Friday, December 21, 2012

Threepeat for Gaston teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Choice and charters

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

See you on the other side

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 14, 2012

The value of volunteers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Testing transformed

Imagine a third-grader taking a math exam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Rallying around Billingsville

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

CMS board's leadership vote looms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 10, 2012

Competition and common ground

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

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

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

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

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

Read more here:

Friday, December 7, 2012

Preaching, teaching and race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 6, 2012

CMS taps 48 to lead studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

No second chances on 2013 exams

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Do you snoop your kid's phone?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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