5 ways Charlotte has tried to improve struggling schools in the past decade

5 ways Charlotte has tried to improve struggling schools in the past decade
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Another year, another plan to fix Charlotte’s underperforming schools. This time it’s called the Beacon Initiative, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board got an update on it this week at its regular meeting. The program is the latest in a string of plans the school district has put in place over the last 10 years, with mixed results.

The general trend in CMS has been of rising graduation rates, though what’s happening with test scores is a little harder to get a handle on because the state changes its measuring stick so often. Still, top CMS leaders will admit that high-poverty schools remain a challenge. Here’s what they’ve done up to now.

You’ll notice a lot of these plans include the same strategies. A lot of teacher retention bonuses, professional development and new administrators. Are they enough? A growing number of people don’t think so.

(1) High School Challenge

Year launched: 2004
Superintendent: James Pughsley


Schools involved: West Charlotte High, West Mecklenburg High, Garinger High

What it did: CMS received $6 million from Mecklenburg County and was tasked with coming up with a business plan to double end-of-course test scores within three years. The plan was to hire more administrators, better train principals and teachers, cut down on truancy, provide students more internships/apprenticeships, create small learning environments and seminars and boost SAT prep courses.

Results: End-of-course test scores actually fell at two of the schools after the first year. By 2007, the schools had not hit their performance targets – some by a large margin. The plan had already largely been abandoned.

Fun fact: Current Superintendent Ann Clark was regional superintendent for high schools at the time.

(2) Achievement Zone

Year launched: 2007
Superintendent: Peter Gorman

Schools involved: Billingsville Elementary, Shamrock Gardens Elementary, Bishop Spaugh Community Academy (since closed), Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School, Sedgefield Middle School, Wilson Middle School (since closed), Garinger Traditional High School, Waddell High School (since closed), West Charlotte High School and West Mecklenburg High School. Midwood High School (since closed) was later added.

What it did: The $3.8 million annual budget was divvied up among the schools to cut down on teacher turnover (including bonuses to get teachers to go to these schools), create “intervention teams” to work with students, partner with outside organizations for mentoring and field trips and train teachers. The plan came in partnership with the consulting firm Parthenon Group (paid for with an $800,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Results: Another mixed bag. Some schools showed an improvement in composite end-of-grade test scores, and some fell. Reading scores fell precipitously, but that’s in large part because the state made the test harder. By 2009, few changes had actually been made, said a research institute. A huge gap remained between the schools and the rest of the district.

(3) Strategic Staffing Initiative

Year launched: 2008
Superintendent: Peter Gorman

Schools involved: Briarwood Elementary, Bruns Avenue Elementary, Devonshire Elementary, Reid Park Elementary, Sterling Elementary, Westerly Hills Elementary and Ranson Middle were the first group. Five-10 schools were added each year for the next few years.

What it did: Each school got a new principal, who would then get to pick seven staff members to bring with them. This usually included an assistant principal, five teachers and two instructional coaches. The principals then had three years to show results. They didn’t, however, get any other resources except for extra money for the seven staff members. The principals and staff got a 10 percent pay bump, and teachers got an initial $10,000 bonus plus $5,000 retention bonuses for the next two years.

Results: This one was nationally recognized for its initial results. In the first few years, there was substantial improvement in math end-of-grade results across the board. Results were most apparent in the first group of schools, but were a little more mixed in the second group of schools to come through. But a lot of the increases were shared by all schools in the district, and not just strategically staffed schools. There was not progress in closing reading gaps, according to a case study from Education Resource Strategies. The Broad Foundation viewed it as a successful model. There have been challenges in making it a sustainable one, though.

(4) Project LIFT

Year launched: 2012
Superintendent: Conceived under Peter Gorman, implemented under Heath Morrison and now in Ann Clark’s hands.

Schools involved: West Charlotte High and its feeder schools: Allenbrook Elementary, Ashley Park PreK-8 School, Bruns Academy, Druid Hills Academy, Ranson IB Middle School, Statesville Road Elementary, Thomasboro Academy and Walter G. Byers School.

What it did: The $55 million from private sources created bonuses for talented teachers, put more technology in the schools, extended the school day (including some schools on a year-round schedule), created after-school programs and created parent engagement programs. The benchmarks are 90/90/90 – on end-of-grade proficiency, growth targets and West Charlotte’s graduation rate.

Results: We’re now in year four of the five-year initiative, and a report from Research in Action on the third year should soon be released. As of year two, there was some progress – but a lot of work remained. There wasn’t much of a difference in test scores and there was a ton of turnover among principals and teachers. A couple other areas of interest, attendance and suspensions, showed improvement. Test scores are still a long way off from 90 percent and it’s unlikely they’ll get there. West Charlotte High is nearing a 90 percent graduation rate though. It’s unclear whether whoever will be the superintendent next year will continue on with this.

(5) Beacon Initiative

Year launched: 2014
Superintendent: Heath Morrison, now under Ann Clark

Schools involved: 14 – Briarwood Elementary, Albemarle RoadElementary, Nations Ford Elementary, Winterfield Elementary, Druid Hills Academy, Bruns Academy, Reid Park Academy, Westerly Hills Academy, James Martin Middle, Whitewater Middle, Martin Luther King Jr. Middle, Harding High, Garinger High and Vance High.

What it did: The plan here is to work with the education program at the University of Virginia (contract: to create individual turnaround plans for each of these schools, including a series of 90-day plans to achieve them). These were supposed to be implemented this school year. The initiative will share a lot of the things in Project LIFT, including aggressive teacher recruiting and bonuses, and professional development training. CMS wants to change the culture at the schools and will put out more positive stories and “strengthen front office communication skills,” according to this week’s presentation. Budget is $849,930 with $600,000 going to the university.

Results: No results yet.

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