Nothing illustrates the elusiveness of school reform like Reid Park Academy.
Four years ago, the small westside elementary school became a pioneer in a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools push to get strong faculty into weak schools. One year ago, then-Superintendent Peter Gorman added middle school students, assuring skeptical families it was a successful school.
But 2012 state ratings list it as one of the worst in CMS and the state. Reid Parks pass rate on reading, math and science exams was 44 percent.
Principal Mary Sturge and community supporters say theyre committed to forging ahead.
Everybody just needs to give us a chance to work it, Sturge said.
I know youve heard that before, she added. Everybody says next years going to be different.
The 2012 test scores point to challenges that go beyond one school. The new numbers raise questions about the long-term value of the CMS strategic staffing program, which is nationally viewed as a triumph, and about the boards 2010 decision to close three high-poverty middle schools.
In 2008, seven struggling schools were tapped to pilot Gormans strategic staffing plan, which paid hefty bonuses to recruit star principals and high-performing teams of educators. The goal: In three years, those schools would have 90 percent of students at grade level, comparable to CMS best schools.
In 2012, four of the seven pilot schools had pass rates of 50 percent or lower. Devonshire Elementary, the strongest of the seven, had 71 percent on grade level.
Meanwhile, the August issue of School Administrator magazine carries an article by CMS Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark saying strategic staffing has exceeded expectations, turning around almost all of the 24 participating schools. Each year, CMS has added to the roster of participating schools.
This week Clark said the schools are moving in the right direction, but we have not had a complete turnaround.
Strategic staffing was supposed to be the key to making the new combined elementary/middle schools successful, even though national researchers had warned such mergers havent proved effective as a turnaround tactic for high-poverty urban schools.
Im not surprised. Not at all, said Kojo Nantambu, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP, when told about low pass rates at several K-8 schools. I dont think it was a well thought out plan.
The School Administrator cover sports heroic-looking educators parachuting to a school. Landing your best forces in schools with greatest needs, the promo for the CMS article says.
Sturge, principal of the southwest suburban Winget Park Elementary, was one of the seven principals Gorman tapped to launch strategic staffing, amid high hopes and fanfare. Each got a 10 percent raise to take on a school in need of help. More important, they got permission to bump a handful of teachers without going through the districts slow dismissal process, and to offer recruitment bonuses to bring in five new teachers with proven results on state exams.
Gorman said it wouldnt be a quick fix. Scores might dip the first year or so, he said, but by the end of three years he wanted big, measurable improvements. Principals adopted the national mantra of 90-90-90 breaking the link between poverty, race and failure by creating schools that are 90 percent minority, poor and scoring on grade level.
Clark said that remains the goal. No strategic staffing school has met that. Devonshire Elementary once hit 90 percent in math but fell short in reading.
Success in CMS?
All the schools that launched strategic staffing have seen big gains since 2008. But so have most struggling schools in North Carolina.
In 2008, the year before the new principals took over, the state made it tougher to pass reading exams. In schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students, pass rates plunged. At the seven CMS pilot schools, 2008 pass rates ranged from 28 percent at Reid Park to 44 percent at Sterling Elementary.
In 2009, the state started requiring students who failed exams to try again. Across the state, scores surged.
The notion that CMS had found a unique strategy for urban turnarounds took off in 2010, when the Aspen Institute presented a glowing report on strategic staffing in Washington, D.C. It gained steam with a visit from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, articles in the national press and CMS designation as the 2011 Broad Prize for Urban Education winner.
Clarks article, written before the 2012 test scores were released, concludes that strategic staffing will become obsolete because of its success.
A school districts courage has led to academic success for students in the lowest-performing schools, she writes. To think all it took was recognizing talented principals and teachers and inviting them to share their talents with our neediest children and schools.
She said this week she believes strategic staffing has succeeded in making high-poverty schools a prestigious assignment.
But the ultimate question remains: Can those principals create consistent, lasting changes for students?
CMS has added schools to the strategic staffing roster every year, with mixed results.
Only three of the original seven schools still have the principals brought in to transform them. Most left at the end of their three-year commitment.
All seven saw their overall performance decline this year, even as newer strategic staffing schools saw gains. Clark said officials and principals are still analyzing that trend.
For some of the original schools, including Reid Park, 2011-12 brought a huge new challenge.
With the CMS budget battered by the recession, Gorman and the board decided to close Spaugh, Wilson and J.T. Williams middle schools and divide the students among eight elementary schools. They said the closings would save money and the smaller settings would provide educational benefits.
Parents, advocates and media raised questions about the wisdom of sending the middle-schoolers to schools already grappling with high poverty levels and, in some cases, low test scores.
Gorman responded by noting that all eight were strategic staffing schools (three were among the original group). That meant strong principals and faculty would be ready to handle the change, he said.
He resigned in June 2011, right after the school board approved a 2011-12 budget.
Struggle to staff
Ironically, it was the good news in that budget that handed Reid Park its biggest challenge, Sturge says.
Gorman had spent the early months of 2011 warning that another tight budget could mean a third year of teacher layoffs. Many got their notices that spring.
Some of those signed on to work at Reid Park, which was adding grades 6-8, prekindergarten and a class for disabled 3-year-olds.
When the final budget from the county and state landed, CMS didnt have to lay any teachers off.
Many of Sturges new recruits returned to their original schools. She still had spots unfilled when school opened. This time, there were no recruitment bonuses.
You cant just hire a warm body for these schools, she said. You have to find the right person.
Enrollment surged from 434 as an elementary school to 689 with the new grades. CMS hauled in mobile classrooms. More students, cramped space and teacher vacancies added up to larger classes, Sturge said. One kindergarten class had 55 children with two teachers.
Heath Morrison, who took Gormans place July 1, has promised a report on the academic and financial results of the closings and mergers.
Obviously, the way we did K-8s last year was not preferable, Morrison told a group at Johnson C. Smith University. Phasing in grades would have been better, he said: Its the difference between a loving courtship and a shotgun marriage.
But Morrison said all the K-8 principals have told him they believe the new structure will succeed.
Opening with hope
Sturge agrees: Reid Park has a bright future.
A group of government and nonprofit agencies is working to support students and families.
Faith leaders, faculty and volunteers are planning a new series of family nights. Modeled on a successful program at McClintock Middle, it will offer transportation, meals and activities that help students and parents build academic success.
If we can touch their reality when they go home, then we can make better test scores and better families, said the Rev. Hamani Fisher, pastor of City Dive Outreach Center.
Adding grades meant Reid Park essentially started over, Sturge said. That made for a tough year, but doesnt mean the experiment failed.
Im putting my reputation on the line, Sturge said. It was the right thing for our kids.
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