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Are CMS Learning Communities improving education?


Two years ago, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools carved the district up into six mini-districts. They're called Learning Communities and they were touted as the answer to critics who wanted to deconsolidate CMS. Now that they're in their third year, WFAE's Simone Orendain took a closer look to see if they're working. Say you have a problem with what's being taught to your child. Or you want to appeal punishment. You don't have to go uptown and deal with the central office. You just have to go to your very own learning community to take care of these and other matters. But do CMS parents know what they are? I pounded the pavement in uptown Charlotte to find out. I found four parents whose kids go to CMS. None of them had ever heard of a learning community. This doesn't surprise Joel Ritchie. He heads the Central Learning Community and is the chief architect of the district's six learning communities. There's also a seventh area called the Achievement Zone. He says, "Many parents still don't know to access us because they can still solve problems at the building level. They don't really need to go to the next level. They don't really know we're here as much as the building does." So, is there really a need for these offices? Scott Muri says yes. "In education we refer to the central office as the ivory tower and those people down in that place who don't understand what we do," says Muri, the area superintendent of the Northeast Learning Community. "In our case, the Learning Community, we are part of the community. We do understand what happens in the schools because we are in the schools." He says his staff spends most of its time visiting schools. Muri makes the rounds weekly and his first stop on this Friday before the start of the year, is Cochrane Middle. It's a high poverty, struggling school. He explains, "So I really need a strong principal to come in and make great things happen." His answer was Valerie Williams. They tour the school and discuss who'll be teaching and other last minute needs. Each of the six learning communities is a geographical region of the county made up of 25-30 schools. They're headed by area superintendents who meet with Superintendent Peter Gorman weekly. Each office funds eight positions. Another two or three come from the central office. Learning communities are intended to be a resource for schools as much as for parents. Schools rely on them for hiring issues, maintenance issues, teacher training and many other needs. Ritchie says the new structure gets rave reviews from principals. But the jury's still out on what parents think Carol Sawyer is with Mecklenburg ACTS, a group that advocates student equity. She has one daughter at CMS. Sawyer went to her learning community open house two years ago and hasn't had a reason to return. Sawyer says, "I don't think there's any evidence nor were they intended to raise student achievement. I don't think most families have any contact with learning communities and I think they're very expensive." The initial cost to carve out the areas was close to $9 million. Today, they cost about $5.3 million. Two years ago, the learning communities were envisioned to be "customer friendly." Central Area Superintendent Ritchie says they're on the way to fulfilling that promise. Plus, he says area superintendents recommendation placement or dismissal of school leaders. "In a district that has 177 schools, it's hard to be personal. So how do you solve that? That's the reason we have area superintendents and executive directors," he says. Area superintendents salaries range from $133,000 to $155,000. That's a waste, according to board member Larry Gauvreau. Four years ago, he was a loud voice in the call to break apart CMS. He says, "Instead they got what Pete Gorman's vision and the board's vision of decentralization, which is nothing more than a whitewash." Gauvreau says the high level executives at the learning communities are good and well-qualified. "But the point is we don't need these layers within Charlotte-Mecklenburg. We need to be reducing the layers between a principal, Dr. Gorman or whoever is the superintendent at the time," says Gauvreau. The Central Learning Community's Joel Ritchie says over time more decision making will be given to local offices. He says if learning communities are not responsive, then "they need to get rid of us."