Thursday, February 28, 2013

What kind of safety?

On Wednesday morning, just before he read about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plan to beef up safety, Bill Allen delivered books to two CMS elementary schools.  In both cases,  he walked in through unlocked doors,  with no one asking who he was.  Then he went to Charlotte Catholic to pick up his granddaughter,  where he had to be buzzed in.

"I was in shock that I was able to walk into both (CMS) schools,"  Allen said.

The CMS plan calls for installing buzz-in camera/intercom systems at all schools.  As some of you have noted,  that system didn't stop the Sandy Hook shooter.

But it might help school staff keep intoxicated or agitated family members from coming in to confront the principal,  or suspended students from dropping by to make mischief.  As county commissioners and the school board reviewed plans to spend $33.7 million on cameras, entry systems and fences,  I kept wondering why they weren't talking in terms of the challenges local schools face on a regular basis,  instead of just the remote but horrific threat of armed attack.

For instance:  Would 8-foot chain-link fences and outside security cameras deter vandalism and break-ins at school buildings and mobile classrooms?  How much might CMS save in reducing such losses?

Do officials anticipate that adding security cameras to elementary and middle schools will help with classroom thefts, car break-ins, fights and drug use?  (According to Chief Operating Officer Millard House,  the cameras are not monitored constantly,  but recordings can be useful in investigating incidents.)

A school shooter won't stop to use new visitor check-in systems that scan IDs and do instant background checks.  But several schools already have such systems.  What has CMS learned about their value in keeping people with dangerous records out of schools?  Have they discouraged visits from parents who might lack legal immigration status or have minor criminal records they're embarrassed about?

Officials talked about how a better network of cameras and radios could help law enforcement respond to violent incidents,  accessing real-time views of the school from police cars.  Even if there's never a shooter,  it's easy to imagine the value in coping with large fights or fears that neighborhood  violence is about spill into a school.

Improving school safety was a very high priority with more than 11,000 people who took CMS' online budget survey,  according to results presented Tuesday.  But spending millions on safety upgrades this year requires a trade-off in deferred construction projects that were promised to voters in 2007,  information that wasn't made clear in the discussion leading up to Tuesday's school board vote.

CMS administrators say they're still analyzing the safety plan,  with more details to come before county commissioners vote in March.  That means there's still a chance to deliver what Superintendent Heath Morrison and the board have promised:  A full,  transparent review of pros and cons before they make decisions.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

CMS teacher pay: Hope, fear and confusion

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' long trek toward teacher performance pay took another twist Tuesday,  when CMS leaders backed away from submitting a plan to the state this week.

Superintendent Heath Morrison and the teacher task force that has been working on the proposal since late last year decided there was no way to meet the March 1 deadline set by House Bill 950,  despite an earlier announcement that CMS would seize the opportunity to take the lead on this issue with a teacher-crafted plan.  CMS asked for an extension and didn't get it  --  but to hear Tuesday's presentation, that's just as well.

The Pay for Excellence bill invited districts to develop performance-pay plans by March 1,  with bonuses or raises awarded for such factors as student growth on test scores and teachers taking on additional responsibilities. But lawmakers have allotted no money to help districts do that.  Essentially, that means there's no reward for making the deadline and no penalty for missing it.  So CMS decided to submit a proposal on its own timetable,  which remains undetermined.  Morrison said 2014-15 would be the earliest a new pay plan could debut.

As of Tuesday night,  neither Morrison nor the task force had seen a draft proposal from Battelle for Kids,  the nonprofit consultant that's been guiding the work. Rather than try to whip something out and risk repeating mistakes that have marred the district's past work,  they opted to carefully shape a plan that  includes teacher voices and vet it with the district's employees before taking anything to the state.  CMS emailed a summary of the work so far and a 9-minute video promoting the work to employees on Tuesday.

In 2010,  when then-Superintendent Peter Gorman launched the first performance-pay push,  he consulted teachers as well.  But he lost the confidence of many employees when he worked behind their backs to get legislative clearance for a pay plan that wouldn't require teacher approval.

Without getting specific,  board members Eric Davis and Tom Tate both acknowledged the harm those early efforts inflicted on morale.  "I deeply regret the anger,  frustration and trust that was lost,"  Davis said,  adding that he didn't regret starting a worthy effort. "We certainly screwed up before,"  Tate agreed.

Erlene Lyde,  a veteran teacher from Harding High who spoke to the board Tuesday,  talked about the fear she has heard from colleagues:  Fear that they'll get a pay cut.  Fear that CMS will launch one more pilot without money to sustain it.  Fear that "someone would try to force an already-designed plan down our throats."

The task force agreed that any change in pay should be opt-in for current teachers,  allowing them to stick with the current system if they don't want to take the risk.  Lyde and her co-presenters  --  Allison Moore from Dilworth Elementary and Michael Pillsbury and Steven Oreskovic from Randolph Middle  --  voiced strong hope that this will eventually be the plan that is shaped and embraced by teachers.

"I want to save our profession,"  Lyde said,  "and to save our profession we must do things differently than we have in the past."

So the question remains:  Who will submit plans by Friday,  and what will happen next?  State officials said they'd received none as of Tuesday.  The Gaston Gazette reports that Gaston County Schools has worked up a plan for bonuses up to $10,000 and is hoping the state will agree to pick up the tab.

Meanwhile Thom Tillis,  the House speaker from Mecklenburg County,  has launched a weeklong focus on education initiatives that include performance pay,  according to Carolina Journal Online.  He met with superintendents on Tuesday and will follow up with principals and teachers.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Grand Oak Elementary in Huntersville?

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board votes Tuesday on a name for the new elementary school opening in Huntersville in August.  Grand Oak, in honor of a stately tree on the grounds,  is the top choice of the naming committee,  led by Principal Raymond Giovanelli and made up of future parents and faculty.

Other suggestions are Franklin Lyttle Elementary,  in honor of a prominent African American farmer from the area,  and Stumptown,  the name that's been used during construction,  based on the road the school is on.  Read the committee's write-up here,  and click here to see the boundaries for the new school.

Board members could pick one of the three options or go with something entirely different,  though that's uncommon.

The $15.3 million school will relieve crowding at Torrence Creek Elementary,  which has almost 1,200 students.  Board member Rhonda Lennon,  who represents that district,  has been cheering for the new school every step of the way.  She's recovering from hip surgery this week and reports on Facebook that she'd like to attend Tuesday's meeting but may have to settle for checking in electronically.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Principal retirements: Why now?

About this time every year, a few veteran principals announce their retirement from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  This time it's Lawrance Mayes at Marie G. Davis Military and Global Leadership Academy, Halina Robertson at Piney Grove Elementary and Dee Gardner at Piedmont IB Middle, all retiring March 1.

Each time,  I hear questions about the timing.  Why not wait until the end of the school year?  Are they being forced out?

I asked Gardner about the March exodus.  She said the fact that February is a short month confers a small benefit in calculation of benefits  (I've heard this explained before,  and it's too complex for me to attempt to convey.)  But that's not the biggest factor, Gardner said.

At 68,  with 25 years working for CMS and 22 years before that as an educator in upstate New York,  Gardner had decided this would be her last year.  She said Dawn Robinson,  her zone superintendent,  convinced her this was the right time,  so a replacement can get the lay of the land in time for summer planning and next year's hiring.

That's consistent with what former Superintendent Peter Gorman heard when he started recruiting principals for Stragetic Staffing schools.  The first year,  he made the changes at the end of a school year.  Those principals told him that was too late to make a strong start,  and the next time around,  he put new leaders in place by March 1.

Changes in school leadership tend to rattle the families who care about those schools.  Some worry about the disruption as teachers and students are gearing up for final exams. But Gardner said that by the time second semester is under way,  a principal's hardest work is done.  "Everything is in place between now and the last day of school,"  she said.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Crowding and poverty at Albemarle Road

Cynthia Stone,  who attended last week's school board meeting,  asks a reasonable question in a letter sent to the Observer Forum:  Why hasn't she seen any coverage of crowding at Albemarle Road Elementary School?

At that meeting parents and teachers told the board about the challenges of squeezing more than 1,000 students into a school that has a high level of poverty and a large number of students learning to speak English. They talked about chaotic hallways and  faculty stretched too thin.  They told the board that hauling in more classroom trailers isn't the answer.

Complex issues raised by public speakers at night board meetings seldom make for good next-day articles.  They call for fact-checking,  context and an exploration of other views and possible solutions.

In an ideal world,  I'd have done that in the next couple of days.  In the real one, my week was consumed by a trip to cover President Obama in Asheville,  a day spent reporting a long-term story and a long weekend with my husband.  But that doesn't mean I've forgotten about Albemarle Road's challenges.

Alternatives to hauling in trailers pretty much boil down to redrawing boundaries, expanding the school or building a new school nearby.  That puts Albemarle Road squarely in the context of a bigger picture:  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is overdue to review its long-term plan for building and renovating schools.  The last timetable I heard called for those talks to start next month,  possibly culminating in a November bond vote.

Last time I covered a bond campaign,  back in the the boom times of 2007,  the challenge was often cast as suburban crowding vs. urban renovation.  The plight of Albemarle Road suggests that population changes  may be shifting that lens.

Trying to predict enrollment trends and balance needs throughout the county is never easy.  This time around the task promises to be particularly complex.  A growing number of charter schools in and around Mecklenburg County will have to factor into projections.  And a Raleigh-driven proposal to turn school construction over to county commissioners could further shake up the scene if it gains statewide traction.

So keep me posted on the talk around the county, and I'll do my best to keep you posted on the plans that emerge.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Private-school report: Intriguing but flawed

Updated with corrected numbers.
Last week Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina released a study of private school tuition across the state,  making the case for public scholarships to help poor and working-class families attend private schools.

Spoiler alert: Some of the numbers in "An Affordable Option: Increasing Private School Access for Working Class Families" are wrong.  More about that to come.

First it's worth exploring the concept of  "opportunity scholarships"  (opponents would say it's dressing up the politically sensitive term "vouchers").  Last year the N.C. legislature approved spending public money to help students with disabilities attend private schools.  This year's crew is big on school choice and may well  look at expanding that opportunity to other students.

The hypothetical program outlined by PEFNC would make families earning up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level eligible for a state-funded scholarship of $4,824 a year,  or 90 percent of what the state spends for each student in public school. Families earning between 185 and 275 percent of the poverty level would be eligible for half the state's per-pupil average,  or a $2,861 scholarship.  According to this year's federal guidelines,  the poverty level is $23,550 for a family of four,  which would mean that family could earn almost $43,600 a year for the larger sum or $64,800 for the smaller one.

"Long term,  an Opportunity Scholarship Program saves taxpayers money because the cost of a scholarship is less than what the state spends per student,"  the report says.

But would that sum get a student into private schools?  To answer that question,  PEFNC tackled a daunting task:  Rounding up tuition figures from roughly 700 private schools listed in the state's directory.  That's even trickier than it sounds, because many schools vary tuition by grade level.  The group ended up with listings for 560 schools,  with charges broken out by every level from 3-year-old preschool to 12th grade.

PEFNC calculated the average tuition rate at $6,238 a year.  "But when excluding unique high-tuition schools which comprise fewer than 10 percent of all private schools in the state,  the average tuition is just $5,404  --  a figure that is more reflective of the majority of North Carolina's private schools,"  the report says.  A scholarship of about $4,800 a year could easily bring many private schools into the reach of working class families,  the group concludes.

The problem arises with the county-by-county breakdown that's included.  It shows that Mecklenburg County is among the state's most expensive,  with a median tuition of $7,750 for elementary school,  $8,352 for middle school and $4,905 for high school.

The relatively high costs rang true.  The high school drop did not.  When I asked PEFNC spokesman Stan Chambers for elaboration,  he sent me a school-by-school breakdown for Mecklenburg County,  with schools identified by numbers rather than names.  It was clear at a glance that the columns for grades 10-12 were garbled.  One school that charged more than $15,000 for lower grades was listed as charging $2,750 for grades 10-12.  Another listed as a preK-8 school had tuition listed for grades 10-12.

My first two attempts to tell Chambers he had a problem were rebuffed.  The divergence in high school tuition numbers,  for Mecklenburg and many other counties,  arose because some private schools don't offer high school,  he insisted.  He declined to provide names so I could check the numbers,  saying the study had guaranteed confidentiality.

"I can tell you that we contacted every private school in North Carolina, which is no small feat for any organization, let alone a small nonprofit,"  Chambers replied.  "As far as I know, no one has ever collected this type data on a large scale before. Presenting a report with flawed data cripples our credibility (which we have painstakingly built since 2005) and severely undermines our ability to advocate for every child to have access to a quality education."

It was only when I copied President Darrell Allison on an email challenging PEFNC to recheck just three of the Mecklenburg schools with the most unlikely numbers that I got a response.  Sure enough, a review uncovered that the columns for grades 10-12 were scrambled in a final run of the Excel spreadsheet,  when the alphabetical listing of schools was re-sorted by county.  Allison sent me a corrected version of the Mecklenburg data,  which shows high school tuition ranging from $3,200 to $21,810 a year,  with a median around $9,500.

Allison says it was an honest mistake.  I have no reason to doubt him.

He says the statewide averages were not affected.  That could be true,  if the high school cells were correct but assigned to the wrong schools.

But I'm willing to bet that all or most of the county medians for high schools are wrong.  Again, you can look at results like those for Orange County  (middle school $15,580,  high school $6,203) or Sampson County  (middle school $5,830,  high school $17,400)  and know they don't pass the smell test. 

Because of that,  I'd warn anyone to be wary of using this data.  That's a shame,  given the work it took to produce it.  If lawmakers explore offering public money for private tuition,  they'd be wise to get their own staff to research the details.

Update: Allison sent a corrected county chart this afternoon, and sure enough, the new high school numbers make sense.  The report will be revised and re-released "in the upcoming weeks," he said.

"Because the data for grades 10-12 was simply mis-sorted, the overall numbers were not affected. PEFNC remains confident that the statewide average and median reflected in the report remain accurate," he reports. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Better plans for special-needs kids?

When you have  --  or teach  --  children with disabilities,  you enter a world with a language all its own.

Your educational existence revolves around the IEP,  or individualized education program.  Parents and educators often struggle to figure out the best mix of services and accommodations to help an individual student learn best.

A friend who's been through that drill forwarded a survey being done by Elizabeth Ireland,  a graduate student in public policy and law at Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy.  Ireland is working with Advocates for Children's Services,  a branch of Legal Aid,  to look at ways to make the state IEP form easier for parents and educators to use.

Reading through her survey makes me glad I don't have to use or edit this form.  But I'm not the expert;  many of you are.  So if you've got thoughts to share,  Ireland invites you to take the survey by Feb. 20.  She plans to share her results and recommendations with Advocates for Children's Services, Duke University and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Spotlight on local charters

Joel Medley,  director of the N.C. charter school office,  caught up with me shortly after I blogged about a local discussion of whether charters are discovering successful tactics to share with other public schools.

Medley noted that the founding legislation doesn't specify any method for acting as an innovation incubator,  though that language is prevalent in national talk about charters.  But last year his office started posting analyses of best practices in N.C. charters,  and some schools in Mecklenburg County have landed in that spotlight.

Community School of Davidson garnered the state's only in-depth individual analysis.  The report highlights the school,  which serves about 1,000 students in grades K-10,  as a "school of relationships,"  using such approaches as a faculty retreat in Asheville to build morale and a  "looping"  approach that keeps teachers with their students for two years.

The charter school office also looked at 12 charters that earned high growth ratings three years in a row.  Among them were Community School of Davidson, KIPP Charlotte and  Socrates Academy in Matthews.  Some of the characteristics of the successful schools were pretty obvious:  Stability in leadership and students,  engaged parents and a culture focused on student success.  Most of the schools also offer a wider grade span than the traditional elementary/middle/high model,  demanding fewer transitions for students, and smaller-than-usual classes and/or schools.

Not surprisingly,  most of the high-growth schools have a lot in common with successful schools run by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and other districts.  Everyone knows it's important to hire great teachers,  set high standards,  provide useful training,  foster a good work environment and get parents engaged.  That doesn't mean it's easy in any type of school.  But as charters continue to proliferate, it will be helpful for all to hear about what's working.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Town halls and task forces

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has set three town hall meetings, starting late this month, to let the public get an update and share views with the 22 volunteer task forces studying community and education issues.   The district has also posted a schedule of those task force meetings;  get details of town halls and task force meetings here.

The first town hall will be Feb. 27 at Waddell Language Academy in southwest Charlotte,  followed by one March 4 at North Meck in Huntersville and another March 11 at Butler High in Matthews.  All are 6-8:30 p.m.  The plan calls for Superintendent Heath Morrison to spend 45 minutes talking about the 2013-14 budget  (he's also presenting an overview at Tuesday's school board meeting).  Then participants will break into small groups to confer with the task forces they're interested in.

Neighborhood schools and quality of life

If you wanted to argue that Mecklenburg County actually has three separate school districts,  this map of neighborhood school popularity would be a fascinating conversation starter.

Quality of Life map
Of course,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is a countywide public school district.  But the map,  created by UNC Charlotte  as part of the 2012 Quality of Life Study,  shows that families in the county's northern and southeastern suburbs are far more likely to attend their neighborhood schools than those in between.  The lowest likelihood of attending neighborhood schools is found in Charlotte's close-in and westside neighborhoods  --  which also tend to be those with the lowest household incomes.

Some residents of the suburban areas that tend to love their public schools have argued for splitting off as separate districts.

Amy Hawn Nelson,  director of the university's Institute for Social Capital,  wasn't arguing for or against that action when she sent me a link to the neighborhood-school map recently.  She was pointing out the complex ways that school quality and family choices interact with the broader quality of life in our area.

Nelson took the Institute for Social Capital job last August,  bringing a deep background in education that includes work in traditional public schools and charters  (read more about her here).  The Quality of Life Dashboard includes 13 measures related to education,  including a neighborhood-by-neighborhood report on dropout rates,  school absence rates and the percent of students attending private schools.

I can't say there were any huge surprises,  but seeing data mapped out can paint a picture that's more powerful than abstract knowledge.  Hawn and her colleagues at the UNCC Urban Institute are looking for ways to harnass that power to spark dialogue about education.  I'll be eager to see that they come up with.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Glenn Singleton on white teachers

A recent WBTV report on Glenn Singleton,  a racial equity consultant whom Superintendent Heath Morrison may hire to work with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  left viewers with a cliff-hanger.

The story opens with a quote from Singleton regarding white teachers:  "White teachers,  I go even further,  white middle-class teachers.  Okay,  and the call for these educators to be able to in a culturally proficient way serve black, brown and American Indian students."

Astute viewers,  not to mention English teachers,  may note that these are sentence fragments lacking a verb. What,  you might wonder,  was Singleton trying to say about these teachers?

The snippet comes from a 30-minute interview with Singleton that has been making the rounds.  It was posted Jan. 7 on IntersectionsRadio,  an online station affiliated with the White Privilege Conference.  You can listen to the whole thing  (be prepared for some poor audio, including brief dead air at the beginning)  or go to about the eight-minute mark to hear the interviewer, Eddie Moore Jr.,  ask Singleton about white teachers'  "ability or inability"  to serve increasingly diverse groups of students.

Singleton puts them into three groups:  First, veterans,  some of whom are  "counting down to their last days"  and may be reluctant to change their principles and beliefs to better meet the needs of students of color.  "I can't say that phenomenon is limited to white teachers,"  he notes.

The second group is mid-career teachers,  he says,  for whom  "this new population and these new mandates create a new challenge for them. I have been heartened by the number of white middle-class teachers,  particularly female teachers,  who have risen to this challenge."

Finally,  he describes brand-new white teachers who arrive enthusiastic but unaware of the culture their kids come from.  Their egos may keep them from learning what they need to know,  Singleton says:  "The world has told them that they're bright and they're capable,  yet they're facing a problem that no one in our society has yet been able to institutionally figure out."

The interviewer then poses a challenge to Singleton:  Should young black males be kept out of the hands of young white teachers?  Could racial segregation actually help such students?

Singleton's answer:  "I want to see a skilled,  qualified teacher who not only believes in the educability of the students that he or she is seeing,  but has the tools and the wherewithal to bring that student to standard through instruction.  I'm not as focused on whether that teacher is white, black, brown (or) multiracial."

That's similar to what Singleton told me when he visited Charlotte in December,  meeting with education advocates and community leaders to potentially prepare the ground for work with CMS  (read my January article here).  He,  Morrison and school board members have all told me there are teachers of all races who can succeed with students of color  --  and teachers of all races who are failing them.

How Singleton speaks about white teachers  --  and how they perceive it  --  will be important if he's hired, given that 71 percent of CMS teachers are white.  Morrison,  who has worked with Singleton in two previous districts,  insists his work isn't about blaming or driving off white teachers.

Having read Singleton's two  "Courageous Conversations About Race"  books,  I can attest that it is about bluntly addressing the role of whiteness in holding back students of color,  which seems to be the message intended by the WBTV quote.  Singleton's views are also more nuanced than a news report or blog can convey.

Whether Singleton's views will become part of Charlotte's discussion on race remains to be seen.  Morrison had originally said he'd make a decision in January.  Now he's saying  "very soon."

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Task forces: Catch them if you can

First they were private.  Then they were public.  Now that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' 22 advisory task forces have started meeting,  the latest from the district is you can attend the meetings if you can find them.

Ever since Superintendent Heath Morrison announced in January that the meetings would be open to the public  --  a move some experts say is required by N.C. Open Meetings Law  --  I've been asking for a calendar of upcoming meetings  (organizational meetings in January were closed).  Tuesday,  CMS spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte referred me to a new link for task force minutes and said that's the place to find upcoming meetings.

So here's how it works:  You go to the district's Task Forces web page,  click on the link for minutes,  open the folders for any given task force to see if minutes are posted, then check those minutes to see the time and place of the next meeting.  None of those posted so far include street addresses,  so it helps if you know the location of,  say,  Smith Family Center or  "CMGC 546."

That doesn't strike me as a particularly convenient way to help the public locate public meetings, so I've pulled together a listing,  which we'll also publish in The Observer.  If you wanted to attend the February  meeting of the task force on choices, alternatives and magnets,  it's too late  --  the link to minutes went up shortly before the Tuesday afternoon meeting.  But here are the others for February,  starting with two more  this week. Update: Addresses are now confirmed by CMS.

Feb. 7:  Special education, 3-5 p.m., Walton Plaza, 700 E. Stonewall St., Room 427.
Feb. 7: Time, capital and resource management, 4-6 p.m., Robinson, Bradshaw & Hinson, 101 N. Tryon St., Suite 1900. (Update:  This meeting will focus on the CMS per-pupil spending report,  which tends to be a high-interest topic.)
Feb. 11: Technology and blended learning, 5:30-6:45 p.m., Metro School, 405 S. Davidson St.
Feb. 12: College and career readiness, 8:30-10 a.m., Oakhurst Administrative Center,  4511 Monroe Road, Room B-11.
Feb. 14: Parent engagement, 4-6 p.m., Smith Family Center, 1600 Tyvola Road.
Feb. 20: African American males, 1:30-3:30 p.m., Walton Plaza, 700 E. Stonewall St., Room 523
Feb. 21: Community and faith partnerships, 10 a.m., Dowd YMCA, 400 E. Morehead St.
Feb 21: Extended learning, 3:30-5 p.m., Foundation for the Carolinas, 220 N. Tryon St.
Feb. 22: Process and system improvements, 7:30-9 a.m., Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St., Room 546.
Feb. 25: Gifted students,  9-11 a.m..  Randolph Middle School, 4400 Water Oak Road.
Feb. 26: Higher education partnerships, 1:30-3 p.m., Northeastern University, 101 N. Tryon St.

I'll do my best to keep you updated as more come in.  If you attend task force meetings,  I'd love to talk to you for upcoming Sunshine Week reporting,  when news media highlight public efforts to get access to public information.  Please shoot me an email  (  or give me a call  (704-358-5033)  to fill me in on the experience.

But also bear in mind that task force meetings won't be the venue for sharing your ideas;  you can watch but not participate.  CMS plans to hold town hall meetings around the county for people to speak with task force members;  I'll post those when they're announced.  There's also a web link for community input,  and you can scan the rosters to see if you know members you might want to talk to.

And a footnote:  The chairman of the Wake County school board announced Tuesday that he's creating a task force on school safety.  That topic is clearly high on Morrison's priority list,  but it's not among the CMS task force topics.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Bring your old technology

Hawk Ridge Elementary,  one of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools'  "bring your own technology"  pioneers,  has launched a new twist:  The PTA is asking people to donate their old tablets,  e-readers,  phones and laptops to bolster the supply for kids to use in class.

The  "Donate to Educate"  drive was rolled out just after Christmas,  when people were most likely to be replacing their old stuff with the newest gizmos.  A parent volunteered to scrub the devices of embedded files and personal data,  so they'll be suitable for classroom use with no privacy breaches for donors.  Debra Willis, a member of the school leadership team, and others started spreading the word,  not only through school channels but to coworkers and neighbors.

Lots of people told Willis it was a great idea.  But so far,  actual donations have been slow  --  maybe seven or eight devices total,  she said.

Instead of giving up,  she's gearing up another round of emails and reminding would-be donors she'll make it easy on them.  They can drop donations at the school's front office or contact her  (704-968-5887 or  for a personal pick-up.

Even obsolete technology is accepted;  Willis says any unusable donations will be sold to a company that buys  "junk technology."

"Depending on how much we get, we will use the money to fund minor repairs such as key replacements or buy more refurbished devices for kids to use in our BYOT program,"  Willis said.  

While we're on the BYOT beat, I thought I'd re-offer a link to a helpful cyber awareness guide for parents put out by Bailey Middle School.  I posted an item about it the morning of Jan. 25,  but we all got sidetracked by the sleet that closed school early that day.  If you have kids who are using digital devices, the Bailey guide is worth a read.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Valentine's option for education-lovers

If anyone's heart goes a-flutter over the prospect of a lively education discussion,  it's readers of this blog.  So here's an option for your Valentine's Day:  TEDxCharlotteED is holding a four-hour  "Learning on Purpose"  session on Feb. 14.

TEDx events are local spinoffs from the popular Technology, Entertainment, Design talks that began in 1984.   The Charlotte education event is sponsored by a group of educators and business people eager to share success stories and intriguing ideas.

"It’s an event by creative thinkers,  for creative thinkers,  who embrace the spirit of ideas worth spreading.  The audience will consist of people who believe in the power of learning and education to improve our community,"  says a news release sent by co-chair Lexee Zutz.

Speakers include one from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools  (Deborah Brown, a teacher at Garinger High),  one from a private school  (Tom Dubick,  a science teacher at Charlotte Latin)  and one from a charter school  (Cheryl Turner,  director of Sugar Creek Charter).  But there are others from less traditional sources,  ranging from Dawn Peebles,  executive director of a Providence Preparatory,  a private preschool,  to Chef Ron Ahlert,  who leads the Community Culinary School of Charlotte,  an adult job-training program.

TEDxCharlotteED  runs from 1-5 p.m. at the N.C. Music Factory's Silver Hammer Studios, 817 Hamilton Street.  Cost is $25.  Registration is open through Feb. 13;  sign up here.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Charter schools as reform labs?

Charter schools are popular and proliferating, across the state and in the Charlotte region.  But have they fulfilled the original mission of serving as innovation incubators,  using their flexibility to test ideas that can  benefit students in all public schools?

That was one of many questions discussed at a MeckEd session on charter schools on Thursday, with a crowd of about 70 education leaders who ranged from charter advocates to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board members and administrators.

The consensus seemed to be that there has been little formal effort to catalog and reproduce charter successes.   "It's got to be somebody's job,"  said former state Sen. Eddie Goodall, head of the N.C. Public Charter School Association.

But informally there's been plenty of idea-swapping,  with more in the works,  leaders of charter schools and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools say.  Sugar Creek Charter,  an urban school that has had success with low-income students,  has traded teacher visits with CMS schools serving some of the same neighborhoods.  Socrates Academy,  a Matthews charter that teaches Greek, Chinese and Spanish,  has partnered with CMS language magnets for teacher training.

If nothing else,  it's clear that since the state legislature lifted the 100-school cap created in 1996,  the independently-run public schools are becoming a bigger player in the public education scene.  CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison has convened a group of charter and private school leaders to explore common ground.   Leaders of Durham County Schools are making a similar move.  Like CMS,  that county faces a surge of potential competition from new charters.

MeckEd data maps
MeckEd,  a public education information and advocacy group,  has been collecting and presenting data on charters for the last couple of years  (see the latest data maps of CMS and charters here).  The group held one discussion group about charters Thursday,  with another planned later this month.

Much of the discussion revolved around whether charters have an advantage over traditional public schools.  For instance,  Bolyn McClung said a school board member had told him charters use CMS as a  "dumping ground"  for students who create discipline problems.  Tiffany Flowers,  co-founder of KIPP Charlotte,  said it's rare for her school to expel students.

Charters,  like CMS magnets,  can set up requirements for families that choose to apply.  KIPP requires students and parents to sign contracts detailing the work they'll do to ensure success. Socrates requires each family to provide 36 hours of volunteer work -- although,  as Goodall noted,  that's not actually a binding requirement.

On the other hand,  charter schools can have their charters revoked for consistently weak academic performance.  So far such actions are rare;  Goodall said only one has been closed statewide,  though another half dozen are at risk this year.  Sugar Creek was threatened with closing after a rocky start in 2000.  The local board brought in Director Cheryl Turner after firing the for-profit management company that had opened the school.  "That threat of death thing is a real motivator,"  Turner said, getting a laugh.

There's one other big difference:  Charter school teachers don't have tenure.  They can be dismissed at will,  or required to work longer hours if they want a job.  Charter school operators also have more flexibility on how they pay their faculty.

"I can really seek out the brightest,  the best,"  said Janis Dellinger-Holton,  principal of Socrates Academy.  As a longtime principal in Wake County schools,  she said,  it could take her two to three years of documentation to get rid of a weak teacher.

And that's likely to be the prickliest question ahead.  Some districts,  including CMS,  have asked the state for the same flexibility granted to charters.  Bill Anderson,  executive director of MeckEd,  told the group that deregulating school districts and rethinking teacher tenure are among the issues that legislative leaders have identified to tackle this year.

MeckEd's instant polling showed there was some broad agreement among the audience.  Eighty percent said it's important to have charters to provide  "healthy competition" and parent choice.  Ninety percent agreed traditional public schools should have similar flexibility  "with guidelines and procedures."