Friday, June 28, 2013

Project LIFT, Freedom Schools split up

Last summer, Freedom School Partners helped launch Project LIFT by holding reading camps at eight schools that feed into West Charlotte High.

Students in Freedom School last summer
This summer the two groups have gone their separate ways.

For LIFT leaders, it's proof of what they said when they launched their school improvement quest:  If private donors are going to put up $55 million, educators must be ruthless about spending it on programs that demonstrate an academic payoff.

"It's a quality program,"  Denise Watts, Project LIFT Zone superintendent, said of Freedom Schools, "but not necessarily the program we need to accelerate student learning.  They are great, but just not for the content that we're working on now."

Freedom Schools,  a program created by the Children's Defense Fund,  offer students a focus on reading, self-confidence and cultural awareness.  Classes are taught by college interns.

Building Educated Leaders for Life, or BELL, also worked with Project LIFT kids last summer. That program,  taught by certified teachers,  offers sessions in literacy,  math and science.  At the end of last summer,  BELL had produced gains that could be measured on the exams given at the start and end of the session.

This summer four of the eight LIFT elementary and middle schools are bringing their students back in July,  using a year-round calendar to reduce academic losses during the long summer break. Project LIFT just announced that the Arts & Science Council has been chosen to provide free enrichment programs (focused on arts and sciences, naturally) during fall, winter, spring and summer breaks for those students.  Students from the other schools are getting BELL summer classes again.

For Freedom Schools,  the split with Project LIFT is a setback to a planned expansion in the Charlotte area. Last year there were 25 sites and 1,600 students across the county;  this year there are 19 sites and 1,200 kids.  Executive Director Mary Nell McPherson says the local group is back to building its program the way it always has,  working with churches,  universities,  schools and other groups willing to provide volunteers and financial support.  Five new host sites signed on this summer, she said.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Wake panel wants teeth in ethics policy

Wake County school board members who violate a proposed ethics policy could face such penalties as a formal resignation request or referral for criminal charges, the News & Observer reports.

The policy,  approved by a board committee this week,  comes in response to a former board chairman's disclosure of closed-session details about superintendent hiring.  On June 11,  as the Wake board was negotiating with James Merrill,  former chair Ron Margiotta told reporter T. Keung Hui that the board had split 5-4,  with CMS Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark in second place.

A board ethics policy wouldn't apply to Margiotta,  who was voted out in 2011.  But members say his information clearly came,  directly or indirectly,  from a current board member.

“There needs to be some accountability and repercussions when someone breaches our confidentiality and the trust of this board in that manner,” Chairman Keith Sutton told the N&O.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg board has seen similar wrangling.  In 2003,  a deeply divided board explored  ethics policies but didn't approve anything.  Two years later,  several members expressed outrage when then-member Larry Gauvreau,  publisher of the now-defunct Rhinoceros Times weekly newspaper, told his reporter the names of people being considered as interim superintendent after the departure of James Pughsley.  Gauvreau said he didn't believe talks about Pughsley's retirement package and the transition plan should be private.

In 2010,  after complete turnover in membership,  the CMS board approved an ethics code. It's composed as a first-person affirmation,  with statements such as "I will uphold the integrity and independence of my office as a board member."  There are no penalties for violation,  and to my knowledge none have been reported.

That's the challenge:  When all members hold enough values in common,  an ethics code becomes almost superfluous.  It's when differences of philosophy,  style and/or personality slice deep that public officials look for ways to bring the others in line.

Another challenge:  Sometimes the willingness of dissident board members to fight the group consensus -- even to the point of disclosing closed-door talks  --  can serve the public good.  The line between legitimate whistle-blowing and poking a figurative finger in the eye of opponents isn't always clear.

County commissioner Bill James,  a fiercely partisan Republican, spends a lot of time around that line.  His shots almost always have a Democrat in the bull's-eye,  but he has also pushed for maximum public disclosure of public business.  Not surprisingly,  he was quick to blame the Democratic majority on the Wake school board for trying to "muzzle the GOP"  with the proposed ethics penalties (Margiotta is a Republican),  and to work in a jab at one of his own Democratic colleagues.

"In any event, no ‘policy’ is going to prevent me from disclosing information that I believe the public should know,"  James said in an email.  "State law specifically allows elected officials to disclose closed session material or discussions (with certain limitations) because it gives the elected official the right to make the call."

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

PreK-8s, Bright Beginnings top CMS research plan

Measuring the impact of Bright Beginnings prekindergarten and figuring out whether the recent switch to preK-8 schools benefits students are among top research goals for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes told the school board Tuesday.

Several board members said they're eager to see that data.

The 2010 decision to close three struggling middle schools and add grades 6-8 to eight elementaries raised questions in the affected neighborhoods.  Some parents still believe the combined elementary/middle schools endanger the young children and give older students fewer academic options than they'd get in larger middle schools.  Proponents say students benefit from the more personalized setting and avoid the academic slump that often comes with the switch to middle school.

In September,  Morrison presented a preliminary study of the first year of pre-K-8s that found mixed academic results. Barnes said Tuesday a follow-up is expected in late fall or winter,  after results of 2013 state exams are in.

Barnes said CMS is also working with researchers from UNC Charlotte to study the district's prekindergarten:  "Is it working, where is it working best and are there challenges?"  Most school board members say they support public prekindergarten,  but many have voiced frustration that CMS failed to deliver on early promises to monitor how Bright Beginnings students do as they move through school.  Former Superintendent Eric Smith created the program in 1998.  Tracking of student results vanished during ensuing leadership changes,  even as the program's cost has risen.

Other research plans include identifying signs that students are at risk of dropping out and studying the "instructional culture" of CMS schools, part of a research project with TNTP.  Barnes said CMS hopes to refine the district's annual surveys of principals,  teachers,  students and parents.  Results of those surveys used to be posted online;  Barnes said the 2012-13 results haven't been released yet but should be posted later this summer.

Barnes told the board that he and his staff are still working on a reliable way to report on school success.  In 2012,  CMS withdrew its school progress reports after the Observer uncovered errors in the data.  A subsequent CMS review found even more problems.

Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart asked Barnes how he plans to restore community confidence that CMS can get the numbers right.  Barnes said he's working on a system that uses data verified by the state,  but new state exams and uncertainties about a proposed letter-grade system are delaying that effort.

"Part of what I recognize is that trust is earned,"  Barnes said.  "I think what we will have to do is season by season,  year by year re-earn that trust."

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A peek at menu for CMS, CPCC bonds

A November referendum on bonds for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and Central Piedmont Community College won't be locked in until August, but county commissioners' approval of a capital plan last week makes it a pretty sure thing.

CMS and CPCC leaders are talking about the best way to present their needs and plans, while the folks at the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce are kicking around strategies and names for a bond campaign. Publicly-funded bodies can't spend money to influence an election, so there's always a careful line between the public  "bond information" campaigns and the privately-funded "vote yes" push.

Mecklenburg County' five-year capital plan will provide $290 million for CMS and $210 million for CPCC, says county Finance Director Dena Diorio. Here's how projects break down under that plan:

In 2014-15, the county would provide money to finish the last of the CMS 2007 bond projects: A new school to relieve crowding at Highland Creek Elementary and renovations to Hawthorne High.  Other 2014-15 projects would be:

*Work at Alexander Middle in Huntersville, Myers Park High, Olympic High and Statesville Road Elementary (see details of CMS projects here).

*Reopening Oakhurst and Starmount as elementary schools.

* Construction of a new preK-8 school in west Charlotte, a new K-8 language immersion school in east Charlotte and a replacement for Nations Ford Elementary on the campus of Waddell Language Academy.

* Buying land for a new K-8 magnet in the Ballantyne area and an expansion of Northridge Middle School.

* For CPCC, doing work on the Giles Science Building and Cato Campus,  plus buying land for projects at the Levine,  Central and Merancas campuses.

In 2015-16,  CMS would get money for projects at East Mecklenburg and South Mecklenburg high schools and Northwest School of the Arts.  CPCC would launch projects at the Levine and Harper campuses.

In 2016-17,  CMS would launch work at Northridge, Selwyn Elementary and five preK-8 schools,  while CPCC would get money for a Central Campus project and Terrell renovation/expansion.

In 2017-18,  CMS would build the new Ballantyne-area K-8 magnet, convert Davidson Elementary to a K-8 school and do career-technology improvements at Garinger, Independence, West Mecklenburg and North Mecklenburg high schools.  CPCC would get money for a Hendrick Automotive expansion,  renovation/expansion to the Advanced Technology Center and the Merancas Campus project.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Guards for superintendents, family

The contract for newly-hired Wake County Superintendent Jim Merrill has a lot of education reporters wondering how scary things are in North Carolina.

“In the event of public controversy or threat to the Superintendent or his immediate family arising from the Superintendent’s position with the school system,  if the board or Superintendent ever deems it necessary for the protection of the Superintendent or his immediate family,  the Board will provide security measures that it deems reasonable and appropriate to enhance the safety of the Superintendent and/or his immediate family," it says.

My colleague at the News & Observer, Keung Hui, sent out a query to the Education Writers Association listserve asking if anyone had heard of this kind of thing.  The overwhelming response was incredulity.

I recall being shocked when Peter Gorman got a similar clause added to his contract with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in 2009.  I dashed over to find out who was threatening him and/or his family and when we could expect to see a contingent of guards escorting him. He and his spokeswoman,  Nora Carr,  assured me there was no problem.  Carr said Gorman had gotten the idea from his former deputy,  Mo Green,  who had just been hired as Guilford County superintendent and had a security clause.  "I think in this day and age it's a wise precaution,"  Carr (who is now Green's chief of staff)  said at the time.

It's tempting to crack wise about violent Carolinians,  and lord knows Wake County has its share of controversy these days.  But best I can tell,  it's just one of those  "cover your bases" things that lawyers throw in during contract negotiations (Green happens to be a lawyer, who started his education career at the attorney for CMS).  Merrill has the same provision in his contract with Virginia Beach schools and has never used it in his seven years with that district, Hui reports.  A Google search turned up examples of similar contract phrasing for superintendents hired in Pennsylvania and Texas in recent years.

Heath Morrison,  who took Gorman's place,  doesn't have a security provision. "It is not something I lifted up,"  he said when I asked.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Taking away master's pay for teachers

The supplement North Carolina teachers get for advanced degrees would disappear for teachers who earn those degrees in the future,  according to House and Senate budget plans.

Contrary to rumors,  those proposals wouldn't strip pay from teachers who have already earned the supplement.  According to an N.C. Association of Educators summary of how the budget plans would affect teachers,  anyone who gets the extra pay in 2013-14 would be grandfathered into the existing pay scale.  Under the 2012-13 pay scale,  a teacher with 10 years' experience and a bachelor's degree gets $37,110,  while a master's degree adds another $3,710 to the annual salary  (local supplements may push that higher). Neither proposal eliminates the additional pay for National Board Certification.

A petition on created by Bobby Padgett of Gastonia urges legislators to protect pay for advanced degrees as they work toward a final budget this summer. "This is a particular slap in the face to all NC educators who are in the middle of a master's program and cannot complete it by this arbitrary deadline,"  the petition says.  It had more than 1,000 electronic signatures as of Wednesday.

"Why wouldn't you want to give an incentive to the people you trust to educate your children to continue educating themselves?" wrote signer Gabriel Cohn of Davidson, a teacher who doesn't have an advanced degree.

"It's not just about the money; it's about valuing education,"  wrote Brittany Stone of Charlotte. "Eliminating master's pay is just another of the myriad ways in which North Carolina is devaluing education and educators."

Meanwhile,  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Heath Morrison said Wednesday that district officials will keep lobbying for an employee raise in 2013-14,  even though neither the House nor the Senate budget calls for one.  He said studies that rank North Carolina as low as 48th in the nation in teacher pay are cause for alarm:  "It is going to be very hard to make the case for quality teachers to come and stay in North Carolina."

This week Gov. Pat McCrory charged his education cabinet with creating a plan to boost pay for good teachers, along with other strategies for improving public education. Their plan is due in time to be presented to the legislature in 2014. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Chef Morrison ready to throw risotto?

People who want to follow Superintendent Heath Morrison's metaphors may want to step up their viewing of reality TV.

I was perplexed when a presentation on school redesign ended with the goal of ensuring that  "families in CMS will love our schools,  not list them."  Someone explained that it's a play on the HGTV show "Love It or List It."

Now Morrison is eagerly telling his staff about Chef Ramsay throwing bad risotto.

Management role model? @*#%!

It's hard to imagine fiery-tempered, foul-mouthed Gordon Ramsay,  star of  "Hell's Kitchen,"  serving as a management role model for Morrison.  Morrison,  who considers a PB&J fine dining,  is quick to note that he's never tried risotto and doesn't really plan to throw food or  "call anyone a donkey"  like Ramsay does when he's displeased.

I'm not even sure Morrison has his risotto-throwing story right.  I found accounts of Ramsay throwing meat and chucking someone's phone into boiling water,  but the only risotto-toss my Google search turned up involved rival chef  Marco Pierre White.

But I think the idea he's trying to convey is that the proof is in the,  er,  risotto,  and Morrison is going to demand results from everyone charged with making schools better.

At a news conference this morning, Morrison announced an administrative shake-up that he says will focus everyone on service to schools. (Here's my story and here's the CMS news release.) He emphasized that everyone,  from bus drivers and janitors to top-ranking administrators,  needs to be able to justify their work in terms of promoting education.  If you can't explain how you're serving students and schools,  he said,  "then you're probably someone we don't need."

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Fresh eyes on public education

Until this summer,  I never associated urban education reform with Davidson College, a private liberal arts school on a tranquil suburban campus.  But the college's new education scholars program has placed summer interns in the thick of Charlotte's quest to turn around inner-city schools. 

Davidson education scholars at work

The eight undergraduates are working with key players, mentoring high school students and living uptown at Johnson C. Smith University's Mosaic Village.  Among the assignments:  Shadowing  Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark,  helping the public-private Project LIFT analyze data and plan strategy, working with support and advocacy groups ranging from Teach For America to Communities in Schools,  and connecting directly with schools,  including CMS' Billingsville Elementary and Sugar Creek Charter School.  The students have a range of career plans,  but all see themselves making a difference in education.

The real-life experience is bound to teach them things they'd never learn in a college classroom,  even from the best of professors.  Their views are likely to energize the groups they work with and broaden the public discussion.  Part of their assignment is to blog about what they're thinking and learning.  They've already weighed in on digital education,  discussed the frustrations imposed by web filters designed to protect kids and discovered that red tape can bog down well-intentioned projects.  And one of them has demonstrated video blogging skill that leaves  me in the dust  (not that that's hard to do).

I got to meet the scholars early on,  talking to them about CMS and blogging during their orientation.  They struck me as smart, energetic people who ask good questions.  I'm eager to read more about their summer.  Maybe in a few years we'll all get to see some of them in action.

Monday, June 17, 2013

From biscuits to diplomas?

Will Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools'  new free breakfast program produce thousands more graduates?

Well  ...  I'd take that claim with a grain of salt.

Cindy Hobbs,  who heads the CMS child nutrition program,  was ecstatic when the school board OK'ed a plan to provide free breakfast to all students, regardless of family income.  By removing the stigma associated with getting a free meal,  supporters of the plan hope kids will start their school day with a nutritious meal,  eventually improving behavior, attendance and academic performance.

"We could be looking at 3,500 more children to graduate,  based on their 20 percent graduation rate,"  she told the board just before the 7-1 vote.

When I asked about that number,  she acknowledged it's more of a hope than a solid projection,  and one that would take many years to play out.

The CMS presentation used numbers drawn from  "Ending Childhood Hunger: A Social Impact Analysis," done by Deloitte for the advocacy group No Kid Hungry.  It's the kind of study designed to make a case,  with clear language, nice visuals and strong conclusions. It cites findings that students who participate in school breakfast programs attend 1.5 more days of school a year, score 17.5 percent higher on math tests and have fewer behavior problems.  The 20 percent figure comes from a different study,  which found that students who miss fewer than five days of school a year  --  not necessarily those who eat breakfast  --  are 20 percent more likely to graduate.  Based on that,  Deloitte extrapolated that the Maryland program they were reviewing might  "see up to 56,000 additional students achieving math proficiency and 14,000 more high school graduates over time."

Hobbs said she used that same approach to extrapolate a CMS increase in graduates over an unspecified period of time.

The source cited in the Deloitte footnote is a 36-page academic research review on breakfast studies done since the 1990s.  It's harder to get through than a big bowl of unsalted grits.  I did my best,  and found several studies showing that students performed better on some tests,  logged better attendance and appeared to be better behaved when they had breakfast.  But,  as tends to be the case with real academic research,  it's chock full of qualifiers,  along the lines of  "not statistically significant"  and  "another data source produced contradictory results."

There's no mention of any study linking breakfast to graduation rates.

Common sense tells us that sausage biscuits aren't the golden ticket to education reform.  It brings me back to a notion I've written about before,  that real change comes from 100 one-percent solutions, not one or two big reforms.  It would be lunacy to offer free breakfasts and figure the work is done,  but CMS leaders are hoping it's one small piece of a program to help more kids succeed.

While we're on the biscuit beat,  did anyone else cringe at the notion that kids are getting "turkey sausage on a whole-grain biscuit"?  Hobbs told the board that school cafeterias avoid pork because many families have religious prohibitions.

I happen to like turkey sausage.  But a whole-grain biscuit?  Is that even a real thing?

Real biscuits?

Hobbs laughed when I asked.  "They're  ...  OK," she said tactfully.  As a Southerner, she said, she wouldn't serve or eat them,  but the U.S. Department of Agriculture requires certain portions of whole grains in school meals.

Friday, June 14, 2013

$94 million worth of success

The 8,000-plus members of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Class of 2013 brought in more than 2,600 scholarships worth almost $94 million, the district reports.

The scholarship report always makes me twitch a bit. Years ago, I treated these tallies like hard data, trying to figure out why some schools were so much more effective than others in getting their graduates college money and why numbers fluctuated so wildly from year to year.

What I learned was that these totals rely on self-reporting by seniors and guidance counselors, both of whom have a lot of distractions at the end of the year.  So now I don't put a lot of energy into the specifics.

But the big point is worth recognizing: A whole lot of students leave CMS with a great education and bright prospects.

And let's face it,  lists are fun.  So in the spirit of celebration, let's take a look at the report and tip our hats to ...

Providence High topped the tally,  with 361 scholarships worth just over $16 million.  Next were Myers Park (302,  $13.7 million)  and Ardrey Kell (245,  $9 million).  Those were also the top three schools based on academic scholarships only.

Vance topped the list for athletic scholarships,  with almost $4 million,  followed by Mallard Creek ($2.6 million) and West Charlotte ($2 million).

Ardrey Kell logged $840,000 in military scholarships,  followed by Providence ($677,606) and Independence ($188,500).

South Meck topped the fine arts list with $537,290,  followed by Providence ($253,100) and Northwest School of the Arts ($184,500).  It's probably worth noting that the arts magnet is much smaller than the two traditional high schools.

And for band scholarships, South Meck was way above all other schools with $279,300.

All in all,  that comes to a lot of students and parents with good cause to celebrate.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Designing dream schools

Principals are described as lead designers of  "a dream school house"  in a presentation Superintendent Heath Morrison made to the school board Tuesday. He talked about the growing  competition from charter, private, online and magnet schools,  which can pull students away from traditional neighborhood schools.

"The iceberg is straight ahead,"  says one slide,  illustrated with a graphic of the Titanic.  "Do we continue on our same path with the same result?"

Plans handed down from central offices are part of the old path,  Morrison said.  "I believe that transformation and reform happens best when it happens at the schoolhouse."
Morrison talked a lot about finding ways to make each school  "a school of choice" that offers high-quality teaching, programs and schedules that suit the needs of the community.  Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart suggested he consider a different label,  given the baggage that "choice" carries in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools  (the post-desegregation assignment plan that debuted in 2002 was called "the choice plan.")

There aren't a lot of specifics yet.  Morrison said he and principals will be hashing those out during the summer leadership institute and in the coming school year.  But there was some interesting discussion of the strategy.

A couple of board members asked how far the district would go in backing up a principal with a bold vision for change.  Morrison waved a caution flag.  If the vision is only the principal's,  he said,  it's going to fall apart when that principal leaves.  Any plan for change needs to come from the whole school community, he said.  And that means reaching beyond the handful of parents who may be regulars at the PTA meetings:  "It can't be a neighborhood school of choice if you haven't involved the neighborhood."

Any plan that's based on reports of success elsewhere will require in-depth research to make sure that model really works,  he added.  "I want to reward boldness,"  he said,  "but it's a calculated boldness.  You have to do your homework."

Morrison talked about helping each school market itself,  but added that  "I don't want our principals to be used car salesmen."

Also at Tuesday's meeting,  the school board approved this $36 million plan for Title I spending in 2013-14  (read more about the plan here).  It calls for supporting 1,800 Bright Beginnings prekindergarten students,  well under the current total of 3,000.  Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark says that's not a cutback;  it's just because Title I money only pays for part of the program.

References to FOCUS schools may also prove confusing.  In this context,  it's a state label for schools with weaknesses in test scores or graduation rates,  which qualifies those schools for help from academic coaching teams.   The CMS  "FOCUS school"  program,  which provided extra money and supplies to high poverty schools,  has been phased out,  officials said.

The list of Title I schools targeted for special aid also notes that Sterling,  Windsor Park and Allenbrook elementary schools have been named  "reward schools," a state designation based on high performance or growth.  I asked Clark what kind of reward they get.

If you have any familiarity with the way these things work,  you won't be surprised at the answer:  None.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

No squawks about CMS

I thoroughly enjoyed "Charlotte Squawks,"  the ninth annual musical lampoon of our area's characters,  institutions and foibles. But something feels amiss.

There are spoofs of Congress and the N.C. General Assembly.  Mayor Anthony Foxx makes frequent appearances,  and Pat McCrory's dance number is inspired.  Mecklenburg County gets three whole songs,  for the county commission,  County Manager Harry Jones'  departure and the revaluation flub.  Even the Observer's paywall got a poke,  to the tune of  "Skyfall."

"Pat McCrory" shows his "Governor Style"
But there's nary a peep about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  one of our largest public institutions.

I could claim it's because the cast hasn't found lookalikes for Superintendent Heath Morrison or school board Chair Mary McCray.  But the truth is,  this crew just isn't very funny.

It wasn't long ago that the district's leaders provided regular fodder for skewering.  Remember when the board was regularly described as divided and dysfunctional?  When national consultants used videos of CMS board meetings as examples of chaotic governance?  When protesters were getting hauled out of board meetings in handcuffs?

If you don't like the current board's direction,  it's probably not much consolation that they're working more cohesively.  But it's got to be a good thing for the community when the folks in charge of educating children behave like grown-ups.

Of course,  reporters take a perverse pride in covering the wackiest characters in town.  I admit to feeling some nostalgia for the days when a new superintendent took office and promptly tried to ban a children's book about gay penguins.

Since I saw only the dress rehearsal,  I checked with founder/producer Mike Collins to see whether things might change before the show ends on June 21.  The musical numbers are set,  he said,  but a satirical newscast is updated daily.

"If they do anything funny or absurd or worth making fun of, that will find its way into the news,"  Collins added helpfully.

Well, I can always hope for a good laugh.  But we might have to settle for a leadership team that seems to have gone sane.


Monday, June 10, 2013

CMS shakeup afoot

Superintendent Heath Morrison is reorganizing his administration,  but his office says he won't be ready to announce any changes until at least next week.

The timing makes sense,  as he wraps up his first year with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.  When Morrison made his first round of appointments last summer,  I voiced surprise that he hadn't brought anyone from his previous district in Reno, Nev.  He said he told his top people he wanted them to stay in place for at least a year to help the new superintendent with the transition.  After that, he said, he'd consider hiring them.  That told me Morrison,  who is nothing if not methodical,  was looking ahead to a second stage of filling out his leadership team in Charlotte.

The Wake County school board's delay in hiring a superintendent leaves a lingering question mark for CMS,  with Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark as one of three Wake finalists.  Clark played a key role in Morrison's first year,  but he's clearly prepared to fill the gap if she gets the job.  And he's been holding off on hiring a chief academic officer,  a post he calls crucial to the district's long-term success,  while letting Clark oversee academics.

I wouldn't be surprised to see changes in the administrative zones that schools report to.  CMS currently has six:  The Project LIFT zone,  encompassing the West Charlotte High feeder area;  two others that oversee all other schools with poverty levels of 75 percent or higher;  and three that split the lower-poverty schools geographically.  Two of the zone superintendent posts are vacant,  and superintendents tend to like to line up schools by their own method.

Let me know what you hear about the changes,  and what you'd like to see happen to make central offices work effectively for schools,  employees and taxpayers.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

March. Clap. Repeat.

I got an early start on graduation season last weekend,  when I attended my niece's commencement from Carmel High School in suburban Indianapolis.

I'm always fascinated by the creative tensions that underlie such ceremonies.  School officials try to enforce decorum,  while a few students plot pranks and some families just can't help whooping it up.

I admit to feeling sympathy with the dignified and the defiant.  I behaved at my own graduation and my son's.  But when I read the letter from Carmel High urging students and families to refrain from bringing balloons,  beach balls,  bubbles and noisemakers,  my first thought was, "Bubbles?  Now that would be fun ..."

1,200 grads equals one huge crowd

Carmel is a huge school,  with almost 1,200 graduates.  The families have evolved their own method for working around the "please hold your applause" issue:  A single clap after each name is called. I can't say I love the Carmel clap  --  it feels a bit dismissive or sarcastic,  and it's still a whole lot of palm-smacking.  But it's interesting.

Today kicks off a five-day stretch of graduation ceremonies for Charlotte-Mecklenburg's big high schools. I will duly pass along the warning:  Do not bring in flowers, duffel bags, fanny packs, backpacks, gifts, balloons, air horns or noisemakers.  Expect to go through a metal detector.

If you experience anything inspiring, quirky, entertaining or noteworthy,  please share.

And above all:  Congratulations to the Class of 2013,  and to the teachers,  mentors and family who got them to this point.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Can you pass the national exams?

Dang it, I still don't know if I'm as smart as a fifth-grader.

Practice versions of new English and math tests,  designed to provide a consistent measure of whether students are meeting national Common Core standards,  were recently posted by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.  I tried my hand at the fifth-grade math exam -- partly to see how rusty my skills had gotten and partly to see what online testing is all about.

I found the online format a bit random:  Sometimes you typed in numbers,  sometimes you clicked and dragged them from columns.  It took a bit of figuring out,  but didn't seem terribly daunting.  But it was such a letdown when I finished,  clicked submit and didn't get a report on what was right and wrong.  A spokesman for the consortium said the scoring rubrics won't be finished until later this summer.

Of course,  the purpose of posting the tests is to let teachers,  parents and other concerned people get a feel for what's on the horizon.  Plans call for North Carolina students to start taking the national online tests in 2014.  A big part of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools budget is geared toward building the capacity for all schools to do online exams.

But now there's a twist:  Even though North Carolina is among 26 states that make up the Smarter Balanced Consortium,  officials say it's unclear whether the state will spend the money to actually buy the exams. "NC has not made a decision about Smarter Balanced yet. We anticipate making a decision (really our state Board of Education will make a decision) in 2014,"  said Vanessa Jeter, spokeswoman for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

The Common Core movement has proven controversial in many states.  N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory and Lt. Gov. Dan Forest recently added their voices to those raising questions,  saying they want to know more about the Common Core and the state's testing regimen.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Today Show and CMS spin

Devonshire Elementary got a nice moment of national recognition on the Today Show this morning, but it's too bad NBC education correspondent Rehema Ellis didn't double-check her numbers.

I suspected that might be an issue when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools  emailed an announcement Wednesday saying the east Charlotte school would be featured as a success story in a series on poverty, race and education. That wasn't a shock;  from what I know,  Principal Suzanne Gimenez and her crew have worked hard to make some genuine academic gains over the last five years.

But the numbers in the CMS announcement were incredible. Literally.

"Since a turnaround effort began five years ago,  achievement at Devonshire,  which has more than 95 percent of students who are economically disadvantaged,  has soared.  In 2008,  only 68.4 percent of students were at or above Level III,"  wrote CMS spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte,  referring to the state exam rating that's considered passing.  "Today,  94.8 percent of students are at or above Level III."

If that were true,  I'd have done a front-page story,  as I did with Windsor Park Elementary,  which topped CMS'  high-poverty schools with a 2012 pass rate of 82 percent.  But the state's school report cards show that Devonshire had pass rates of 54.9 percent in reading,  90.5 percent in math and 64.4 percent in fifth-grade science,  for an overall composite of 71.4 percent.

When I asked Stalberte about that,  she sent out a correction:  "The numbers (listed) are the proficiency composites for fifth-grade math,  not the overall proficiency at Devonshire Elementary."

In 2008,  Devonshire's overall proficiency rate was 42.9 percent.  But as I recently told a group of Davidson College students embarking on summer internships with local education groups,  any report that touts big gains since 2008 should set BS detectors pinging.  That's because North Carolina students had one chance to pass or fail the exams in 2008;  starting the next year,  first-time flunkers got a second shot. The result of the rule change was not trivial,  especially at struggling schools.  In 2009,  Devonshire's overall pass rate was 55.1 percent after the first test and 64.2 percent after the retests,  according to CMS reports at the time.

This morning's report featured good interviews with Devonshire faculty and families. Especially touching was a segment in which a student got teary at hearing his father say he's proud of his academic success.

But the numbers?  "The school went from 40 percent to 93 percent of the students performing at grade level," Ellis reported, introducing a whole new set of numbers that don't seem to connect with reality.

CMS leaders and advocates often bemoan the gap between the district's glowing national reputation and local perceptions.  No doubt that's partly because local critics and,  yes,  reporters sometimes latch onto the negatives.  But it's also partly because national reporters,  researchers and advocacy groups sometimes promote an oversimplified view of CMS.  They may not be aware of the testing change that made all sorts of reforms look successful  --  and the new administration has shown no inclination to distance itself from the  "big gains since 2008"  game.

Educators,  students and parents who are working to break the links between poverty and failure deserve our respect and attention.  But no one should fudge numbers to give it to them.

"That's a phenomenal change in that school,"  Matt Lauer said at the end of the segment.  You might even say it's incredible.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Charlotte's Guckian has governor's ear

Eric Guckian, who has spent almost five years in charge of Charlotte's New Leaders principal recruitment program, has taken on an even more challenging task.  He's Gov. Pat McCrory's new senior education adviser,  at a time when game-changing education proposals are flying around Raleigh like Frisbees at a beach party.

Guckian (goo-CAN) got the job in May,  while I was on vacation.  He had met McCrory during his stint as Charlotte mayor,  but Guckian said the connection was made by John Lassiter,  a key member of the McCrory team and a board member of New Leaders.

"I'm a plumber's kid,"  Guckian said.  "When the governor calls, that's not a call you get every day."

When I finally caught up with Guckian late last week,  he wasn't ready to stake out positions on some of the more controversial issues in play,  such as vouchers for private school tuition and revising teacher pay.  So far he's talking about broad themes such as efficiency,  innovation,  workforce development and accountability. "We're still crafting an overall education agenda,"  he said.

McCrory doesn't have children.  But between Guickian and Lassiter,  a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parent and school board member,  he'll surely get a deep knowledge of local issues. 

"If you want to know what I care about,  it's our highest-need kids in North Carolina,"  Guckian said.  That passion and knowledge comes not just from his work with New Leaders  (formerly New Leaders for New Schools)  and Teach For America,  but from his time as a Shamrock Gardens Elementary School parent.  Shamrock,  a high-poverty school in east Charlotte,  has spent years working to improve its academic performance and win the confidence of middle-class families who had avoided the school.

"You don't just flip a switch with this stuff,"  he said.  "It is really hard work."

Guckian will work with the newly revived Education Cabinet,  made up of officials who oversee prekindergarten programs, K-12 education, community colleges and the university system.  One of the governor's goals is building stronger connections between all the levels of education that get young people ready for successful adult lives,  he said.

New Leaders will celebrate Guckian's work at a reception next week.  They'll also have a retirement  send-off for Steve Hall,  a former CMS principal who led the aspiring principals program.