The limits of home school assignments

Sept. 20, 2010

Here’s the next big question for CMS:

What do you do with a schoolhouse that nobody wants their child to attend?

Ask nine school board members, 50 corporate executives and half the members of the local association of homeschoolers this question:

Where would you NOT send your child to school? Compile all the names and you’ll have an airtight list of the facilities in question.

Multiply that number by 437 or 783 or whatever number of children are in each building and you’ll get a handle on the size of the problem that CMS faces, and the number of parents who today feel cheated by CMS.

If you think your CMS home school should be on the list, then you are one of the thousands of parents who must think that school board members are nuts to value home school assignments so highly.

Even the parents who are most vociferously in favor of assignments closest to home will start hopping up and down if the school closest to home suddenly becomes unacceptable to them for any reason.

One of the first stops on the road toward greater parent involvement and higher student achievement is to stop assigning children to schools nobody wants to attend.

What to do with those schoolhouses?

The most pressing need is to move to the biggest of those facilities the programs with the longest waiting lists. Some of those popular programs are in buildings of very limited size. The board is going through that list right now, so it should have all the details on the table soon. Moving those programs so they can grow will make more parents enthusiastic – a key ingredient to parental involvement in children’s education.

There are expenses, of course, in moving programs from one building to another. Perhaps the foundations that are currently looking for ways to be helpful could step in and cover those costs. The goal would be to close schools that nobody wants to attend, retire those names, and move into those spaces the programs that lots of people want to attend.

Indeed, the way around schools that nobody wants to attend is for everyone to choose where they want their child to go to school.

It sounds so simple. The details are complex. But the problem in CMS since – well, since CMS was created – is that so many people have assumed that the details are too complex or too costly that no school board has really examined how it would go about giving every parent a real choice. Perhaps now is the time to do just that. Perhaps those foundations that are currently looking for ways to be helpful could help with that as well.


Let’s have a parade of parades!

Sept. 18, 2010

I heard this week an illuminating story about addressing children’s needs.

It’s a story about a day in an elementary afterschool program. On this particular day, teachers had been having great difficulty controlling students all day long. As the teachers passed the children on to the staffer supervising the afterschool class, they all but said, “Good luck,” and then left.

Well, said the afterschool teacher to the children, who would like to have a parade? All the hands shot up.

Well, we will need instruments to have a parade. So go get some instruments.

The children were perplexed. There were no drums or clarinets or tambourines in the classroom.

Well, you decide what the instruments will be.

One child came back with a ball. Another came back with a piece of paper to wave. Every child decided on an instrument and came back.

Well, where shall we have our parade?

The children talked and decided they needed a big space. They settled on the parking lot in front of the school.

Well, who should lead the parade?

More talk. They decided the teacher should lead, because the teacher was the tallest.

And then they raced outside, lined up and had their parade. And by the time they got back from parading around the parking lot, they were ready to focus on their homework and other activities.

The teacher’s damn-the-lesson-plan attitude put the children’s needs first, and led to a splendid outcome.

But equally important, the teacher set up something on the fly that became the children’s own. It was the children who decided on the instruments, for example. They picked who would be at the front of the parade. And each time they made a decision, they had done so for a reason that they themselves identified. It was classic experiential learning in communal decision-making.

Perhaps it behooves us to allow parents to have more control over where their children go to school. If they did, they would be more invested in the education that goes on there.

Imagine how empowering it would be for the school board to say to each parent: We’re not telling you where to educate your child. Why don’t you tell US? If you want your child to go to one particular school, let’s try together to make that work.

Since the mid-1970s, every CMS magnet school had one incredibly powerful attribute: Every parent was there for a reason. They knew what the reason was and they were determined to make that educational experience work.

For some, the magnet meant a curricular offering. For others at the same school, it meant a child’s proximity to a parent’s workplace. There were all sorts of reasons.

Imagine if every CMS school could tap into that power. And if every child were learning in such an empowered environment.


Board actions come home to roost

Around the school board table from left: Tim Morgan, Tom Tate, Eric Davis, Joyce Waddell, Richard McElrath, Kaye McGarry.

Sept. 9, 2010

Thursday’s school board work session added five elementaries to the list of schools thus far publicly identified as possible targets of change this November.

But a striking feature of the discussion was how often the board faced the prospect of having to fix problems created by previous board decisions.

Not all schools that are on the list, that now numbers 37, are there because of board action, of course. Alexander Middle and Mint Hill Middle are adjacent to land where large residential developments are all set to begin once the economy improves. So staff wants to be careful to prepare space at those schools for the students they expect to show up in the near term.

But most of the schools are on the list because of the cascading effects of previous board decisions. Examples:

– To join the fad for STEM schools (Science Technology Engineering Mathemetics), the math/science magnet at Cochrane Middle was rolled into Morehead Elementary, creating a K-8 STEM. Cochrane, now at 65% of capacity, will drop further as the last of the magnet students cycle out.

– An astounding 910 children exit the 76% poor Hornets Nest attendance area for other schools. Many leave for the magnet at less-poor Winding Springs. The magnet is so close, Supt. Peter Gorman said, that parents wanting to leave “don’t have a proximity issue” – the board has made it easy. Another example: The Randolph magnet makes it easy for nearby McClintock Middle parents to leave.

– The board decision to dismantle a magnet at Lincoln Heights so depopulated the school that 50% of the school is now used as administrative space for Exceptional Children’s Department administrators.

– When Whitewater Elementary opened, some Pawtuckett children were redistricted into the new school. The older school that has served the neighborhood for decades is now the smallest in the system with barely more than 200 students. Its likely closure — or, in Thursday’s lingo, repurposing — is a direct result of board action.

– Pinewood Elementary is on the list because academic gains have slowed after a highly effective principal was swept away, along with some top teachers, for a “strategic staffing” intervention elsewhere. “We’re doing everything right there,” Gorman told the board, ” but at the moment (Pinewood is) not working.”

– At Hickory Grove, a replacement building was built, but the old school was not torn down and in fact is full. Half of the old school’s 34 classrooms serve part of the K-5 cohort assigned there. The other 17 classrooms are filled with pre-kindergarten children who, according to staff planner Mike Raible, were congregated in the available space to free up classrooms at nearby overcrowded elementaries. That decision made sense at the time, but it is board action that has put Hickory Grove at 197% of capacity. (Staff made it clear that they would like to demolish the old building. When board chair Eric Davis asked about moving the pre-K classes to fill up underutilized classrooms elsewhere, Gorman noted that half the old building would still be full.)

But possibly the most glaring single indicator among the schools on the list of 37 is the number of children whose parents have chosen to send their children elsewhere in CMS. They have voted with their children, not their feet, to leave schools they considered inferior for schools they thought would give their children a better chance. And, remember, these numbers do not count the children who leave for private schools or charter schools or home schools – or the street.

Departing from some of the elementaries discussed Thursday: Hornets Nest, 910 children; Pinewood, 434; Hickory Grove, 408; Billingsville, 394; W.G. Byers, 386; Druid Hills, 284; Sedgefield, 277; Irwin Avenue, 141; Westerly Hills, 139; Lincoln Heights, 135; Pawtuckett, 109.

Departing from some of the middle schools discussed Thursday: McClintock, 681 students; Spaugh, 499; J.T. Williams, 495; Wilson, 487; Cochrane, 432; Sedgefield, 336.

These numbers can’t be explained, or improved, without addressing the elephants in the room: race and class. Neither of those terms was used during Thursday’s placid discussion. Staff referred to the need to change the “perception” of some schools.

The board’s sworn task is to provide a sound basic education to every child who wants to attend in Charlotte-Mecklenburg. They will forever fail at their task if they say they want strong neighborhood schools, but then close the weak ones in poor neighborhoods that their own decisions have made weak.

What decisions? It’s a complex web of decisions that defies easy answers or sound-bite responses. Attendance boundaries are routinely used to separate the rich from the poor, the advantaged from the disadvantaged – instantly creating some schools that have extra resources, and others that do not; some that are attractive to teachers and parents, others that are not. Magnet options are created, as mentioned above, to give some parents easy options out of struggling schools while not creating similarly attractive options for other parents. The board has refused to assign staff with the best teaching results to its students with the greatest needs.

All of these and other board decisions have created schools that isolate struggling students, making all but impossible the task of providing each and every one of those struggling students the sound basic education that the North Carolina Constitution requires.


Why is Comprehensive Review so un-comprehensive?

Sept. 8, 2010

Ask a school board member if there’s talk about moving easily moved programs into underfilled schoolhouses, and the answer is, “No.” Try it with your favorite school board member.

Or ask a school board member if there’s discussion about creating K-8 schools in underfilled elementary schoolhouses, the answer is, “No.” Try it.

What’s going on? Is the Comprehensive Review really comprehensive?

Perhaps school board members should put down their data tables and ask, “Are there some golden opportunities staring us in the face?”

Amid unconscionable failure with creating high student achievement in some elementary schools, is it time to consider some other ways to do business?

Consider the Spaugh Middle school attendance area. Spaugh is at the bottom of the heap of middle schools in the “performance-cost indicator” sweepstakes handed to board members Tuesday. That means the spotlight is on Spaugh for closure.

The children who enter Spaugh next year will come from six westside elementaries: Ashley Park, Barringer, Bruns Avenue, Irwin Avenue, Thomasboro and Westerly Hills. Not all of the 5th graders from those schools, of course, arrive at Spaugh. Many of the parents paying closest attention find other options for their middle school aged children. Which is part of the reason why Spaugh is struggling.

If Barringer didn’t have a partial magnet under roof, every one of those six elementaries would have just about enough room to keep their sixth, seventh and eighth-graders under roof. Right, datamongers?

Such a setup would give those youth an immensely greater connection to neighborhood and siblings. The mentoring and tutoring potential would be immense. Right, educators? And is it not true that young teens struggling with reading would learn a whole lot about reading from helping younger children with reading?

What other golden opportunities are staring us in the face?

– – –

Reader response:

Sharon Starks, Sept. 9, 2010

I usually don’t agree with you on assignment matters, Steve. But I am impressed with your suggestion for Spaugh students! Sounds very constructive to me.


Struggle for an education rooted deep in Mecklenburg soil

Rosenwald School buildiing at McClintock Presbyterian Church.

Sept. 7, 2010

The church sign stopped me in my tracks. McClintock Presbyterian. I had read of it for decades.

The reason: On the church grounds was a Rosenwald school building. In the South in the teens and ’20s, the schoolhouses erected with parents’ sweat equity and financial matching funds from Sears Roebuck President Julius Rosenwald sometimes sheltered the first educational experiences that African-American children had.

The McClintock Rosenwald was built in 1922-23 and sits off Erwin Road in southwest Charlotte. It’s 4 minutes east of Winget Park Elementary, which opened 84 years later.

In a 1987 report to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Properties Commission, Dan Morrill wrote that the Rosenwald buildings “mark black farm communities which once existed in Mecklenburg County, often now vanished.”

About the same time, historian Tom Hanchett wrote that for Rev. Robert Shirley, then pastor of McClintock Presbyterian, “the school’s story is a way to communicate to church youth the value of today’s educational opportunities. He plans to restore the building. Rev. Shirley hopes it will be a magnet to draw his congregation of tenant farmers’ children and grandchildren, now turned city dwellers, back each Sunday to the church in the midst of the fields.”

One thing that has changed since Shirley’s day: Most of the fields surrounding the church have sprouted tract houses. McClintock has lots of neighbors.

Perhaps those neighbors are folks newly arrived from parts north, south, east and west. They may know little about the ground under their suburban sod. The McClintock Rosenwald schoolhouse, with its large classroom windows and industrial layout, is a reminder of the generations of children who were allowed to go to school during the cotton picking season only on days when it was raining.


This isn’t your school board – or is it?

CMS Investment Study Group

Sept. 1, 2010

The Foundation For the Carolinas Wednesday launched a “CMS Investment Study Group.” Members of the panel are shown above. Their charge: “Make recommendations about the best way for private funders to assist and support Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in achieving goals tied to student performance and equity.”

This project has immense potential for mischief. The study group was put together by movers and shakers, and is populated by movers and shakers. The members are mostly money people, not educators. They will meet in private. Their decisions about how to suggest that they and other movers and shakers spend their money are not subject to citizen review. And who knows what their definition of “equity” is, or how they will be persuaded to view what it will take to improve student performance.

And no matter how many hundreds of thousands of dollars they spend on consultants in the next months, they stand at grave risk of getting bogged down in the detritus of education policy and in the procedures of a state-mandated school system that responds to very different stimuli and is held accountable on a totally different regulatory basis.

So my hope is that the study group steers clear of the details and instead sends a very different message on achievement and equity than we’ve been getting from movers and shakers for more than 20 years.

Promise CMS $1.2 billion over the next 10 years ?–if the school board and CMS staff deliver within five years a school system in which every school is a place where every school board member and every CMS administrator and every member of this study panel would gladly send their child or grandchild each morning for a quality education.


J.M. Aberman, Oct. 16, 2010

The panel chosen is not going to be in touch with the education process. They will not figure out what needs to be changed to make the schools work.

We need a very different approach to how we educate. Treating the challenge of education as primarily an economic issue will assure that we suffer huge amounts more in social costs as the children who don’t get educated become teens and adults.


An old-new twist on neighborhood schools

Aug. 31, 2010

There are a gazillion reasons why this idea should not be pursued. But something said this morning offers a single reason why maybe this idea is worth looking at again.

The idea is to take CMS teaching right into the neighborhoods where many children drop out of school. They drop out because big schools never provide them the environment in which they can succeed.

Mister Landlord has a vacant duplex? Get the Hands on Charlotte corporate teams in for a day of freshening up and starting a learning garden. Dispatch the CMS delivery truck with the basics for a basics schoolhouse. Then hand the school over to the children nearby, led by a couple of truly outstanding educators and every parent and grandparent and greatgrandparent within walking distance.

At the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Forum this morning, a participant asked whether it was even legal for CMS to retain a kindergartner for a second year of kindergarden.

Area Supt. Tyler Ream oversees the district’s most fragile elementaries. He was in the audience and he offered to answer the question. He said retention is a principal’s perogative, then added this:

“One retention is a large predictor of dropping out. A second retention in elementary school, you are almost doomed to drop out. You have like a zero percent chance of graduating high school.

“If you are going to retain a child you have to make sure where they are going to connect, and where they are going to have a teacher that is going to be a real advocate for them. Somebody that is going to reach out to the parents. Somebody that’s going to constantly be involved in that family. Somebody that doesn’t just see their job as an 8 to 3.

“While the academics is certainly important, I think that emotional connection to a caring adult is probably the most important thing that we can do for a child.”

And where else is that going to happen than in the neighborhood? It’s hardly likely to happen in an environment where one child easily gets lost among 800, where one child with lots of needs in reality MUST be ignored so that all the classmates can thrive.

CMS will no doubt start its own charter school operations under that new law passed by the General Assembly to make North Carolina look good in the Race to the Top federal grant sweepstakes.

When it does, one charter should be a necklace of neighborhood outposts in high-dropout neighborhoods, where educators who thrive on less bureaucracy, more freedom and total responsibility for educational outcomes will be able to work in the classroom and the garden with students who need the emotional connection that Tyler Ream knows is essential.


‘What ARE we talking about?’


False choices vs. real choices

Aug. 4, 2010

When school board members Tuesday voted in a straw poll that their highest priority was keeping children close to home and that their last priority was making effective use of buildings and buses, they were of course playing a charade.

After two brutal years of cutting the budget, there is a sense in which the careful use of the almighty dollar is by far their highest priority. And the public may be confident that many of every school board member’s constituents will remind them that it must continue to be their highest priority.

But for parents and staff and particularly for children throughout the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, a list that pits maintaining home-school assignments against effective use of buildings is simply not an illuminating exercise. That’s because the school system can pursue both of those goals at the same time.

Click on the picture for more information

But there are two other priorities that are mutually exclusive. They cannot be pursued effectively at the same time.

And both of them are ostensibly the first priority of this school board.

One is its devotion to assigning children to schools close to their home.

The other is its stated devotion to ensuring superior academic achievement for every child.

So long as the board kowtows to public pressure and allows parents to segregate their children by race and socioeconomics and preparation, the board will fail to meet the demands of the North Carolina Constitution that CMS give every child access to a sound basic education.

The reason CMS will fail has little to do with the children in their charge. It has everything to do with adults.

It is adults who have ordained that the highest-needs children be lumped together, where their needs overwhelm even the most dedicated teachers.

It is adults who think so little of children, and teachers, that they allow these burnout-prone working conditions to persist.

It is adults who refuse to work in those classrooms.

It is adults who refuse to send their children into those schools and those classrooms.

It is adults who appear now quite prepared to back off the 2002 community commitment to spend additional money on high-needs classrooms. And they may do so in the name of a twisted definition of “equity” that demands an equal dollar investment in every child, irrespective of the child’s needs.

It is adults who create the racially and socio-economicallly segregated neighborhoods that lead to schools of privilege and schools of poverty – schools that will almost always work and schools that will almost never work.

It is adults who choose not to confront the reality that failing to educate each and every child to the child’s native capacities is costing them bazillions of dollars in higher incarceration costs, higher home insurance bills and higher health insurance premiums.

It is adults who ignore their oft-cherished Golden Rule.

It is adults who blame the children.

So let the school board place priority ratings on a list of two: guaranteed home-school assignments, and pursuing its stated mission of providing “all students the best education education available anywhere, preparing every student to lead a rich and productive life.”


Raise profile of schools

Aug. 4, 2010

I commend you, Steve, for your steadfast belief that we can be a better community through our public schools in Mecklenburg County.

To the extent that we make them better for every child, we make this a better community to live in.

I stand with you in this fight to raise the profile of our schools, applauding efforts that are successful and holding accountable those leaders in our community whose actions weaken the educational opportunities for many of the disadvantaged youth in our community.

I am proud to call you a friend.