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Will transition team, board consider magnet schools for entire county?

 
Arthur Griffin, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools board chairman, talked at Monday's forum about how CMS decided to compete directly with private schools in his tenure, and several  times the district's successful magnet schools were cited as useful models for enticing families to stick with public education.

Typically, magnet schools are feature specialized instruction or alternative curriculum and are open to students from across the county who qualify or meet certain standards. Memphis's optional schools and even suburban Shelby's schools wth International Baccalaureate programs are often described as synonymous with the magnet school concept, but there are differences.

To give one example -- former longtime suburban school board member David Pickler, still on the unified school board, is a big supporter of The Orpheum and arts programs. He has mused over the possibility of embracing the areas's reputation for great music and art to consider establishing a magnet school devoted to the arts. This would not be merely a school with a strong arts program, it would be a school almost entirely centered around students interested in pursuing the arts, and drawing students from every corner of the county.

Here is the CMS magnet school website, which describes the programs like this:
Magnet programs are theme-based and designed to offer a unique educational environment promoting students' abilities, interests and talents. Researchers have noted that magnet programs promote innovation in teaching and learning, increase parental involvement, foster greater student engagement, and encourage diverse student bodies that, when added together, can lead to higher student achievement.

CMS magnet schools provide opportunities for your child to develop his or her special interests and talents while still receiving a solid foundation in traditional academic areas, including the North Carolina Standard Course of Study curriculum.  In addition, some of our magnet programs, such as Montessori,  incorporate specific educational approaches.  In the 2009-2010 school year, 10 of our magnet schools were recognized by Magnet Schools of America as National Schools of Excellence and Distinction.  The variety of magnet programs in CMS ensures that every student has the chance to be educated in the manner in which he or she learns best.
While the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leaders spent a lot of time explaining the weighted formula it uses to allocate resources to schools -- essentially, more money goes to schools with the most challenges, Shelby County's schools merger Transition Planning Commission held a committee meeting before Monday's merger forum in which it discussed ways to reassure parents at our more affluent, higher-performing schools.

That committee had members from the suburbs, from the city, from parents of children at elite private schools. School board member Martavius Jones, a key leader in Memphis's drive to force consolidation by surrendering the Memphis City School charter, said the discussion focused on fighting speculation the merged district would force radical changes on the county's top-performing schools: "It's been my contention that for those students in (high-performing) schools, it's going to be minimal disruptions. ... I don't think it's anyone's motivation to create mass chaos." But Jones said the committee discussed ways to quickly get a robust message out soothing fears: "Without that, you can let people's imaginations run wild," Jones said.

Joe Clayton, a Shelby County schools school board representative who left public education during desegregation to run a private school, brought up the fears he's hearing in the suburbs, and while the leaders from Charlotte may have been proud of things like "strategic staffing" and "weighted student staffing," Clayton identified  suburban fears as a potential impediment to such strategies. Especially, Clayton pointed out, given the potential of more affluent municipalities choosing to opt out entirely.
 
Bill Anderson, now serving as executive director of Charlotte's public-education foundation MeckEd, was unflinching in promoting Charlotte-Mecklenburg's appproach. Anderson also served as principal in nearby Shelby, where his high school in 2003 was named one of the top 10 in America by Newsweek; Anderson was also in Shelby when it merged with the county school system there, Cleveland County.

"When you look at our district on an interactive map and you look at one elementary school in the inner city is getting about $10,000 a student and another school way in the suburbs in a more affluent area is only getting $5,0000 per child, that might rub some folks the wrong way. But our community is willing to have those very difficult and open decisions, that the playing field is not level and that some schools and some students deserve more."

Anderson finished his point by saying: "We as a community and I think as a society and a country in general, have not accepted the fact that every kid is our kid. We still tend to think that there's some kids that live over there, they are not our kids."
When you cover a two-hour forum that ends at 6:30 p.m., like yesterday's schools merger event with education leaders from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, there are many things that get left on the cutting room floor. Here is the deadline story, but I'm going to include some posts today with items that did not make the story.

  • One thing definitely noticeable at these "learning opportunities" organized and funded by the Hyde Family Foundations is who shows up. Josh Edelman, the lead local project manager for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's initiative in Memphis, was on hand, as was Patrick Smith, the second in command for the Tennessee Department of Education. The international firm newly hired by the schools merger Transition Planning Commission, Boston Consulting Group, also sent its local project manager, Lane McBride, along with three associates.

  • The CMS leaders emphasized that as proud as they are of the progress seen in Charlotte, schools there still must show improvement. Just-recently departed superintendent Peter Gorman called the remaining achievement gap between white and black students "horrific" even though, at 20 points, it has been closed considerably.

  • Gorman also made it clear that in Charlotte, it's considered vital to really challenge students and parents at low-poverty schools accustomed to great test scores. He made this point using his hands, showing that students without economic disadvantages were coming into the school year at a high level and leaving with modest but not spectacular gains vs. high-poverty schools where students came in at a low level but showed great growth -- not enough to put them at the level of the highest-performing schools but indicative of great teaching.
"We found some people that we thought were doing really good work -- they weren't. The kids were coming in up here and they were leaving here. They were still so far above the bar we thought they were superstars.
"Other schools where we had people who were coming in here and leaving here, and the work to move from there to there was heroic and phenomenal and if you look at that, you say to yourself, 'My gosh. That was harder than any other school in our district.'"

Gorman described a program CMS designed to give almost complete autonomy to schools demonstrating high growth, or to effective principals agreeing to take teams into low-performing schools with a turnaround plan. He said that four pages of non-negotiable curriculum and instructional methods would be whittled to just three directives -- follow the law, include all state-mandated subject areas and implement the district's highly-successful reading series.

Again, Gorman said looking at student growth revealed some surprising trends -- yes achievement scores at low-poverty schools were nice and high, but many of those schools did not receive the autonomy because growth was mediocre.
"It was shocking for parents at some schools with 95 percent proficiency found that their schools did not have complete freedom and flexibility. It was a real wakeup call to some parents: 'Wow, it feels good here but are my children really learning all they should?' "

Merger team profits from FedEx exec Richards negotiating prowess

 
The schools merger Transition Planning Commission's chairwoman, Barbara Prescott, keeps telling those on the 21-member team that at some point they will likely be called on to provide expertise and service that goes beyond their normal duties. For the last month it has been one of Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell's appointees, Christine Richards, providing what Prescott and others describe as "invaluable" work helping to choose and negotiate with the international firm Boston Consulting Group.

Tonight's meeting is expected to see approval of a contract with BCG, the details of which Richards has hammered out while "moonlighting" from her regular gig as executive vice president, general counsel and secretary for FedEx. At one point during the process, Richards was communicating with the commission while in Pittsburgh. More recently, she worked with the Shelby County Education Foundation, long the fundraising arm for suburban Shelby County Schools, to serve as the conduit for the funds being donated to pay for BCG's services.

"Chris Richards has put an unbelievable amount of time into this and it's a very high level of expertise we are getting," Prescott said.

Another of Luttrell's appointees, CBU president John Smarrelli, also was singled out by Prescott for praise at last week's meeting for putting together a PowerPoint that explains to the general public the transition process and the commission's role and mission. Click here for the link on the Commission's website. We're updating the documents at our Schools In Transition education page and plan to have it there as well.

Critical week ahead for Memphis Shelby schools merger team

 
This morning's story lays out the busy week ahead for Shelby County's schools merger Transition Planning Commission, with three full meetings over the next six workdays. The two key items on the agenda for today's meeting -- 4:30 p.m. at 6465 Mullins Station Road (map here) -- concern contracting with Boston Consulting Group for help in managing the work involved with creating a plan for merging Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools.

On Monday at Christian Brothers University, the merger team meets with officials from the highly-regarded Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district to talk about how to best organize a successful large urban district, and next Thursday the planning commission will have what it is calling a "Vision Meeting" facilitated by Boston Consulting Group.

It should be possible to catch the bulk of the TPC meeting and still make it to the Stand For Children merger forum at 6 at Second Presbyterian Church. See our schools calendar for more details.
We're going to be updating a schools calendar (easy to remember bit.ly link is bit.ly/MergeCal) at our "Schools In Transition" education page (easy to remember bit.ly link is bit.ly/SchoolsInTransition), with meetings and events, so please email us at metro@commercialappeal.com or jjones@commercialappeal.com with anything education-related we should consider including. We'll give preference to community-wide meetings/events and anything related to the merger and/or municipal school issues.

We just added an event that hits Thursday night, a Stand For Children "Ed-Chat with Dr. Wanda Rushing" focusing on "School Unification: Aspirations and Expectations." Rushing is a sociology professor at the University of Memphis. It's set for 6 p.m. Thursday at Second Presbyterian Church, which is at 4025 Poplar Avenue (the flyer has "PDS" in parenthesis, so perhaps the actual meeting is in the Presbyterian Day School facility adjoining the church). EDITOR'S NOTE: The original post incorrectly stated that the meeting would be Wednesday night.

The flyer says, "Come Learn:
1. What is the importance of unification for Memphis and Shelby County as well as the Metropolitan Area?
2. How do all children benefit?
3. What can we learn from school mergers in other states?
Decisions are being made NOW that will affect your children, your children's children amd the future of Memphis and Shelby County."

Daily blogging will recommence

 
Apologies for the recent lack of attention to keeping the blog well-gardened. Blame the holidays, some out-of-town training, attention to daily stories and an upcoming education project focusing on teachers. Also, a certain reporter's third-grader made the stage (top eight!) at his elementary school's spelling bee (his spelling coach did accepts responsibility for skipping over "adolescence" during practice because it seemed like one of the easier words on the "hard" list).

The good news is we are very close to putting on our "Schools in Transition" site what will be an amazing resource for evaluating the quality of individual schools, comparing them to other schools based on a range of factors. Our data guru Grant Smith is hard at work cleaning up the data from the state's Department of Education "Report Card" site. We've asked for detailed databases from the state and not gotten a response, but that did not deter Grant from scraping all the info into his own datasets which we will make user-friendly.

Anyway, hoping to get back to a once- or twice-daily blog routine on all matter education and schools merger. We anticipate schools merger and municipal schools news will really accelerate after the holidays, and have been trying to build a strong foundation on our website so we can provide a strong local education resource.

Ahead of Memphis merger, two key principal moves in Shelby Co. suburbs

 
For Shelby County Schools, the three personnel moves announced on Tuesday are all all significant. Two involve principals who had become veritable institutions at schools that are considered among the best in the state, each in their own way.

Collierville High bids farewell to its leader of 20 years, Tim Setterlund, and Riverdale Elementary in Germantown will move forward without the man that led it for 29 years in David Carlisle.

Setterlund, who was named Tennessee "Principal of the Year" by the state Department of Educaiton in 2010, moves into administration as an assistant superintendent of research, planning and transition. He'll play a key role in helping SCS merge with Memphis City Schools, and his background and expertise with data management will help MCS and SCS as they collaborate on a new data warehouse designed by the tech company OtisED.

Carlisle told me this afternoon his 90-year-old father's failing health played the biggest role in his decision to step aside in the middle of the year. He did also say that the new state law requiring exponentially more teacher evaluations was a factor because it made catching up almost impossible.

"I can't say it didn't play a part in it," said Carlisle, who was in his 33rd year with SCS and 43rd year in education. "It was not the factor, but it did make it difficult."

Our quick web story has more on the timing and replacements for both men, plus more from Carlisle on the huge burdens the evaluation process added to the already time-consuming demands of running a K-8 school with 1,200 students and 100 employees.

Laura Link, a key member of SCS Supt. John Aitken's staff, gets a promotion from director of professional development to assistant superintendent for teaching, learning and professional development.

Click the jump below for the press release from SCS. We'll have a more complete story in Wednesday's print edition.
Jane Roberts has the story of the 23-member unified Shelby County Board of Education overwhelming support Tuesday of recommendations by both superintendents to deny 17 charter school applications based on financial hardship.

Citing a new state law, Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash and his staff laid out the "unsustainable" short-term and long-term financial burdens that would be created if the board approved the 12 charter schools that staff said provided strong enough amended applications (two more had inferior amended applications). Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken applied the same analysis to the two charter schools that submitted strong enough amended applications (one other was not strong enough).

Of the 14 rejected, nine were from the W.E.B. Du Bois Consortium led by Willie Herenton, the longtime former Memphis mayor and former MCS superintendent. He plans to appeal.

Board members were swayed by a presentation that showed the potentially crippling effects on MCS in particular if 14 new charters were allowed to operate next school year. The superintendents told the board that the charter application deadline is such that it had to act before close of business today or the charters with strong enough applications would have automatically been approved.

A great deal of the deliberations were spent by some MCS board representatives in particular chastising Cash's staff for not providing more or better numbers, despite a detailed presentation from chief financial officer Pam Anstey. Sara Lewis and Stephanie Gatewood said they needed color printouts with more visual presentation of numbers. When Tomeka Hart complained about not having more data by hitting Anstey with a fusillade of detailed requests, the CFO had responses ready within five minutes.

The short-term numbers would be grim enough, both superintendents said. Cash said approving 12 more charter schools would create a cost to MCS of an additional $26 million, meaning 400 positions would have to be eliminated. Aitken said costs for SCS would climb from $280,000 now to about $3.5 million -- the equivalent of roughly 50 positions.

Anstey pointed out that the long-term implications were even more stark -- approving charter schools at the rate of about 15 new ones per year combined with growth of existing charter schools would mean costs of $184,510,410 by 2016-17.

Herenton said he will appeal to the state. MCS and SCS are hoping the state will accept their claims of financial hardship, and board vice-chairman Jeffrey Warren suggested that the uncertainty about funding related to MCS merging with the county by 2013 could be another argument.

One reason for the vast increase in the charter school applications -- new state laws passed that severely loosened the restrictions on which students could be eligible to attend charter schools (essentially, every student is now eligible). MCS Dep. Supt. Irving Hamer had this to say: "This is an unfunded mandate that requires us to use base dollars and compromises the base infrastructure, compromises the base capacity to use resources for the operation of the main school system."

The two board members most sympathetic to charter schools were MCS representative Kenneth Whalum Jr. and new unified member Vanecia Kimbrow. Whalum said the arguments were another example of adults putting their own interests and that of the district's above students, and Kimbrow, who has been involved with charter schools, testified to the power of charter schools to give hope to children and their parents.

However, staff said that those existing charters Kimbrow extolled also would feel adverse consequences just like traditional schools if the district as a whole began cutting deeper into "the marrow" of infrastructure, as Cash put it.

The board now has five days to present evidence to the state of the financial hardship. Cash said his staff will be working through the Thanksgiving holiday and over the weekend getting it ready.
Another Tuesday, another bounty of information about schools and education in your morning newspaper. The biggest news comes from Jane Roberts explaining the state's formal request for a waiver from the controversial No Child Left Behind federal law. Essentially, Tennessee is asking for more straightforward gauges of measuring whether a school or schools are making adequate progress in raising proficiency levels in students for math and reading.

Tennessee is asking for measures that would call for raising proficiency levels three to five percent each year, as well as heightened attention to the achievement gap between students of different demographic backgrounds. Additional resources would be aimed at schools where it is demonstrated the most help is needed. Dept. of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman explains it all in this op-ed piece. An accompanying graphic (PDF here) shows how differently the schools' performances would look using the revised measurements. From the news article:
... schools would be divided into three categories based on their test scores and graduation rates but in some nontraditional areas as well, including how much progress students are making. That puts schools like Booker T. Washington High, long on the state's priority list, at the top of pack, joining the ranks with Robert R. Church Elementary and a handful of high-ranking charter schools in the city.

Conversely, Memphis schools such as White Station High and Peabody and Idlewild elementary schools would rank low due to the large size of their achievement gaps between students. "You can't ride the coattails of high-achieving students," Cash said. "You won't be a great school until all children in all subgroups are achieving at high levels."
Also from Jane Roberts -- an Memphis City Schools ceremony honoring some of the district's top teachers at the first My Favorite Educator Golden Apple Awards.
One hundred and five teachers made the finalist cut from 1,200 nominations; 21 received plaques with golden apples and $100 checks, complements of the Memphis Education Association, while fans on two levels of the performance hall clapped and cheered.

Meah King from East High took the top honors for high school English teachers and smiled and shook hands most of the way back to her seat. "Teaching is not a profession, it's a ministry," she said. "My work is not in vain."
In Bartlett, residents gathered to talk about creating municipal schools for the fast-growing suburb. Mayor Keith McDonald captured the energy and enthusiasm for moving in that direction and away from what would be a huge 150,000-student unified county school district saying that, "In politics you have to be careful on which sword you are willing to die on. I'm willing to die on this one." But Clay Bailey reports there was little in the way of new clarifying information.
In some instances, there were details about the proposed city school system, but most specifics were tempered by caveats of the unknown, from the increase in taxes to the cost of acquiring the school buildings in Bartlett. In addition to the lack of firm figures on cost, there also is the question of whether the idea can survive expected legal challenges if outlying Shelby County cities decide to separate from the combined school system.

All six Shelby County suburbs have hired Southern Educational Strategies, a consulting firm, to study the feasibility of starting their own municipal systems. The reports are expected in mid-January. Bartlett city officials really don't have any new figures on the cost of the idea. In March, the suburb's research showed 11 public schools within Bartlett borders. Of those, six are elementary schools, four are middle schools, along with Bartlett High.
One of the biggest questions, one that may require a judge's interpretation of laws and precedent, involves exisiting school facilities.
But a major question facing a future municipal system from a facilities and funding standpoint is what happens to those county school buildings in Bartlett that will fall under a unified school system. According to a study done for Bartlett in February, the net book value of those 11 school buildings, plus the equipment and land, is about $65 million.

While there is resistance to proposals that the county give school buildings to suburban municipal school districts, leaders such as McDonald point out that Memphis has taken over schools in annexations without having to pay for them under the reasoning that the newly annexed residents paid county taxes before annexation to cover those costs.
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As the process for merging Shelby County's schools accelerates into action, we'll provide bonus coverage here at www.MemphisNewsBlog.com, with a particular focus on the 21-member transition team and the 23-member unified school board. Comment early and often. If you have any tips or suggestions you wish to share, contact Zack McMillin at zmcmillin@commercialappeal.com or 529-2564.

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