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CMS board keeps piling on tough tasks. The latest: Student assignment

 Students in between classes at Ardrey Kell High School.
Ann Doss Helms
Students in between classes at Ardrey Kell High School.

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

Say what you will about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, but it’s hard to argue they’re lazy or timid.

They’ve committed to a schedule of reviewing data on academic goals, which means calling attention to the district’s biggest weaknesses twice a month. They’re eyeball deep in superintendent candidate interviews that took hours last week. And they’re trying to persuade county commissioners and Mecklenburg County voters to approve a record-smashing total for school bonds. Also, it’s an election year for the three at-large seats.

Given all that, I suspected the board was going to tick the “completed” box on the student assignment review that’s required by board policy every six years. For the past several months they’ve been slapping the “comprehensive review” label on a variety of tasks related to student assignment, from drawing south county boundaries to preparing a list of bond projects.

But no. Last week the board acknowledged it’s not just members of the public who are confused by what they’re trying to do and when they’ll do it. The board itself, made up of five newcomers and four veterans, couldn’t quite figure out what they’re trying to review and what “comprehensive” means. And instead of ducking the issue, they’ve committed to collecting data and diving in — which means more work, and a longer timeline for the board.

Nothing fuels this community’s loftiest hopes and deepest fears like talking about school segregation, neighborhood schools, busing and magnet programs. And by the way, check out The Ledger story by Tony Mecia on how tense things get when you openly acknowledge that these decisions affect property values. He’s not kidding; I was at the South Meck meeting where a speaker was booed for bringing that up.

This comprehensive student assignment review will provide a test of how the new board works as a team … and how the new superintendent negotiates explosive topics.

About those southern boundaries …

Several people have asked if last week’s decisions to pull back and take a bigger look at assignment questions means the board will put the subset of south boundary decisions on hold … again. After more than a year of working on them, the board is scheduled to vote on June 6.

I spoke with the three at-large board members Friday to ask about this. None of them thinks a delay on the southern boundaries is in the works.

“After an extraordinarily long process, we are very close to the finish line,” Chair Elyse Dashew texted.

Lenora Shipp and Jennifer De La Jara added the same qualifier I’ve been giving people: There was no indication last week that anyone wants to delay that decision. But because it wasn’t addressed specifically, it’s impossible to say for sure that a consensus won’t emerge to push things back. For now, though, the best answer is that a delay is unlikely.

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Keep finalists secret? Not everyone does that

The CMS board is expected to hold closed-door interviews with one to three superintendent finalists this week, likely in a location where they can avoid anyone seeing who shows up. CMS representatives have noted that North Carolina law doesn’t allow disclosure of personnel information, including job applications. That’s true — but it’s possible to tell applicants that if they reach the final stage, they must agree to meet the public. The board’s search firm, BWP & Associates, advised CMS not to go that route, saying it deters the best candidates and seldom happens anymore.

A longtime CMS employee tweeted a series of links that puts that into question. Districts doing recent/active searches where applicants are identified and/or finalists meet the public include Brevard County, Fla.; Broward County, Fla.; Collier County, Fla.; Cleveland, Ohio; Lakewood, Wash.; Kalamazoo, Mich.; Bowling Green, Ky.; and Prairie Grove, Ark.

And yes, it can get messy. The search firm for the Memphis-Shelby County school board in Tennessee proposed three finalists, whose names were made public, but the board asked to see all 34 applicants, saying they “had some concerns” with the three.

None of these districts has exactly the same circumstance as CMS, but it highlights a point made by citizens in Columbus, Ohio, which is taking the confidential route: This is a choice. Own it.

High school in three years? It’s probably coming

Every school board in North Carolina can expect to spend the coming months figuring out what a torrent of education-related legislation will mean for them. Last week, Republican leaders made a big push for a “students over systems” approach that includes removing income caps on the state’s private-school voucher program and requiring school districts to create three-year graduation tracks. That last part means most districts in the Charlotte area will have to scale back on the number of credits required to get a diploma.

The appeal of multiple graduation paths is obvious. Many high schools located on community college or university campuses had already created a five-year option for students who want to stick around an extra year while building up tuition-free college credits. The four-year track is great for college and career-bound students, especially as high schools develop courses and apprenticeships that can lead to high-paying jobs.

And a three-year option seems sensible for students who want to get all the basic skills under their belt and move quickly into jobs or the military. No one benefits from requiring teens who are mentally checked out to stick around. But as some have noted, this approach only helps those students if families and/or schools make sure they have a post-graduation plan that doesn’t involve just hanging out at home.

It’s also understandable why some educators and local elected officials are wary, even angry, about moves that potentially destabilize public schools by siphoning off money and/or enrollment. State GOP leaders talk about families being the ultimate source of accountability, but we continue to require public educators to take all comers and be graded on the results. And the systems in question happen to be the ones that allow local public schools to offer many families and students their best shot at success.

By the way, I got a lot of good feedback about last Monday’s Charlotte Talks on education, especially the part where WRAL’s Laura Leslie helped make sense of all the Raleigh action. I’ve already talked to the producers about doing this again when the session ends, as we all scramble to figure out what laws passed and what it means for schools, families and educators.

North Carolina Board of Education comes to Charlotte

The state Board of Education will hold a two-day planning retreat and its regular business meeting at UNC Charlotte this week. Tuesday’s agenda includes a review of goals through 2027 and the ongoing efforts to help students rebuild after pandemic setbacks. On Wednesday the board will get updates on school safety, revamping school performance grades and how UNC Charlotte’s College of Education works with area school districts. Thursday will be the regular business meeting. All sessions are open to the public and take place at the Cone University Center; check agendas here.

A hat tip to McClintock Middle School

McClintock Middle, a CMS STEAM magnet school in east Charlotte, was among 24 schools across the country recently named Top Magnet Schools of Excellence by Magnet Schools of America. The awards are based on “high academic standards, school diversity, specialized curricula and instruction, family engagement, and community partnerships.”

STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and math. It builds on the STEM acronym that got trendy several years ago. While I filed a story about Eastside STREAM Academy last week, my editor reasonably asked if that was a typo. Nope. That’s all of the above plus reading (some other STREAM schools across the country add robotics or research). I figure it’s only a matter of time until someone adds social studies and touts a "STREAMSS" school.

Education Education
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.