Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Charlotte becomes stage for education reform

Michelle Rhee,  former DC superintendent and one of the country's highest-profile education advocates, will bring her vision for education reform to Charlotte next week,  along with a preview screening of a movie that's already sparking controversy before its Sept. 28 release date.

Rhee's advocacy group,  StudentsFirst,  will hold a screening of  "Won't Back Down," at 1 p.m. Monday,  Sept. 3,  at the EpiCenter Theater  (sign up here). The movie,  starring Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal,  tells the story of two moms using a  "parent trigger law"  to take over a failing school.

"The policy mandates that parents of kids attending the nation’s worst performing schools must have real authority and tools to bring about change through a petition process and a specific set of recommended interventions,"  according to a StudentsFirst blog post about taking the film to the Republican and Democratic national conventions.  Rhee and other national reform advocates will hold a panel discussion after the Charlotte showing.

Democrats for Education Reform,  a political action committee that supports accountability and closure of failing public schools, will hold an invitation-only  "town hall" at Charlotte's Knight Theater on Tuesday, Sept. 4.  DFER is also co-sponsoring the movie screening,  along with Parent Revolution,  a group promoting parent trigger laws.

Both the movie and the approach being promoted by Rhee and the other reform groups have sparked strong criticism.  Parents Across America, a group with a conflicting version of how to improve public schools,  has already sent out a  "thumbs down"  news release about the movie,  saying it is  "funded by right-wing sources to spread an anti-public education message."  MecklenburgACTS,  a local group whose leadership was involved in creating Parents Across America,  is encouraging its members to rally before both Charlotte events and challenge the views of the sponsors.

Normally I'd be all over these events.  But of course the national attention is coming because of the Democratic National Convention,  which has most of the Observer's staff playing out of position.  I'm not even sure these panels will make the cut for coverage.  But I'm sure we'll all be talking about the movie and the views being debated at these panels long after the convention is gone.  So keep me posted on what you're thinking,  seeing and hearing,  even if I'm not blogging much during the coming week.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Broad on educational bureaucracy

If there's one thing the Broad Foundation has learned from a decade grappling with urban education,  it's that there are a lot of bureaucratic obstacles to success.  At least 75, according a just-published list of  "75 Examples of How Bureaucracy Stands in the Way of Students and Teachers."

Among them:  Waste, fraud and abuse can keep taxpayer dollars away from classrooms.  Expensive technology goes unused for lack of training.  Teachers don't get enough support from principals and central offices,  while principals are bogged down by paperwork and regulatory burdens.  Top teachers are not properly recognized and rewarded,  leading many to leave the profession.

The litany of complaints is a change of tactics for a foundation that's best known for training superintendents and celebrating the best urban districts  (you may have heard that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools won the 2011 Broad Prize).  Foundation officials say all that work led them to realize the problems of urban schools go deeper than anything teachers, parents or even superintendents can solve alone.  A more systemic approach is needed,  they say.

Spokeswoman Erica Lepping said Thursday the long list can be overwhelming,  but it's intended to spark public discussion and action.

"It's going to take public will to fix this problem,"  she said.  "We recognize it's a monumental hurdle,  but we feel hopeful."

Heath Morrison,  a Broad-trained superintendent who took the helm of CMS on July 1,  had a team from the Council of the Great City Schools in Charlotte last week working on an  "organizational audit"  that's designed to identify bureaucratic obstacles and inefficiencies. The team,  made up of senior administrators from other large districts,  brings a good working knowledge to the advice they'll give him for moving forward,  he told the board in a recent update.

So what do you think?  Are there items on the Broad list that ring true here?  Or actions Morrison can take to make sure central offices are helping students and teachers, not hindering them?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

CMS 'heart' report

I bet I wasn't the only person whose eyes widened to see the "CMS has a crisis of heart" piece on the Viewpoint page of Sunday's Observer.

It's not that I was shocked to read about a pervasive climate of fear that stifles the joy of teaching.  Anyone who has been paying attention has heard similar complaints,  including plenty posted in comments on this blog.

It's that two Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools social workers confronted the issue in print,  with their names attached.  After all,  the whole thing about a climate of fear is that it tends to drive resentment underground.  I can't even tally the times CMS employees have urged me to write about adult bullying or bad morale but said they wouldn't dare be quoted.

And that's exactly why Barry Sherman,  who's starting a new post at Bruns Academy this year,  thought it was important to do what he did.  He says he was driven by a combination of frustration with what he's seen in recent years and hope that Superintendent Heath Morrison is serious about creating a better climate.

Sherman has worked for CMS off and on for about a dozen years,  and been assigned to about that many schools.  He has seen the ranks of fellow school social workers slashed by budget cuts.  He has heard teachers and principals complain privately about a hostile, punitive climate.

He was also inspired by what he read in Morrison's entry plan about making sure employees feel energized,  engaged and valued.  Morrison has asked employees to work with him to make that happen.  Sherman thought a public letter might inspire others.  "When fear and silence and isolation take root,"  he said,  it can be hard to embrace optimism and take a chance on change.

Sherman says he wrote a first draft in June.  In the ensuing weeks,  he shared it with half a dozen trusted people who don't work for CMS and about 10 who do.  He said he wanted to make sure he was accurately reflecting the mood,  and that others thought it an open letter would be constructive.  He wanted to recruit several co-authors because  "I do not want this to be a Barry Sherman thing."  But the folks on the Observer's editorial staff limited him to two authors,  he said.  Bevelyn Sherrill,  a social worker who is also starting a new assignment this year,  agreed to sign on and help him with the final version.

When Sherman and Sherrill learned their piece was about to run,  they notified their principals and sent Morrison a copy,  Sherman said.  Morrison thanked them and encouraged them to be part of the ongoing discussions  (see a schedule of meetings for the public and employees here).  After a panel discussion on education Monday night,  Sherman introduced himself to Morrison.  "He expressed excitement,"  Sherman said.  "It was awesome."

Since Sunday,  Sherman says,  he and Sherrill have been getting compliments from current and former CMS employees,  as well as community members.  One teacher said she started crying as she read the piece aloud to her husband because it hit so close to home.

So what's next?  Morrison will lay out his plans for CMS sometime after his 100th day in the job,  probably in early December.  In his former job in Reno,  Nev.,  he worked with staff to craft a  "Culture of Respect"  agreement.  That was slow work,  and it's pretty clear that making deep change in a workforce of more than 18,000 will take time as well.

In the meantime,  I'll keep reporting on the process and the challenges.  And here's what I'd ask from readers who are in the thick of things:  Let me know about the people and places that are leading CMS in the right direction.  The heart of CMS may be ailing,  but I know it hasn't flatlined.

Pinewood teachers at the Firebird
The other morning,  for instance,  I came across a group of Pinewood Elementary teachers running around the Firebird statue, flapping their arms like wings.  They were doing an uptown scavenger hunt and learning to make movies with their iPads.  Their joy and energy as they prepared for a new school year was a much-needed reminder that it's not all about test scores.  And they volunteered their enthusiasm about their principal,  Trish Sexton,  whom I'd profiled a few years ago when she was taking on a tough assignment in her first post as principal.

I know there are others  --  principals,  teachers,  and yes,  high-level administrators  --  who defy all the obstacles to create a culture of heart.  Let's hold them up as an example.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Get psyched for school year

As teachers return to school and Charlotte-Mecklenburg buses start their practice runs,  today brings a couple of opportunities for people to get inspired for the coming school year.

The Democratic National Convention host committee is holding a panel discussion on access to quality education at 6:30 p.m. at Central Piedmont Community College's Pease Auditorium. Panelists include former N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt, CMS board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart, Superintendent Heath Morrison and Robert Balfanz of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization.

The session is part of Mayor Anthony Foxx's convention legacy program,  which is highlighting paths to the American dream,  according to a host convention spokeswoman.  Admission is free and open to anyone,  but registration is required online or at 6 p.m. on site.

Someone is bound to ask about Morrison's party affiliation.  I don't know.  He doesn't seem to have registered to vote here yet  (there's an unaffiliated Heath Morrison,  but he's been here too long to be the superintendent).

Also, the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture is offering all educators free admission to its America I AM exhibit from 5 to 7 p.m.  The exhibit highlights African American contributions to the United States,  and tonight's event includes a toolkit for using the information in class.  The event is for educators only (not even their families) and requires registration and an employee ID.

(If you end up reading this in archived blogs, the events are for Monday, Aug. 20.)

Friday, August 17, 2012

CMS 'Shark Week' concludes

OK, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools isn't really participating in the Discovery Channel's annual feeding frenzy. But ever since the state released the 2012 test results and graduation rates last week, I've been diving in and finding scary things that lurk beneath the surface of this nationally acclaimed district.

Shark Week!
The best and worst of the accountability movement have been on display.

The flaws in North Carolina's testing and rating system  --  and in CMS' execution of it -- are as numerous as,  well,  fish in the sea.

But on Wednesday,  the school board held a somber, thoughtful public discussion of how to make things better.  They didn't point fingers.  Several members noted the hard work of teachers and principals,  even at schools where the numbers didn't look good.  They asked serious questions about programs that didn't turn out like they'd hoped they would,  and they talked about how to learn from stumbles as well as successes.  There was hardly anyone in the audience,  which was a shame.  If you care about education and you weren't watching live,  consider checking out the archived video (the academic report starts at the 1:01 mark).

Contrast that with the celebratory tone Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark struck when summarizing the district's strategic staffing plan for a national publication. Or with the midyear report interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh gave the board on the schools that saw dramatic changes in the wake of closings.  That report included raw data that indicated serious discipline issues at newly created preK-8 schools,  but those numbers weren't mentioned at the public presentation,  and several board members seemed surprised when I raised questions later.  Instead,  the board heard from one preK-8 principal who talked about good things happening in her school.  Based on that,  some board members began referring to those schools as a proven success.

I don't know how candid board members and top staff are behind closed doors, or how deep they'd have delved if the press and the public weren't asking questions.  But if we hadn't had hard numbers forcing everyone to acknowledge problems,  I wonder if the public discussion would have been another round of "Everything's fine!"

Instead,  we can expect an in-depth report on strategic staffing, the preK-8 schools and the Harding/Waddell merger  (and maybe the Alexander Middle/Davidson IB merger,  per board member Rhonda Lennon's request).   My hope is that Superintendent Heath Morrison and the board invite principals, teachers, parents and students to hold a frank public talk about what went well, what went sour and how to make 2012-13 more successful.  That won't be easy.  Board members might have to acknowledge that some of their decisions went awry.  Employees would have to be convinced such a meeting is neither a public flogging nor a PR fest.

But Morrison has vowed to rebuild public trust. This might be a chance to show how he handles rough seas.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

AMO: WT ...?

I would have said it was impossible to come up with a more convoluted school rating system than the AYP measure created by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Then I saw the AMO system North Carolina has created to replace it.  My immediate reaction was another acronym, which young texters use to express the concept of  "What the ...."

No Child Left Behind set an ever-changing series of proficiency goals,  which had to be calculated for a long list of  "subgroups"  (racial, income, disability, language status).  If any group fell short,  the school failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress  --  unless,  of course,  it squeaked through under various "wiggle room"  formulas.  Failing to make AYP had no consequences, unless a school got Title I aid for high-poverty schools,  in which case it could be forced to offer transfers,  get rid of staff and take other measures.

In the beginning,  I devoted barrels of ink to explaining this system.  The big goal,  making sure all groups of students got the attention and help they needed,  seemed worthy.  But over the years,  I concluded that making or failing AYP told the public virtually nothing useful about a school.  So I phased it out of my coverage.

The goal of all those changing targets was to move all states toward 100 percent proficiency for all students by 2014.  Another admirable goal.  But over the years,  it also became clear that setting a target didn't make it a reality.  Faced with the prospect of virtually all schools "failing,"  federal officials backed down from No Child Left Behind,  and this year North Carolina was among the states grated a waiver.

But the state had to create a substitute, which brings us to Annual Measurable Objectives.  Now, instead of moving toward 100 percent by 2014,  North Carolina is trying to "reduce the percentage of non-proficient students by one-half" by 2017.  I had no idea what that meant until Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools staff explained it to the school board on Wednesday. (Go to the presentation and start on page 32 to see for yourself. A reminder: CMS did not create this system.)

The new AMO targets vary by group. For elementary and middle school reading, the 2012 target was 83.2 percent of white students reading on grade level,  80.8 percent of Asians,  61.4 percent of low-income students,  57.8 percent of African Americans and 44.5 percent of students with disabilities.

Lower targets based on race and circumstance?  Does anyone else find that deeply disturbing?

You could argue that it's based on reality:  Those groups,  on average,  have logged lower pass rates for years.  Slow,  steady progress is better than none.

But remember the lesson of No Child Left Behind:  A target is not the same as a result. It's not even a strategy.  It's just a number to aspire to.  Heck, if we're doing that,  why not go back to the version where we're two years from educational utopia?

There are no rewards for making AMOs and no penalties for failing.  Just another set of numbers:  In 2012, 44.8 percent of CMS schools met all AMOs.

On Wednesday, board member Tom Tate complained about how difficult it can be to tease meaning out of education data.  Superintendent Heath Morrison,  a former high school principal,  concurred.  He launched into a rapid-fire riff on the kind of discussion that ensued once families started delving into all the results posted on websites:

"They'd say, 'Well, were you successful?'  Absolutely.  We made AYP by meeting and exceeding the AMO.  We needed the confidence interval over here,  safe harbor over here.  ACT scores are up,  ACT scores are down," he rattled off  (thank you, iRecorder). "Parents just looked at us and they'd say, 'Huh?' "

Exactly.  "Huh?" strikes me as a polite response to this new set of ratings.  I don't plan to spend much energy reporting on them.

Unless families start demanding to know why "Our school met its AMOs"  can translate to  "40 percent of our black students aren't reading on grade level."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

PreK-8s and strategic staffing: The details

When I wrote about the long-term results of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's strategic staffing program and the first-year scores from new preK-8 schools earlier this week, there was supposed to be an online box breaking down those results for several schools (no room in print).   After a reader question,  I just realized that box didn't get posted.

The CMS board will get a report on test scores at strategic staffing and preK-8 schools at tonight's board meeting,  with a more detailed report on the preK-8s and the Waddell/Harding merger in late September. For those who want more details,  here's the roundup I put together:

Here’s what the 2012 test scores show about the seven schools that launched the CMS strategic staffing plan in 2008,  as well as five other former elementaries that became neighborhood K-8 schools this year.  Performance composites are based on students who passed reading and math tests given in grades 3-8 and science tests given in grades 5 and 8.  Most N.C. schools have seen gains since 2008 because the state started requiring students who fail to retake the exams; they are counted as successful if they pass the second time.  Growth targets indicate whether students met, exceeded or fell below performance predicted by their previous scores.

Strategic staffing pilots

  • Devonshire Elementary has been the most stable and consistently successful of the seven pilot schools, with Principal Suzanne Gimenez at the helm since 2008. It logged a 71 percent pass rate in 2012, down from 75 percent the prior year but up from 43 percent in 2008. Devonshire earned a high growth rating.
  • Sterling Elementary had a 62 percent proficiency rate, down from 79 percent the prior year but up from 44 percent in 2008. It did not make expected growth. The original strategic staffing principal left in 2011.
  • Ranson Middle had a 60 percent proficiency rating and did not make expected growth. That’s down from 62 percent last year but up from 39 percent in 2008. The original strategic staffing principal left in 2011.
  • Westerly Hills Academy, which became a K-8 school last year, logged a 50 percent pass rate and did not make expected growth. That’s down from 59 percent last year but up from 38 in 2008. The original strategic staffing principal left in 2011.
  • Briarwood Elementary logged a 50 percent pass rate and did not make expected growth. Brenda Steadman has been the principal since 2008, when the school had a 38 percent pass rate. Briarwood peaked at 60 percent last year.
  • Bruns Academy, which became a K-8 school last year, had a 47 percent pass rate and made expected growth. That’s up from 32 percent in 2008 but down from 55 percent last year. The original strategic staffing principal left in 2011.
  • Reid Park Academy, which became a K-8 school last year, had a 44 percent pass rate and did not make expected growth. The school had a 28 percent pass rate in 2008 and peaked at 50.5 percent last year. Principal Mary Sturge has been in charge since 2008.

K-8 schools

  • Berryhill was the highest-scoring of the new K-8 schools, with a 75 percent pass rate and expected growth. Paul Pratt has been principal since 2003; he remained in place when CMS made Berryhill a strategic staffing school and added middle school grades in 2011.
  • Ashley Park became a strategic staffing school in 2009, with Principal Tonya Kales remaining as leader. It had a 65 percent pass rate with a high growth rating.
  • Thomasboro had a 57 percent pass rate and made high growth. It became a strategic staffing school in 2009 and got a new principal in 2011.
  • Byers had a 55 percent pass rate and made expected growth. It became a strategic staffing school when it added middle school grades in 2011.
  • Druid Hills had a 45 percent pass rate and made expected growth. It became a strategic staffing school in 2009, and the principal who was brought in for that effort was replaced in 2010.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Weight loss and testing gains

Walking back from the Government Center on Monday,  I found myself thinking about Weight Watchers.

I had just finished a long talk with Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' strategic staffing plan.  In a cover article in the latest School Administrator magazine,  Clark pronounces the results "outstanding."  In person,  with the preliminary test results from 2012 in front of us,  we agreed it's a lot more complicated than that.

Four years after Peter Gorman rolled out his plan to entice top principals and teachers into some of the most challenging schools,  none of those schools is anywhere the 90 percent pass rate that was touted as the goal. Devonshire Elementary,  after four years with a strategic staffing team,  is the closest at 71 percent  (CMS hasn't yet released the breakdowns by reading,  math and science).

Most perplexing to me:  The longer schools had been operating under strategic staffing, the worse they did last year.  That's the opposite of what should happen under a long-range strategy to let teams of highly effective educators transform schools.  Yet all of the original seven strategic staffing schools slipped this year,  from a 1.5 percentage point loss at Ranson Middle to 17 points at Sterling Elementary.  Meanwhile,  four schools that just launched strategic staffing last year  (Byers, Billingsville, Hickory Grove and Sedgefield Elementary)  saw their pass rates rise by 10 points or more.

Some of that might be the "pick the low-hanging fruit" phenomenon,  with new leaders fixing the biggest problems first.  But you'd still hope to see steady gains,  even if they're smaller,  in subsequent years.

That's what got me thinking about the Observer's on-site Weight Watchers meetings five years ago.  Lots of us signed up and chronicled our eating and exercise.  We carefully shopped, cooked and measured our portions.  We showed up weekly to weigh in and swap tips.  And it worked!  I got back to my college weight,  and watched colleagues who had more to lose make dramatic changes. It was so exciting I couldn't imagine ever letting middle-age pudge creep back.

Except the recession hit and people got laid off.  For those of us left,  our work got more stressful and our hours less predictable.  We no longer had enough interested people to keep the on-site sessions,  and as much as we thought we had learned it all, it's hard to stay focused as months turn into years.  Let's just say I'm not at my college weight now,  and I'm pretty sure I'm not the only backslider.

Now imagine how much harder it is teaching kids whose families are struggling with survival.  You've got public scrutiny and central-office pressure and a system that tends to pin failing scores on teachers.  After the initial excitement of being the new turnaround team,  you're still in the trenches.  Meanwhile,  you're watching colleagues get laid off.  The budget drives changes like school closings and mergers.  Many principals retire or move on after their three-year commitment is up.

Clark's team and the strategic staffing principals will review this year's results,  and I'm sure they'll come up with something more sophisticated than a comparison to diet fatigue.  My point is that any real school change is long,  hard work that continues long after the excitement of a rollout.

Clark's article indicates CMS is poised to phase out strategic staffing  "as a result of having an effective principal leading every school."  I could have predicted that based on the change in superintendents.  Heath Morrison is bound to launch his own programs  (the same School Administrator package describes the  "Hiring For Attitude" program he created in Reno).  Strategic staffing may not be the golden ticket to student success,  but it does seem to have provided valuable lessons.  Let's hope Morrison and  Clark work with front-line educators to craft strategies with staying power  --  and that those strategies help the students who continue to struggle.

Monday, August 13, 2012

CMS diplomas: Earned or given?

Superintendent Heath Morrison says one of his top priorities for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is making sure students who graduate have the skills they need for a successful adult life.

If teachers are willing to speak candidly at his "listening and learning" forums,  I bet he'll get an earful about this.  For quite some time,  I've been hearing frustration with practices that some view as boosting graduation numbers at the expense of setting serious standards,  things like giving no grade lower than 50 percent,  regardless of how bad the student's work is or even whether it's done.  (In response to several recent reader questions, CMS says the district does not award principal bonuses based on graduation rates.)

I recently heard from a high school teacher who has concerns about the ethics and legality of the push to get some kids across the finish line.  He asked that his name not be published,  but he forwarded me an exchange of emails with a counselor who was asking that he create makeup work for two seniors at risk of failing to graduate.

The teacher replied that one student had 32 absences and was repeatedly removed from class because he is “consistently disruptive.”

“We need to come up with a plan that will allow for recovery,” the counselor replied.

The teacher was also asked to create a makeup plan for a student who had missed 21 days and done 28 of 63 written assignments.  The teacher told the counselor he would create a makeup packet under protest.

“(The student's)  effort has lacked significantly and I think we are sending the wrong message to these young people,”  the teacher wrote.  “A world without consequences does not exist beyond the doors of this school and I fear they may find that fact out in a very rude manner.”

This is not,  by the way,  at a low-performing high school,  but one that falls in the middle of the pack.

Just a couple of days later,  I got an email from a teacher resigning from a high school that lands near  the top of most achievement lists.  Although it wasn't the reason for her resignation,  she also mentioned that "teachers are being asked to pass seniors just to show passing rates."  When I asked for specifics,  this teacher said  "personalized education plans"  for students at risk of failing create a paperwork burden for teachers,  and when students fail anyway,  administrators urge teachers to give them a last-minute  "extra credit"  opportunity to pass.

My sense is that high schools in CMS,  and probably many other districts,  are trying balance the importance of sorting and supporting.

At one extreme,  schools would simply set standards to sort out who's qualified for what kind of opportunities.  All the responsibility falls on the student:  Do well and you can go to a good college. Fail and it's tough luck for you.  Correctly or not,  I think many of us older folks believe that was the approach used when we were in school.

At the other,  schools and teachers bear full responsibility for inspiring,  coaxing,  motivating and assisting teens to get their diplomas.  Every failure is a failure of the education system  --  a view that,  intentionally or not,  seems to be promoted by the accountability movement and its push to rate schools by student accomplishment.

I'm guessing most people believe in some sort of hybrid.  Folks like me who got our support and motivation from home can generally see the value of providing extra help to students who don't have that advantage.  But anyone who has spent time in the work force knows it's no favor to let students believe they'll be OK even if they don't show up and do the work.

Morrison's motto for CMS is  "every child,  every day for a better tomorrow."  In his public appearances he hammers home that point:  "Every child"  doesn't mean 90 percent,  it means every single student in a district that's expected to hit 140,000.  I'm pretty sure that means every CMS employee is expected to work every day to make sure every one of those kids has an opportunity to succeed.  But what happens when some students don't take it?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

CMS + DNC = Never a dull moment

This could have been a ho-hum start of school for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  For the first time I can recall,  there are no schools opening or closing,  no major changes in student assignment or transportation.

But the Democratic National Convention sweeps into town the week after school begins,  and that creates a raft of headaches and opportunities.

Everybody's wondering which schools,  if any,  will get celebrity visits.  CMS spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry told me exactly what I'd heard from convention reporter Tim Funk:  You don't get much advance notice on these things.  Funk reported on rumors that Michelle Obama will visit the Garinger High garden.  But as Henry noted,  lots of schools grow their own vegetables,  and they're all hoping the first lady drops in to promote her healthy eating campaign.

Teachers report to work next week,  and they'll be talking about ways to incorporate the DNC into civics and social studies lessons.  One option is out:  CMS is banning field trips that week.  That's not to say CMS would reject a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,  such as a school being invited to be part of a key event,  Henry said.  But teachers can't just pile their class in a bus and head uptown to check things out.

Meanwhile,  various groups are contacting CMS to ask about visiting schools and/or having students attend events.  CMS is setting up a system for vetting such invitations and deciding how to handle them.

One challenge I hadn't thought of is the potential for employees skipping work to take in all the excitement.  Henry said officials are emphasizing that they need everyone on the job to keep schools running that week.

Carol Stamper and her transportation staff have spent weeks planning for this epic traffic jam.  Here's the plan:

Normally,  about 325 buses  --  more than one-third of the active fleet  --  would drive on I-277 or through the convention area without making stops.  CMS has routed them around that area for the first two weeks of school.  Once the convention is over,  they'll go back to the more direct routes.  That may mean some changes in pick-up and drop-off times.

About 400 students live within the 277 loop,  and CMS has 40 stops in that area.  Up to a dozen extra buses will be pulled off the lot to make only those runs during convention week.  Normally,  each bus serves three or even four schools each morning and afternoon,  which means one delay can ripple across the county.  This way even if a few kids are delayed by convention snarls,  the hassles should be contained.

Irwin and First Ward elementaries and Metro School will have early dismissals on one or more convention days; read the details here.  On early dismissal days,  parents have the option of having their children board a bus and go to a special after-school program at a site outside the convention zone.

Despite all the planning,  it's a safe wager that something unexpected will crop up and that some will call CMS leaders idiots for keeping schools open.  Then again,  it's equally certain that they'd have been lambasted if they'd closed schools.  And Superintendent Heath Morrison does still have the option of making a last-minute call to close some schools,  just as he could in case of a power failure or bad weather.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tracking LIFT results is a challenge

Even before the testing problems at West Charlotte High, Project LIFT faced a challenge in tracking the results of its $55 million five-year investment.

Organizers of the public-private partnership to boost achievement at West Charlotte and its feeder schools have promised that private investors and taxpayers will have a clear picture of what's working and what's not, as the group tries to strengthen faculty, give students extra time in school, boost family involvement and provide access to current technology.

Here's the challenge: 2012 is supposed to be the baseline, as the project pushes for a 90 percent graduation rate and other academic gains by 2017. But the state is replacing the reading, math and science exams that have gauged student proficiency in elementary and middle schools.  North Carolina's new accountability system will also rely on different tests for high school students, with the end-of-course exams that have long provided school ratings yielding to the ACT, a college readiness exam, and WorkKeys, a skills test many employers use.

That means next year is essentially a new start on data.  And with it being a transition year, I'd be surprised if 2013 results are fully comparable to those moving forward.

Project LIFT Zone Superintendent Denise Watts is well aware of that issue. She called the new system "a moving target that we're trying to pinpoint,"  adding that state officials have assured her they'll provide a measure of student growth that will be comparable from 2012 to 2013.  LIFT will also look at such data as student and teacher attendance and disciplinary actions to gauge progress at schools,  she said.  And the graduation-rate calculation isn't changing.

Meanwhile,  it seems a bit odd that CMS officials say they didn't realize there was an academic crisis at West Charlotte until June,  when test results showed some 200 kids had skipped required exams and the composite pass rate had plunged from 68 percent in 2011 to 44 percent in 2012.  Watts took the supervisory hand-off from Charity Bell in March,  the principal resigned in June and the past year brought changes in virtually every level of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leadership.  But CMS leaders have long said that year-end exam results shouldn't be a surprise if teachers,  principals and central-office staff are using good tests and data-monitoring to keep their finger on the pulse throughout the school year.

This week,  hundreds of educators at the nine LIFT schools are getting revved up for the Aug. 27 first day for students,  and Watts is pushing the vision of a new start.  "If you go back to your school and it feels the same and sounds the same and looks the same,  I've failed today,"  she told the group on Monday.

Superintendent Heath Morrison told the group they'll be facing some doubts about whether they can really make a difference,  and  "there are folks who probably don't want this to be successful."  But he told them to disregard speculation that he doesn't fully support a program that was designed and approved by the board before his July 1 arrival.  Morrison said he stands ready to give  "whatever it takes, whatever I have to offer" to help the schools succeed.

Monday, August 6, 2012

CMS success factories

After seeing last week's report on graduation rates,  reader John Maye wanted more information about the racial breakdown of schools, so "the public could examine who graduates by percentages and who does not in our school system."

It's a good question,  but one that requires a more subtle analysis.  Yes, we all know that low-poverty, majority white schools such as Hough,  Ardrey Kell and Providence have very high graduation rates  (all were well above 90 percent for 2012).  And we know about high-poverty,  mostly black schools like West Charlotte,  Garinger and West Meck,  which have such persistently low graduation rates that some national pundits label such schools dropout factories.

But what about the CMS schools where more than 90 percent of African American and low-income students graduated on time?  Cato Middle College High and Northwest School of the Arts,  specialty schools that students must apply for,  land at the top of that list.  More intriguing,  though,  is that Rocky River and Mallard Creek are close behind.  Both are neighborhood schools with a strong nonwhite majority  (87 percent at Rocky River and 76 percent at Mallard Creek last year)  and significant poverty  (62 percent at Rocky River and 43 percent at Mallard Creek).

Earlier this summer,  Mallard Creek parent Michael DeVaul talked about the way "the new African Americans"  --  educated, middle-class suburbanites  --  work with lower-income families to build strong schools in communities such as Mallard Creek,  on Mecklenburg's northeast edge.  While  "historic black Charlotte"  is understandably focused on urban struggles,  he said,  he and his neighbors want to work with CMS to protect the delicate balance that lets their schools thrive.

There's never enough time in the work week,  but I hope to spend time in the coming school year exploring these success stories,  as well as keeping up with efforts to turn around schools with big challenges.

Geek note: I got the racial and economic breakdowns for graduation rates from a great Excel spreadsheet the state sent, that lists details for several years' graduation rates for all N.C. schools. Data divers who would like a copy, email me at

Friday, August 3, 2012

Heath and I find successors

The next CMS superintendent and the reporter who will cover her may have been in the audience at Thursday night's town hall meeting at Rocky River High.

Heath Morrison,  who took the helm of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on July 1,  convened the meeting to field questions and comments from the public.  Before the meeting he chatted with members of the Rocky River student government,  and during the Q&A period he asked President Julia Constantinidis to stand.

"I want you to see the next superintendent,"  Morrison said with a smile,  noting that Julia is taking five Advanced Placement classes and plans to become a teacher,  then move into administration.  It's always good to have a succession plan,  he quipped,  so now he has a replacement in the wings.

Imagine my delight when I collared a young man who had asked Morrison a pointed question,  only to discover he was a reporter for the Providence Prowl,  spending a summer evening gathering information for an article.

During the Q&A,  rising senior Arjun Gupta told Morrison he'd followed last year's flap over testing and teacher performance pay,  then done a lot of research of his own.  The media didn't give the full picture,  Arjun said,  and "the teachers seemed the most misinformed."  Arjun wanted Morrison to explain how his administration would do a better job of providing full,  accurate information about the next steps toward changing the way teachers are evaluated and paid.

In fine journalistic style,  Arjun told me afterward he wanted more specifics than Morrison provided.

Arjun and his friend Jeff Pacholski,  also a Providence student,  were astute in noting that Morrison has a way with crowd-pleasing generalities.  At an event with Morrison earlier that day, blogger Tonya Jameson summed his style up in a tweet:  "Morrison has used every inspirational quote/saying in his talk.  He's like Chicken Soup for CMS."

Still,  I'd say Arjun's question got one of the best answers of the evening.  Morrison said he thinks performance-based pay is the right thing to do.  He noted that regardless of his views,  state and federal officials are mandating changes in the way teachers are rated and rewarded,  so "I would rather we be deliberate and do it well."  Morrison said he's been asking his staff where things stand and hasn't been satisfied with the answers.  At a staff retreat next week,  Morrison said,  about half the time will be focused on how to move forward with the Talent Effectiveness Project and how to keep people informed about it.

Arjun was correct in noting that Morrison didn't lay out a specific plan,  though it may be too early to expect that.  At any rate,  it's good to know we have smart young people engaging with the big issues in CMS.

Julia and Jordan Hughes, student government secretary at Rocky River,  said they hope Morrison finds ways to keep hearing students' voices as he moves forward.  I suspect he will.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

CMS weighs in on new charters

If the state OKs five new charter schools in Mecklenburg County,  the shift of hundreds of students could force Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to revise school construction plans and pull about $2.5 million in county money from the district,  according to an impact report filed by CMS.

At its Thursday meeting,  the N.C. Board of Education is scheduled to discuss applications for 25 new charter schools that would open in 2013-14.  Those include five in Mecklenburg and two in surrounding counties,  with a total of almost 3,000 students the first year.  The actual number of students coming from any given district is hard to predict because charter students can cross county lines.

State officials and an advisory panel have reviewed planning documents for the proposed charters,  as well as critiques from districts that would stand to lose students.  Charters are public schools run by independent nonprofit boards.  They get state money and a per-pupil share of county money allocated for local school districts.

After the state legislature lifted its longstanding 100-school cap on charters,  63 groups applied for permission to open charters next year. The Public Charter School Advisory Council has winnowed that field to 25, with the state Board of Education slated to take a final vote in September. The CMS report linked above includes some that didn't clear the advisory board.

I won't be able to go to Raleigh for the discussion,  though I may try to listen in.  If you want to do the same, go to the board's agenda and click the "live audiostream" link at the bottom of the page.