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CMS board tries to balance harsh realities and high aspirations as it sets academic goals

A Huntersville Elementary student works on a reading lesson.
Ann Doss Helms
A Huntersville Elementary student works on a reading lesson.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members struggled to balance harsh realities and high aspirations Tuesday as they approved new goals for reading, math and preparedness for college and careers.

They unanimously approved the goals, but no one seemed totally happy.

"To be where we are today, I’m beyond disappointed," said board member Rhonda Cheek.

She was talking about the 2024 goal that calls for 50% of Black and Hispanic third-graders to have reading scores that put them on track for academic success.

That’s below the goal of 65% set in 2018, but higher than the 40% goal Superintendent Earnest Winston proposed earlier this month. Complicating the picture is the fact that only 16% of last year’s Black and Hispanic third-graders hit that mark, during a year where most learning was remote and test scores plunged.

Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes said gaining 34 percentage points in three years is unheard of, but still falls short of where students need to be.

"If we achieved it would it be mission accomplished? No, no, no," he said. "But we feel that we had to aim higher based on the feedback we received and the moral mission that we embraced when we took on these positions."

Board member Ruby Jones said she thinks the goal hits the right balance: "I think it is attainable, but we’ve got to be innovative and strategic."

Goals for math, diplomas

The math goal was even lower: To have 25% of all high school students who take Math I earn scores that put them on track for future success by 2024. Last year only 4.5% hit that mark.

In general, math scores fell even further than reading scores during remote learning. Experts say that's because few families know how to teach math if their kids aren't getting it from distance learning.

The Math I scores also don't include students who take the class in middle school, effectively weeding out the strongest students.

Another goal calls for 75% of CMS graduates in 2024 to go beyond a basic diploma to earn state endorsements. Those endorsements recognize students who take a mix of advanced academic and/or career-tech courses to prepare them for higher education or trades.

Now the hard part comes

Creating the goals took months, but consultant A.J. Crabill said the next steps require them to monitor progress, shift resources and communicate the results.

He tried repeatedly to get Superintendent Earnest Winston to tell the board what kind of changes he'd need to make to meet the 50% reading goal.

Winston offered no specifics, but said "we will begin to see those recommendations come forward as part of our upcoming budget process." He said "great teachers, highly effective teachers" are the key to success, but didn't say more about how he plans to deploy them.

Board member Carol Sawyer noted that CMS has federal COVID-19 aid money to bolster staff, but is stymied by staff shortages.

"I can imagine scenarios where we add teaching assistants and teachers to every school," she said. "We have the money to do that but we don't have people to hire. That terrifies me."

CMS leaders will present their work to county commissioners in a special joint meeting at 6 p.m. Monday. It's a follow-up to the budget talks last spring, when commissioners said they wanted to see better planning and metrics for improvement among minority students and at low-performing schools.

And the CMS board will hold a special meeting at 3 p.m. Tuesday to continue work on the governance plan.

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Updated: December 1, 2021 at 10:37 AM EST
Updated to add information about a new special meeting of the CMS board.
Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.