Friday, December 19, 2014

N.C. community colleges cited for guiding students to universities or careers

North Carolina's community colleges -- including Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte -- were cited in a national report this week highlighting efforts to streamline pathways from their classrooms to a university or career.

Too often, the report's authors say, students enroll in community colleges but gain no ground toward getting a degree or finding a job. While more students are taking classes, only about half are graduating within six years, and the percentage is falling.

North Carolina's community college system gets a plug for coming up with structured pathways to guide students through the curriculum. Basically, the schools have worked with universities in the state to make sure community college classes will be fully transferable and progress toward a degree.
Schools have streamlined requirements in career and tech programs and eliminated redundant classes.

A group of schools have also come up with a program for high school juniors or seniors that allows them to get on a track toward college transfer or a technical degree. It lays out what exact classes they'll need to take to stay on course.

The state has also been developing ways to get students through remedial work more quickly. Instead of enrolling in semester-long courses to get caught up, students are able to take combined reading and writing courses and focus only on math concepts they need work on. CPCC has built a dedicated computer lab on its campus to let students work through math concepts at their own pace.

The report comes from the national nonprofit Jobs for the Future, which advocates for change in schools and career-training programs to better train people in job skills.

The authors describe North Carolina's initiatives as model programs.

Ohio also gets a mention for tying state funding for community colleges to the percentages of students completing degrees or certain numbers of credit hours. Every public high school is also required to have dual-enrollment programs with a community college. These are starting to become more widespread in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools with CPCC.

Florida has passed a state law that creates "meta-majors" in community colleges that allow students to take prerequisites in broad fields like health science or business without choosing a specific major right away.

Friday, December 12, 2014

North Carolina gets C+ on teacher preparation

North Carolina is ahead of the national average in terms of preparing teachers for the classroom, but still has significant room for improvement.

That's the conclusion reached by the National Council on Teacher Quality in its annual ranking of states in how they train teachers to be able to help students reach college- and career-ready status.

For example, North Carolina has a more rigorous test for prospective elementary school teachers on their content knowledge than most states. But the state does not break out passing scores in all subject areas, so there's no way to know if the teacher has mastered all subjects he or she will teach, the report finds.

On the positive side, North Carolina is one of 18 states that require a measure of how well new elementary school teachers understand the science of reading, the report says. The state also is more selective in admitting college students to teacher prep programs, requiring a 3.0 grade point average, according to the report.

But the National Council on Teacher Quality also says there are significant loopholes in the licensing of high school teachers. The report found that secondary school teachers must pass general content knowledge tests for subjects like science and social studies, but are not tested in specific courses they will teach, like chemistry.

And teacher preparation programs don't have minimum standards for their performance, the report says.

With a C+, North Carolina ranked No. 18 out of the 50 states and District of Columbia. Florida came in first with a B+. Alaska and Montana got failing grades.

South Carolina also received a C+. The report gives the state credit for requiring passing scores in all content areas for elementary school teachers. But the council points out that teachers aren't required to show an understanding of the science of reading.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Charlotte-based charter advocate wants its schools to get lottery money

The Charlotte-based North Carolina Public Charter Schools Association has unveiled its list of legislative priorities for the year, and near the top of the list: Making sure charter schools get a slice of the lottery pie.

The North Carolina Education Lottery, which has been around since 2005, now gives a half a billion dollars per year to school systems. Mecklenburg County has gotten about $250 million in the past eight years. About $103 million has gone to pay for additional teachers in kindergarten through third grade. Another $92 million has gone to building projects.

Right now, charter schools only get lottery money when it gets commingled with  other sources of state revenue, says the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. They don't get their share of construction money.

Getting their share ranks near the top of the association's long list of priorities. Others run the gamut from allowing charter schools to charge fees that their local traditional school district does not, to making it easier for charter schools to obtain grants.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

At least 8 big school districts are looking for a superintendent

Just last week, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board chairwoman Mary McCray speculated that the reason Heath Morrison left his role as superintendent without a fight is because he saw "a future out there" for himself.

And if that future is in leading a public school district, there are certainly plenty of large districts looking for a new leader.

The job leading Los Angeles schools is clearly the plum position on the list. Morrison's name has already been linked to the search by websites covering the school system.

For his part, Morrison -- who is 48 -- has said there will certainly be lots of rumors about him pursuing this job or that job, but has declined to comment on any positions in particular.

And of course, there's no guarantee he'd go back into a superintendent's job. Morrison's predecessor at CMS, Peter Gorman, left for a job in the private sector in the educational division of News Corp.

Here's a sampling of big school districts looking for a new superintendent:

  • Los Angeles Unified School District (California), 670,000 students
  • Albuquerque Public Schools (New Mexico), 94,318 students
  • Austin Independent School District (Texas), 85,355 students
  • Fort Worth Independent School District (Texas), 84,588 students
  • Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (Tennessee), 80,393 students
  • Elk Grove Unified Public Schools (California), 62,000 students
  • Boston Public Schools (Massachusetts), 57,000 students
  • Seattle Public Schools (Washington), 49.269 students
The list was compiled by PROACT Search,  a school leadership search firm that works across the country. CMS contracted with PROACT in the 2012 search that resulted in Morrison's hire. The list was made in November. It's possible that one of these slots has since been filled and I didn't hear about it, though I did double check. It's also possible that the list leaves out another big district. Please let me know in the comments if that is the case.

And by the way, Washoe County in Nevada is looking for a new superintendent now, too.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Charlotteans rally for private school voucher program

North Carolina's plan to use public money to issue private school vouchers was nearly dealt a fatal blow this summer, but now its advocates are rallying support ahead of a final decision on its fate.

The program, known as "Opportunity Scholarships," gave about 2,000 students vouchers worth $4,200 toward tuition at a private or religious school in its first year this fall. But it was almost struck down even as it was getting off the ground. A judge in August declared the arrangement unconstitutional. The courts later allowed students already in the program for this school year to continue.

Opponents say the plan represents the abandonment of the state's responsibility to fund public schools. The N.C.  Supreme Court will make a final determination on the Opportunity Scholarships in the coming months.

But in the meantime, a chief advocate for the private school vouchers is holding rallies around the state to build public support. One held in the Charlotte area brought nearly 200 parents and educators to the Embassy Suites near Concord.

"So much of the discussion surrounding the Opportunity Scholarships has unfortunately centered around the legal battles, if you will," said Darrell Allison, president of Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, which sponsored the rallies. "We thought it would be a great idea to ... hear directly from the parents themselves on how impactful the program has been."

One of those parents is Jacquelyn Davis of Charlotte. Her third-grade son is attending the Male Leadership Academy on Nations Ford Road on a private school voucher. He has attended Sedgefield Elementary in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools before that.

Davis said she is unemployed after being laid off from being a security guard at CMS, but said her son benefits from the smaller environment at a private school. She said this semester he is bringing home straight A's for the first time.

"The scholarship has helped a whole lot," Davis said. "I'm praying they keep it going."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Why does CMS want to open charter schools?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has had an uneven relationship with the growing number of charter schools in the area. But within the district's legislative agenda approved Wednesday is a request that CMS be able to open charter schools of their own.

Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart asked the question: Why would the district want to do that?

Charter schools are public and operated with tax dollars. But they are exempt from a number of requirements that traditional public schools have. They're not required to provide transportation, for example, or meals.

CMS associate general counsel Jonathan Sink told the board that those things aren't what CMS is trying to avoid. What they want is the ability to tweak its calendar, or alter the curriculum in a way that's different from state mandates.

"We're looking for those pieces of educational innovation they were created to have," Sink said.

Board chairwoman Mary McCray said one concept they've looked at, by way of example, is an all-boys middle school.

The district has not yet come up with any specific programs or features it would want to have in a charter school should they be granted the ability to create one. It would require a major change to state law, Sink said.

Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark, who has assumed the duties of the top job after Heath Morrison resigned, said CMS will be bringing in Cindy Loe, former superintendent of schools in Fulton County, Ga., to help district leaders think through what they'd want to do.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Hispanic CMS students ahead of other urban districts in math scores

Hispanic students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are posting higher math scores and progressing faster than their peers in big cities across the country, according to a new report.

Fourth-grade Hispanic students in CMS scored higher in national math exams than any other large urban district, the Child Trends report shows. And eighth graders improved their math scores by the equivalent of nearly two grade levels in the past decade.

The findings are significant for two reasons, the report's authors say: Hispanic students are becoming a larger percentage of the student body, meaning "the math achievement of Hispanic students today foreshadows our national performance tomorrow."

And second, these test score improvements come despite Hispanic students being disproportionately low-income in Charlotte and most other large districts.

All the data comes from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a benchmark math and reading test given to fourth and eighth graders.

Other top performing large districts cited in the report are Boston and Houston.

Nationally, about one in four elementary school students are Hispanic. CMS elementary schools mirror that ratio, state Department of Public Instruction figures show. About 20 percent of CMS students are Hispanic, according to data from the 2013-14 school year.

The Child Trends report tracks scores through 2013. I haven't seen the most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But CMS touted gains in other measures of academic achievement among Hispanics earlier this year.

The graduation rate for Hispanics increased 20 percentage points in the last four years, hitting 74.6 percent. End-of-year test scores in math, English and science also increased slightly from the year before. Both still lagged well behind the rates for white students.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Should teachers give homework for the sake of giving homework?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is considering a two-word policy change that reflects a decade's worth of research and thought in the education world.

At its heart is a question students and parents have been asking for years: What's the point in giving homework?

Right now, the board has an instructional policy about homework. It reads, in part: "Homework is a necessary part of the learning process...."

A proposed change would change it slightly: "Homework can be a necessary part of the learning process..."

It seems like a small change. And it is. But board members said Thursday they saw how this could cause a lot of confusion from parents. Would homework now be optional?

Chief Academic Officer Brian Schultz said that's not really the case. Homework would continue to be a major part of many classes in CMS. But, "It needs to be meaningful homework," he said.

Afterward, Shultz told me that the initial policy was written around the year 2000, when the thinking in education circles was that homework was important no matter what. Teachers were encouraged to assign it even when it wasn't necessary. More recent research has shown that homework is only effective when it serves a specific purpose, he said.

So, should the policy be adopted, it likely won't make a huge difference in math and English classes. It could, however, mean changes in philosophy in some elective classes or in lower grades. Schultz said there hasn't been any research proving that homework is effective or not effective for children in kindergarten through third grade.

Another change being considered could be equally meaningful.

What it would do is remove "preparation for class" as a criterion that can factor into a student's grade. That means teachers would no longer be able to ding students for forgetting paper or pencil, or not having the right three-ring notebook.

Schultz said the thinking behind that is that preparation doesn't have anything to do with whether students are mastering the material.

Both changes were discussed at a meeting of the board's policy committee Thursday. It'll be presented to the full board for the first time in December, and is scheduled to be voted on sometime in the new year.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Charlotte Post Foundation raising money for after-school programs

Looking to close the achievement gap between white and black students on standardized tests, The Charlotte Post Foundation has announced it will launch a program to raise $75,000 to fund after-school programs for underserved children.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools data released earlier this school year showed that 42.9 percent of black students were proficient on reading exams in elementary and middle school, compared with 81.4 percent of white students.

The Charlotte Post Foundation is dedicated to serving black youth in the city. Money raised will go toward African-American students in elementary schools, the foundation said. About $15,000 has been donated so far in the six-month drive.

Many CMS elementary schools already have after-school care programs, that run from $35 to $65 per week.

The district has also started putting some free, specialized after-school programs in underserved communities. For example, Bruns Academy in west Charlotte has brought in a South Carolina nonprofit, WINGS for Kids, to run a five-day-a-week program centered on emotional learning.

“It’s time to put our money where our mouth is," said Gerald Johnson, president of the foundation and publisher of The Charlotte Post. "The reality is that if these students fail, our entire community fails.  And we cannot afford for that to happen.”

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

CMS early college is off to a good start, principal says

Ever since the new Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools early college high school at UNC Charlotte was linked to Superintendent Heath Morrison's resignation, we've heard some concern and confusion from parents who were hoping to enroll their kids there.

Would the fact that the school board was concerned that Morrison (allegedly) misled them about the costs of the project impact the program?

Principal Will Leach says not to worry.

The school -- formally known as Charlotte Engineering Early College -- opened this fall with 100 students, all in ninth grade. The winter lottery will give them 100 more students for next year's freshman class.

The school is based out of a 12-classroom modular building on the UNCC campus. The students aren't taking college classes yet. But they have gone to see Nobel laureates speak and used the campus library.

As the students progress, they'll begin taking more college-level classes. By the end of the five-year program, they can earn up to 60 hours of college credit. That's roughly two full years worth.

"We're open. We're operating," Leach said. "Teaching and learning continues. It's just been an amazing opportunity."

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Here are the CMS schools that grew the most

It's been kind of hard to tear attention away from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Heath Morrison's sudden departure this week (Here's the latest, in case you're not up to speed).

But students are still in classrooms and issues that faced the district in September and October are still relevant now. One of those is school overcrowding and enrollment growth. You'll recall that this issue reared its head just a few weeks ago when CMS put out its early projections for the 20th day of school. The district said it had thousands more students than it expected to have. The district as a whole grew by about 2,500.

I was able to dig up school-by-school data to find out where the growth in CMS occurred. I compared the official 20th day numbers the district posted recently with the first principal's monthly report from the last school year.

Here are the five schools that had the largest increase in students by percentage, and the five schools that lost the most. I chose percentage because the schools that had the largest increases in number of students all tended to be high schools (since they have more students in general).

Largest increases:

1) Garinger High, up 365 students, or 26%
2) Allenbrook Elementary, up 77 students, or 16%
3) Dilworth Elementary, up 89 students, or 15%
4) Sterling Elementary, up 78 students, or 13%
5) Sedgefield Middle, up 84 students, or 13%

Garinger grew significantly after the board voted in February to send most traditional high school students at the Cochrane Collegiate Academy to Garinger to create the iMeck magnet program. Allenbrook Elementary is in west Charlotte, and Sterling Elementary is at the intersection of South Boulevard and I-485.

Largest decreases:

1) Winget Park Elementary, down 535 students, or 54 percent.
2) Cochrane Collegiate Academy, down 275 students, or 28 percent.
3) Hawthorne High, down 43 students, or 24 percent.
4) Cato Middle College High, down 40 students, or 20 percent.
5) Berewick Elementary, down 102 students, or 15 percent

Palisades Park Elementary opened this fall in the Steele Creek area to relieve the overcrowded Winget Park. For the explanation on Cochrane, see above. Hawthorne High transitioned from being an alternative high school to a medical career magnet.

Here's the full spreadsheet.

Overall, 90 schools grew, and four were new. You'll notice that Olympic High's schools are a little funky because they changed up some classifications.

Friday, October 31, 2014

How can CMS get parents more involved in schools?

Karen Mapp
When Arlene Ackerman would be hired as a superintendent in a new district, she would often dress up in jeans and sneakers and walk into a school, say she was new to the neighborhood, and ask how she could learn about enrolling her child.

The response Ackerman got would tell her a lot about why parents might not be getting involved in their child's school.

"One school said, 'Who are you and what do you want? You can't just walk up here like that. You have to make an appointment,'" related Karen Mapp, a senior lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who studies family engagement, this week.

I heard from Mapp when I got the chance to sit in on a professional development workshop this week for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools staff who work to increase family involvement in the school.

Many were counselors, others had specific family engagement titles, and there were a few assistant principals or others mixed in. Senior leaders had gone through a similar training earlier in the day.

One of Mapp's main points: Increasing involvement in schooling starts with training for everyone in the school, not just counselors.

"If you don't have a system for greeting families, you are behind," Mapp said. "You are leaving it to chance."

The seminar was an enlightening look at some of the challenges CMS faces in getting families involved in the school community.

Staff members offered a variety of issues: Parents without transportation to the school, language barriers, and parents who had a bad school experience of their own growing up.

Mapp encouraged the group to attack the problem from both sides, rather than just counting on parents to change behavior. Teachers and staff, for example, could be trained in ways to make the school more inviting for parents, and gear communication more toward learning.

She suggested things like home visits, or an open house that focuses on two things each child should be able to do by the end of the semester, rather than one that harps on attendance policy and dress code.

Mapp also asked the group to expand their view of engagement. "Parental involvement" typically means mom or dad showing up to a school event; "family engagement" could mean an uncle or close neighbor advocating for school work, or a parent showing a child a rough life of manual labor because he doesn't have an education.

Mapp showed research from the University of Chicago that showed that increased parent engagement is a crucial element to lasting academic improvement.

"It has to be intentional," Mapp said. "Your schools cannot improve without it. Full stop."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

ALEC gives N.C. education policy a C+

The American Legislative Exchange Council has graded every state on its education policy -- and North Carolina received a C+.

But the conservative group commonly referred to as ALEC had higher praise for the state legislature in 2013. They praised laws that mandated A-F letter grades for schools and private school voucher programs.

"North Carolina lawmakers went big and broad in 2013," their report says.

ALEC gave the state middling grades in most areas it evaluated, including the "regulation burden" on home schools and the state's charter school law. North Carolina got an A in private school choice, likely a reaction to that voucher program that's currently in limbo.

The state received an F in "exiting ineffective teachers."

The state had received a C in 2010, 2011 and 2012. ALEC is known for giving model legislation to state lawmakers.

North Carolina's overall grade also took into account student performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a math and reading exam given to fourth and eighth graders. By that measure, ALEC ranked North Carolina at No. 16 in the country.

Indiana received the highest grade, with a B+. North Dakota ranked at the bottom with a D.

See the whole report card for yourself here. Look at every state here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

CMS wants ability to start school three weeks earlier

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has outlined a draft of its legislative priorities for next year, and topping the list: The ability to start schools three weeks earlier.

That would allow schools to get their first semester final exams done before winter break, CMS associate general counsel Jonathan Sink explained to the school board Tuesday. The board is scheduled to vote on the agenda Nov. 19.

The district has nine priorities for state government, and three for local government. Here's a full list, with some explanations offered by Sink.

State priorities

1) Calendar flexibility. At a minimum, the ability to open three weeks earlier than currently allowed.

2) Raise teacher pay to national average.

3) Get the authority to have complete control over local funds.

4) Restore state-funded growth formula. This is a response to a controversial measure passed this summer.

5) Restore state funding for driver's education programs. Otherwise, allow the district to charge students the full cost of the program, or end the mandate that schools provide it.

6) Get charter-like flexibilities. CMS would also like the ability to start its own charter schools. We are asking GA to serve as chartering authority. Further, CMS wants a mandate that parents choose where they will enroll their students (in public schools or charters) by April 1. This would help eliminate discrepancies in enrollment expectations.

7) Oppose mandated inter-county and intra-county student transfer legislation.

8) Fully fund pre-K programs. CMS says it currently gets money for 20,000 students, but says another 40,000 could potentially be eligible.

9) Change the grading formula for the upcoming A-F school performance grades. Right now, the formula is weighted 80 percent toward proficiency and 20 percent toward growth. CMS wants an even split.

Local priorities

1) Restore city of Charlotte funding for school resource officers in CMS.

2) Establish a collaborative inter-governmental committee to identify, prioritize, plan and fund operating and capital budgets.

3) Establish a collaborative inter-governmental committee of planning experts to analyze the impacts of development on CMS.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Are low-performing schools 'bad' schools?

Are low-performing schools always "bad" schools? And what do you do when a part of the community all but abandons that school?

They're certainly not new questions for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. But they've been renewed this month as the district plots its new student assignment plan -- and parent groups line up to support or oppose it.

On Tuesday, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meets at Garinger High for a public hearing on the assignment plan unveiled last month. It primarily deals with adjusting boundaries for four new elementary schools opening next fall, and impacts a small percentage of the district's students.

One of the new schools, Oakhurst Elementary, has generated quite a bit of interest from parents. The area is currently districted to Billingsville Elementary, a historically low-performing school when it comes to proficiency levels.

For weeks, parent after parent from the area petitioned the school board to be sent to the new Oakhurst STEM Academy instead of Billingsville. They said that parents there feel like they have to get into a charter school, private school or move away.

This discussion has been going on for years around Billingsville. As recently as 2012, some parents in Commonwealth Morningside were rallying to get families to send their children to Billingsville. This year, you'll recall, the same neighborhood pushed the school board to send them to the new Oakhurst school. The CMS proposal would grant that wish.

But not without Superintendent Heath Morrison making a plea for Billingsville.

"It hurts my heart when I hear conversations around Billingsville," Morrison said at the most recent school board meeting. He said the school has continued to meet or exceed growth standards even though the proficiency level remains low. "I just would ask anybody to rethink what is a school that is not successful."

I talked to Morrison about the issue a few days later. He drew a little chart that he says he shows people who ask about how he views school performance. In effect, the message is this: Is a school that brings students who are well below grade level up to where they should be really worse than a school that takes kids who perform at a high level and keeps them there?

He also said that the numbers at elementary schools like Billingsville, which has about 600 students, could change overnight if upper-income families decide to send their kids there. With an influx of high-scoring students, suddenly Billingsville doesn't look so low-performing.

But how do you convince parents to make that leap? Morrison admitted his chart might not be persuasive. He said CMS should look at putting a new program at schools like Billingsville to make them a more appealing option.

The approach has some precedent of being a success. Shamrock Gardens Elementary near Plaza Midwood, for example, had long been stuck with the stigma of being a "bad school." It ranked near the bottom of the state in the rankings, and No Child Left Behind let parents opt out.

In 2006, CMS put a magnet for gifted kids there, and community members (especially Pamela Grundy) aggressively advocated for the school. Affluent parents started sending their children there, and in a few years, it was off "failing" lists and test scores rose.

Years ago, Billingsville had a popular Montessori program. It was moved in the early 2000s. Board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart asked at the school board meeting if there has been discussion of bringing it back.

Not this year, but it sounds like it might one day be in the cards.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Four high schools getting specialized programs

Huntersville parents had been pushing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for a special program at Hopewell High, and now they'll have it.

CMS said this week that they're implementing a Cambridge International program at Hopewell and its feeder schools. Essentially, it's an advanced course of study and rigorous set of standards developed at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. The program is viewed similarly to International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement coursework.

You often hear about programs like this at magnet schools, but CMS is not changing the boundaries for Hopewell High or the feeder schools.

Akeshia Craven-Howell, the CMS assistant superintendent of the Office of School Options, Innovation and Design, said the idea to implement the program at Hopewell all came from the parents. She said it represents one of the most significant investments the district has made in a neighborhood school.

It's also likely a reaction to the growing charter school movement. Mecklenburg County has seen a bigger flurry of charter activity than anywhere else in North Carolina, and the northern end of the county has several popular ones.

"We want parents to know that inside CMS, parents have choices," Craven-Howell said.

The program is not quite a done deal. CMS must still get final approval.

Three other high schools -- West Charlotte, West Mecklenburg and Garinger -- are getting new programs focused on career education. Called "Pathways to Prosperity," the goal is to let students complete high school with industry certifications or credit that can transfer in to Central Piedmont Community College or schools like Johnson C. Smith University.

At West Charlotte, for example, the plan is to create an "academy of information technology" in partnership with JCSU. Students could emerge with valuable credentials like those offered by Cisco, Craven-Howell said.

CMS also wants to build out programs in areas like agriculture, energy, aerospace and supply chain management. They'll ultimately expand beyond the three schools.

Friday, October 17, 2014

CMS faces driver's ed funding crunch

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders are pushing the state to tap the brakes on changes to driver's education programs.

As part of the budget this year, the General Assembly cut off state funding for driver's ed. Instead, money will have to come from the school districts. In exchange, schools can increase the fee they charge from $55 to $65.

But CMS Superintendent Heath Morrison has begun sounding the alarm that the system will lead to a $2.7 million gap next year.

He said it costs about $300 to put a CMS student through driver's ed. A total of 11,328 students went through the program last year.

Morrison didn't say anything about where the money would come from. Instead, he said the district is trying to work with state legislators on a fix.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

6 in North Carolina make Newsweek "top high schools" list

Six North Carolina high schools were named in Newsweek's recent rating of the top 500 high schools in the nation in terms of preparing students for college.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost all of the schools are partnerships with local community colleges or universities.

The top school in the state was a Stanly County charter school on the campus of Pfeiffer University that serves seven counties in the Charlotte region.

Gray Stone Day School came in at No. 203 on the list, and was lauded for sending more than 93 percent of its students off to college. The school also received a gold star for having its low-income students perform better than the average for all students in reading and math.

Newsweek's rankings were primarily based on the college enrollment rate, graduation rate, and weighted test scores. Schools must also perform better than the 80th percentile in their state on standardized tests.

Here are the other North Carolina schools that made the list:

No. 210: Chapel Hill High
No. 259: Middle College at GTCC - Greensboro
No. 365: Early College Of Forsyth County
No. 445: Cross Creek Early College
No. 457: Rutherford County Early College High

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Former Gov. Perdue taking respite from politics in education

Nearly two years removed from office, former Gov. Bev Perdue is still loath to talk politics. Instead, she's joining with a lot of former elected officials to push education reform.

About 18 months ago, Perdue (a former schoolteacher and a Ph.D.-holder in education administration) launched an organization called DigiLearn, which emphasizes technology and digital education in the classroom. Former Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer, a Republican, is her vice chairman.

And just last week, Perdue joined the advisory network of Education Post, a new nonprofit run by Peter Cunningham, who served in the Department of Education in the Obama administration. Informed by the politicization of Common Core standards, that group wants to tone down the discourse around education.

Perdue's first blog post for that site calls for a national bipartisan dialogue among business and political leaders on how classrooms need to change to adapt to new technologies and the modern economy.

"This broad-based discussion would really try to define for us as a country and a people, at the level of parents and teachers and policy makers, where we are as a country," Perdue said in a brief interview this week.

She said the results of that discussion should be implemented at the state level. "I don't necessarily think ... a big national solution is the right way to go now," she said.

When asked, Perdue wouldn't say much about her feelings about the debate over education in North Carolina right now.

Clearly, teacher pay was a hot political topic this summer as the legislature hammered out a controversial salary increase. It's continued into the fall as N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis challenges U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan for her seat in Washington.

The public rhetoric has included plenty of finger pointing on both sides about which party treated education better while in control of the General Assembly. Democrats ran the state legislature until Republican victories in 2010. Perdue was governor from 2008 until 2012, when she declined to pursue re-election.

Perdue said a "professional, well trained teacher work force" is a part of the solution. She also said that the recession that took hold of the economy just as Perdue took office meant that "there was a total inability to do what should have been done" with the state's education system.

But she wouldn't review how Republicans have done since taking over the General Assembly.

"I’m not going to cast aspersions at anyone now," she said. "I gave myself a two-year timeout. I just haven’t been involved in anyway. I've written some checks, but I haven’t been involved in any of the day-to-day rhetoric." (A quick Federal Elections Committee search shows she gave $2,500 to a Hillary Clinton PAC this year)

"We should focus on how we can work together rather than how we can tear each other down," Perdue said. "There can be this healthy discussion. For the sake of our country, we have to get beyond this rapid, mean partisanship."

Perdue promised to talk politics on the record with me after Jan. 2015. In the meantime, she's living in Chapel Hill, building a house in Raleigh and said she's in the process of joining a "national firm."

Monday, October 6, 2014

School bus drivers must pass new physical fitness test

School bus drivers across the state will soon have to pass a physical fitness test to keep their certifications.

Starting Jan. 12, all school bus drivers will have to show they have the physical ability to do things like keep control of the bus in bad weather and swiftly evacuate children from the bus.

The final standards have yet to be published, but a draft copy gives a glimpse of what they're going to look for. Here are a few examples of what the drivers will be required to do.

  • Walk completely around the bus and ascend and descend the steps three times in 75 seconds. You can't skip steps while going up or down, and you can't go down the steps backward.
  • Move your foot from the brake to the accelerator 10 times in 10 seconds. Only the right foot may be used.
  • Hold the brake pedal fully to the floor for one minute.
  • Start in your seat with the seat belt on, walk to the back of the bus and open the emergency door in 20 seconds.
The new standards will apply to drivers of both yellow school buses and activity buses. Drivers can have as many retakes as you want. If drivers fail, their certification is suspended.

Drivers will have to pass the test for new certifications, to renew certification, and "if physical dexterity is called into question," says Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Two CMS high schools honored for perfect graduation rates

Today was the big graduation rate celebration up in Raleigh, and two high schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were honored for having a 100 percent graduation rate last year.

Cato Middle College High and The Military and Global Leadership Academy at Marie G. Davis each had perfect graduation rates this year. To be sure, both are among the district's smallest high schools. Cato had 95 students in its graduating class, and Marie G. Davis had just 20.

But it still marks a significant achievement. Cato Middle College was the largest high school graduating class in the state to have a perfect rate, according to tables provided by the state Department of Public Instruction.

Two other CMS high schools were recognized for high graduation rates, as well.

Ardrey Kell High, with 559 students graduating, had a 97.7 percent rate. Providence High, with a 488-student class, had a 97.3 percent graduation rate.

All received plaques at a luncheon today in Durham.

The CMS graduation rate was 85.2 percent, outpacing the state for the first time in years.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

North Carolina is 'worst state for teachers,' study says

North Carolina ranks as the worst state in the country for teachers, says a new study from a financial review site that's gotten a lot of attention this week.

According to the study, here's how North Carolina stacked up in the following categories:

  • 41st – Average Starting Salaries
  • 47th – Median Annual Salaries
  • 38th – Unemployment Rate
  • 51st – 10-Year Change in Teacher Salaries
  • 32nd – Pupil to Teacher Ratio
  • 48th – Public School Spending per Student
  • 43rd – Teachers Wage Disparity
  • 40th – Safest Schools
WalletHub comes out with a lot of rankings like this, though they're usually on business issues (i.e. "Best Student Checking Accounts" or "2014’s Best & Worst Entry Level Jobs").

Their methodology in the teacher study is also a bit interesting. Check it out for yourself here. It includes a ton of different factors beyond just job numbers and salaries, including "Percentage of Projected Population of Ages 5 to 17 by Year 2030." The study also takes into account a handful of other studies WalletHub has done in the past, like "Best and Worst States for Underprivileged Children Ranking."

Activist group Progress NC quickly turned the WalletHub study into a political statement:

“Here is yet more evidence that the right-wing political machine controlling state government is on a mission to ruin our public schools,” Executive Director Gerrick Brenner said in a statement. “Our state used to be a leader in public education. Now politicians like House Speaker Thom Tillis have driven North Carolina schools to the very back of the pack.”

U.S. Kay Hagan also posted about the report on her campaign website. She's locked in a tough race against Tillis for her seat.

The right side of the political spectrum took notice as well. Conservative blog Sister Toldjah pointed out that the WalletHub study looks at salary changes over a 10 year period. Democrats were in charge of the General Assembly for most of that time. Republicans grabbed the majority in 2010, and the governor's mansion in 2012.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Concrete Roses looking for money to pay teachers

Two weeks after Concrete Roses STEM Academy suddenly shut down, administrators at the charter school are trying to find a way to get more money to pay teachers for their last days of work.

WBTV, the Observer's news partner, reported earlier this week that school teachers and staff were growing worried that they won't ever see their final paychecks.

Now, an email to faculty and staff at Concrete Roses provided to the Observer lays out a few ways CEO Cedric Stone is hoping to secure the money to pay teachers.

First, some financial background: The school was originally authorized by the state to spend about $479,000 based on how many students were expected to attend. As enrollment dwindled and the school failed to turn in reports of how it spent money over the summer, the state Office of Charter Schools froze Concrete Roses' access to cash.

The school had already spent $285,170, much of it on payroll. But teachers and staff at the school say they had yet to receive paychecks for the last two weeks of classes before the school's funding was cut off.

Stone's email lays out three ways he hopes to get more money to pay them:

  • Asking the Office of Charter Schools for permission to use some of the school's allotted money.
  • Selling equipment and other assets the school still has.
  • Asking Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for money based on its enrollment through the first 20 days of class
All three methods face challenges. The Office of Charter Schools had already frozen Concrete Roses' account, and was going to be clawing back money anyway had the school stayed open.

The office also told me earlier this month that the assets of the school immediately become property of the state. And CMS is dealing with its own budget challenges related to charter school projections, and isn't going to want to give money to a school that's closed.

Stone's email ends with a warning for teachers to contact him with questions, and not to call the state or the news media.

"Allow me to leave you with a biblical verse that is very dear to to me," Stone writes. "There's a verse in the bible which states 'Never bear false witness against your neighbor!' Also, please ceast [sic] all use of the school email system immediately. Thanks in advance."

Stone didn't respond to a phone message left today.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Early CMS enrollment numbers leaves questions unanswered

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools released an early count this past week of how many students are enrolled in the district, and it seems to have raised more questions than it answers.

The district reported that it had 145,112 enrolled on its 20th day, which was last Monday. That's an unofficial figure until the state Department of Public Instruction compiles numbers from every North Carolina county and publishes them all. Generally, that's sometime in October.

CMS declined to give me a demographic breakdown of the student body. The N.C. charter school office said it couldn't provide any early enrollment numbers. That leaves a few key questions open for the next month.

1) Did charter school enrollment really come in below expectations? That certainly was the implication from CMS officials at the school board meeting Tuesday. Anecdotally, we've found that several of the 11 Charlotte-area did in fact come in below their projections. 

This will mark the second year that a significant number of new charters have opened up after the state legislature lifted the long-standing cap. The 20th day figures there will show whether they're catching on or struggling.

2) Will CMS grab a larger share of the county's students? Hand in hand with that, the official numbers will help show what the new charter schools will do to the CMS "market share." That refers to the percentage of students in the county attend the public school system as opposed to private schools or charters.

As of last year, CMS lagged behind several other major urban districts in North Carolina, according to figures published by Wake County business group Wake Education Partnership this past week.

About 79.1 percent of students in Mecklenburg County attended CMS, compared with 10.8 percent in private schools, 6 percent in charters and 4.1 percent home schools.

CMS had a smaller market share than the public school systems in Wake, Forsyth and Guilford counties, but exceeded that of Durham County.

That's below the goal the district set out for itself. Last year, CMS projected it would hold an 81 percent market share through 2021. That was a key provision of their capital need projections.

On the flip side, CMS has more students this year than those projections called for the district to have. They were counting on 144,209 in that plan.

3) Where are the new students? I'm also after a school-by-school enrollment breakdown that will show us where in the county the biggest jumps occurred. A number of readers have also asked me whether an influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America is a part of the unexpectedly high enrollment numbers this year. Yes, Charlotte has hundreds of children coming to the city from those areas.

CMS does not verify the immigration status of children looking to enroll. Some groups will use the number of English as a Second Language students as a rough approximation of immigration. CMS would not provide a number of ESL students this year, deferring to the official report.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Schools boost PTA membership through student fees

Parents generally have to lay out money for their children at the start of the year in school fees. Some schools are taking the opportunity to boost membership in the parent-teacher organization at the same time.

I'm not sure how widespread the practice is in CMS, but I've come across at least a handful of cases where schools have combined locker, planner and PTA charges into a single fee marketed to parents before classes begin.

Bailey Middle School, for example, sent an email to parents reminding them to send a $20 check to school with their kids for the student fee, covering locker fee, agenda and a PTA membership.

Doing it that way gets results. At Huntersville Elementary, the new $15 "Back To School Bundle" included a planner, logo magnet and PTA membership. It boosted membership in the parent-teacher organization from 372 to 632 this year, according the group's website.

Of course, parents aren't forced to pay the PTA fee if they vehemently don't want to join. But when it's bundled together, it's hard to say no. At Huntersville Elementary, only 67 parents declined to join.

Perhaps this is a good way to get more parents involved in the school. But I've already gotten a few messages from parents who don't like the way it's all marketed together.

I'll expect more thoughts from parents in the comments.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Some teachers concerned about security at Olympic High

Olympic High School has lost its security guards this year, sparking some concern among teachers about safety at the school.

Every middle and high school in the district is assigned a school resource officer. Schools often are also assigned some of the district's 110 "security associates," who aren't sworn officers but are in charge of protecting the campus.

I asked Randy Hagler, head of the CMS Police Department, about the change in security guard staffing at Olympic. He acknowledged that two security guards had been moved out of Olympic High but said it's because the school already has many more administrators than is normal. Because the high school is technically a community of five schools, it has five principals and five deans of students that can help out if a situation arises.

I've also heard from a few people close to the school who asked not to be named to protect employment. They said the moves have put the responsibility on teachers to handle violence that arises.

Olympic isn't a particularly violent school. Of its five schools, only one of them had a violent crime rate that exceeded the district and state averages. The other four fell significantly below.

But that doesn't mean incidents don't happen.

Earlier this month, a teacher at Olympic sustained a serious injury while breaking up a fight that occurred on campus.

According to police reports, Paul Hamilton was punched in the face while intervening in a mid-day altercation between what appears to be a student and someone who was not enrolled there (the aggressor was charged with trespassing as well as assault). Details on what specifically transpired are scarce in the report.

Hamilton was treated in the emergency room and released.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Two from CMS named to state commission on Common Core

Two Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools administrators have been included on the final 11-person team that will review what North Carolina will do with Common Core standards, the state said Tuesday.

The state legislature set up the Academic Standards Review Commission as a sort of compromise on what to do with the controversial standards. Plenty of legislators wanted to do away with the Common Core, and the N.C. House passed a bill that would not let any of the current standards be considered. The final outcome is a group that will study the standards and come up with a recommendation for a rewrite.

The final list of who's to serve was just released this week. From CMS: Deputy superintendent Ann Clark and Project LIFT zone supervisor Denise Watts.

Their appointments at least indicates that the outcome of the commission might not be predetermined. Superintendent Heath Morrison and other administrators in CMS have been on the record about supporting the Common Core standards.

A few other members have been upfront with their opposition to the standards. Retired math professor John Scheik, for example, told N.C. Policy Watch that he thinks they include "ludicrous" methods of teaching.

The group will meet for the first time Monday up in Raleigh. Here's the full list of appointments, courtesy of the N.C. Department of Administration. I've added in parentheses a brief description of how they ended up on the list.

House Appointments

Tammy Covil, New Hanover (New Hanover County school board member)

Dr. Jeffrey Isenhour, Catawba (principal of Bunker Hill High School in Claremont)

Katie Lemons, Stokes (South Stokes High School teacher)

Denise Watts, Mecklenburg

Senate Appointments

Ann B. Clark, Iredell

Dr. Laurie McCollum, Rockingham (assistant principal, Western Rockingham Middle)

Jeannie A. Metcalf, Forsyth (Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school board member)

Dr. John T. Scheik, Wake (retired UNC math professor)

State Board of Education Members

Chairman William “Bill” Cobey, Durham

Dr. Olivia Oxendine, Robeson

Gubernatorial Appointment
Andre Peek, Wake (IBM executive and leader of the N.C. Business Committee for Education)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Parents pushing for partial magnets as schools reopen

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools plans to re-open two elementary schools next year, and parents who live in both areas are pushing to create new partial magnet schools there.

Both cases center around fast-growing areas of Charlotte that are drawing more high-income families, but are districted to schools with a large percentage of low-income students. Partial magnets take kids from the immediate area as a home school and then have lottery spots for the magnet program.

Oakhurst Elementary, at Monroe and Commonwealth Avenues, was closed in 2011 as CMS sorted through massive budget cuts. The district will re-open the school in the fall of 2015. That's sent parents in three nearby neighborhoods in front of the school board over the past month -- including a half dozen at Tuesday night's meeting.

Chantilly, nestled between the Elizabeth and Plaza Midwood neighborhoods, has rapidly gentrified and become what real estate agents call "highly desirable" in the last few years. Homes currently listed for sale there are going for $500,000 or more. The Commonwealth/Morningside area is just across Independence from there, and the Oakhurst neighborhood is to the east. Homes on the market there are in the $300,000s range.

The neighborhood is home to Chantilly Montessori, a tiny magnet school. The area is districted to Billingsville Elementary, which was made up of 95.5 percent economically disadvantaged students last school year, per CMS data. The school also performed well below the district and state average on End of Grade tests.

The parents from the area who spoke at the meeting said they and their neighbors don't find that a good option.

"Parents win the (magnet) lottery, go to private school, or move away," said Scott Thomas, who lives in Commonwealth Morningside and is the father of boys aged 2 and 3. "At this point, they have no good options of schools to attend."

One parent, Lyndsey Kenerley, said she gave Billingsville a chance and then sent her child to a charter school. "We just need a great neighborhood school back."

The answer, they said, is to re-open Oakhurst Elementary as a partial magnet with a science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) program.

Parents near Huntingtowne Farms Elementary had a similar story. Starmount Elementary is set to re-open next year as well, and the Huntingtone Farms parents want their school switched a partial magnet with a STEAM program as well.

Huntingtowne Farms was 85.5 percent economically disadvantaged last year. Montclaire Elementary, also in the area, was 92 percent economically disadvantaged.

Erin Pushman told the board that the concentration of poverty was a negative both for low-income children and the more affluent children at the school.

"It is not an issue of our children and their children, of us and them. This is an issue for everyone," she said. "The stakes are high. All children at Huntingtowne Farm are at risk."

The board didn't respond directly to any of the comments. I spoke with Scott McCully, executive director of student placement at CMS, after the meeting.

He said the district still has a community meeting or two left to go before any decisions start being made. A potential STEAM program at Oakhurst has come up in some of these meetings that have already been held.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Steps forward and back in high school graduation rates

CMS celebrated its increasing graduation rate this week. It hit a new high at 85.2 percent, edging out the state of North Carolina as a whole and Wake County.

It wasn't until the next day that the school-by-school numbers came out, and as you'd expect there's both good news and not-as-good news.

  • Hawthorne High near uptown Charlotte had the biggest leap in graduation rate, to 90.6 percent from 65.9 percent the year before. The school is a bit of an unusual case, though. For years, Hawthorne was an alternative school. CMS decided last year to turn it into a medical science academy magnet school, and brought in some new students this year in that program. The graduating classes each year are also exceedingly small: only 29 students this year.
  • Lincoln Heights Academy posted the lowest graduation rate at 66.7 percent. It's a school designed for students with behavioral issues. You can't compare this year's rate with past performance, however. The school was formerly known as Lincoln Heights Elementary, and only re-opened with high school students in 2011. That means a full class of seniors hadn't come through until this year.
  • West Charlotte High posted another sizable increase in its graduation rate year, moving from 71.1 percent to 78 percent. The school made headlines last year by jumping 15 points in a single year. It's still the lowest graduation rate among high schools with a traditional population, however.
  • Fifteen schools had graduation rates above 90 percent, just more than half of the 29 total schools with reported figures.
  • Seven schools had graduation rates above 95 percent this year, which is the cut-off point where the state no longer gives a specific figure but instead just reports that the graduation rate was somewhere above that line. Ardrey Kell, Mallard Creek, Northwest School of the Arts, and Providence were repeats from last year. The Military and Global Leadership Academy and the Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology were new entrants on the list. The Performance Learning Center fell off the list, coming in at 93.2 percent this year.
  • Garinger High took the biggest step back this year, falling from 92.2 percent to 87.6 percent. 
Here's a full table I compiled, for your perusal:

Ardrey Kell High> 95> 95
Butler High91.893.4
Cato Middle College High> 95> 95
East Mecklenburg High83.583.8
Garinger High87.692.2
Harding University High87.687.6
Hawthorne High90.665.9
Hopewell High87.586.5
Independence High88.684.4
Lincoln Heights Academy66.7n/a
Mallard Creek High> 95> 95
Military and Global Leadership Academy> 9592.6
Myers Park High91.385.6
North Mecklenburg High92.388
Northwest School of the Arts> 95> 95
Olympic High - Biotech Health Pub Admin88.585
Olympic High - Intl Study, Global Econ8576.2
Olympic High - Renaissance School91.583.8
Olympic High -Intl Bus and Comm Studies82.585.5
Olympic High-Math Eng Tech Science92.893
Performance Learning Center93.2> 95
Phillip O Berry Academy of Technology> 9591.8
Providence High> 95> 95
Rocky River High88.992.6
South Mecklenburg High90.888
Vance High84.281.3
West Charlotte High7871.1
West Mecklenburg High8577.4
William Amos Hough High92.492.2

Thursday, August 28, 2014

CMS buses weren't smooth sailing for all on first day

Superintendent Heath Morrison and other CMS leaders proudly reported that there were no issues with transportation on the first day of classes this week, on what was a pretty smooth day overall.

But it seems like the "no issues" designation might depend on who you talk to. Parents reported a range of problems on the district's Facebook page earlier this week, and the last child wasn't delivered off the school bus until after 7:30 p.m. Yes, that's 20 minutes earlier than last year, but it's still pretty late.

The CMS Facebook page became a forum for complaints from parents whose kids were picked up or dropped off late Monday morning. To be sure, a few dozen or so complaints doesn't represent massive problems in a district of 140,000-plus, but it gives a flavor of some issues that arose.

One parent said her child waited on a broken down bus for an hour before she picked him up from school. Others reported delays from a half hour to more than an hour and a half.

The district's social media team advised the parents to give the transportation line a call.

I asked Carol Stamper, CMS director of transportation, about what "no issues" means in the context of the first day of school.

Here's what she said, via email: "It is unrealistic to think we would have no issues on the first day!  However, we do consider a successful first day in transportation being one that every student was delivered home safely….and that is what we accomplished!"

She said a number of things could result in a late bus, ranging from longer load times to make sure kids were on the right buses, to new students who weren't on the bus roster, to traffic congestion, to drivers getting used to their routes.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Beacon school turnaround initiative faces early test

There's a reason Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been careful to call the University of Virginia its intended partner for the initiative it unveiled earlier this month to turn around 14 struggling schools: The university still might decide it doesn't think the project is worthwhile.

Superintendent Heath Morrison laid out the concept for the Beacon initiative at a school board meeting two weeks ago. It calls on a partner to work with CMS to do a deep analysis of the needs of the 14 underperforming schools, and then lay the groundwork for a lasting recovery. The district said they planned to work with UVa., but said the contract was not finalized. The next day, CMS said it will cost $600,000 a year over three years.

It didn't quite add up for me until I talked about it with Denise Watts, the zone superintendent for Project LIFT. In that role, she has some experience with UVa. Principals at Project LIFT schools get leadership training through the university, and were up there just a few weeks ago. Their school turnaround program is a combination of resources from the business school and college of education, and has worked with districts in 16 states since 2003.

But Watts said that the university won't commit to helping a school district until it's convinced that doing so would be worth their while.

"They want to see some willingness to change," Watts said.

Leaders of the UVa. program are expected to be in Charlotte in early September to interview CMS administrators to make sure they'll be a good fit. They'll quickly make their decision, and then set to work.

It's unclear what the fall-back plan is should the UVa. partnership not go through, which is probably unlikely. Beacon is dependent on having an outside partner, but CMS did cast a pretty wide net when it started looking for one earlier this year.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Where are all the English teachers?

CMS says it's making progress in filling teacher positions before the start of the school year Monday, but the district's head of human resources says she's been surprised by one area they've been struggling to fill.

Chief Human Resources Officer Terri Cockerham said Tuesday that they're still looking for teachers for 74.5 positions. I'm guessing by the number that at least one of them is a part-time position.

Thirty-two of the vacancies are in elementary schools, 14 in middle schools and 28.5 in high schools. Last week, CMS reported having 155 openings without candidates.

Cockerham said the district is particularly looking for teachers in math, science, and career and technical education. "And this year, amazingly, English has been one we've been searching for," she said.

She said the district has fewer vacancies without a recommendation than last year.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

N.C. schools now required to have EpiPens

There've been plenty of stories about pieces of the state budget that educators and the public aren't thrilled with. Here's one that seems to make people happier.

The legislation requires all North Carolina schools to keep a supply of emergency epinephrine auto-injectors on hand at all times. You probably know these better as EpiPens, used when a severe allergy causes anaphylactic shock. Students at risk for this have already been able to keep an EpiPen at school with a doctor's permission.

The budget (page 38, if you're interested) also requires schools to have a staff member trained in how to administer the shot.

The North Carolina Pediatric Society came out strongly in favor of the new requirement. "Children spend half their day in school, where they can encounter life-threatening allergens, such as bee stings, for the first time," said Dr. John Rusher, president of the society, in a statement. "All students need access to epinephrine, which slows the effects of an allergic reaction in the critical minutes following exposure."

At CMS, it's unclear whether these new EpiPens are going to be ready to go for the start of school. A spokeswoman said the district is waiting for more information from the state Department of Public Instruction and health officials to figure out how this was going to be implemented. The spokeswoman also referenced a free distribution program, so there may be no impact to the CMS budget.

Virginia passed a similar law two years ago. South Carolina passed one in 2013. The N.C. Pediatric Society says 45 states now allow or require emergency epinephrine on campuses.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

CMS projecting to have about 750 more students

It's T-minus 12 days until the start of school, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders proclaimed at the school board meeting last night that they are ready.

They also presented a grab-bag of numbers and statistics regarding what they're expecting for the first day, and I thought I'd share them here.

More students coming. CMS is expecting to have 754 more students this year than it had at the 20th day of school last year. The vast majority is coming from high school students, which Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark attributed to keeping more students from dropping out and promoting more from 9th to 10th grade. Interestingly, they're projecting a decrease in enrollment in elementary school (albeit only by one student). They didn't address why this is, but my guess is it's because most charter schools target early grades.

More buses, too. CMS is projecting to add 27 buses to its fleet this year, bringing the total 1,020, even as the number of students they expect to ride them will fall a bit. The district says this is because of new academic programs at schools around the county.

Less out-of-school suspension. The district has made changes to the code of student conduct, and one emphasis is on keeping students in the school even when they're being disciplined.

Still looking for teachers. CMS has 421 teacher vacancies, though 266 of those already have a recommendation. Superintendent Heath Morrison said that having 155 teacher openings without recommendations is ahead of where the district was at this point last year. The largest number of vacancies, 59, are in elementary school.

PowerSchool should be ready. The portal parents use for updates should be functional this year after many malfunctions last year as CMS shifted to a new system.

Monday, August 11, 2014

MeckEd comes out in support of sales tax referendum

The proposal to boost the Mecklenburg County sales tax to fund teacher pay raises and a lot of other projects has been controversial since county commissioners put it on November's ballot. But it now finds itself with one influential supporter.

MeckEd, a nonprofit advocacy group, put out a formal statement this morning backing the measure. It would boost the sales tax by a quarter cent, with 80 percent of the money going toward raises for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employees, 7.5 percent for raises at Central Piedmont Community College, 7.5 percent for the Arts & Science Council, and the balance for libraries.

Here's the full statement from MeckEd:

MeckEd is committed to fair and competitive compensation for teachers across North Carolina and in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. While we applaud this year’s statewide teacher salary increase, there is more work to do. Given the increase in teacher turnover rates and the drop in North Carolina students entering colleges of education, it is imperative to invest in teacher salaries in every way possible.
As a community, we must help CMS attract and retain the best educators to our classrooms. MeckEd’s 2014 Public Policy Agenda calls for raising the state’s average teacher salary to the national average, in order to better compete for top teaching talent.
MeckEd endorses the referendum to raise teacher salaries, and we encourage all Mecklenburg County residents to support this important investment in our educators on November 4th.

The Charlotte Chamber may be deciding today whether to support the referendum. The organization has already said it won't be mounting a campaign to push it ahead of the election. Charlotte City Council members have been a little hesitant about it, too.

And of course, there was a little battle in Raleigh over whether to let Mecklenburg vote on it in the first place.

What will it take to give raises to county-funded teachers?

The state legislature gave teachers a raise this year worth roughly about 5 percent in total pay. If you're well-versed in how school districts get their money, you'll know that it doesn't apply to all of them.

Mecklenburg County pays the salaries of about 2,800 employee positions in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, with about 1,000 being teachers. They don't automatically get those raises that state-funded teachers get.

County commissioners set aside a little more than $7 million earlier this year to give their teachers raises without knowing what the legislature was going to do. That would be enough for about a 3 percent raise. Obviously, that wouldn't be enough to match what the state is doing.

County Manager Dena Diorio says they're still trying to piece together a final figure on how much it will cost. Back when the budget was passed, board members said they were committed to paying for the pay raises. Chairman Trevor Fuller said he believes the board will still do so.

"We don't want the county funded teachers to suffer," he said. "We did anticipate that it would take a little more than we set aside, we just didn't know what that number was."

Bill James
It's still unclear where the money would come from in the county budget. And it looks like getting that money sent over to CMS won't be smooth sailing. Commissioner Bill James said by email that he wouldn't vote for it.

"I don’t intend on providing them any additional money," he said. "It would set a very bad precedent to do so, since if we did (after setting the tax rate) everyone that wanted county dollars would be back around asking for a do-over."

In an email to county government leaders, he said he'd want to see that CMS was making cuts to lower-priority areas to make raises work.

"Just because the number isn't ‘enough’ doesn't make it the county’s responsibility to fix," he said.

The county will likely talk about what to do at its next regular meeting, Sept. 2.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Gov. McCrory pushes back on reported teacher assistant cuts

CMS held a news conference the other day, and Superintendent Heath Morrison announced that the district would face the loss of 90 teacher assistant positions as part of the state budget. I didn't realize that it was going to be such a big point of contention.

The office of Gov. Pat McCrory is pushing back hard on assertions by CMS and some other districts that they'll lose TA positions. They're adamant that there will be no TAs lost at all.

Why do districts think they'll lose these positions? It's super complicated but it kind of boils down to this: Before, districts got an allotment of money to pay teacher assistants. Some districts used part of that money to hire more teachers. The new budget recognizes this, and moves about $85 million from the teacher assistant pool to the teacher pool. Districts, however, have the ability to use the new teacher money to hire teacher assistants. Because the salaries of teachers and teacher assistants don't convert perfectly, a funding gap can present itself.

After my story ran, state budget director Art Pope called to walk through the numbers at a state level and say that because CMS was already using some teacher assistant money to hire teachers, they shouldn't have lose anything.

"I can't say why they're coming up with any losses," he said.

Then later, my colleague Ely Portillo spoke with McCrory, who offered up this:

"We are not reducing the number of teacher's assistants," he said. "Any teacher assistant who was working in a classroom last year will be working again this year if the local superintendents and principals set it up that way based on money that we gave them."

That second part actually gives them a bit of wiggle room. CMS has about 150 vacant teacher assistant positions, so losing 90 wouldn't force them to lay off anybody.

I've been in touch with CMS to try to find a definitive answer but don't have one yet.

UPDATE: Morrison put out a statement at 5 p.m. Friday discussing this disconnect. Here's the key part of it:
Gov. McCrory and his budget director Art Pope made themselves available to a group of district superintendents last week to answer our questions. That constant communication has continued. As recently as this morning, we sought clarification from the governor’s office about teacher-assistant funding and how the state will pay for enrollment growth in the future. Through our conversations, we feel we’re making progress in regards to funding for teacher assistants.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

School letter grades will have to wait

Apparently this new state budget does a lot more to North Carolina education than anybody thought.

This year was supposed to be the first time the state Department of Public Instruction issued letter grades, A-F, for each school in North Carolina. The grades would be determined by how well students did on standardized tests for math, reading and science.

The system was created in 2012 by the state legislature, and it's been somewhat controversial. Organizations like the North Carolina School Boards Association have said they're worried because the grades don't take into account student improvement.

The first grades were due out in October, along with the rest of the state's school report cards, with information like average class size and test score data.

But page 41 of the budget pushes that back. Now, they can come out no earlier than Jan. 15, 2015.

This appears to be news to DPI. Spokeswoman Vanessa Jeter said they're now trying to figure out if they should hold off on just the letter grades or on this year's school report card in general.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Bus drivers, teacher assistants getting $500 raise

Most of the talk regarding the education budget has been about teacher pay (and from my story today, veteran teachers aren't too happy about the plan).

But the state's proposal also lays out pay raises for all the other public school workers. They aren't going to fare as well as most of their colleagues.

"Noncertified personnel," as they're called – and this includes everyone from maintenance workers to bus drivers to teacher assistants (here's a list) – are set to receive a $500 raise in their annual pay this year. You can read it for yourself on pages 54 and 55 of the proposed budget.

Sure, it's a change from the half-decade wage freeze. But it's not sitting well with some people falling in this category.

For comparison, most state employees are getting $1,000 raises. Speaking to N.C. Policy Watch, some of these workers are calling it a "slap in the face."

In other education pay news, I've gotten a few requests from people curious about the proposed salary schedules for teachers getting extra pay for master's degrees. I'm trying to track one down, and I'll share when I get it.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Here's where lottery money is going this year

Teacher assistants positions appear to be rescued by money from the North Carolina lottery this year.

Remember, TA jobs were the big sticking point between the N.C. House and Senate budget proposals. The House wanted smaller raises and no teacher assistant cuts. The Senate wanted bigger raises and a sizable TA cut. The compromise came with a mid-size raise and no TA cuts.

That's possible because of an infusion of $113 million from lottery funds, according to the official budget document (page 8). It appears to be the first time that lottery money has been used to fund TA positions.

The legislature took some money from UNC financial aid and digital learning to make it happen.

Here's the full breakdown:

Classroom Teachers: $254,586,185 (up $34 million)
Teacher Assistants $113,318,880 (all new money)
Prekindergarten Program: $75,535,709 (unchanged)
Public School Building Capital Fund: $100,000,000 (unchanged)
Scholarships for Needy Students: $30,450,000 (unchanged)
UNC Need-Based Financial Aid: 10,744,733 (unchanged)
UNC Need-Based Financial Aid Forward Funding Reserve:  $0 (down $19 million)
Digital Learning: $0 (down $12 million)

Here's a chart of where lottery money has gone historically, from the state's official website:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

What will the state budget really mean for teacher pay?

North Carolina legislature leaders announced a budget compromise with fanfare yesterday, touting it as including the largest teacher pay hike in the state's history. Top line figures: 7 percent salary raises, and no cuts to teacher assistants.

We're still waiting on the formal details of the budget to be published (that's expected to be around 10 p.m. tonight). But WRAL has published a state Fiscal Research Division document with a chart that shows what the new teacher base salary range should be under the budget proposal.

Teachers with five to 10 years experience will have the biggest pay bumps. Those with 30+ years won't see much of a difference.

Longevity pay would go away, according to the North Carolina Association of Educators. There's also much fewer pay levels than the old system.

Granted, this all could presumably still change.

Teachers: What are your thoughts on the teacher pay deal? Shoot me an email.

Private school vouchers to go out next month

The highly sought after vouchers to send low-income students to private schools will in fact go out next month.

A Wake County judge on Wednesday declined to put the matter on hold until a lawsuit to block the program is resolved, the AP reports. So the voucher system will go forward as planned: Families will get $4,200 each to help pay for private school tuition. To qualify, the families must qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and the student can't already be in private school.

The state allotted $10 million for the program, meaning that 2,400 students could get the vouchers -- known as "opportunity scholarships." More than twice that many applied, and the state held a lottery to see who would get one. A total of 937 families applied from Mecklenburg County, significantly more than any other.

The AP article says that only 1,000 students have indicated they'll accept a voucher this fall. I've put a call in to the agency overseeing the program to get a firm number and how many are in Mecklenburg County. I'll update when I find out.

The voucher payments are sent to go out Aug. 15. A hearing on the lawsuit will be held Aug. 19.

UPDATE: The North Carolina State Education Assistance Authority reports that 1,298 people have accepted vouchers, though 124 have not yet picked out a private school. Of students who have accepted, 230 are in Mecklenburg.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Catawba County Schools salaries posted

If you've been following this blog, you know the Observer posts the salaries for school district employees in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties each year. One of the final ones we've received this year, for the school district in Catawba County, is now available for search.

Why post school district salaries by name? I think Ann said it well back in May when the first databases of the year went up: It helps the public find out if something is going wrong in public spending.

Take a look and see what stands out.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Switching things up for a year

After 12 years covering education for the Observer, I'm embarking Monday on a new venture covering the Affordable Care Act.

The children who were in kindergarten when I started this beat in February 2002 graduated in June,  so it felt like time to try a new challenge myself.  The opportunity arose when the Observer got a one-year grant from the Kaiser Family Foundation to create a reporting job that will explore how the act is playing out in North Carolina.

Writing about health care appeals to me for the same reasons education reporting does:  It's a beat that combines intellectual complexity with emotional impact, an area where vital public policy decisions are taking shape and people are hungry for good information.

When I applied to the Observer in 1986 it was for the medical writer's job.  The editors hired Karen Garloch instead,  and I've never had cause to question their judgment.  The opportunity to work with and learn from Karen was one of the enticements to make an otherwise daunting leap.

As blog readers will suspect, the notion of a grant-funded job gave me pause.  Public education is being shaped by big-money donors with agendas,  something that's debated here on a regular basis.  But before accepting the grant,  our editors and Garloch determined that the only agenda being pushed by Kaiser Health News,  which isn't affiliated with Kaiser Permanente,  is generating high-quality coverage of a public policy issue that touches virtually every aspect of our lives and economy.

While some may suspect I've grown weary of education,  the opposite is true.  The hardest part of this switch is letting go of the long list of intriguing themes and story ideas in my mental files.  If I could clone myself,  one of me  --  make that two or three of me  --  would delve into those stories.

Absent that option,  I'm delighted that banking reporter Andrew Dunn is stepping in.  He's a skilled reporter who has excelled on a challenging beat.  He's a product of Wake County Public Schools and the father of a 4-year-old,  so his interest in education isn't just theoretical.  He's even an active blogger,  so the switch from Bank Watch to Your Schools shouldn't be too hard  (though I notice that banking readers aren't nearly as eager to comment as the education crowd).

I'd say  "So long until next summer,"  but I've noticed something when I tell sources about the switch:  Almost everyone shares a passionate observation about how the Affordable Care Act is affecting their families and/or business,  for good or for bad.

I hope to get lots of personal stories to make policy coverage come to life. So I'll just say  "Stay in touch."  And provide Andrew with the same stream of tips,  questions,  color commentary and,  ahem,  constructive criticism that I've come to count on.