p.m. Wednesday with no answers to follow-up questions based on the raise list.  Habrat called at 9,  after I emailed him, Morrison and spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte to say a "Habrat and Morrison weren't available to answer questions" story was online and headed for print  (Stalberte says Morrison was tied up in back-to-back community meetings).

Morrison has vowed to be nimble and responsive to public and press questions.  He and his team are going to face their share of curve balls in the months ahead.  But when you've got a month to prepare, we're still playing slow-pitch.

Update 5 p.m.:  Christine Mast has shared a CMS email noting that the $3.6 million county cost for the market raises was an estimate that turned out to be low.  The new email sets the tab at $4.35 million from the county,  including benefits,  and an additional $1.1 million from other sources,  such as federal grants and revenue from the lunch and after-school programs.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Three decline CMS board raises

Board members Rhonda Lennon,  Eric Davis and Tim Morgan said Tuesday they won't accept the 3 percent raises that the board unanimously approved for all Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees, including the board.

We're talking a token sum.  A 3 percent bump means the chairman's annual salary would go from $15,909 to $16,386,  an increase of $477.  The other eight would see their pay go from $12,237 to $12,605,  up $367 (there's some rounding in here).  If all nine board members declined their raises,  the district would have just over $3,400 to put into another cause  -- barely a blip in a $1.2 billion budget.

All three acknowledged the money won't accomplish much,  but said it symbolizes how much the board still needs to do to make employees, students and families whole after budget cuts in recent years.  Not only did teachers and other staff go three years without raises,  Morgan noted,  but the board closed schools,  changed hours,  limited some bus service and added athletic participation fees.

"It's those items that still bother me,"  said Morgan, adding that forgoing a raise is  "a reminder to me that we still have more work to do."

Davis,  a West Point graduate,  cited a military tradition:  "If it's time to eat,  the officers go to the back of the line. For me,  it's a statement of principle and priority."

Lennon,  who voted against the budget in the spring,  said she still has qualms about some items but voted for it Tuesday to show support for Superintendent Heath Morrison and other CMS employees.

Other board members said there's no point giving up the raises.  Richard McElrath noted that school board members make less than county commissioners and Charlotte City Council members.  "What do they do that's more important than what we do?  I think we should accept it because I think we earned it."

"The work that we do,  we have to value it and not minimize it,"  agreed Vice Chairman Mary McCray.

The trio aren't the first board members to say "no thanks" to a raise.  Larry Gauvreau did the same several years ago,  when he objected to a budget he called bloated.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Charlotte's charter choices growing

Updated Wednesday afternoon: The Charlotte region, already a haven for charter schools, is poised to add more to the menu, as the state's Charter School Advisory Board starts winnowing applications for 2013-14. Seven applications of the 25 applications that got the panel's nod this week are from Mecklenburg and surrounding counties (the state Board of Education makes the final call). One of the five rejected is from Mecklenburg, according to a report from Eddie Goodall of Monroe, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.

I wrote about the charter boom in April, when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools planners said growth in the area's existing charters would shift about 1,000 more students to charters in 2012-13. A state tally shows that in the year that just ended, Mecklenburg County sent almost 8,300 students to charters and 137,500 to  CMS -- by far the highest total number of charter students of any N.C. county, and the highest charter-to-school district ratio in any of the state's large districts.

The seven Charlotte-area applicants that got approval from the advisory board would open up spots for about 3,000 students in 2013-14, growing to more than 8,000 as they expand and add grades in later years. The two largest would be located just outside Mecklenburg (students can cross county lines for charters), while the other five would target disadvantaged urban students.

The state Board of Education plans to vote on new charters in September. Here's what I know about the Charlotte-area charters that got preliminary approval.

Aristotle Preparatory Academy, a K-12 school which would be run by the national Challenge Foundation Academy chain and would target students in west Charlotte, with a focus on science, technology and math. Plans call for opening with 200 students in K-3, eventually growing to 950 in all grades.

Cameron Creek Charter would serve at-risk K-5 students in impoverished Charlotte communities, opening with 260 students and growing to 360. The founder is Sylvia Cole, who lists herself as both a CMS teacher and an officer of the Strawberry Mansion Area Renaissance Trust Corp. in Philadelphia.

Charlotte Choice Charter would target disadvantaged K-8 students in west Charlotte, opening with about 200 in K-5 and growing to just over 300. The founder is Linda Cruz, listed as a former teacher at CMS' Providence High and a former regional director for Academic Achievers Tutoring Program.

Cabarrus Charter Academy and Langtree Charter Academy would be run by the N.C. Charter Educational Foundation, which is associated with the Florida-based Charter Schools USA management company. They will offer a college-prep K-12 program with eventual enrollment of more than 2,300 in each school. Each plans to open with about 660 in grades K-6.

Invest Collegiate will be located in Charlotte's Wilmore neighborhood and aims to mix low-income students in walking distance with upper- and middle-income students for a diverse K-12 learning experience. The founding board includes educators from CMS' Eastway Middle and Pine Lake Prep charter school. Enrollment would start at about 560 in K-6 and grow to more than 1,100.

StudentFirst Academy, a private school in west Mecklenburg County, is seeking permission to convert to a charter school. The plan calls for it to serve about 600 K-12 students eventually, opening with just over 300 in K-6.

Meanwhile, the advisory board rejected the plan for Thunderbird Preparatory Academy, which wanted to serve almost 1,300 K-12 students with an international leadership program in north Mecklenburg.

Still seeking CMS raise details

If Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is spending $3.6 million in county money to give some staff five-figure raises this year,  it seems reasonable to ask who's getting those raises and how the market rate for those jobs was calculated.

I blogged about the bare-bones info at the end of June,  figuring more details would land the next week.  I was wrong.

Late Tuesday,  I was told once again that nothing would be released until all employees getting market adjustments  (which come before the 3 percent across-the-board raise that was just approved)  have been notified.  In place of the 2007 market study used to calculate the fair wage for CMS employees, I got this excerpt from a draft and this PowerPoint presentation to the school board from 2007.

Despite the instructions on keeping the draft data private,  any report to the board should have been considered a public document for the past five years.

CMS leaders began planning for the 2012-13 budget last fall,  and went public with the case for raises in January.  You'd think top administrators would have dusted off the study and been ready to explain how they calculated market rates and how,  if at all,  the pre-recession data has been adjusted for today's market.  If some salaried staff have been underpaid by $17,000 for the last five years,  wouldn't it make sense to identify the jobs in question and show what was used for comparison?  Are they making that much less than people in the same job in other school districts?  Did CMS compare,  say,  the salary of a CMS engineer with that of an engineer in private industry?

Superintendent Heath Morrison replied to an email this morning saying this topic  "has not been on my radar yet,"  and that he will try to get the information "ASAP."  Interestingly,  his schedule shows he plans to spend a good bit of the next two days in communication audit meetings.  Some of that will no doubt be focused on districtwide  "messaging" and ways to get CMS information directly to parents and interested parties.  But I hope they'll also talk about better ways to respond to queries from the media and public on such high-interest topics as raises,  school technology and principal turnover.

Update 4:30 p.m. Wednesday: LaTarzja Henry, head of communications for CMS, says she has located the full 2007 study and is about to deliver it. Specifics of the raises will be released Wednesday, after the board approves the 2012-13 budget Tuesday night, she said.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

James Ross: More than met my eye

At the James Ross memorial/roast yesterday, I was reminded of the limits of my own perspective.

When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board appointed Ross to a vacancy in 2008,  my reaction was "James who?"  He hadn't held any of the high-profile posts that would get him on a reporter's radar.  And while I liked him  --  he was hard not to like  --  his one year on the board didn't leave me with a strong impression of what he had accomplished.

Ross died Sunday at 77.  Writing a news obituary opened my eyes to the contributions he's been making to Charlotte since,  well,  about the time I was born.  I went to the United House of Prayer for All People on Beatties Ford Road on Wednesday because I was intrigued  --  not least by the fact that Ross had asked his friends to get together and tell stories about him before he died.  Sadly,  cancer won that race.

Hundreds came to pay their respects. The event was two hours,  and Charlotte City Councilman David Howard tried hard to enforce a two-minute limit for speakers.  It was still hard to fit in everyone who wanted to tell Ross stories.

People talked about Ross and his lifelong friend James Polk,  "two guys from Grier Town" who never stopped trying to make their neighborhood and their city better.  They talked about Ross dealing with race riots and Ross on the golf course.  They talked about his famously lengthy conversations,  his knack for making everyone feel like his best friend and his devotion to helping young people better themselves.

We heard blues and gospel and a Siddha yoga chant  (Ross was devoted to meditation).  There were tributes from an array of local and state officials,  Republican and Democrat.  Several said they'd been on opposite sides of issues with Ross,  but that he could disagree with humor and respect.  Many talked about his independent mind and the value he placed on common sense over ideology.

It was a great reminder that much of the work of problem-solving and community-building takes place outside the realm of official action.  In the brief time that our professional lives overlapped,  Ross always made me smile.  I left his "roast" smiling,  too.  And I left with a deepened respect for all he'd done when I wasn't around to see it.

Eaker with her granddaughter, Kate Gresham
If I may,  as school board members put it,  take a point of personal privilege,  I'd also like to note the passing of Kat Eaker,  a longtime CMS educator and a friend.  She,  too,  was taken by cancer on Sunday.

Years before I started covering education,  Kat enthralled me with her stories of life in the classroom at West Mecklenburg High.  Her passion for helping her students improve their future,  sometimes against steep odds,  was my introduction to the nobility and challenge of a teacher's life.  When I sense my reporting is veering into dry abstraction,  I think about the drama, humor, compassion and struggle in her accounts.

It's a standard I can't match. I'll miss her, and I know many others will too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

PROACT tapped for Omaha mop-up

PROACT Search will lead the  "let's try this again"  search for a superintendent of Omaha Public Schools, and the firm's recent work for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools was a selling point,  the Omaha World-Herald reports.

The first time around,  Omaha chose Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates over PROACT.

"That search led to the hiring of Nancy Sebring, then superintendent of the Des Moines Public Schools. She resigned from the Omaha job last month after sexually explicit emails that she sent from her work account became public,"  reporter Jonathan Braden writes.  (Read a previous post about the explicit emails here.)

Meanwhile,  PROACT helped the CMS board hire Heath Morrison,  the reigning national superintendent of the year,  from Reno, Nev.   CEO Gary Solomon was quoted as calling that placement  "a tremendous success."

Solomon told the World-Herald his firm puts applicants through "an extensive reference and background process,"  though the article didn't address whether PROACT reviews emails that are public record.  Sebring was tripped up when newspapers in Omaha and Des Moines requested her emails related to the job change,  which also contained extensive references to her affair with a married man.

On another topic,  I'm curious what people are thinking and hearing about Morrison's new appointments.

I'm most intrigued by Frank Barnes, who takes over testing and data for CMS after doing the same for Boston Public Schools.  CMS has some mop-up of its own to do on that front,  after extensive errors were revealed in last year's school progress reports.

Barnes comes with an impressive background,  including two degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and work with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University.  The bio provided by CMS says he devised an index to measure school performance and led the district's strategy to reform struggling schools.  (Read the CMS bios of Morrison's management team here.)

I couldn't find details at the Boston website,  but did find the superintendent's  "Acceleration Agenda,"  which lays out the vision for data use and school reforms.  It called for Boston to launch school progress reports in fall 2010; here's an example of one.  Barnes is in the midst of a big transition,  but I hope to catch up to him soon to learn more.

Monday, July 9, 2012

An ombudsman for CMS?

With a new superintendent in town, everybody's tossing around ideas for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. So here's mine:  CMS could use an ombudsman's office, created with the district's blessing but run by an outside entity.

Heath Morrison will blanket Mecklenburg County, talking to people about strategic plans and new policies.  But the best big-picture work can be undone by the frustration people face when they feel like their children are lost in a bureaucracy.

An ombudsman's office could serve as a starting point for newcomers or parents flung into new situations. Staff could explain the quirks of student assignment here,  or help parents figure out that services for gifted kids are listed under T (for "talent development").  Peter Gorman had a similar idea when he tried to launch a customer service department six years ago.  But that project was one of the first to go when money got tight.

That's the first reason to go outside.  Charities,  foundations and corporations are lining up to support public education.  If private money paid for an office to support families, tax money could stay focused on classrooms.  Project LIFT is planning something along these lines, with the Knight Foundation pledging just over $1 million to create a community engagement office for nine westside schools. But there are 150 more schools beyond that zone.

The bigger reason is independence.  An ombudsman's office would go beyond basic information to help resolve disputes between CMS and people who feel like they've hit a brick wall.  It would push past employees who have given bad information or who aren't trying hard enough to find a solution. It would let Morrison and the board know if there's a dysfunctional process or a recalcitrant administrator creating  problems. That's a tough thing to do when the people in question are your colleagues  --  or superiors.

An ombudsman wouldn't make everyone happy.  I get calls about student discipline, personnel actions, bus routes, special education and school assignments.  Often I realize the caller wants something CMS simply can't give,  for legal, ethical or practical reasons.  But I also hear things like, "Thank you for just responding; you're the first person who's listened to me."  And I know how much it means when you can help someone navigate past a roadblock.

So that's my idea, worth what you paid for it.  What about the rest of you?  If CMS is making a fresh start, what should the leaders put on the list?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Name that cabinet

Who wants to make a prediction about what we'll see when new Superintendent Heath Morrison unveils his first top-level appointments on Monday?

He's supposed to name a deputy,  a chief operating officer, a chief of staff and a chief accountability officer, as well as "at least one" principal.  Blog readers include a lot of people with inside information and/or strong opinions about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  so here's your chance to claim bragging rights if you can forecast the picks.

And, perhaps more important, what are you looking for in terms of issues and perspectives?

Here's what I've got:  Ann Clark, chief academic officer and a finalist for the job Morrison got,  seems likely to land one of the top posts.  Deputy superintendent maybe?  The combination of deputy, chief operating officer and chief of staff is one I haven't seen in recent years,  so I'm not sure how the duties will break out.  It's hard to imagine Clark won't stay involved with the big  "common core"  academic changes that are looming,  and/or with efforts to recruit, train and support strong principals.

I'd also keep an eye out for Jane Woodburn,  deputy superintendent of Washoe County Schools in Reno, Nev., the district Morrison just left.  She worked with him in Montgomery County,  Md.,  and he brought her to Reno as his top lieutenant.  She was just passed over for the superintendency there.  A move to Charlotte doesn't seem out of the question.

Morrison has consistently said he's looking for excellence and diversity in his cabinet.  More than two thirds of the district's students are nonwhite (mostly African American and Hispanic),  so I'd be surprised not to see at least one person of color in his first round of appointments.

If it helps with your guessing, here are links to Morrison's cabinet in Reno and to the Broad Superintendent's Academy,  which provides training for administrators who aspire to leadership posts in districts like CMS.  Morrison and Clark are both Broad alums (Morrison is currently a featured profile on the site).

On the jobs and issues:  Accountability,  which involves testing and data,  has long been a crucial and high-profile job.  The new person won't have much say in how much testing goes on,  but will be responsible for carrying out extensive changes being mandated by the state. And that person will be charged with restoring confidence in a department that bungled some important data and lost most of its leadership last year.

Technology chief has generally been a below-the-radar job,  but the emergence of digital learning and wifi in schools has changed that.  I'm not sure whether Morrison plans to put technology under one of the other administrative posts or will fill the "chief information officer" post vacated by Scott Muri.  Whoever lands the technology role will have to be nimble at grasping the ever-changing world of digital technology, wise in spending large amounts of public money and skilled at communicating with parents and partners who will be tapped to provide digital access.  Maybe when that job is filled,  I can finally find out how many iPads CMS bought in 2011-12 and what they cost.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Mixed results from CMS small schools

Splitting Olympic and Garinger high schools into smaller schools produced some benefits in school climate but no clear academic gains, a CMS study has found.

Neither setting had a clear advantage, the study found  -- a bit of a surprise to me, given that before Peter Gorman left as superintendent last year, he decided to reunite Garinger but keep Olympic as five schools on one campus.

"Given the wide variance in academic achievement within each group of small schools,  it appears that this concept has a positive impact on the culture and climate at that school but does not greatly improve academic achievement,"  says the study, written by Samantha Kane Salvador and Kelly Dever.

The study doesn't look at small, free-standing specialty high schools such as Performance Learning Center or Cato Middle College High.

If you click to the study,  you will note it's dated last summer.  I'm posting it now because the arrival of a new superintendent means new discussion of the best ways to structure schools to boost achievement and graduation rates.  Splitting up big high schools was a national trend when CMS dived in six years ago. Like so many reform efforts, that approach has generally fallen short of the major benefits hoped for at launch, though there have been glimmers of promise.

I have long thought one of the ironies of CMS is that the district does in-depth studies of its big initiatives,  then "releases" them by quietly posting on a page that's five obscure clicks from the CMS home page.  If I were queen of the universe,  each of those reports  --  on such topics as intensive reading, strategic staffing and Teach For America  --  would get a thoughtful review and discussion at a public school board meeting  (I'd gladly forgo some of the routine departmental updates to make time). Since I'm merely master of this blog,  I'm adding a standing link to the research page in hopes that some of you eagle-eyed readers can help me spot when new items have landed.  Look for  "CMS research reports"  under education links at right.  Bright Beginnings, preK-8 schools and The New Teacher Project are among the topics being studied,  with no release date announced.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Heath and Dallas: The almost-match

Heath Morrison, who started work today as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent, was one of two favorites in a secret search for Dallas superintendent,  The Dallas Morning News reports.

Morrison confirms most of the report by Matthew Haag,  which Haag attributes to "two people with knowledge of the superintendent search." But he says he told Dallas  "no thanks"  before that board made its decision, opting instead to pursue the CMS job.

Morrison,  who had been named national Superintendent of the Year in February,  has said all along that he was approached by other districts and chose Charlotte because of the district's achievements and the chance to be close to family.

Morrison at Endhaven Elementary
Haag's report says Morrison, then superintendent of Washoe County schools in Reno,  Nev.,  was among five candidates brought to the downtown Omni Dallas Hotel,  where "board members walked into a private room on the second floor, then slipped out a back door to another room where the secret interviews took place."  That session took place in late March or early April.

Morrison was also among an unspecified number brought to the Charlotte airport for secret interviews with the CMS board March 20, and was among three finalists brought back to meet the public April 11.

Haag reports that the Dallas search came down to two candidates:  Morrison and Mike Miles, who ultimately got the job. Miles was superintendent of a much smaller district in Colorado Springs.  Both were invited back for more detailed interviews,  and one board member pushed to add a third,  Michael Sorrell,  president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas.

After that interview, "the pick became clearer, according to the two people,"  Haag's report continues.  "Miles promised trustees a more radical shakeup of the district and offered details on what it would take, a person said. Morrison,  who told trustees he was also interviewing elsewhere,  didn't offer as thorough a plan."

The Dallas article says none of the candidates who were not chosen responded to requests for comment.

Morrison,  making his first-day appearances in Charlotte,  told me Dallas,  a larger district than CMS,  offered significantly more money and the advantage of only making one finalist public.  But he said he decided to take a chance as one of three finalists in CMS,  in part because he and his wife have family on the East Coast.  Immediately after the second private interview in Dallas,  he said,  he called the search firm to pull out, telling them "I felt like I needed to pursue Charlotte."

Meanwhile,  I requested the minutes from the CMS board's closed sessions leading up to Morrison's hire. Here's what I got on the contract planning on April 10 and the negotiations with Morrison on April 24. I'd love to have gotten minutes reflecting more about the board's decision-making,  but open-records experts from the UNC School of Government and the N.C. Press Association told me CMS is correct in keeping those confidential.

Strategic staffing: Changing school culture?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools'  "strategic staffing"  initiative is one of five national efforts highlighted in a recent Education Trust report on school districts that are trying to make high-poverty schools a better place for  teachers to work.

The report by Ed Trust staffers Sara Almy and Melissa Tooley contends that the widespread focus on improving teacher evaluations overlooks a crucial issue:  Many high-poverty schools are not places that attract and keep the best teachers, however you define that. Creating a good working climate for teachers is essential to making those schools work better for students, they say.

"Despite widespread assumptions that students are the primary cause of teacher dissatisfaction and attrition, research shows that the work environment in schools — particularly the quality of school leadership and staff cohesion —  actually matters more, especially among  teachers working in high-poverty schools,"  the report says.

I've talked to many principals who say the same thing.  If administrators and teachers are sniping at each other,  academic gains will remain elusive.

Former CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman got some of his ideas for strategic staffing from a group of National Board Certified teachers who brainstormed ways to make struggling schools more attractive.  Money alone wasn't enough, they said:  Even the best teachers will be worn down if they're surrounded by a dysfunctional faculty.

Gorman's plan includes financial rewards for effective teachers and principals who volunteer for duty in challenging schools.  But the key is that they can come in teams. Gorman selected people he viewed as some of his best principals, then let them hand-pick five teachers to help create a new culture.

The Ed Trust report cites encouraging signs of teacher satisfaction and student achievement, based on a CMS evaluation of strategic staffing schools  (read the full CMS evaluation here).

The report made me curious.  North Carolina just published results of the 2012 teacher working conditions survey.  How do strategic staffing schools look?

The results are mixed and complicated.  Some are outright discouraging.

I started by identifying 12 schools that have had strategic staffing in place for at least two full school years with the original principal:  Albemarle Road,  Allenbrook,  Ashley Park,  Briarwood,  Devonshire,  Nathaniel Alexander,  Paw Creek and Reid Park elementaries (Ashley Park and Reid Park added middle school grades last year);  Albemarle Road,  Eastway and King middle schools and Vance High.  Then I looked at two crucial measures of school climate:  Do teachers agree there's an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect?   And do they describe their schools as good places to work and learn?

For starters,  the picture was clouded by low response rates,  which was an issue at many CMS schools.  Fewer than half the teachers at Ashley Park,  Nathaniel Alexander,  King and Vance responded to the anonymous online survey,  making it hard to put much stock in the results.

That's particularly frustrating because Ashley Park had some of the best ratings.  Only two --  Ashley Park and Albemarle Road Elementary -- topped the CMS average on trust and respect.  Two-thirds of all CMS teachers who responded said they agreed that their school had that kind of atmosphere;  Ashley Park logged 72 percent and Albemarle 69.  Fewer than 50 percent agreed at five of the 12 schools:  King (36 percent),  Briarwood (37 percent),  Eastway (38 percent),  Allenbrook and Vance (42 percent each).

Devonshire,  which has consistently emerged as one of the most successful strategic staffing schools,  topped the list on the question about whether the school is a good place to work and learn,  with 84 percent agreeing. That roughly matches the state average and tops the CMS average of 80 percent.  With the other strategic staffing schools,  agreement ranged from 80 percent at Paw Creek to 45 percent at Briarwood.

I'm not sure what to make of all that.  As I've often said,  numbers are more likely to shape good questions than to provide full answers.  Many people,  locally and nationally,  see a lot of promise in the strategic staffing approach.  But clearly questions remain about how to make it work for all schools and all children.