‘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


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CMS under microscope during forum series
Community input sought as district plans for future

Published Wednesday, June 23, 2010 5:04 pm

by Michaela L. Duckett, For The Charlotte Post

Which is more important – fostering a diverse educational environment or providing students with the most stable and predictable student assignment possible?

That was one of many questions hundreds of parents and community members sought to answer this week as they answered the call to help Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools develop a framework for the district’s future.

Over the next year, CMS officials will make decisions on issues ranging from consolidating or closing schools to minimizing transportation costs in a district with fewer resources.

“It is critically important for us to find solutions to run the district more efficiently,” school board Chair Eric Davis said.

On Monday, CMS kicked off the first of four community engagement forums at Harding High School. Nearly 300 people showed up. The next night, the second forum was held during the regular school board meeting, and about 200 people attended.

Davis said that early in the process, a common theme has already begun to emerge. “I’m hearing parents say ‘I want a good school for my child to go to,’” he said.

He said the balancing game comes into play as some parents say that having a good school close to home is just an added bonus, while others say it’s a necessity.

“Guaranteeing that a child has a seat in a school close to home is no good if it is not a quality school,” education advocate Blanche Penn said.

Like many participants, Penn plans to attend all four forums. She said they are not long enough to cover everything that needs to take place. “It’s too much information,” she said.

The forums are designed to get feedback from parents, staff and community members about the guiding principles that provide the framework for the district’s operations.

The board currently has seven guiding principles, but a vote next week could revise them for the first time since 2005.

“They were written at a time when we were in a significantly different place than we are now,” Davis said.

Many parents have expressed discontent that the principles have more to do with student assignment than academic achievement.

Penn said she believes board members should be more committed to representing all students and not just those in their districts.

Penn knows firsthand that not all students have the same needs. Her children had their own unique set of needs – from overcoming a disability to undertaking challenging AP and honors courses. She said that she hopes board members are really listening to what the community is saying.

“I would like to see some changes,” she said. “I am almost 60 years old. I have four kids and five grandchildren. I have not seen (change) yet.”

CMS is holding two more forums before Tuesday’s vote. The third forum will be held at South Mecklenburg High School on June 24 from 6:30-8 p.m. The finale will be held at the same time on June 28 at Hopewell High School.

Parents can email suggestions to [email protected]


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CMS hopes to avoid student assignment turmoil

School board’s summer project: Start talking, listening about new school boundaries.

By Ann Doss Helms

[email protected]

Posted: Monday, Jun. 21, 2010

Few topics in public education evoke as much angst as student assignment.

In Raleigh, sudden, drastic changes have led to community turmoil, with protests and arrests at school board meetings.

That’s what the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education hopes to avoid with a review that starts Monday. The board is asking citizens to weigh in on broad guidelines before it proposes any changes in where kids go to school in 2011-12.

Stakes are high. School boundaries can shape property values, community identity and support for public education.

Today’s CMS student assignment system has its roots in the 2002 “choice plan,” which emerged as an alternative to court-ordered desegregation. Students were assigned to neighborhood schools, with magnets and some other options for those who didn’t like their assignments.

But schools in affluent suburban neighborhoods quickly overflowed into encampments of mobile classrooms. Meanwhile, families fled schools in low-income areas, leaving many schools with rising poverty levels and plunging test scores.

The guidelines that have evolved since then embrace a range of values: Stability, diversity, schools close to home, logical planning.

Trouble is, those values often prove tough to juggle.

Neighborhood schools may lack diversity and encourage concentrations of poverty.

Successful, popular schools tend to attract families with children – leading to enrollment growth that forces boundary changes and undermines stability.

Struggling schools may end up partially empty, leading to complaints about poor planning and wasted money.

In recent years, boundary changes have been forced by the opening of new schools. In 2011-12, for the first time in memory, changes will likely be driven by school closings.

Soon after five new board members were sworn in last December, the board vowed to review student assignment. Members say they want to clarify and simplify the guidelines they’ll use as they move into a new era.

But they also discovered that a serious look at drawing new boundaries raises big questions about all aspects of education. And feelings run high, even when the board shifts boundaries for only a handful of schools.

Monday, it begins.


In 2010-11, CMS will have 138 schools serving neighborhood zones (CMS calls them home schools).

All students have a guaranteed seat in one of those schools. Last year, about 87 percent of the district’s 133,700 students attended a neighborhood school, with the rest in magnets.

Current guidelines

CMS will provide schools close to home and strive for stability.

Zones should be “logical, compact and contiguous.”

Diversity should be “fostered but not forced,” and CMS will “focus on strengthening schools in naturally diverse areas.”

Key questions

How does student assignment affect students’ chances at academic success?

Should boundaries be drawn to balance poverty levels or otherwise promote diversity?

Can CMS simplify its student assignment policy without alienating large parts of the community?

Academic issues

Test scores, graduation rates and other measures of success tend to be highest in the suburbs and lowest in a band of high-poverty, mostly-minority schools running east-west across Mecklenburg County.

Some say breaking up the concentrations of poverty and failure would give center-city kids a better shot at learning. Others say forcing diversity risks driving families out of public schools, leading to more failing schools and less public support.

Budget issues

CMS spends millions to provide extra teachers and otherwise bolster academic quality at high-poverty schools.

Zones that are more focused on keeping kids close to home could save busing costs.

Reducing frustration with student assignment could build community support to pay for public education.

Dive in

Find student assignment policies, boundary maps and a chart listing how many students in each zone attend their neighborhood school at (click “Comprehensive review,” then “Documents.”)

Public forums

Participants will be expected to discuss and report on big goals of student assignment.

Today: 6:30-8 p.m., Harding High, 2001 Alleghany St.

Tuesday: 6-8 p.m., Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.

Thursday: 6:30-8 p.m., South Meck High, 8900 Park Road.

June 28: 6:30-8 p.m., Hopewell High, 11530 Beatties Ford Road, Huntersville.

Board sessions

Anyone can attend, but only board members and staff will talk.

Tuesday: 1-4 p.m., Government Center. Topic: Student assignment/boundaries.

Tuesday: 4:30-6 p.m., Government Center. Magnets and prekindergarten.

Tuesday: 8 p.m., Government Center. Regular meeting starts with public hearing and discussion of a new policy on educational equity.

June 28: Noon-3 p.m., Government Center. Topic: Use of buildings, transportation.

June 29: 1-5 p.m., Education Center, 701 E. Martin Luther King Blvd. Topic: Summary of comments from public forums, discussion and vote on guiding principles.

Contact officials

Send questions and comments to [email protected]

Get contact information for board members:

This week The Observer will provide daily features on the big issues CMS is studying, with tips for getting involved. Coming Tuesday: Magnets.

Read archived articles at


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?


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CMS kicks off marathon meetings

Forums look at big picture first, then will get specific. The goal: Lock in changes for 2011-12 by November.

By Ann Doss Helms

[email protected]

Posted: Saturday, Jun. 19, 2010

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board has hashed out plans for nine intensive days of brainstorming about student assignment, with the first public forum Monday.

People who attend any of the four forums will be assigned to small groups to discuss the broad values that should guide a revamp of boundaries, magnets, busing and other issues connected with where kids go to school.

The big-picture talks are designed to help staff understand community values, says board Chair Eric Davis. That discussion will start by examining and probably revising the “guiding principles” the board approved after a 2005 review. Only two of the current nine members were on the board then.

In July and August, staff will start presenting specific proposals based on themes that emerge this month.

The first meeting marathon includes three special board meetings, in which members and staff will talk about how to cut costs while protecting academics.

By November, the board hopes to lock in changes for 2011-12, including closings or consolidations of under-filled schools.

All meetings are open to the public, which means die-hard participants could spend 18 hours in the first round of special sessions. Although it’s not part of the formal review, the board will also hold a public hearing and discussion Tuesday on a revised policy guiding educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. That meeting will start at 8 p.m., after almost seven hours of special meetings.

But questions linger about how many families will be eager to dive into education talks so soon after the last school bell.

“Essentially, what we’re going to do is have a constant stream of meetings during the one week of June that probably is the most popular vacation week for Mecklenburg County residents,” said board member Trent Merchant. Merchant said he remains worried that a well-intentioned effort could backfire, leaving people alienated and upset.

Board member Kaye McGarry introduced the subject in her June newsletter by saying, “Is this process scary??? You decide.” She raises questions about the time and other board members’ willingness to listen. And she approvingly quotes an unnamed constituent as saying: “This is not going to help CMS to regain community trust!”

But board member Rhonda Lennon says the review is a smart business practice and honors campaign promises that she and others made to take a fresh look at student assignment. Starting now lets the board make its decisions before families must apply for 2011-12 assignments, she said.

“I hope everybody gets past ‘This isn’t what I wanted’ and gets to ‘This is what I was put on the board for,'” Lennon said.

Some PTAs and groups such as the Charlotte Chamber and Mecklenburg Citizens for Public Education are already mobilizing people to get involved in the effort.

Often, lower-income schools and neighborhoods are less likely to get involved in education debates. Davis said the question of how to engage the whole community remains.

LaTarzja Henry, CMS’s public information director, said all principals have been asked to make automated phone calls and send e-mails to families notifying them of the review. She said her staff is also working with groups such as the Latin American Coalition and Helping Empower Local People to get the word out. Spanish translators will be available at all public forums, she said.

Public forums

Participants will be expected to discuss and report on big goals of student assignment.


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?


Participate in upcoming review of CMS

June 18, 2010

Everyone I’ve talked to about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board’s plan to hold community forums this summer has said, “What are they thinking? It’s summer! If they really wanted our opinions they would have given us more notice.” An Observer editorial cartoon chimed in, making fun of Superintendent Peter Gorman’s dismissal notice to teachers only to twist the message to mean dismissing the value of public comments.

I am frankly surprised by this initial response to the school board’s plan to comprehensively review the schools, starting with two opportunities next week, on Monday and Tuesday. How much notice do we need?

For more than a year, there have been news stories about CMS’s shrinking budget. We’ve heard that schools could close for lack of students. There’s been an outcry about magnet school busing and changing bell schedules.

Why not start right now? This review is designed to look at everything parents and business leaders care about – student assignment, academic curriculum, gifted and talented programs, access to AP and IB courses, transportation, magnet schools, clusters of high-poverty student populations and equity. We know all these issues will come before the school board for votes in 2010-2011. They are asking for community input now. Why wait until the vote is cast? This is not short notice, it’s way overdue.

It was 1983 when the most indicting of all reports on public education was issued by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. “A Nation at Risk” bluntly stated, ” … the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people…” In the 27 years since, have we seen an urgent, consistent transformation of our schools? Or have we continued the disservice to a generation of children ill prepared to analyze and solve the complex problems we’ll leave to them?

Some people contend that rushing into this could prove to be hazardous for the school system. That is true if implementation of change is rushed or changes not adequately researched. But moving quickly into an assessment phase dependent on community input can’t happen too soon. To solve problems, they must first be well defined.

The school board doesn’t need to hear from more complaining protesters but rather from creative thinkers who will do their homework and speak on behalf of 130,000 students, not just their own. There is no one answer. We need hundreds of things to be considered and done differently. The school board and CMS staff can’t already know all of them. They need to hear from an informed community about what we need and expect from our schools.

Another year has passed with less than 65 percent of CMS ninth-graders graduating within four years. Can we wait another year for a comprehensive review, leaving CMS staff and board to make decisions one at a time that have strategic and dramatic impact on everyone?

You have the chance to share your ideas next week, with more community forums coming later in the summer. Make the time to get involved. We don’t have a second – or a child – to lose.

Kathy Ridge is president and executive director of Mecklenburg Citizens for Public Education. MeckEd evolved from a 2006 merger of three groups advocating for CMS improvements: the Charlotte Advocates for Education, the education advocacy operation of the Charlotte Chamber, and an appointed Citizens Task Force on Public Education. Ridge’s column was first published in the Charlotte Observer’s opinion section.


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?