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Making The Grade: Closing Opportunity And Achievement Gaps

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In Part 1 of "Making the Grade," we looked at the imperfect system used to assign letter grades to North Carolina schools. In Part 2 , we examined "growth scores," which are seen by some as a better way of evaluating schools and teacher quality. In this article, we look at how CMS aims to close opportunity and achievement gaps that are reflected in the grades given to schools.

North Carolina's school letter grades and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' new equity policy illustrate the starkly different ways that data-driven education can play out.

The state's grading system, which rates every public school on an A-to-F scale based on student test scores, takes the idea of simplifying data to the extreme. The grades reflect and reinforce the idea that some schools – often those in affluent, majority white areas – are excellent, while others – generally in impoverished neighborhoods filled with students of color – are failures.

The CMS equity policy approved earlier this month charts how to change that. It requires six new reports, tallying things such as racial gaps in suspension, the condition of school facilities and availability of challenging classes.

The goal is to tease out stumbling blocks that prevent students from achieving their full potential.

That approach is anything but simple. Just deciding what to measure took more than two years. On the night the policy was approved, the board dropped a section on student assignment that had been a stumbling block. But a focus on socioeconomic diversity remains one of the most controversial elements.

The goal, essentially, is to grade the opportunities offered and denied in 175 CMS schools, and to focus on the students who have historically been held back by racism and poverty.

"We know that currently and historically children of color and children from low-wealth communities and their families have not been fully or even adequately prepared for greatness or success, academically or otherwise," board member Ericka Ellis-Stewart said before the May 14 vote. "The time is now to move expeditiously on this, as we know that delay is the deadliest form of denial."

The glacial pace of progress has been a source of frustration. CMS launched one attempt to measure equity in the early 2000s, after a long legal battle led to the elimination of race-based assignment. Those reports eventually disappeared, and the citizen panel created to monitor equity disbanded, amid changes in CMS leadership.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox, who started in 2017, and Chief Equity Officer Frank Barnes laid the groundwork for the equity work last year with a report titled " Breaking the Link." That report analyzed how race and family income are linked to academic outcomes, access to advanced classes and measures such as chronic absenteeism and suspension.

Wilcox has also released a broad strategic plan for ensuring opportunity across the board. Now the equity policy adds six areas where the board expects Wilcox to report data and lay out plans for improvement.

"I hope it's actually followed and used," Dee Rankin, chair of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus' education committee, said of the latest attempt. "It may start out great because there's a lot of buzz and die out like it did before."

Assignment And Poverty

The biggest hangup for board members was the section on student assignment. In some ways, it was a replay of the assignment review that dominated the CMS agenda from 2015 to 2017 - and a potential preview of the next one, which could start as early as 2020.

There's broad consensus among current and former board members that concentrating the most impoverished and disadvantaged students creates barriers to success. The split comes over what to do about it.

Board members Sean Strain and Ruby Jones argued for a light touch, with a policy that examines crowding and schools close to home along with poverty levels. They argued that too much focus on demographics will harm everyone by alienating families who can opt out of CMS.

Ellis-Stewart and Carol Sawyer said an equity focus needs to zero in on the areas of greatest need, and that means reducing concentrations of poverty.

In the end, a majority voted to remove all references to assignment and require a report on "school composition" – that is, the socioeconomic makeup, the effect of school choice and plans to increase socioeconomic diversity. It would fall to the superintendent to recommend how that might happen – and ultimately, on the board to approve any changes.

The Classroom 'Diet'

Another equity report must detail students' access to "a rich and diverse curriculum" in each school, looking at not only availability of classes but also participation and success. Each item must be broken down by race and economic status, with plans to close any gaps. While details aren't spelled out, that could mean comparing offerings at schools and examining whether all types of students have equal access within schools.

Barnes, who leads a nine-person Equity Department, says it's not enough to know which classes are on the books or how students fare on standardized tests. He wants to quantify what he calls "the instructional diet" – lessons that engage students in exploring ideas, executing projects and developing skills that will actually lead to adult success. That, he acknowledges, isn't easy to turn into data.

"The quality of the instructional diet is so important," Barnes said, "and it's so rare to talk about."

Strong, Stable Faculty

Another report must spell out what Wilcox is doing to ensure that each school has "strong leadership with a stable high-quality staff." That includes data on turnover, reliance on long-term substitute and teacher experience and licensing, much of which is already part of North Carolina's School Report Cards.

Identifying the weak spots is likely to be much easier than fixing them. Over the years, CMS has tried a range of programs to entice the best principals and teachers into struggling high-poverty schools. A few success stories have raised hopes, but sustained, dramatic progress is rare.

Trauma And Discipline

The equity policy acknowledges that many of the barriers students face originate outside of school, but it seeks data on what CMS is doing to help them develop healthy social and emotional lives. It requires reporting on chronic absenteeism and suspensions broken out by race.

As the CMS "Breaking the Link" report noted, black students (and to a lesser extent Hispanic ones) are far more likely than white classmates to be suspended, especially for such "discretionary" offenses as inappropriate language, insubordination and disrespect. That trend, which starts in the youngest grades and is most pronounced in high-poverty schools, is believed to put many students on track for academic failure and incarceration.

The report must also include data on the availability of counselors, social workers and wellness programs at each school.

"Students experiencing multiple traumas – from housing and food insecurity, to domestic violence, and mental health issues – need support from social workers, counselors, and psychologists to ensure success," the policy says.

Buildings And Grounds

Yet another report will "rank or grade the conditions of each school's facilities," including athletic stadiums, playgrounds and parking lots, and look at how conditions are linked to poverty levels.

In an interview, Barnes said building conditions strike him as something that's important but not essential to addressing educational opportunities. "Everything matters, but not everything matters equally," he said.

But because building conditions are so visible, they can become a symbol of real and perceived inequities. For instance, when CMS found lead leaching from drinking fountains and sinks in many older school buildings, some community activists suggested that was linked to neglect of schools in low-income neighborhoods. And when the high-poverty, mostly-black West Charlotte High couldn't host a recent basketball playoff because its outdated gym wasn't large enough, that became part of a larger clash over race and class.

Families And Community

The board expects another report on PTA participation, mentorship opportunities, cultural competence of staff and the way families are treated at schools, all designed to measure family and community engagement.

"Increasing family engagement with the school requires active effort to remove barriers of language, work hours, transportation, access to technology and, for some, past history of negative school experiences," the policy says.

What's Next?

Another point of controversy among board members was whether to create a citizen panel to oversee the equity work. Some said adding another group of advisers will distract from the work Wilcox and his team are trying to launch.

"Equity comes about through doing," said board member Ruby Jones, who voted against the policy. "Talking, talking, committees and panels that make you feel good that you're doing something – we know what needs to be done."

But six members voted for a plan that includes an equity committee made up of "members of parent, student, educational, faith and community groups."

"We're inviting the community to bear witness to the work and to be partners in the work, and this partnership is necessary if anything is going to change," said Vice Chair Elyse Dashew.

On June 4, the board will hold a work session to discuss next steps toward equity, including how to take nominations and select members of the advisory panel. That remains a point of contention and confusion, some said.

"There are some things in the policy we're going to have to work on to get it up to snuff," said board Chair Mary McCray.

McCray said she understands public skepticism. Writing reports and creating committees is seen as "typical Charlotte," she said.

Ultimately, CMS needs to show it can change students' life prospects for the better, McCray said. She cited a partnership with Goodwill Industries to create a construction skills training center, which offers paying summer jobs to students, as one example.

"They are going to be making this summer probably more money than some of their parents," McCray said. "That is what is going to make people truly become believers."

Click the locations on the map to see how individual schools fare using different grading formulas. List viewof schools by grade.

Learn More

The CMS board will hold an equity workshop at 3 p.m. June 4 at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St. It's open to the public and will stream live on Facebook. Information about how to apply for the Community Equity Committee should be available after that session.   You can read CMS' equity policy (click the + next to item A, then select "ADA Equity") and the "Breaking the Link" report.

[ Related Coverage: The Challenge Index: Are CMS Schools Challenging Enough?]

Copyright 2019 WFAE

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.