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.