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CMS takes small steps toward modest math goals

 Eighteen students who had made big gains on Math I exams first semester were recognized at last week's CMS board meeting.
Courtesy Elyse Dashew
Eighteen students who had made big gains on Math I exams first semester were recognized at last week's CMS board meeting.

This article originally appeared in Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

Last week the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board zeroed in on one of the toughest tasks ahead: Helping more students thrive in high school math.

When the school board identified its biggest academic challenges in 2021, high school Math I scores were among them. Math I is the foundation for all other math classes, and that means it’s crucial for getting into college or high-tech careers. But in 2021 only 4.5% of CMS high school students earned college-ready scores. That doesn’t mean 95.5% are unready, because the district’s best math students took Math I in middle school and most of them hit the mark. But it’s certainly not good news.

The board’s goal calls for raising that to 25% by 2024. Some argue that’s an embarrassingly modest target, but so far CMS is not on track to meet it.

Tuesday’s report presented results from Math I exams given at the end of this year’s first semester. More than 2,400 students took those tests, and 293 earned scores that qualified as college and career ready.

Stephanie Sneed, who was elected last November, posed this question to interim Superintendent Crystal Hill: “So right now we are at 12% of college and career readiness for our Math 1. And our target is to be at 25% by October 2024. Do you think it’s possible, realistically possible, that we’re going to be able to attain that goal?”

Hill’s answer: Yes.

Most schools are now offering the option of taking Math I as a yearlong class, rather than completing it in one semester. For students who need more support, that means one day of the standard curriculum followed by a day of “just-in-time interventions,” looping back to what students struggled with. Results from those students, as well as classmates taking Math I second semester, will come after spring testing.

The district’s Math I curriculum is relatively new, developed to meet North Carolina’s standards. CMS is offering professional development to help high school teachers use it and to bolster middle school teachers in making sure next year’s ninth-graders are ready.

Hill says she thinks the right strategies are in place. Now it’s a matter of making sure they’re followed: “There are great things happening all over our district. We are just not doing them in concert.”

Celebrating and giving context

While the numbers aren’t much to celebrate, the report notes there have been small gains: This year’s first-semester college-ready rate of 12% compares with 9.3% for the previous year’s first semester and 7.2% for the year before that. And the report notes that 100 of the students who earned college-ready scores after the first semester had a testing history that predicted they would score much lower.

In fact, the discussion began with the recognition of 18 students who showed “tremendous growth” and earned college-ready scores. One by one, the board applauded the students and their principals, teachers and family members.

Hill, who was the chief academic officer in Cabarrus County Schools before coming to CMS in 2022, also offered some context on the bleak numbers. She told the board that districts across the state saw Math I scores plunge after 2019 — and not just because the pandemic disrupted learning. The state also revised its standards and revamped the testing, she said.

“So a lot has changed with the standards, which required a change in curriculum,” Hill said. “And then layered on top of that you have COVID. Layered on top of that you have chronic absenteeism. Layered on top of that you have a shortage of teachers.”

And it’s worth remembering that CMS is using college/career-ready as its benchmark, which requires a higher score than grade-level proficiency. Almost 35% of the students who took first-semester exams were rated at least proficient.

Open your own schools? It’s tougher than it sounds

If you watched that meeting to the very end, you might have caught the end of the great municipal charter school battle — but only if you were paying very close attention. In 20 seconds at the end of an almost three-hour meeting, the CMS board unanimously approved 16 items in one vote. One of those was rescinding the school construction penalty against Mint Hill, one of the suburbs that had the authority to create its own charter schools.

You can get up to speed here on the drama that dragged out for six years, but the short version is: Four Mecklenburg towns won the authority to open their own municipal charter schools, with their local money, that would give preference to students from their towns. CMS officials said they would be subject to penalties like lower priority for CMS school investment unless they renounced that authority. Mint Hill was the last to comply with the district’s terms.

If you’re new to the area, you might wonder why anyone cares about ending construction penalties that CMS essentially never used, which were themselves created in reaction to a charter school authority that suburban towns never used either. If you’ve been around awhile, you know the tensions between CMS and suburban towns run deep and go back decades. Municipal charter schools were just the latest twist in their long-running resistance to CMS. Before that, there were repeated calls to break up the district, which the towns say is too Charlotte-centric. A split would give the towns a bigger voice in smaller districts.

 Mint Hill Town Hall
Town of Mint Hill
Mint Hill Town Hall

One of the things people love to hate about CMS is its size. It’s often cast as a huge, impersonal bureaucracy. Its 18,000-plus employees include thousands who aren’t directly involved in instruction. They run the human resources and payroll systems. They monitor compliance with the tangle of federal, state and local regulations that come with public funding. They crunch the data that’s required for school accountability. They make sure technology works, the grass outside schools is mowed, kids are fed and buses run.

And if you start to look seriously at running a new district, or even just one public school that’s detached from that support system, you discover you’ve got to do all that stuff. It’s costly and it’s difficult.

I think that’s why the whole “split the district” movement has never gained traction. In 2018, the General Assembly created a legislative study committee to look into the pros and cons. The findings were complex, with evidence that could bolster either side of the debate. The conclusion was that North Carolina wasn’t ready to move toward breaking up districts.

Likewise, Mecklenburg’s town officials made it pretty clear from the start that they weren’t eager to take on the duties of a school board. Some of them described municipal charter authority as a way to get leverage in what they considered a lopsided battle with CMS.

None of this is to say that urban/suburban tensions have vanished. If anything, I expect more skirmishes ahead. The first school bond referendum in six years is coming up this fall, and that always fuels competition for construction dollars. Demographics are shifting, with suburban towns retaining white majorities and relatively low poverty levels while the district as a whole serves a growing body of Black, Latino, Asian and economically disadvantaged students.

Nor am I suggesting that folks in the suburbs should stop challenging CMS. An organization that big makes a lot of mistakes. And over the years I’ve seen the district shortchange suburban needs.

I’m just saying that one tempting solution — let’s just run our own schools! — isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Gaston’s celebrity teacher is now suing the district

Five years ago Bobbie Cavnar’s face was on billboards around Gaston County. The high school English teacher had been named national Teacher of the Year, and his home county couldn’t have been prouder — especially the South Point High families (including my own) whose kids had been his students.

He told me at the time that after spending a year traveling the state as North Carolina’s Teacher of the Year, he came back to his teaching job in Belmont without hesitation. “There’s been nothing that’s tempted me away from teaching here,” he said.

 Bobbie Cavnar (left) and other members of the North Carolina Association of Educators protested payroll problems before the Gaston County school board meeting on Sept. 19, 2022.
Ann Doss Helms
Bobbie Cavnar (left) and other members of the North Carolina Association of Educators protested payroll problems before the Gaston County school board meeting on Sept. 19, 2022.

Now Cavnar is suing Gaston County Schools over the district’s massive and ongoing payroll problems. He joins the North Carolina Association of Educators and fellow teacher Elisabeth Haywood in seeking financial damages and an injunction ordering the district to fix the system.

The district’s problems have been in the public eye for months. The lawsuit (read it here) provides 21 pages of additional details about the mess Haywood and Cavnar have gone through, along with reports of state officials’ alarm as they watched the payroll disaster unfold. It quotes a March 8, 2022, email from a Department of Public Instruction official saying “we are at our wit's end … I'm actually starting to get extremely concerned about the validity of your general ledger” and saying that “somewhere we (DPI and Gaston) are missing $20m of expenditures.”

This is the ultimate lose-lose-lose situation. Employees, taxpayers, students and district leaders are all worse off because of these unresolved problems. And this is a pilot of a payroll system that’s supposed to be available statewide — and adopted soon by the Department of Public Instruction — so this has broader implications. It’s hard to imagine anyone in the district doesn’t want the problems fixed, but they’ve repeatedly voiced their inability to get it done. As I wrote last month, the mystery is why no one — public or private, hired or volunteer — has come to the rescue. I guess we’ll see now whether a judge can make a difference.

Why was the CMS book reviewing process skipped?

As I reported last month, CMS quickly removed a high school library book with graphic instructions about sex after the president of the local Moms for Liberty chapter raised a complaint with district officials (as well as alerting the news media and sharing some of the offending illustrations on social media). CMS also pledged to review the bundle of 8,500 books that had been ordered for new libraries at Palisades and West Charlotte libraries, which is where the book in question came from.

The response was speedy, but it also circumvented the challenge process laid out in CMS board policy on library materials. This month the New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to the school board urging them to go back and do it right.

“(R)emoving books without following policy may encourage others to file numerous challenges in the hopes that the superintendent may remove books that would otherwise be retained by a committee,” the letter from Executive Director Christopher Finan says. “The interim superintendent's actions might ultimately lead to the district wasting time adjudicating vast numbers of challenges. Therefore, we urge you to return the books to the shelves and submit them to the standard review process.”

Last week I asked the district’s public information office about that letter and why the process was not followed. The response, from spokesman Eddie Perez: “We are not able to comment at this time.”

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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.