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.

No after-practice bus rides for preK-8 student-athletes

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officials this morning clarified a point they made last week about transportation at the eight new preK-8 campuses: student athletes at those schools will get bus rides to the middle schools where they will play sports, but they won't get transportation back to their home school. The new preK-8 schools won't have athletics on their own campuses, but parents at the new schools made it clear they want their middle schoolers to have the same sports opportunities as kids at "regular" middle schools. So CMS has paired the preK-8 schools with "regular" middle schools for athletics, allowing middle schoolers from the new campuses to participate in sports at their paired schools.

At last week's press briefing, transportation director Carol Stamper pointed out that the district will give preK-8 athletes bus rides to their paired middle school for tryouts, practices and games, but CMS won't give them bus rides back to their home campus. (A handout CMS provided reporters at the meeting said transportation back to the home schools would be provided, but CMS officials today say that was in error).

The paired schools look like this:

Ashley Park and Bruns Avenue -- Sedgefield

Berryhill and Reid Park -- Kennedy

Druid Hills and Byers -- Eastway

Thomasboro and Westerly Hills -- Coulwood

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Back to school for CMS teachers

CMS teachers are back on the job today. They'll be getting their classrooms ready, even as a blur of other getting-ready activities are going on around them. At the district's back-to-school press briefing yesterday, Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain said the district still has about 57 mobile classrooms that need to be put in place as CMS scrambles to increase its number of teachers and class space in accordance with late-arriving state and local budget dollars. (Another 80 that weren't previously being used are being put back into commission on the campuses where they were sitting).

When I asked which schools have the greatest need for extra teachers and/or class space, CMS human resources chief Dan Habrat said elementary schools in the central zone (near the uptown area) have the greatest need. Chamberlain this morning e-mailed me the following list, which shows that Mallard Creek Elementary, which officials said was still trying to hire 13 teachers, also needs another six mobiles in place. Sounds like lots of work still to be done on that campus. Here's the list of schools and mobiles needed (they're almost all elementary schools).

Anybody notice any other items/patterns of note?

Barringer 4

Briarwood 2

Cotswold 2

Crown Point 1

Elon Park 1

Hidden Valley 4

Highland Creek 2

Huntingtowne Farms 4

Washam 2

Landsdowne 1

Lebanon Road 3

Mallard Creek 6

Merry Oaks 2

Montclaire 3

Pineville 2

Polo Ridge 2

Reid Park 1

Sharon 3

Sterling 2

Stoney Creek 4

Whitewater Middle 2

Westerly Hills 3

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

School board candidate headed to White House

Aaron Pomis, one of 16 candidates vying for three at-large seats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, is joining other former members of the Teach for America program at the White House today, where they are slated to meet with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other senior policy advisors.

According to a press release from Pomis, the event is organized by Leadership for Educational Equity, a nonprofit group that supports Teach for America alumni as they engage in civic activism and public leadership roles. The group will visit the White House, then have meetings at the education department with Duncan and other officials.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

CMS reform: Thumbs up or down?

I recently reported on the results of the first three years of strategic staffing,  former Superintendent Peter Gorman's quest to let top principals and proven teachers turn around struggling schools.  It's tough to render a verdict, given that promising gains are mixed with widely varied results.

That's disappointing.  Three years feels like a very long time in a world where urban superintendents seldom last much longer.  It's a safe bet that whoever gets Gorman's job will come in with new strategies  --  nobody gets hired saying "Things are pretty decent here;  I think I'll maintain the status quo"  --  and we'll have to start the clock again to see if anything really works.

Folks who study such things say there's seldom a simple answer.  Sometimes you just end up with new and better questions.

Cheryl Pulliam,  research director of the Public Education Research Institute at Queens University,  has worked with CMS on evaluating strategic staffing.  She and the CMS crew have done some smart comparisons of the gains at strategic staffing schools compared with those at other CMS schools serving disadvantaged kids;  the results have been inconclusive.  She's familiar with the tension between the approach of principals such as Sterling's Nancy Guzman,  who swooped in demanding change and got quick results,  and those such as Reid Park's Mary Sturge,  who thinks slow and steady is the way to build lasting change.

Pulliam's questions, as the effort moves forward:
  • Can principals like Mary Sturge keep teachers there long enough  (that is , reduce turnover to practically zero)  so she can build that capacity and buy-in she needs to build the culture she needs,  or will it be a continually rebuilding? 

  • Have Devonshire and Sterling  (the highest-performing strategic staffing schools)  reached a plateau so that it makes it even more difficult to raise the scores even higher?  If so,  what’s next to get them up and over any plateaus?

  • Has CMS developed that succession plan needed for all these schools so that progress isn’t lost when the principal moves/retires/is transferred?

Ross Wiener of The Aspen Institute's Education and Society Program gathered superintendents from around the nation last year to learn more about strategic staffing in CMS.  When I emailed asking for his take on the three-year results,  he,  too,  replied with more questions,  and some interesting thoughts:

You're asking an important question that will come up more and more often:  What is success in a turnaround school?  What is success for a district that is managing multiple schools?  Is it success if performance is better than trends would have suggested without the intervention? Being among the fastest gaining/progressing schools?

The sector has a pretty bad track record with sustained turnarounds,  but nothing compares with the scale of efforts over the last few years  --  so we'll have a lot more data points and more info on which to answer the question of what constitutes success.

I still think there are important innovations in the Strategic Staffing model and that others will continue to look to it for guidance.  There are few other places I know of where the district put together such a comprehensive change package.  Two particular aspects seem promising:  CMS was able to give high status and prestige to working in a turnaround school,  and managed some of the most sensitive parts of the process at the district level  (e.g.,  staffing,  including removing teachers the principal didn't think were a good fit;  assigning accomplished central office administrators to support roles).  In most other places,  each school has operated as a "one-off" and had to solve lots of issues on their own,  while SSI took the step of making the turnaround a district responsibility.

None of that is to diminish the focus on results.  I'm not in a good position to do comparative analytics from here,  but if the results aren't what was anticipated,  then CMS needs to dig in and understand what distinguishes the most successful from the least successful and average.  Were any of the hypotheses for improvement implemented with rounds 2+3?  What can be learned from other turnaround efforts in NC and other states?

Others will still seek to learn from SSI because it is at the vanguard of what are still-nascent efforts to turn around the lowest-performing schools at scale.  Unfortunately,  there are not models that have worked consistently and at scale.  So we have to pay attention to serious efforts and modify based on results and on local context.  Better alternatives have to be created, they can't merely be chosen from among existing alternatives.

When things go well in turnaround schools,  it's always because educators on the front lines responded to thousands of unexpected challenges with the right mix of sensitivity,  tenacity,  and flexibility  --  each in just the right measure at just the right time.  There is no formula for doing that well,  but CMS has made some smart bets in creating the conditions where this work can flourish.  We need to learn from these efforts and keep getting better.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Who should handle CMS supe search?

Choosing a superintendent for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is a big deal.  It will shape educational opportunities,  teacher morale,  public spending,  local confidence in CMS and the nation's image of Charlotte.

But the process can be a bit of a snooze.  The school board has had two special meetings,  focused mostly on finding a search firm.  HR Chief Daniel Habrat said about a dozen have already approached CMS,  including the five or six national companies that tend to place superintendents in large districts.

"The minute Pete announced what he was doing,  (companies) were sending us their dossiers,"  Habrat said,  referring to the June resignation of Peter Gorman,  who built a high national profile in his five years with CMS.

The board agreed Tuesday to allow local firms to have a crack at the job,  even if they aren't experts in superintendent hiring.  Details were a bit fuzzy;  the plan seems to be that local firms will learn from the media that they can apply.

Board member Trent Merchant,  a headhunter with Coleman Lew & Associates,  has been advising his colleagues about search tactics.  He said today that the president of his firm has expertise in education;  when Gorman resigned,  Merchant said, he and the president agreed not to talk about the CMS opening.  If Coleman Lew were to land in consideration for the CMS search,  Merchant says he'd probably recuse himself from voting.

Board member Richard McElrath said a local firm could help increase trust in CMS.  And former board member James Ross (he served an appointed term from 2008-2009) was sitting in Tuesday,  hoping his firm might get the business.  Ross said he thinks he could find a leader who's less bureaucratic and better able to connect with Charlotteans than the last few.

Current board members have also talked about how to make sure that the three at-large members chosen in November will be ready to dive in the minute they take office in December.  The departure of Merchant,  Kaye McGarry and Joe White,  who aren't seeking re-election,  means everyone but District 5 Representative Tom Tate will be doing their first search.  Even Habrat,  hired in March from Wells Fargo/Wachovia,  is exploring new territory.

So far, the 16 people seeking the at-large seats haven't been flocking to the search meetings,  a point that has raised criticism from some current members.  (Tim Morgan, a district representative seeking an at-large seat, has been at the sessions.)   After a reporter tweeted White's jibes about absent candidates in July,  Elyse Dashew and Ericka Ellis-Stewart dashed to the meeting and began tweeting. On Tuesday,  Jeff Wise and Hans Plotseneder attended part of the search meeting. (I admit, even I haven't been sitting through the whole meetings, which tend to last hours.  Bloggers Bolyn McClung and Susan Spaulding seem to be the most devoted followers of the early process.)

Tuesday night,  Ellis-Stewart asked the board to consider holding search meetings in the evening "so that working parents and working adults can attend."

p.s. Sorry we haven't been feeding the blog much lately. When one reporter is covering CMS, it's hard to keep up. As a makeup, here's a little blog humor: Paul Simms in the New Yorker on what commenters would have said if God blogged the creation.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Civil rights lawyers joining anti-testing forces in CMS

Add the Advancement Project, a national civil rights group, to the list of organizations pushing back against the expansion of high-stakes testing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The Washington, D.C.-based project, which bills itself as a civil rights "action tank," has been in Charlotte this week interviewing parents at the local NAACP office. Jasmine Harris, a staff attorney with the project, said the group believes high-stakes tests like North Carolina's end-of-grade and end-of-course exams are narrowing the curriculum, squeezing out creativity and frustrating minority students.

Harris said the new 50-plus local tests CMS rolled out this spring to help evaluate teacher performance won't help matters. She said parents from all backgrounds and colors told the project about their frustrations with the new testing regime, which sparked protests from teachers and parents who called the new exams too ill-prepared, costly, time-consuming and unnecessary. Harris said the Advancement Project plans to produce a report by year's end summarizing its findings, and hopes to help push for alternative ways of judging student and teacher performance. She mentioned portfolio-style assessments as one. Asked if the Advancement Project might file some sort of lawsuit against CMS, she suggested that was unlikely, or at least a last resort. She voiced hopes that Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who presides over the long-running Leandro school-quality lawsuit, will hold a hearing on high-stakes testing and allow the group to present its findings.

The group's presence comes as the NAACP plans what it calls a "March Against Educational Genocide" on Saturday Aug. 13 at Marshall Park. The NAACP says it is calling the march to bring attention to the "grave inequities" in CMS concerning effective teachers, fair discipline, equitable resources and challenging curriculum. N.C. NAACP President William Barber will speak. CMS has won praise nationally in recent years for narrowing the achievement gap, but judging from the title of the march, the civil rights group isn't impressed.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Mecklenburg commissioner defends CMS

It seems much of Charlotte is suffering from whiplash this week, courtesy of the CMS budget. All the months of talk of layoffs and budget cuts turned on Tuesday into a final 2011-12 spending plan that includes enough money to add nearly 500 new school-based positions.

Mecklenburg commissioner Jim Pendergraph, who voted against giving CMS the additional $26 million it eventually got from the county, said in today's paper that the county was "snookered." This morning, his fellow commissioner, Democrat Dumont Clarke, e-mailed me to take issue with that assessment.

"I, for one, don't feel snookered at all, and I don't think I'm alone in that belief," he wrote. "I recognize how difficult it was for CMS to predict what a new (Republican) majority in the State House and Senate bent on making significant cuts to the State budget would do."

He suggested an alternative headline: "Republican County Commissioners Seize Opportunity to Take a 'Cheap Shot' at CMS"

And in other news from the week, the budget news and other developments from Tuesday's meeting overshadowed the fact that Kaye McGarry took one more swing at trying to stop House Bill 546, the performance-pay legislation that has riled teachers this year. Motions to ask the legislature to drop the bill have already been voted down several times, other board members noted. Several were visibly annoyed by McGarry's move to put it on the agenda again. They voted to remove it from the meeting agenda. The vote was 6-3, with McGarry, Richard McElrath and Joyce Waddell in the minority.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Gates Foundation launching new CMS PR blitz

To those of you concerned about big-money foundations and their influence on local schools, hold onto your hats: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation today is announcing a new public relations campaign on behalf of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Given all the uproar over expanded testing, performance-pay and other initiatives critics see as being driven by foundations like Gates and Broad, this one is sure to attract a lot of attention. You can read some of what we've written about the influence of foundations on school reform here.

The news release that landed in my in-box says the effort's called "Educating Change," and aims to teach the general public about the broad palette of reforms CMS has launched within Strategic Plan 2014, the school system's overall school reform blueprint. There will be TV, radio and internet ads, printed and digital materials, and a web site at You can get a sense of what the TV stuff will look like here:

It's all funded by a grant from the Gates Foundation, and will be overseen by the Charlotte Chamber and a local committee of parents, business owners, clergy and civic leaders, the news release says. A local PR firm, Carolina PR, is on the case, and the campaign is to be completed this fall. The timing raises some obvious questions: Will the campaign impact the school board elections and the hunt for a new superintendent? Is it aimed at countering the groundswell of opposition that cropped up this spring in reaction against the reform-related expansion of testing?

I'll be seeking answers to those and other questions during a conference call with the organizers this afternoon. I'll update you with what I find out.

UPDATE: The Chamber folks say the PR campaign costs $200,000, but no money will go toward the school board election campaigns. They say it's not specifically aimed at countering the groundswell against expanded testing, but rather is aimed at getting people educated about school reform generally in Charlotte. Natalie English, an official with the chamber, said she wrote the grant for it after Gates folks called her asking how the chamber's managed to be so successful at helping get bond campaigns passed. She said the PR campaign will teach people the various components of Strategic Plan 2014.

School board chair Eric Davis told me the school system's PR staff has been decimated by cuts, and CMS needs the kind of help Gates is offering: "This is nothing more than trying to get factual information out to the community about our efforts to try to improve student learning."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

More join crowded school board race

After a tumultous year filled with budget cuts, school closings, teacher layoffs and the superintendent's resignation, you might think one of the hardest political jobs in Charlotte right now would be serving as a school board member.

If that's the case, it's certainly not scaring people away from the race for three at-large seats up for grabs on this November's ballot. Today, Ericka Ellis-Stewart, a Harding University High parent leader and a leader in the MeckFUTURE parents' group, is filing to run. That makes her the second MeckFUTURE member to file, joining group co-founder Elyse Dashew. Ellis-Stewart said in a press release that she plans to bring "thoughtful and practical leadership" to the board, with an emphasis on greater openness in decision-making, effective use of resources, and rigorous coursework.

Lloyd Scher, the outspoken former Mecklenburg commissioner, told me yesterday that he's about to jump into the race, too. He said he plans to file on Friday morning at about 10:30 a.m., which would put him at the board of elections right before incumbent Kaye McGarry plans to appear and announce her plans.

Scher, who served on the commission from 1992 to 2000, didn't have kind words for former Superintendent Peter Gorman. He said Gorman misled the public and the school board this year when he said schools were struggling with a $100 million budget gap. CMS officials have said that gap only disappeared after the state and the county came in with better-than-expected budget support for local schools, but Scher doesn't buy it. Gorman, he said, was too far out in front of the school board on the budget and on pay-for-performance plans for teachers.

Darrin Rankin, a Huntersville insurance agent who ran at-large for city council in 2009, told me he's also announcing at 11 a.m. Friday. Rankin, who ran for city council as a Democratic candidate, said at the time that he hadn't tried for office previously and was running as a concerned citizen and businessman.

Ellis-Stewart brings the number of officially filed candidates to nine. With McGarry, Scher, Rankin and former teacher's union leader Mary McCray voicing plans to join them, it appears there will be at least 13 candidates vying for three seats.

A crowded field, indeed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

CMS testing violations update

This weekend I reported on the Atlanta testing scandal and how some folks fear the advent of hundreds of new high-stakes tests in CMS might leave local schools vulnerable to similar improprieties. CMS testing chief Chris Cobitz told me then that the school system investigated 11 alleged violations of its testing code of ethics this spring, and substantiated six cases. When I asked for the names of the schools involved, he cited employee confidentiality rules and said he didn't want to give out too many specifics for fear of identifying particular staff members.

But it turns out at least one case (and the name of the school) has already been in the paper. An irate father from James Martin Middle school called me back during end-of-grade testing season to tell me his son had passed his EOG, only to be told he'd have to take it over because the school didn't have enough proctors present. Hundreds of other children had to retake as well. Now, WBTV is reporting that a second of the 11 cases involves Vance High. CMS spokeswoman Kasia Thompson says it stemmed from a problem with the administration of Vance's 10th grade writing test. All Vance 10th graders had to re-take the test. She said Vance and James Martin accounted for the vast majority of the 1,000 or so CMS kids who had to re-take tests this spring because of irregularities.

The Observer and other news outlets have asked for more details on the other alleged testing improprieties from this spring. Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh has made clear the rollout of the new summative tests will continue, with an aim toward providing a better gauge of teacher effectiveness. With teacher pay at issue as well, the stakes couldn't be higher. Needless to say, it's a subject we'll be keeping a close eye on.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Broad and the media

The influence of the Broad Foundation on public education is a hot topic in Charlotte,  and may draw even more debate as the superintendent search gears up.  So it seems like a good time to visit a question that bubbled up  in the spring:  Does the foundation that's striving to reshape urban education also influence the way reporters cover education?

A "Broad virus" blog that's gone viral in education circles suggests that one sign of "infection" is local newspapers and public radio stations short-changing controversy about Broad-endorsed reforms.  When I was on vacation in May,  "Joe Teacher" emailed to say he'd heard an announcement that Charlotte's WFAE  is sponsored by the Broad Superintendents Academy,  which trains candidates to lead urban districts.  "Is there any way to tell if Mr. Broad is donating to other local radio?"  he asked.

I heard the announcement shortly afterward,  and the academy actually sponsors NPR,  not the local station. WFAE News Director Greg Collard confirmed that,  but said the NPR sponsorship announcement once landed right after a story about teacher performance pay by WFAE reporter Lisa Miller.  "Bad timing," Collard said.

That got me thinking about a comment Broad's Erica Lepping had made during a Charlotte visit,  mentioning earlier grants to the Education Writers Association and the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.  I asked her for more information and she said yes,  in past years the foundation has given  "small grants" to both EWA (which I'm a member of) and Hechinger ("we used to fund a few Hechinger workshops for journalists, at least one of which I believe you attended").

Says Lepping:   Each of these organizations sends us proposals every year, as do many other media outlets (e.g. radio stations) that we have not funded to date.  Our foundation rarely funds these types of efforts –  we typically stick to investing directly in efforts to dramatically improve public schools.  During the recession when our endowment decreased,  we stopped doing any media grants, in order to focus all dollars directly to school districts and ed orgs.

As you may know,  Hechinger,  Ed Week and EWA are now all much more reliant on philanthropic funding than they were in the past,  given changes in business plan models and newsrooms under the recession,  so I expect they will continue to seek funding from all the foundations going forward.

However,  in any case where we have funded media orgs,  we have never required particular content/messages to be adopted as a result.  So,  for example,  when we funded an Ed Week series 8 years ago on Leadership,  decisions regarding what leaders to write about,  sources,  story angles et al were entirely up to Ed Week (same with the old Hechinger workshops).  In other words,  we do not get involved in editorial decisions.  When we have made a grant for ed journalism,  we trusted that those particular grantee orgs and their leaders would (given their strong reputations and track records) deliver high quality journalism that helps readers critically think,  provides facts and multiple perspectives and make up their own minds.

Interesting!  I can attest that when I've gone to education-reporting workshops,  there are panels of speakers representing various views,  with an audience of journalists who are quick to pick apart spin and question the diversity on panels.  I've never been sent home with a "write about this" mandate,  though organizers sometimes ask us to report back on what we learned and send links to articles where we've used the info.

It's smart to keep an eye on how the financial picture affects reporting.  It's no secret that money is tight these days,  and if reporters go to conferences,  it's often because someone else is footing the bill.  Journalists' organizations also feel the pinch.  And, yes, newspapers are certainly looking for ways to raise revenue in an extraordinarily challenging business environment (see Editor Rick Thames' column on one such avenue).

My take:  The best defense against anyone "selling out" is the vigilance and openness of those who care about journalistic integrity.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Testing wars: The national scene

The battle over testing in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is a microcosm of what education reporter John Merrow dubs "the education wars" being fought among the nation's top educators, policy-makers and journalists.

Here at home, interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh has just invited more teachers to weigh in on the controversial testing program CMS launched during the past school year. And last weekend the Observer ran New York Times columnist David Brooks' piece on why he thinks Diane Ravitch is wrong about testing.

Now Merrow, whose readers recently chose Ravitch as the most influential educator in America, fires back at Brooks and others. His blog post offers a summary of the issues and players, contending that "at stake in this struggle is nothing less than the direction of public education," and that today's public schools are the equivalent of yesterday's pony express.

It's probably worth noting, as journalists such as Merrow, Brooks and NBC's Brian Williams join the fray, that Eric Frazier and I are not opinion writers, even in the blog. Some posters have asked us to take a stand or voice more outrage. That's not what we do; we'll stick to providing readers the chance to explore various views and air their own.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Election filing season opens

Filing for three at-large seats on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board opened at noon today. As of 1:30 p.m., five candidates had put their paperwork in: Elyse Dashew, Keith Hurley, DeShauna McLamb, District 6 school board member Tim Morgan and Hans Plotseneder.

They were joined by Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte and most of the Cornelius commissioners in being some of the first folks to file. (That's them in the picture above, bracketing Dashew, who's second from left). In addition to the school board seats, offices in Cornelius, Davidson, Huntersville, Matthews and Mint Hill are also open for filing now through July 15. There was no sign in the initial hour of at-large school board member Kaye McGarry, who holds one of the school board seats on the ballot in the November elections. She has said she's still weighing her options.

The board race shapes up as a crucial one, with a new superintendent to choose and with the departure of two members of the five-vote majority that usually holds sway on crucial policy questions. The three new members could completely change the direction of the school system. Many of the challengers said that's exactly why they're running.

"The cards are going to be dealt a different way" after the election, McLamb said.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Morgan announces bid for at-large seat

Tim Morgan, a district representative on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, announced today that he’s running for an at-large seat on the board. Veteran at-large board members Joe White and Trent Merchant have said they won’t run for re-election in this November’s contest. Kaye McGarry, holder of a third at-large seat with an expiring term, has said she’s considering running again.

“There is an opportunity to step up and fill that leadership void,” Morgan said of White and Merchant’s departure. Morgan, a 1986 graduate of Independence High, was elected in 2009 to represent District 6 in the southeast suburbs. He has worked as a lobbyist for the real estate and construction industry, and as head of the York County Regional Chamber of Commerce. His brother, Charlotte Chamber President Bob Morgan, attended his announcement ceremony, as did City Council members Warren Cooksey and Andy Dulin.

Morgan has often voted with a five-member majority that backed some of departing Superintendent Peter Gorman’s most important reforms, such as performance-pay for teachers and the “strategic staffing” program that placed high-quality staff in low-performing schools.
He said he has taken leadership roles in exploring privatization possibilities for the school system, and in crafting a pay-to-play program that has helped keep high school athletics running during budget cuts.

Morgan touted the school system’s improvement in the past five years, noting increasing test scores and a narrowing of the achievement gap. He said the selection of a new superintendent ranks among the most important things the new board will do, and added that he wants to find someone who will continue building on Gorman’s successes. He noted controversy over some of Gorman’s initiatives, such as performance pay, new tests, teacher layoffs and school closings. He said he hopes to improve communication between the system and its stakeholders.

He said many of the candidates filing to run for school board have been motivated by their opposition to such moves, and added that he looks forward to debating those issues with them.
“None of those decisions were popular, but they have been necessary,” he said. “I stand by those decisions.” Filing for the seats opens tomorrow, and runs through July 15. Other candidates who’ve declared so far include:

  • Larry Bumgarner, an internet activist who has also made two unsuccessful runs for school board.

  • Elyse Dashew, co-founder of the MeckFUTURE parents’ group that campaigned for additional money for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools this spring.

  • Keith Hurley, a local mortgage banker and dad who has chided local public officials for wasting money.

  • Mary McCray, who former president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators.

  • DeShauna McLamb, a parent who has expressed concern about the closings of schools on Charlotte’s west side.

  • Hans Plotseneder, a West Mecklenburg High teacher who has made two unsuccessful runs for school board previously.

Gorman to CMS staff: Thanks for everything

Superintendent Peter Gorman isn't making speeches or doing interviews, but he sent a farewell message to employees this afternoon, as he closes out his five years leading Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Here it is:

From: Peter C. Gorman

Sent: Thursday, June 30, 2011 1:20 PM

To: cmsmailall

Subject: Thank you and good-bye

Dear CMS employees,

Today is the last day I will lead CMS as superintendent. Hugh Hattabaugh begins as interim superintendent tomorrow and I will assist him in the transition and finish a few final projects between now and Aug. 1, when my employment with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools officially ends.

Each and every one of you has been part of the successes we have achieved. Those successes have been substantial. We have narrowed the achievement gap. We have raised achievement levels. We have nearly doubled the number of high-achieving schools. We have built a robust accountability structure. We decentralized CMS to make it more accessible to the community. We have turned around some of our lowest-performing schools with Strategic Staffing. We have brought substantial private investment – in money and in time – to CMS that has allowed us to broaden and enrich our curriculum and our initiatives. We have weathered the worst economic climate since the Great Depression. We had a successful bond request that allowed us to build some much-needed new schools. We have also closed some schools.

This is a very special district. CMS is blessed with so many assets – great teachers, skilled staff, a broad range of expertise in every area and a community that cares very much about its schools. Most important, it has you, the employees who come to work every day prepared to help our students learn and grow and succeed.

All of this has strengthened CMS and helped our students. None of it would have been possible without you. Thank you for the hard work, the trust you put in me as your superintendent and your willingness to persevere in good times and in bad. We’ve certainly had both.

I wish you all the best as you continue to make CMS the most innovative, effective public school district in the country. Thank you for everything you do.


Peter C. Gorman
Government Center
600 East 4th Street
Charlotte, NC 28202

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tim Morgan planning to announce on Thursday

Tim Morgan, elected two years ago to serve the south suburbs from District 6 on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, sent out a press release this afternoon saying he's got "an announcement" to make on Thursday at 4 p.m. "concerning the upcoming school board race in November."

Morgan, who has been mulling a run for one of the three at-large seats on the school board, will surprise a lot of folks if that's not what he's announcing Thursday. The press release says the announcement will be made at the west end of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government center, on the steps facing the parking deck and the uptown basketball arena.
With the official filing window about to open on July 1, it'll be interesting to how many others jump into the race.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Keith Hurley is latest to join CMS board race

Keith Hurley, a mortgage lender and CMS dad who comes from a family of educators,  says he's joining the race for an at-large seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

Hurley,  an unaffiliated voter,  has never run for office.  He got a taste of activism last summer,  when he noticed the grass growing out of control at Beverly Woods Elementary,  where his three kids go to school.  He called public officials and the media,  but also organized parents to help spruce up the grounds.

He writes frequent letters to the Observer forum,  most taking city and county officials to task for wasting money.  But when he talks about CMS, it's not budget-cutting but stability he focuses on.  Teachers,  parents and the rest of the community are weary of constant flux,  he says.  As the board begins a superintendent search,  he hopes members will "look internally,  hard,  for someone who's not going to run every four or five years."  He says departing Superintendent Peter Gorman did some things well,  but "I truly believe he checked out eight, 10, 12 months ago."

Hurley says he's "a firm believer in the neighborhood schools" with magnets as an alternative, thinks closing schools was a mistake and hasn't made his mind up about teacher performance pay. Although his background is in banking, his parents, brother and sister are teachers and he says he hopes to revive teacher morale.

Hurley,  45,  works for BB&T,  runs,  coaches youth sports and volunteers.  He jokes that a countywide campaign will be "the triathlon I've never done,"  but believes he can make it all work:  "I juggle things a lot." 

Filing starts Friday and runs through July 15. We're posting campaign web links in the rail to the right of this blog as we get them, and check blog archives for reports on other candidates who have announced so far.

For the next stretch of this summer, Eric Frazier will be taking over as your correspondent while I delve into some project reporting. I promise that's not a euphemism for "fired," "in rehab" or "Peter Gorman's taking me with him to News Corp." It's just a long-awaited chance to break off from the daily grind and go a little deeper. We'll see how long it takes me to start twitching when I don't have daily blogs or bylines.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Five more school days or waiver?

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members say they're not ready to decide whether to add five student days to the 2011-12 calendar,  as required by the recently-passed state budget bill,  or seek a waiver.  But members reached this week say they're leaning toward the extra days.  Joe White,  Rhonda Lennon and Joyce Waddell all said they think students will benefit more from the extra class time than from the teacher work days that will be bumped.

"I'm just wondering how it's going to be paid for, but I think it's good. I think we need more time,"  Waddell said.

Some teachers say the last-minute calendar switch,  which provides no extra pay for the extra time with students,  feels like one more wallop in a bruising year.  CMS had already decided to add 45 minutes to elementary students' days, which is bound to squeeze teacher planning time.

The N.C. Board of Education met today to set a waiver process.  It's a pressing question in Wake County,  where year-round schools start their 2011-12 year July 11.  Wake's superintendent is seeking a waiver for the coming year.

CMS board Chair Eric Davis said Charlotte has more breathing room with the standard Aug. 25 opening day.  The calendar question won't be on Tuesday's agenda,  he said;  CMS staff is studying options.  Under the process approved today,  CMS has until July 28 to argue that some or all of the days would be better used for teachers' professional development.

Davis,  who's had a tough year himself and now faces a superintendent search,  sounded frustrated at fielding complaints about a change made in Raleigh.  The CMS board had asked state legislators to relax the school-calendar law that mandates when most schools open and dismiss for summer.  Instead of flexibility,  the district got a mandate that could force unpopular changes long after the 2011-12 calendar was approved.

"Late decisions being made,  decisions being made in a one-size-fits-all approach,  decisions being made far removed from the local schools,  that's the systemic issue," he said.

A community of watchdogs

Light a candle; June 25 marks the first birthday of the Your Schools blog.  The past year has blown away my expectations.

I thought a blog would be a chance to give the most education-oriented readers more information than we can squeeze into print, and it has done that.  We've topped 325,000 page views so far.

What I didn't anticipate was the community of readers that has developed.  Based on the flaming and ranting that takes place on stories,  I had a pretty bleak view of online comments, especially the anonymous kind.

Somehow, this forum turned out to be different.  CMS teachers and other employees who felt voiceless during one of the most harrowing years in memory offered tips,  views and insights.  Readers posted links and data to bolster their opinions. The decision-makers have been reading.

Our best-read post was on Jan. 11,  when Superintendent Peter Gorman rolled out a preview of the 2011-12 budget,  complete with plans for 1,500 job cuts.  The staff handed budget documents to reporters just before the gavel banged,  and I started posting live.

I quickly learned that CMS had emailed the same documents to all employees at about the same time -- and that employees had key information that had been omitted from press copies.  As I swapped questions and comments with readers,  the missing material landed in my inbox,  sent by teachers who were following the dialog.  Our online staff quickly got it posted for other readers -- all of this in the midst of a crucial school board meeting.

When I finally caught my breath it hit me:  This really is a new era of reporting.  Having so many new voices in the mix can be exhausting,  but it's exhilarating.   Sometimes it's like having a staff of research assistants -- among the great tips from blog readers was the heads-up that CMS was working on 52 new tests as part of performance pay.  Sometimes it's like having a panel of extra editors -- y'all do not hesitate to say what you think.  Most important:  There's a whole pack of watchdogs empowered to watch public leaders and reporters.  That's a good thing.

The milestone is particularly rich for me because this week also marks the 30th anniversary of the day I reported to work as a reporter for The Macon (Ga.) Telegraph.  No internet, no faxes, no cell phones -- we did have word-processing computers, but they were new and buggy enough that the older reporters viewed them with suspicion.  The ensuing decades have brought a lot of surprises, some of them unpleasant.  But I'm glad to be around for this.  Thanks to all of you for being part of it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Diane Ravitch: Bold crusader or self-promoter?

At meetings of parents and teachers opposed to CMS' testing and performance pay efforts this spring,  Diane Ravitch's name came up often.  The researcher,  writer and former U.S. assistant secretary of education has emerged as the country's most vocal opponent of the reform course being charted by the likes of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan,  former Washington, D.C.,  schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and philanthropists Bill Gates and Eli Broad.  She's viewed by many as the strongest voice standing up to an anti-teacher agenda.

Lots of local folks -- me included -- have been intrigued by her recent book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System."  For those who want to know more about the person, Washington City Paper has an in-depth profile looking at her rise to fame, her lifelong tension between conservatism and liberalism,  and the charges that she's pushing a "philosophy of resentment" that bolsters the status quo.

As reporter Dana Goldstein notes,  it's an interesting time when a 72-year-old education wonk not only appears on Jon Stewart's Daily Show but tweets so much she has inspired a parody Twitter feed.

Raleigh students put CMS history online

Two Raleigh home-schoolers won a national prize for their web site on the history of desegregation in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Molly Fox and Michaela Burns took a silver medal in the National History Day competition at the University of Maryland last week for their site, titled "But Mama, There's A School Next Door!" It's an interesting primer for those of us who weren't around for the Swann vs. CMS case (and since it was filed in 1965 and settled with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1971, that's most of us).

I saw some interesting charts, documents and interviews. But every time I clicked on "conclusion," I got a blank page with a series of dots that seem to signal "wait, it's coming." No doubt that's just a computer glitch. But with so much unresolved when it comes to race and public education, it looks like a stroke of symbolic genius.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

McCray jumps into CMS board race

For most of Superintendent Peter Gorman's tenure, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher Mary McCray has been a public voice for her colleagues.  Now she wants to be part of the board that hires his replacement.

In her five years as president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, McCray was sometimes supportive and sometimes critical of Gorman and the board.  Most recently, she raised questions about their performance-pay plan and opposed the CMS-backed legislation that would let the school board launch such a plan without teacher approval.

"I know we're going to have to have pay for performance,"  McCray said Wednesday, noting that it's part of North Carolina's Race to the Top plan for federal money.  But she said she wants CMS to slow down and get its approach in sync with what the rest of the state is doing, instead of rushing to launch new tests and push the plan when money is tight.  "If there is no money for it, I don't know how we're going to do it."

McCray said she has just stepped down from the CMAE post and retired as a teacher after 24 years with CMS and 10 with Union County.  (To address a question that pops up occasionally:  When McCray worked for CMAE full time, she remained on the CMS roster to allow her eventual return but the teachers group paid her salary.)

She says she wants to hire a superintendent with education experience, and wants to help the board do a better job of listening to the community and earning the trust of CMS' 18,000-plus employees.  "Trust and morale is at an all-time low,"  she said.

McCray, 58, is a registered Democrat making her first bid for public office.  Filing begins July 1 for the November election of three at-large board members.  For posts on the race so far, click here and here; also look for candidate web sites and other information in a rail at the right of this blog.

Charlotte's investment in Isaiah

Four years ago, I wrote about Isaiah Scott's quest to go to Morehouse College.  After piling up honors and accomplishments at West Charlotte High, he'd been accepted to the historically black, all-male private school in Atlanta.  But as one of seven children of a divorced dad, he needed money to close the gap between the scholarships he'd won and the $29,000-a-year cost.

Support poured in for the personable, hard-working teen.  Churches, businesses and individuals, including alums of West Charlotte and Morehouse, rallied with financial, personal and spiritual support.  They stuck with him through four years of college, where he continued his record of leadership and success.

Yesterday I visited the newly-minted Morehouse graduate and some of his family (more about that coming in print soon).  Scott couldn't say enough good things about the support he got from the West Charlotte faculty and the community members who helped him through college.

L-R: Esther, Isaiah, Leon (father) and John Scott.
 "It was an overwhelming downpour of support,"  he said.  "It's just a lot of love and a lot of prayer."

While he was at Morehouse, he helped recruit students for Teach For America, a program that sends young teachers into West Charlotte and other high-poverty CMS schools.  He'll soon report to work at American Express in New York City, but he had a few weeks between his May 15 graduation and his start date.

So he tapped his network of Charlotte contacts to help him get an internship with Mayor Anthony Foxx. "There's kind of a 'no sitting around the house' mentality here," he said of his high-achieving family.  Scott didn't get to join Foxx on his trip to the White House earlier this week, but he did help prepare Foxx's notes for his meeting with the president.

Seeing Scott at 22, sharp and confident in his business suit, I couldn't help thinking back to the last conversation we'd had, when he was an 18-year-old humbled by all the support.  "I don't want to come back to Charlotte and it's like, 'Aw, man, I invested in a knucklehead,' " he said then.

No danger of that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Pete Gorman as CMS vendor?

Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which will be CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman's employer come mid-August, has a contract with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools via the recently-acquired Wireless Generation.

Gorman will join former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein in developing the corporation's new education division.  That division is charged with carrying out Murdoch's vision of creating digital learning products that customize education the way consumers now "customize their clothing, their cuisine, their news, and most anything else they want to buy."

Before Gorman signed on, News Corp. bought Wireless Generation, a Brooklyn-based company specializing in technology for testing, curriculum and educational data-gathering.  Since 2008, Wireless has had a contract with CMS to provide the software and platforms used to track pre-reading skills in all CMS elementary schools.  The most recent yearlong renewal, which runs through August, was for $568,173.

Testing and data-gathering became a touchy subject during Gorman's final weeks.  It could be interesting to watch how the digital learning opportunities he and Klein craft mesh with whatever direction the CMS board and new leadership chart. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

The business model of leadership

Reading Sunday's article on CEO pay among North Carolina's biggest companies, I couldn't help thinking about the search that's looming for a new leader of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Across the country, you hear a lot about the desirability of getting a superintendent with a background in private enterprise and/or a businesslike mindset. That's generally considered shorthand for a leader who's bold, responsible with money and not bogged down in bureaucracy and tradition.

But as the article reminded me, captains of industry expect to be well paid -- even when wages are stagnant and jobs are disappearing among the rank and file. My brain boggled looking at the list of seven- and eight-figure totals. The number that stuck with me: "Average total compensation for the CEOs was $93,992 a week."

Departing Superintendent Peter Gorman catches a lot of flak for his $267,000 salary, his $35,000 in extra retirement pay, his $250,000 "personal growth" grant from the Spangler Foundation and his potential 10 percent performance bonus. But next to this crew, Gorman looks like one of those guys holding a "Will Work For Food" sign.

CMS' $2 million time clocks

Back in early May, when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board was pondering budget cuts and we were trying to answer reader questions, Jeff Costa, the testing coordinator at Hopewell High, asked about new fingerprint-scanning time clocks being installed in schools.

"Several of us at Hopewell are curious how much CMS spent on the new time clock system," he wrote. "It has to be an extraordinary amount of money, not to mention how it will slow down productivity."

I forwarded the question to the public information office, and they sent it to the finance department. After many follow-up prods, the answer landed in my inbox last week: The MyTime system, which will track hours and attendance for 6,500 of the district's 18,000-plus employees, cost $2,177,866. About $1.6 million came from county money and the rest from federal lunch subsidies and meal fees. Most of the expense -- about $1.7 million -- landed in the 2009-10 budget and the remaining half-million in the current year.

The CMS memo explains the benefits this way:

MyTime will allow CMS to:
• Control labor costs with a consistent application of work and pay rules

• Minimize compliance risks by enforcing and tracking complex compliance requirements, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)
• Improve workforce productivity by reducing manual administrative tasks
• Eliminate the possibility of keying errors that cause mistakes in employee paychecks

 The system also uses Kronos software: In researching best business practices, CMS found the Kronos Workforce Timekeeper system to be in place by many organizations in the Charlotte area, including the City of Charlotte, Coca Cola Bottling, Family Dollar Stores, Carolinas Medical Center and Lance, Inc. Incorporating this best practice is one more step toward improving business operations and effectiveness.

Costa read the full memo but wasn't swayed.

"You should talk to some people who actually use it. There is no way this improves productivity," he replied. "$2.1 Million when you are laying off hundreds of teachers.. are you kidding me?"

Thursday, June 16, 2011

CMS-TV airs open-mike moment

A bizarre open-mike moment at the school board dais led late-night cable viewers to believe they'd gotten the scoop on the board's choice for interim superintendent.

Not quite. CMS-TV aired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Police Chief Bud Cesena sitting in a school board seat speculating that the board would tap Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh. Cesena, who didn't know the mikes were on and ceiling cameras were running, says the conversation with two other staffers took place half an hour before the 6 p.m. meeting. But it aired after the board spent almost three hours in closed session talking about hiring an interim.

To make the whole thing odder: CMS got rid of CMS-TV this year to save money, leaving only enough in the budget for freelance broadcasting of board meetings. Special meetings like Wednesday's generally aren't broadcast. And this meeting was conducted almost entirely behind closed doors, out of reach of the cameras and mikes. So most of what aired was footage of the meeting chamber with a handful of staff, reporters and visitors milling around.

"For some reason they turned the thing on, and for some reason they ran the loop," Cesena said today.

I haven't been able to get an explanation yet. Cesena says he's "pretty embarrassed" that a candid conversation ended up on TV. "It's a lesson for all of us," he said.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dr. Plots and Bumgarner join CMS race

Hans Plotseneder and Larry Bumgarner announced today they'll continue their quests for a seat on the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board.

Neither has had much luck so far. Plotseneder, a West Mecklenburg High School teacher, came in seventh of seven candidates in the 2007 at-large race and seventh of nine in the 2009 District 3 contest. Bumgarner, an internet activist, finished seventh of 11 in the 2003 at-large contest and third of three in the 2005 District 6 race.

But both promise to prompt some lively discussion of issues -- and Plotseneder insists he expects to muster the money and organization to be a serious contender. He posted his intent to run on his web site in January.

"This time is the real thing. Last time I was naive," said Plotseneder, who says he raised less than $1,000 for his last countywide race. The buzz is that it could take at least $50,000 to claim one of the three seats in November's election. In 2009, he says he knew he was a long shot as a white guy running in a majority-black district, but the run was "for practice and to keep my name out there."

Plotseneder, who campaigns under the nickname Dr. Plots, didn't shy from issues during his announcement today. He said he opposes the 52 year-end exams CMS officials launched this spring for rating teachers, as well as the CMS-backed House bill that would allow the district to launch performance pay without teacher approval. "Teachers are not against being paid for extra performance," he said, but the complex test-based formula known as "value added" is the wrong approach.

A registered Democrat, Plotseneder said he's most in line with current members Joyce Waddell, Richard McElrath, Tom Tate -- and Kaye McGarry, a Republican who's often at ideological odds with the three Democrats but ends up voting with them on some issues. That coalition generally falls one or two votes short of success.

Plotseneder, 67, will have to resign his teaching job if elected. He airs his views during the public comment period of most school board meetings, and was charged with trespassing when he refused to leave a contentious school-closing meeting last fall. Those charges were later dropped.

Bumgarner, who lives in the south suburbs, generally registers his views online, via sites he creates or comments on the Observer's site. He announced his candidacy on one of his sites -- in typically quirky style, illustrating it with a 1970s high school photo of himself.

He acknowledges three failed attempts at public office -- he also entered the 2004 Republican primary for a county commission seat -- and says this time will be different: "This time seeing how all those running are focused on limited agendas and special interest groups he will be doing it that way as it seems that is the way people are elected in Charlotte Mecklenburg." His planks: Breaking up CMS, providing vouchers that can be used for private schools and eliminating salaries for school board members.

Filing for the nonpartisan race is July 1-15. Two of the three incumbents, Trent Merchant and Joe White, say they won't run, and Kaye McGarry hasn't announced her intentions. Elyse Dashew and De Shauna McLamb are the other announced candidates; read the last roundup here.

So far, no one has rolled out the kind of powerhouse campaign that carried board Chair Eric Davis to victory in District 5 two years ago. The coming months will test who can grab the attention of voters across a sprawling county, in an off-year election that traditionally leaves four of five registered voters sitting at home.

Bumgarner and Plotseneder may not take the lead on campaign force, but they do bring a sense of humor along with their strong views. Plotseneder, a native of Austria, knows his accent is reminiscent of a certain scandal-ridden actor/governor; he once dubbed himself "The Gap Terminator" in reference to his plans to eliminate race-based achievement gaps. And in 2008 comments the board about bullying of homosexual students, he proclaimed: "Who knows? Maybe I'm gay myself. I haven't tried it."

Bumgarner gave me a full-out belly laugh when I googled myself and landed on this creatively illustrated post on one of his blogs.

Two Atlanta superintendent finalists have CMS history

The troubled Atlanta school system last night named three finalists for the superintendent's job, and two have a history with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

Cheryl Atkinson, who's currently leading the city school system in Lorain, Ohio, graduated from Garinger High and did a stint in the upper levels of CMS administration from 2003 to 2006. She was recently a finalist for the CEO's job in Cleveland.

Barbara Jenkins, deputy superintendent in Orange County, Fla., spent some time leading human resources for CMS. She's a graduate of the Broad Superintendents Academy, which trains and places leaders in urban districts.

Atlanta is just one of several urban districts seeking a new leader -- a pack CMS officially joins tonight, when the school board meets to start planning to replace Peter Gorman. Anyone can come (6 p.m. at the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.), but you'll probably just end up hanging out with reporters while the board discusses an interim in closed session.

And CMS alumni are making their presence known in the big leadership shuffle. The last three years have seen former Deputy Superintendent Maurice "Mo" Green go to Guilford County; former Chief Academic Officer Ruth Perez take over a suburban Los Angeles district; and Chief Accountability Officer Jonathan Raymond named superintendent in Sacramento, Calif.. Most recently, Raymond's successor, Robert Avossa, was hired to lead Fulton County Schools just outside Atlanta.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Gorman looking forward to anonymity

When he announced his resignation from the head of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Peter Gorman's staff said he would have nothing else to say to the press. Which left us with questions, frankly, since he's still on the public payroll as superintendent till Aug. 15. (OK, we always have questions). He might not be talking to us anymore, but he did answer questions this morning at a meeting of the Small Business Professionals of Charlotte.

According to tweets from people at the meeting, Gorman had plenty to say about his five-year tenure with CMS, and also answered questions. Joseph Margolis, a freelance copywriter, said he was among about 25-30 people present. He sent out a tweet quoting Gorman as telling the crowd: "I'm at a unique phase in my career. Ask me anything!"

According to the folks tweeting, these were some of the highlights of Gorman's talk:

  • He is "looking forward to anonymity."
  • He will not be involved in finding his replacement.
  • There have been 200 principal changes in five years.
  • Thomasboro Elementary is the most expensive school to educate kids; Ballantyne elementary is the least expensive.
  • Our great teachers don't like poor teachers, want room to do their job well and get good compensation.
  • CMS will pay the price for the severe cuts we've had to do, especially in high schools.
  • As long as we cluster poverty in particular schools, we're going to have challenges.
Since he hasn't made himself available to the press, I tweeted some of the attendees and asked them to ask him what his role will be. Since he's in office two more months, it doesn't seem unreasonable to wonder what he'll be doing until he leaves for his new job with Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. Is he superintendent in name only for the next two months? Do all these reforms he's been pushing come to a screeching halt? It all might become clearer tomorrow, when the school board meets at 6 p.m. to begin mapping out the search for his replacement.

Margolis says attendees did ask him my question about his role for the next two months. Gorman's answer: he's going to be the superintendent as long as the board has him, and until the day he leaves. Which doesn't exactly clarify my question. But apparently Gorman isn't planning to clear it up -- at least not to the press, anyway. Margolis tells me the superintendent reiterated at the meeting that he isn't making any further comments to the media.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Summer reading assignments: Boon or burden?

Jeri Ramsey, a parent at Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Sharon Elementary, poses an interesting question:  Do schools have a right to make assignments over the summer?

Ramsey says no.  What set her off was a PTA notice saying next year's fifth-graders should read two novels related to the social studies curriculum, "A Long Way from Chicago" and "George Washington's Socks," and have two-paragraph summaries ready to hand in when school starts Aug. 25.  Students will take part in class discussion and be given a comprehension test the first week of school, the notice says.

In an email to Principal Cathy Phelan and copied to the Observer, Ramsey says she certainly doesn't object to kids reading, or even to schools recommending books.  But this crosses a line, she wrote.

"Summer is a time for the families.  It is not a time for schools to force specific assignments on children," Ramsey wrote.  "Feel free to give a reading list of suggested reading materials, feel free to give a list of writing activities, feel free to give a list of math activities.  Let families choose what they do or don't do.  You are over stepping your bounds when you start telling parents what students must do on their free time.  Do you want children to hate learning?  That is what you are instilling."

Phelan backed her teachers' assignment:  "I can assure you that the fifth grade team of highly qualified educators have stayed abreast of current professional development.  Therefore, they do not arbitrarily assign work to the students that will not enrich or improve their skills,"  she replied.  "They greatly care for the academic and social growth of all of the children.  They would not develop a summer assignment that would hurt the students.  Students that truly enjoy reading will continue to find the value in all of the novels that they read.  Students that normally are not interested in reading will acquire content from the book that will be useful to them during the school year.  This is the second year that the 5th grade team has implemented the summer assignment.  The assignment proved to be very beneficial this school year to all of the children."

But Ramsey suspects the assignments are a thinly-veiled form of mandatory test prep, tied to the new social studies exams CMS rolled out this spring in an effort to create data that will help kids and rate teachers.  She notes that CMS will add 45 minutes to the elementary school day in 2011-12 and suggests schools use that time for additional reading.

"So now it is the parents job to teach to the test?"  Ramsey wrote.  "Last year you started using Value Added measures with the established EOGs and you knew the Social Studies Summative would be this year.  That is when it was decided to begin this new summer assignment.  It is all a way to teach to the test, improve Social Studies vocabulary and knowledge.  It is not bad to strengthen Social Studies vocabulary and knowledge, just do it in the time designated by the state as instructional days."

Chief Academic Officer Ann Clark, who hadn't seen the exchange, said last week that summer reading assignments are common, and parent complaints rare.  "A lot of parents ask for it,"  she said. "We get requests for summer reading lists."

Friday, June 10, 2011

On Coach, Trent, Eric, Pete and Rupert

It's a wrap-up at the end of a crazy week. Just think -- at noon Wednesday, it looked like the announcement that Trent Merchant wouldn't seek re-election was going to be the week's big talker.

Politics and personalities aside, the departure of Merchant and Coach Joe White from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board will be a tragedy of epic proportions for local reporters. Let's face it, the former actor and the retired coach are quote factories. Both have strong views and delight in using plain, vigorous language. Sometimes they come up with the perfect metaphor to capture the essence of complex issues (if it's from Coach, you know that metaphor will involve sports). Sometimes they leave listeners with jaws dropped and heads shaking. Either way, they make covering education more fun.

Board Chair Eric Davis is a good bit more buttoned down. So I was delighted to hear him pull off a good one-liner when several of us talked about Superintendent Peter Gorman's departure on Charlotte Talks on Thursday:  "We burn out good superintendents faster than we can burn a song on a CD."

And speaking of burnout, the superintendent who launched weekly media briefings and was widely lauded for his skill with the media left a lot of questions hanging with his abrupt resignation Wednesday, followed by departure for a pre-scheduled vacation. But spokeswoman LaTarzja Henry said today he left one very clear instruction: He will do no more interviews before his mid-August departure.

Finally, when it comes to lively speech, it's hard to beat Gorman's new boss, Rupert Murdoch. If you've got a little weekend time to kill, it's worth reading Murdoch's recent speech to G-8 leaders explaining his vision for the new education division that Gorman will help him launch. It's long but fascinating, and gives the clearest idea I've gotten yet of what enticed Gorman to make the leap (besides money, which I assume is pretty darn good).

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Two of three CMS board seats will change hands

Updated 6:15 Wednesday to correct some garbled paragraphs: So this is a strange twist. When De Shauna McLamb announced her candidacy in March, I checked in with the three incumbents about their plans. Kaye McGarry said she hadn't decided. Joe White had been very clear about not running again. And Trent Merchant said he probably should play coy, but yes, he planned to run again.

I was vague about that in yesterday's post because I'd been hearing folks say Trent was not running. I couldn't reach him before posting, but in an email sent last night, he says he basically blurted out a lie when I asked:

"I am not running for re-election this fall," Merchant wrote.

"I made my decision in November 2009. I informed Dr. Gorman in August 2010, Eric Davis in November 2010 - and have been telling others in recent weeks."

"In the early Spring of this year, at the end of a lengthy conversation on another topic, you asked me in passing if I was running and I blurted out a quick 'yes.' I wish that I had said something more cagey and politician-sounding, but that has never been my strong suit - and I was not ready to make my decision public until I had the chance to inform certain people privately."

"I will have served on the Board of Education for over 5 years at the end of my term, and it has been an honor to serve the people of Mecklenburg County. I thank them for the opportunity, and will be eternally grateful. My family, friends, and work colleagues have been incredibly supportive during the past 5 years; now it is time for me to devote more attention to them."

So now it's at least two of the three at-large members who will be new. McGarry sends this: "At this moment, I have not made a final decision. I am still reflecting on the accomplishments during my 2 terms (2003-present) serving all the children and families in Mecklenburg County, and am considering the upcoming challenges and how my experience and dedication might continue to serve public education should I decide to run for a third term."

With all the furor over school closings, teacher layoffs and a barrage of new testing, the prospect of a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board election this fall has almost gotten lost.

Elyse Dashew, a parent leader at Smith Language Academy and a founder of MeckFUTURE, kicks off her campaign this week, and filing takes place the first two weeks of July. That means we should start getting a glimpse of what the race for three at-large seats will look like (the six district posts aren't up until 2013).

Elyse Dashew
During the last three years of budget cuts, Dashew has spent a lot of time trying to figure out what all the change will mean for her kids' school. From there she started looking at the bigger picture and getting to know families from various schools. MeckFUTURE, launched in March, mobilized folks from about 40 of CMS' 178 schools to lobby county officials for money to avert the massive layoffs projected for 2011-12.

Amidst all the turmoil, she says, there's a common thread: People really care about CMS. "There's so much energy around education," she said Tuesday. "A lot of times its expressed as frustration or anger or anxiety."

So far, Dashew's themes are pretty broad: She wants to get people constructively engaged and help the board work together. She's a first-time candidate and an unaffiliated voter, something she thinks would be a plus on a board that's ostensibly nonpartisan (the current makeup is four Democrats, three Republicans and two unaffiliated).

Dashew joins De Shauna McLamb, a CMS parent and NAACP member who announced her candidacy in March, and Hans Plotseneder, a West Meck teacher who has run twice before and plans to make a formal announcement of this year's candidacy soon. Tim Morgan, elected to represent south suburban District 6 two years ago, is mulling a bid for a countywide seat. At least one newcomer will take a seat, with Joe White stepping down at the end of this term.

It's a sign of the times that Dashew scheduled her formal announcement for Thursday but "soft-launched" via Facebook and Twitter last week. I returned from vacation and saw that a fan had tweeted her campaign web site.

Another sign of the times: We'll be relying more than ever on the web to get details of the school board campaign to the folks who care while making the best use of limited print space. During the 2009 campaign, I was frustrated at how little space we were able to dedicate to each of the 19 candidates. Since then we've launched this blog, which has opened faster and better ways to connect with the readers who care most about education. Keep me and Eric posted on what you're hearing and what you'd like to see to make informed choices.