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Can joy help boost test scores? Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders say yes

Children get ready to enter Renaissance West STEAM Academy on the first day of school Aug. 28.
Ann Doss Helms
Children get ready to enter Renaissance West STEAM Academy on the first day of school Aug. 28.

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.

This is a strange time of year for North Carolina educators and the people who care about what they do. The fresh-faced optimism of kids starting a new school year veers immediately into an analysis of data on how students performed on exams the previous year.

While the numbers sometimes bring cause for celebration, even the top performers must confront the fact that they haven’t closed gaps that leave Black and Hispanic students far less likely to pass exams than their white and Asian counterparts. For low-income, disabled and English learner students the numbers tend to be bleak as well.

In the worst case, this can lead to shame and stigma, a punitive approach to low performers and classroom strategies that rely heavily on test preparation. This is why it was interesting to hear leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools talking about … joy.

“We did a lot with instruction, but that’s really not why we got results this past year,” said West Charlotte High Principal Orlando Robinson. “I’m proud that in one year we went from ‘did not meet growth’ to ‘exceeds growth,’ but we did that really around the word joy. We focused on bringing joy back to West Charlotte.”

Robinson said that included making it joyful for students to attend, for staff to come to work and for parents and community groups to be part of the community. “We brought back programs that were once popular at West Charlotte. Last year we brought back theater and we brought back drama,” he said.

Sharone Harris, principal of Selwyn Elementary, talked about creating sensory pathways and a “B3 lab,” for brain, body and behavior, so students can get up and move around instead of being frustrated while trying to sit still. She says that helped her move Selwyn from a “B” school, where kids did fairly well on exams but weren’t making enough progress, to an “A” school that exceeded growth goals.

Chief strategy officer Beth Thompson said over the next three years the entire district will be trained in Capturing Kids’ Hearts, a program created by Flip Flippen of Texas. “It’s focused on student and staff well-being, positive culture and connectedness,” she said.

I can practically hear the traditionalists howl. Why are schools focusing on feelings and soft skills when so many kids aren’t mastering reading, math and science? The answer, of course, is that it’s both/and, not either/or. Teachers will still learn better strategies to teach reading. District officials and school administrators will still crunch data to see who needs help with which skills. But at a time when mental health challenges and chronic absences stand in the way of success for students and educators, making schools a joyful, welcoming place can’t be a bad idea.

Slide of scores
A slide from the CMS presentation on test scores.

The CMS/Wake rivalry reemerges, and Union County looks good

The CMS presentation on test scores included slides comparing the state’s four largest districts. On every measure, Wake County Public Schools, North Carolina’s biggest district, outperformed CMS, which is second. On overall proficiency, Wake hit 63% to CMS’ 52%.

But you can’t compare performance without taking demographics into account. For instance: Black students in CMS and Wake logged identical proficiency rates, at 39%. But Black students made up 36% of CMS enrollment and 22% of Wake enrollment last year. White students in CMS outperformed Wake’s white students, 81% to 79%. But they accounted for 43% of Wake’s enrollment and 24% in CMS. Economically disadvantaged students were essentially tied, at just over 37% proficiency in both districts. And while school poverty calculations have gotten hard to nail down, CMS has higher poverty than Wake by any measure.

On the other hand, Union County Public Schools’ celebration of having the second-highest overall proficiency rate (69%, with Chapel Hill-Carrboro at No. 1 with 71%) isn’t just an artifact of being a low-poverty suburban district.

On same-group comparisons Union County consistently outperformed state averages by large margins:

  • 93% for Asian students (12 points higher than the state average).
  • 77% for white students (10 points higher).
  • 52% for Hispanic students (10 points higher).
  • 48% for Black students (11 points higher).
  • 48% for economically disadvantaged students (eight points higher).
  • 31% for English learners (seven points higher).
  • And 26% for students with disabilities (seven points higher).

Union topped Wake in each of those categories, and CMS in all but white students.
So what’s up? I haven’t done a deep dive, but Union County Superintendent Andrew Houlihan had a piece in EducationNC Friday on the district’s approach to literacy.

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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.