Equation for Success?

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools is hoping to use a $1.4 million grant to close the "achievement gap" and improve the entire system

 

When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foun-dation announced its $1.4 million grant for five of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's lowest-performing high schools in March this year, it was with the knowledge that Charlotte, as a school system and as a community, was already trying to fix its own problems.

Four of the high schools — Garinger, Waddell, West Charlotte, and West Mecklenburg—have already been the focus of plenty of attention, little of it positive. In 2005, Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr. threatened to close the schools because of their low academic performance. The fifth school, Midwood, is new. It's actually not a high school at all, but a transitional academy for students who failed eighth grade.

Inside the New CMS Thinktank

The idea behind Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' Center for Research and Evaluation isn't necessarily a new one. The CMS Office of Accountability has been researching and evaluating what is working — and not working — in Charlotte schools for years. But, when this center was opened on July 1, 2007, it marked the first time CMS made it official.

"This kind of stuff was being done here and there," says Jason Schoeneberger, director for the center. "Many of the other divisions within the Office of Accountability crunch a lot of numbers, but they do it more for provisional and mandated purposes … our center is being more proactive and really understanding the trends and relationships in data."

Specifically, the center looks at school programs and determines if they are effective.

"We have a huge number of initiatives and programs that are going on in the district and quite frankly we—meaning the district or the board or anyone—don't really know what's going on with them and whether or not they're working," Schoeneberger says.

The center's evaluation has already led CMS to eliminate an electronic reading curriculum called Read 180. Schools "were not implementing it in the way that was intended," Schoeneberger says. "In fact, two of the high schools had pretty much all but quit by mid-year. So, that's an instance where we say, ‘OK, there's no need to spend money on a program that's not going to be done. They're not interested in doing it, so why do it?' "

Another program the center has been examining since its inception is at Billingsville Elementary. A low-performing school, Billingsville went to an extended-day format for the 2007-2008 school year in an attempt to give students additional learning time.

"We've done focus groups and surveys with the teachers to see what is working and to see if the time being spent is beneficial,"

Schoeneberger says. "We'll be examining the students' test scores from the prior year and from this year as well." Based on the research from the center, the district can then decide whether it should be discontinued, continued, or even expanded to other schools.

 

These high schools, and the lower grades feeding into them, represent a systemwide problem with what's known as the achievement gap. To put it plainly, students from lower-income households tend to perform worse on end-of-grade tests than students from wealthier ones. And a disproportionate number of the poorer students are also minorities. For the 2006-2007 school year, 74.6 percent of students in the five schools received free or reduced-price lunches, 86 percent of the students were classified as black or Hispanic, and the end-of-grade-test scores from all the students were consistently the lowest in the system. It was the achievement gap, and the work already started to close that gap, that drew the Gates Foundation's attention. The hope is that the money will not only fund new ideas to fix the bottom-feeding schools, but that those ideas can eventually be applied systemwide, eliminating the achievement gap once and for all. Curtis Carroll, the superintendent for the Achievement Zone Schools, believes that the Gates Foundation's funding has far-reaching potential at CMS.

"We want to make sure we're putting in a system that has the capacity for total school change."

The Gates Foundation likes to give grants to organizations that are already working on problems rather than just waiting for a handout. In 2007, CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman, in an effort to isolate the troubled schools so they could be fixed, restructured his district. The four high schools from Manning's ruling were organized into one district now called the Achievement Zone. Midwood High School was added later.

"Because our focus as a foundation is ensuring that every student is prepared for success in college, career, and life, and we are very concerned with children coming from difficult backgrounds and minority children, the Achievement Zone schools became a natural intersection for us," says Teresa Rivero, senior program officer of the United States Program Education for the Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation works a little differently from many funding organizations. Often, rather than giving money directly to an institution, it funds partnerships. Rivero describes the CMS grant as having three prongs. The partnerships include a global consulting group, a program at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, and a local institute for community development. "We help connect them with experts or resources and not necessarily just money," says Rivero.

The First Prong: The Global Consultant

Since the spring of 2007, the Parthenon Group, a global consulting company with an office in Boston, has been working with CMS to address the achievement gap. "We've worked with different firms in different capacities," says Rivero. "We narrowed the list, but based on the work they had done in the past, Parthenon made the most sense for Charlotte's needs."

Parthenon has been working with school officials including Carroll to determine exactly it means to support the city's lowest-performing schools.
"They have looked at our mission and vision for the Achievement Zone and developed recommendations for school improvement," says Carroll. "We have really taken a serious look at teaching and learning in all of our schools."

Based on their research of other school districts with similar initiatives, Parthenon focused on four issues: staffing the underperforming schools with highly qualified individuals, creating a positive community perception of the schools, improving school safety, and closing the literacy gap across all grade levels.

"They looked at all of the issues that can interfere with learning and then at why in kindergarten through twelfth grade in the Achievement Zone schools there is a disparity or a gap in literacy, then they helped to develop a plan to address the problems," says Carroll.

The Second Prong: Using Data

The second prong of the Gates funding will provide training for Achievement Zone principals and other school leaders at the Data-Wise Institute at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education. The CMS staffers will learn how to use data to improve teaching and learning in their schools. While the idea of using statistical data to make lessons more applicable isn't a new one—after all, teachers have been teaching based on test scores for years—Harvard's step-by-step program is designed to guide teachers and school leaders through statistical analysis more efficiently.

"Data-Wise is like your map, and if you don't have that map, you're just going around in circles," says Sheila Ijames, the principal at Midwood High School, who recently attended the Data-Wise Institute. "I'm writing up a plan that teachers can use in their classrooms with their students by looking at the data profile of the students and using that information to improve their instructional presentation."

As part of Ijames's plan, teachers will have profile sheets on each student, which will list all pertinent information and data about the student, including their end-of-grade-test scores from the previous year. "We can use the data to direct not only our instruction, but other services that we provide to the students," says Ijames.

She notes that many of her teachers must deal with high school students whose reading level is only at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. According to Ijames, while these students must be taught differently, it is possible to teach them at a high-school level. "What we want to center on is raising the expectations for the students, not feeling sorry for them," says Ijames. "Yes, we know that the students come to us very low, but we are focused on what can we do at this point to raise the expectations so they don't fall behind."

Even with the help of the Data-Wise system, Ijames still faces issues in her school with students who have "fallen behind or fallen through the cracks." For many of these students Ijames is seeking support in teaching her staff how to work with children of poverty, and this is where the third prong of the Gates funding comes in.

The Third Prong: Getting Down to the Roots

The Lee Institute, a Charlotte nonprofit founded in 1997, brings together people who have a common interest, in this case the interest being education for primarily minority students. While at this point the institute is still deep in its planning stages for using the Gates funding, it will focus its efforts on finding ways to increase community and parental engagement in the schools.

"For us the product is not necessarily the point," says Katara Dixon, program associate for the Lee Institute. "The point is having a well-designed, correctly done process so that the product is something in the end that works for the people who wanted it."

Right now the institute's process includes finding ways to connect the community with the Achievement Zone high schools. While leaders are quick to say that there is plenty of interest in Charlotte in helping these schools, the key is establishing the most effective way of making the connection between that interest and the schools' needs.

"It may not be that the outcome is some kind of nifty new thing that no one has thought of," says Dixon. "One of the great things about this community process is that you may end up having the answer sitting right here, but you haven't ever looked at it in a global enough way to say this is what works and this is what we should all be doing."

The institute has been working in partnership with the Charlotte Mecklenburg African American Agenda (CM3A), a grass-roots organization that addresses problems faced by local African-Americans. Launched in January 2007, the organization considers education its number one priority.
It was the group's commitment to education that drew the Gates Foundation to working with CM3A. Michael DeVaul, the senior vice president of organizational advancement at the Greater Charlotte YMCA, is a member of CM3A's steering committee and has been working with the group from its inception. DeVaul, who has two children in Charlotte public schools, is dedicated to improving community involvement in the Achievement Zone schools, something he thinks can be done through working directly with the parents of students.

DeVaul tells the story of his own mother, who attended parent-teacher conferences with other parents in their community when he was a child.

"She was partnering with those parents to go in and listen and then develop a strategy for their child based on the things that they may not have understood that the school was telling them," says DeVaul. "The African proverb is that it takes a village and we have to remind ourselves that these are parents who need our help."

DeVaul, like the Gates Foundation, is interested in looking for new ideas when it comes to giving that help. Whether it is in changing how school systems view the idea of community volunteers or simply changing the mind-set of parents who have felt disempowered by the school system in the past, he isn't interested in mere Band-Aids for what he sees as a deep-rooted problem in minority communities.

"If you are going to break the cycle, you have to understand that you have kids who are in families where their parents may not have done as well in school and so when they get to a crisis moment or a pain point, they shut down," says DeVaul. "At its very essence and in a very simple way, it's going back to being supportive of parents."

But CM3A understands that this problem, as with many in the school system, has been ongoing for years and will take time to fix. "I think the Gates Foundation would see this as a three- or four-year strategy. We're not trying to fix it in one year," says DeVaul.

Teresa Rivero from the Gates Foundation agrees. "We don't have a defined number of years, but rather I think we see it as being complete when the goals are accomplished," says Rivero. "We look at how we can be a catalytic force of funds that is an infusion at a point in time when it gets folks to the table around their agenda. We hope it goes on as long as possible."

Sarah Crosland is associate editor of this magazine.

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