‘The threshold of unacceptability’

June 23, 2010

What does it take to move an issue to the front burner of public opinion?

How does an issue that’s been ignored for years suddenly “demand” the kind of attention that will create solutions?

If the underage child of a prominent family dies in an alcohol-induced traffic wreck, say, a community might solve the problem of teens’ access to alcohol.

Or suppose it’s wintertime and a lot of homeless people die of carbon monoxide poisoning when one tries to keep them all warm by lighting charcoal inside an abandoned building?

One of our correspondents studies such questions, and looks for ways that communities take on big issues and solve them.

In most success stories, a large event or series of small events lead an issue to cross over a “threshold of unacceptability” in the public’s mind. The community acknowledges that it has a problem.

Members of the community get into the details enough to identify what the desired outcome is. They draw up a strategic plan. They agree how they’ll report on progress. Facilitators already in the community help participants set aside the name-calling and the blame games and get to work.

“People are energized and citizens find a role to play – not just those who have an affected family member,” our correspondent writes. Change “requires a coming together and commitments to changes – in thinking, how business is done, who makes decisions, how reporting is carried out and improvements are made.”

Those are the success stories. What about Charlotte-Mecklenburg?

“It seems the community has no trouble challenging the school board but finds it difficult to work as a whole in support of the school board…. It seems a rationale for a different kind of broad direct community involvement and an agenda to go with it would be a culture shift.”

The second-last culture shift over Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools was sparked 40 years ago by U.S. District Judge James McMillan. He ordered the school board to end de jure segregation even if it took cross-town busing to create desegregated schools. The culture shift occurred when community leaders set aside their attacks on the court, acknowledged the new legal reality and set out to make it work for all children in this community.

The last culture shift was the 2002 slide into de facto segregation by race and socioeconomic background. A majority of today’s school board sees nothing wrong with the resegregation of schools that began in 2002. They think their primary job is to get a good teacher in every classroom. And that IS an important part of their job.

But some of the speakers at Tuesday’s school board forum about the ongoing “comprehensive review” of CMS policies and goals supported “diversity.” That is, they expected schools to mirror the makeup of the county and to prepare students for the diverse world that today’s students should be prepared to excel in. Evidence suggests that concentrating high-needs children creates schools where quality teachers don’t want to work.

Is concentration of high-needs students keeping down overall test scores? Does it lead to dropouts? Does it cost the community millions of dollars in higher incarceration costs? Is it inequitable to the students assigned to those schools? Does it violate the N.C. Constitution’s demand that every child have access to a sound basic education?

The current comprehensive review of CMS policies will not likely address any of those questions. Perhaps the next “culture change” will. Charlotte-Mecklenburg will not do right by the educational needs of all its children until resegregation crosses “the threshold of unacceptability.”

– Steve Johnston


Whither CMS?

June 19, 2010

School board members face rising costs and uncertain revenues. Between June and November, they will explore a variety of issues and sought out public input. On the eve of the first public forums, the Charlotte Observer laid out the questions that school board members will explore.

This site will follow along during that process. We’ll try to collect here a variety of materials and commentaries on the process.

But this site is really going to focus on something broader. For the key challenges that CMS faces are not easily addressed in the truncated format required to make changes for 2011-12.

As the public process unfolds, please help us at this site prepare for the much larger process that this community needs to consider. E-mail us with your views on the challenges, and how to move forward.

This site is not going to host a free-for-all. Check your stereotypes at the door and then please come in.

Articles first posted on the front page of this website will, after a time, move to the Archive.


Another cost of overcrowding

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A teacher at a heavily overcrowded CMS school writes:

“Where I teach now we are way over capacity. Yet we continue to allow children to enroll. ‘We have to.’

“Talk about a toxic environment. We have doubled up classes (two teachers in a room) and there is NO room for movement or personalities to develop.

“I would imagine that… those schools where there is overcrowding to this degree or even near it would show little academic growth. Many times there are not even texts needed, but we cannot order any because it is not in the budget.”

The principles that initially are guiding next week’s CMS comprehensive review make neighborhood boundaries sacred. Are lines in the sand so important that the community should accept the “toxic environment” this teacher describes? Have we lost our bearings?


Notes and comments on recent columns

Friday, June 18, 2010

Kathy Ridge had an interesting piece in the Observer this morning. A copy is here.

Steve Johnston’s piece in the Observer (here) prompted this reminder from A.M.:

“I don’t know if complacency is a hurdle, as much as capacity. Much that works during and outside of school hours is well known – by students, families, national improvement efforts, and it seems CMS is trying to adopt some of them; how many, how successfully, could be part of a comprehensive review. A question that remains is what does it take for a community – specifically, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg community – to champion change such that those practices are adopted.”

A.K.M. reports that a cross-CMS group of high school students is focusing on how to raise morale of teachers – because they believe that low teacher morale is getting in the way of their learning.

A.M., a retired teacher in Gaston County, recalls a third-grader of hers. “He couldn’t read but he had a mind that was unbelievable.” He parlayed a photographic memory into great success in the business world. Many gifts.

L.D. in another county says one assignment change that ought to be pursued is to create K-12 schools. Most North Carolinians went to such schools through the 1940s. And L.D. insists that young children who went to school with the older children in their family and the nearby families had a key advantage of strong mentors who looked after them. The Thomasboro Elementary School gym is one physical reminder of the years when CMS had all-grade schools, mostly ending at 11th grade.

“The overwhelming majority of children born out of wedlock do not stand a chance of succeeding in school,” scolds L.S. “The single parent is probably uneducated and lacks parenting skills. The child’s most formative years take place in this environment and we expect the schools to educate these children.”

Well, yes, because it’s not very kind to blame the victim (that is, the child) and none of us want to pay the much higher costs of the incarceration that is likely to follow from a failure to educate this child. L.S. also is irritable about incarceration costs – so what does it take to break into this cycle?


What will it take to educate every child?

June 18, 2010

School board members have launched a “comprehensive review” of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The project will no doubt identify the requisite budget cuts. But for the community, it will be either a hollow exercise or a disaster.

CMS documents released this month focus on “how” questions: How do we assign students? How do we use facilities? How do we minimize transportation expenses? A comprehensive review asks different questions. Indeed, there is really only one key question:

What will it take to have every schoolchild operating at or above grade level?

Not how much it will cost. What will it take?

We are not doing right by thousands of our children every year. We don’t seem to have a clue how to stop the failures and dropouts, reduce incarcerations and prepare every child for a productive, healthy, stable life.

And we don’t seem to want to ask why. And why is that? Is it because we like paying for the prisons warehousing our failures? Is it because we disagree with the notion of being our brother’s keeper? Is it because we abhor the Golden Rule?

Or is it because there is no one in Charlotte-Mecklenburg leadership who is calling the larger community out of its complacency?

The CMS board should expect from its staff not a list of schools to close, but a blueprint of what it will take to have every child learning on grade level. How can the board decide what programs and personnel are expendable when it has no idea what it will take to get the key job done?

Essays like this generally end with some bullet points. Below are a few. But don’t let the bullets obscure the key question: What will it take to have every schoolchild operating at or above grade level?

Ask the children. At primary, middle and high schools, experts are waiting to be heard. Could we find a few adults willing to listen to what our children believe will help their friends learn?

Take it home. If 40 percent of a child’s waking hours are in the schoolhouse, then perhaps 60 percent of the ingredients for – or barriers to – educational success may be outside the schoolhouse. If we want to identify what it will take to have every schoolchild learning at or above grade level, we must identify what works and what doesn’t work during those hours away from the schoolhouse, share that message with parents and marshal public resources to ensure that all children live in a nurturing environment. We need a far broader working definition of child abuse and abandonment.

Leave no kinesthetic behind. The children who learn by hearing or watching can be well-served in the American classroom. The children who can’t sit still or need to learn by doing tend to get labeled as dumb. Not so. Just different. Have we experimented with transportation zones for kinesthetic learners?

Begin at conception. Did Geoffrey Canada’s April speech to a sellout Foundation for the Carolinas crowd plant a seed, or just make a joyful noise? Have partnerships been launched between CMS and the Presbyterian and Carolinas Medical Center maternity wards? Has prenatal care become universal?

Look beyond “seat time.” What should young people know and be able to do in order to graduate high school? If that’s the question, we will find that thousands of even our middle schoolers are ready to graduate. And they SHOULD receive diplomas – along a seamless track into more challenging educational pathways at CMS schools, at CPCC, at UNCC, at virtual schools and elsewhere.

Look beyond CMS. The elected school board has an ethical duty, if not a mandated one, to look out for the educational attainment of all children in this community. It should learn from schools that are excelling. It should call out others that are failing. For it is all about the children, not about the institutions that parents have entrusted with the task.

– OCC –

Steve Johnston is operator of this website. He wrote a weekly journal on Charlotte-Mecklenburg public education from 2000 to 2005. This column was first published in the Charlotte Observer’s opinion section.


Should puzzle parts be moving?

Sept.10, 2010

Media attention is on schools that might close. But there are lots of schools bursting at the seams.

Most of those are in suburban areas and are surrounded by schools that are also bursting at the seams. No relief is easily imaginable.

But what about nearer uptown?

Villa Heights is a phenomenally successful program because its children are phenomenally talented and well-prepared. Just over 300 students are crammed into a 12-classroom building that is operating at 133% of capacity. And the school has a long waiting list.

What if Villa Heights had opened this August in the 800-student Druid Hills building that is 6 minutes and 2.8 miles away?

Davidson IB Middle has 241 students in a decrepit building that the Davidson elementary school abandoned years ago. And Davidson IB’s wait list might just be longest in the universe.

What if Davidson IB picked up its textbooks and computers and took a one-way trip to Lincoln Heights, an almost new building with capacity of 800.

And then there is Smith Language Academy, a K-8 immersion magnet in an older Tyvola Road building. Like Villa Heights and Davidson IB, the school has a wait list. What if Smith Language Academy were in the half of E.E. Waddell High School 2 miles away that has no students, and the administrative offices now at Waddell moved to the old Smith building?

In all three case, if the three schools had walk zones that guaranteed parents that they could attend these great schools if their children qualified, the decisions could set off residential redevelopment and neighborhood reclamation. Mister Mayor, are you listening?