Monday, September 12, 2011

Rethinking retention

Charlotte-Mecklenburg's new preK-8 schools are less than three weeks old,  but Ashley Park Principal Tonya Kales reports one unexpected lesson:  She's rethinking the value of making children repeat a grade.

A longtime elementary school teacher and administrator,  Kales says she's been among those who think it can help to hold back a kindergartener who's struggling with basic skills or a third-grader who's far behind in reading and math.

Then her middle-schoolers reported,  and she realized some will celebrate their 16th birthdays in eighth grade.  They're physically and socially out of step with their younger classmates,  and they're frustrated at not being in high school.  Most,  Kales says,  were held back in early grades,  when it seemed like no big deal.  Now their parents and teachers are trying desperately to keep them from giving up on school.

Kales is getting a first-hand look at what the N.C. School Psychology Association has been saying for years:  "It turns out that retention is not a 'gift of time,'  as might be intended,  but a year-long sentence to be served,"  says a 2005 NCSPA position statement.

Research done at CMS found that children do perform better when they repeat a grade,  but in subsequent years they fall behind classmates who were weak on skills but were not held back.  By eighth grade,  the held-back students are far more likely to fail exams and get suspended,  the study found.

"Retention is the most powerful predictor of who will drop out,"  the position paper says.  "One retention increases the likelihood by 4 to 5 times;  two retentions increase the likelihood of dropping out to almost 100 percent."

The NCSPA doesn't advocate turning a blind eye and "socially promoting" students without addressing their failures.  Instead,  it urges schools to find ways to keep children with their peers while providing the extra help to catch up.

Update at 6:20 p.m.:  Just stumbled on a clip I'd been looking for this morning.  In 2010,  Superintendent Peter Gorman made it tougher for principals to retain students,  for pretty much the reasons cited above.  "We don't believe a student who is 17 and in their middle-school years is ever going to graduate, "  Gorman said.  "We've got to get them into an alternative high school setting."

CMS has created alternative settings,  such as the Transitional 9 Program at Hawthorne High.  But that doesn't help students who have already been held back;  they can't get into alternative high-school programs until they complete eighth grade.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

CMS testing ramping up early

Fresh off summer vacation, many students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools find themselves staring down another crop of district-wide tests. CMS calls the tests "formatives," which is to say they help formulate the rest of the semester's instruction by giving teachers an early read on students' aptitude. Some students took the tests on the very first day of classes, said Scott Muri, chief information officer for CMS.

The formatives, which are optional, aren't the same as the 50-plus mandatory new end-of-semester tests that sparked all the commotion last spring. Those are called "summatives," which aim to show what kids have learned at the end of a semester. Muri said the formatives were first used last year. (They included math and language arts tests in grades preK-8, as well as fifth and eighth grade science. In high schools: English I, Algebra I, biology, U.S. history and civics and economics).

CMS is expanding the number of formatives this year to fill in subject areas where no formatives were offered. Muri said CMS is adding science and social studies in grades preK-8, and high schools will add English II, III and IV, Algebra II, geometry, chemistry, world history and earth/environmental science. The existing tests were also updated, with input from teams of teachers who met over the summer. The obvious question: are the formatives expanding because of the controversial introduction of the summatives last spring? Muri said no -- at least not in a specific sense of one causing the other. The only connection, he said, lies in the general sense that CMS is expanding its overall testing program to give teachers more feedback on student performance. The goal of the tweaks with the formatives, he said, is "just to improve, to make sure what we're doing is as effective as it can be."

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

School board candidate filed on time

Hans Plotseneder, one of the many candidates running for the school board, takes issue with a story of ours from last week which identified him as one of several candidates who failed to file their financial disclosure reports on time. He said he sent his campaign finance disclosure report to election officials in Raleigh via e-mail before the July 29 deadline expired. A signed copy dated July 29 was sent by regular mail to the Mecklenburg elections board, he said. Mecklenburg officials said that is correct, though they stamped it as having been received on Aug. 2, which appears to be when the mailed copy arrived at their offices. A clerk at the office said Plotseneder was in compliance with disclosure rules.

Friday, September 2, 2011

GOP jostling and the Chamber "endorsement"

There may not be a school board primary,  but the GOP held a de facto selection process Thursday night to winnow four Republican candidates into a three-person slate.

Political newcomer Scott Babbidge eventually bowed out,  clearing the way for the party to endorse Tom DavisTim Morgan and Ken Nelson for the three at-large seats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School Board.  Parties aren't listed on the ballot,  and last time around, voters chose a Republican,  a Democrat and an independent.  But the GOP likes to have a slate to promote to voters.

This year's slate  is hardly united.

Morgan,  who now represents District 6,  says he's in it to ensure that the board's current reform plan continues,  even as CMS seeks a new superintendent.  The other Republicans are taking more of a "shake things up" tack.

In his withdrawal statement,  Babbidge took a shot at Morgan for "jeopardizing his current seat" ( actually, if Morgan loses the at-large race he keeps the seat)  and refusing to make way for three additional Republicans, "further solidifying that his motives are more about himself and his own political aspirations than serving our community."  He personally endorsed Davis,  Nelson and independent Keith Hurley.

Davis says the word went out in June, even before candidates began filing, that the Charlotte Chamber had announced endorsements for the board,  including Tim Morgan,  brother of Chamber President Bob Morgan. "It's not fair for the people that have got all the money in downtown Charlotte to say,  'These are the people we want on the board.' "

Davis's account is only partly correct,  says Natalie English,  the chamber's public policy executive.  As Davis reports,  chamber member Pat Riley did tell others on the chamber's June trip to Seattle that he thought Morgan and Elyse Dashew would represent the chamber's interests well.  Riley added that it would be good to have a "candidate of diversity" representing the county,  English said.

But that's not an official chamber endorsement,  she added.  The chamber hasn't had a PAC or made endorsements in years.  Individual members have thrown their weight behind candidates,  but they aren't unanimous, English said:  "If there were such a thing as a chamber slate, it would be more like five people."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

No big bucks in CMS race

Despite all the buzz about the importance of this year's Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board race,  campaign finance reports indicate a big ho-hum from donors.

The 16 people seeking three at-large seats in November were supposed to file a mid-year report on donations and spending by July 29.  The reports on file with the Mecklenburg County Board of Elections show Elyse Dashew leading the pack with almost $12,000 raised (her biggest donations are from out-of-state family members).

Update 4 p.m.: Aaron Pomis's report shows him with almost $10,000. But as an alert caller suggested, those numbers were actually money that he raised and spent in his 2009 district campaign. Pomis says the Board of Elections instructed him to repeat those numbers; he's now trying to figure out if he got bad advice, and if so, correct his report.

Beyond that,  nobody reports more than $1,000 coming in,  and some haven't updated their reporting since the early months of the year.

Granted,  campaign energy tends to crank up about now.  But consider the contrast:  This time in 2009,  first-time candidate Eric Davis (now board chair) had filed a 57-page report detailing almost $28,000 in contributions.  He ended up raising and spending $58,000 to win the seat representing the compact District 5 in south/central Charlotte.

The current pack have to make their names and views known throughout this sprawling county.  With all three incumbents stepping aside,  there was talk early in the year that this would be a big-spending race, with newcomers having a real shot at leadership in public education.

So, what's up?  Is the lingering recession squelching big donations,  or will they just land later in the year?  Are candidates focusing more on social networking and public forums?  If the landscape of school-board campaigns has shifted,  who will win and lose?  Will CMS employees or any other interest group turn out in numbers large enough to tip what's usually a low-turnout off-year race?

I guess we'll find out this fall.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Director of Lake Norman Charter School resigns

We're a bit late on this one, but the Huntersville Herald and WFAE radio have reported that Tim Riemer, managing director of Lake Norman Charter School, resigned effective Aug. 16 -- the day before classes for the K-12 school began. Click here and here for stories with more details. A call to the school from the Observer on Tuesday wasn't immediately returned.

Monday, August 22, 2011

School board chair defends CMS reforms

I called school board chairman Eric Davis this morning to ask about the two workshops the board has scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday (both at 1 p.m. in Room 527 of the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.). The workshops center on the search for a new superintendent -- more particularly, finding the right search firm to lead the hunt for one. Makes for a busy week for the school board, which will also meet Tuesday evening (6 p.m. at the Government Center, Room 267) for one of its regular monthly meetings. It plans to talk then about redistricting, the opening of schools and the board's Strategic Plan 2014, among other issues.

Mention of that last topic prompted Davis to offer a brief but impassioned defense of the educational reforms driving the 2014 plan, the board's roadmap for improving local schools. As much as former Superintendent Peter Gorman was vilified for the dozens of controversial new tests CMS rolled out this spring, the impetus behind those tests came more from the board's 2014 plan than from Gorman. Gorman was carrying out the board's orders. Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh says he'll do the same. Davis said that, as the board begins looking for a new superintendent, he feels it's doubly important for the community to understand the 2014 plan. He said Hattabaugh and other staff members will take time during Tuesday night's meeting to spell out what the plan is, what it does, and the rationale behind it.

Davis called the plan "fundamental" to the selection of a new superintendent. He noted that about five or six years ago, the school board shifted its overarching philosophy of reform from a focus on "managed instruction" (i.e., a regimented system centered on making sure all kids were getting lessons) to "managing performance" and "empowerment" (that is, not just making sure lessons get delivered, but making sure the lessons are delivering results and that the educators delivering the lessons are held accountable). Thus, you get the current drive for dozens of new tests, and the push toward performance pay for teachers. "It's about the end result, whether the child's learning or not," Davis said. "So much of that gets lost in the individual tactics, what it means to me as an employee, or the impact on my child's school." He wants people to look not just at the new tests, but at the 2014 plan overall. He seems to believe if they do, they'll see the validity.

Obviously, critics of CMS' reform program see things differently. They want the board to rethink its direction -- or, more accurately, they want to elect three new board members this November who will force a move away from the test-heavy approach CMS is employing. Davis doesn't sound like a man who's thinking the school board needs to change course. He said: "When there's criticism about the direction we're going in, I think a valid question is, 'What's the alternative?'"

It will be interesting to see how the tensions play out in the upcoming school board race, and in the selection of a new superintendent.