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?


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?