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CMS Forum Exposes Communications Gap In Plans For K-8 Schools

Tuesday night's contentious forum on school closings in CMS exposed a lot. For one, CMS has a lot of explaining to do. Parents clearly didn't understand the district's reasoning for wanting to close several West Side schools and consolidate them into K-8 grade schools. Many were upset when school board chairman Eric Davis cut off public comments at 8 p.m. as scheduled. A crowd of several hundred began to chant, and two people were arrested. Davis explained his support for the closings Wednesday afternoon during a press conference with Superintendent Peter Gorman. He says the goal is more about achieving academic gains than saving money. "What we're striving to do now is to further that progress. Reach more students, more schools and do it faster," Davis said. The district believes it can do that by closing three low-performing middle schools and expanding eight elementary schools to house K-8 programs. WFAE's Lisa Miller spoke to Mark Rumsey about the district's plan and frustrations of parents: Mark: Lisa, we heard a lot of anger out of last night's meeting. Did anyone like the idea of their kids going to a K-8 school? Lisa: No. People did not like it at all -- at least those whose middle schools would close. They didn't see any benefit to it. They worry kids won't have as many elective courses to choose from because grade sizes will be so much smaller. Also, the latest plan is that these students would have to ride a bus to traditional middle schools for sports and other after-school programs, and that just makes many parents feel like their kids are being treated like second-class citizens. They already feel like the district is targeting poor neighborhoods to save money. Mark: How does the district think these K-8 schools would improve academic achievement? Lisa: The district says it could possibly improve student performance by eliminating the transition between 5th and 6th grades. In other words, there's no time needed for kids to adjust to new surroundings when they begin 6th grade. Also, the district says staying in the same school for nine years provides stability to kids from low-income families who might not have that at home. Mark: Is there any bigger context here? Any evidence that these schools do boost learning? Lisa: Well, many districts, including Washington DC and New York, have gone to these schools in recent years as part of reform efforts to boost achievement. There have been several studies out there that show test scores and attendance are better at K-8 schools. District staff passed out a study to the board last week that looked at this. But the researcher Vaughan Byrnes from Johns Hopkins who did that study doesn't embrace the move to K-8 schools wholeheartedly. Here he is: "I'd say there's probably an advantage," Byrnes said, although "it might not be as big as they hope for and they should weigh getting limited results against how much efforts and resources they're going to have to put into whether it's creating new buildings or restructuring and refitting old ones. Is it the best bang they'll get for their buck?" Lisa: So this is interesting because CMS relied on Byrnes' study at least in part to make the case for K-8 schools. Board members received copies of the study that highlight several positive findings. However, as reporter Ann Doss Helms of the Charlotte Observer pointed out, CMS did not highlight words of caution in the study. Mark: So has CMS tried to sell parents on the benefits of these K-8 schools? Lisa: Not really. Most of the talk about them have taken place in board work sessions. The forums give parents the opportunity to talk about the problems and opportunities they see with the changes, but not a time to give information or even answer questions. Kimberley Miller Potts is an Irwin Elementary parent. Last night she got fed up because she wanted information, but didn't get any--and there are racial and socio-economic overtones involves in this debate. "Last year when it was Myers Park and Dilworth, all of the board was sitting up there because I watched them - the whole broadcast. And they all sat there. They took notes. They responded to people as they got up and talked, so we deserve this," Potts said. Lisa: Now, the format is different this year. The board has relied on several forums and not public hearings during board meetings to get people's comments. Part of the idea is to make sure people have a better understanding and more say in what's going on, but it's clear last night people thought the board members excluded themselves from that process.