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13 CMS Schools Seek Flexibility Similar to Charters

Ashley Park Elementary is among the schools getting extra resources through the foundation's Project LIFT.
Lisa Worf
Ashley Park is one of 13 schools seeking flexibility from the state under the Restart initiative

Thirteen Charlotte elementary schools are hoping to get some of the same flexibility as charter schools. It could be granted under the state’s Restart initiative, an effort to turn around academically struggling schools. CMS board members signed off on the applications but are divided on its merits.

Several of the 13 schools are Project LIFT schools on the city’s west side. All of the schools have received grades of D or F from the state for two of the past three consecutive years. Project LIFT Superintendent Denise Watts told the board at a meeting last month that under Restart, district officials would give state funds, “Directly to the school in the same way that it does for charter schools.”

That would be a major change because the state tells traditional public schools how to spend those funds—whether on salaries or materials for teachers, principals and other staff. But if the state approves the schools’ Restart applications, school administrators would be able to shift state funds around in ways they feel they need to improve their schools.

CMS officials decided to pursue the Restart program after learning about two low-performing elementary schools in Wake County that tried it out this year. Wake County Assistant Superintendent James Overman says so far the results are promising.

“We’re monitoring overall achievement but teachers have seen increased participation of students and we’ve seen attendance upticks and downticks in terms of discipline,” Overman said.

Overman says they added 10 days to the school year, increased professional development, extended the school day once a week for extracurricular clubs and hired more teachers at one school to reduce class size. They also got flexibility to bring students in for assessments before school started.

“So day one, they could start off with teaching the kids based on where they were identified in terms of their assessments. While the kids were being assessed, they had different workshops for parents,” he said.

And Overman says school officials did not have to cut back in other areas. The extra school days fell within teachers’ contracts and Title I funds were used to pay for extra teachers and stipends for those running the after school program.

In Charlotte, school officials hope to do some of the same things and school officials are also asking for things unique to their individual school’s needs.

For instance, Huntingtowne Farms Elementary, a majority Hispanic school wants to hire a bilingual social worker. School officials say if they are able to decide what resources are needed at their individual schools for students and teachers, academic improvements will follow.

But there are requests that didn’t sit well with some school board members. For example, school leaders want permission to hire unlicensed teachers. That was a main reason Ericka Ellis-Stewart voted against the initiative at last month's board meeting.

“Maybe I’m just old school, but as a parent, I want my kids’ teacher to have a license and it seems to me at schools that are struggling the most, we would want to have that level of standard,” Ellis-Stewart said.

Superintendent Ann Clark says this exemption would be used rarely, in cases such as a teacher comes from another state, or an artist with a track record of working with students wants to be a teacher. Also, Clark says the district’s school performance officer would sign off on unlicensed teacher hires.

But board member Ruby Jones had major concerns about hiring unlicensed teachers.

“Why do that with our most needy, hard to teach students?” Jones asked.

Jones was also concerned that most of the schools requested an end to the state-required evaluations by principals at low-performing schools at the beginning of the year. Many of the schools have lead teachers in classrooms daily who give teachers real-time feedback on instruction by talking to them on headsets during lessons. It’s called Whisper Coaching. Jones isn’t impressed.

“Lowering evaluation requirements and replacing it with a silly and annoying gimmick, whisper coaching, giving real-time comments in a teacher’s ear. How effective is that? It’s all a bunch of gobbly gook,” Jones said.

Board member Eric Davis, who supported the initiative, didn’t see a problem with doing away with the evaluations.

“I think this is exactly the step to take to show our confidence in our principals that are leading the way and will result in better student performance,” Davis said.

The CMS board approved the applications by a vote of 4 to 3, along racial lines. So far, about 45 schools statewide have been approved for Restart and about another 45 applications are pending. State education officials will decide on CMS’ applications in early May.

Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.