Frustration, confusion and a resolve to do better emerged as the school board heard a report on Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools 2012 academic results Wednesday.
Im simply frustrated, said Tom Tate, the longest-serving board member. Were working hard, but were still letting too many kids fall through the cracks. Were moving in the right direction, but it is so slow.
There were causes for celebration, including significant gains on fifth- and eighth-grade science exams, a steady rise in graduation rates, and several schools that saw a big improvement on state exams.
But in a year that brought national accolades, including the Broad Prize for Urban Education, CMS also had setbacks: Many schools have persistently low reading scores. Most high-poverty schools continue to struggle, despite efforts to boost their performance. And the districts nationally acclaimed strategic staffing program, a signature effort for the past five years, yielded disappointing results at schools that were supposed to be models of success by now.
Strategic staffing provides financial rewards and prestige to teams of educators who volunteer for duty in low-performing schools, with a goal of long-term changes that break the cycle of failure. But the schools that have been in the program longest saw some of the weakest results in some cases, performing little better than they did before the efforts.
I was grateful for strategic staffing, Tate said, but it looks like it sort of peters out.
Its not the result Id hoped for, member Eric Davis said. But lets not be discouraged. Lets learn.
Board members, Superintendent Heath Morrison and Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark vowed to seek solutions and enter 2012-13 with a renewed sense of urgency.
I hear your frustration. I share it. I think it speaks to the work we need to do, said Morrison, who started work July 1.
Charting year-to-year progress is complicated by an ever-changing testing system and confusing calculations, some members said.
The CMS report used 2007-08 as a starting point, with most measures showing dramatic gains since then. But most schools in North Carolina saw pass rates plunge in 2008, when the state set higher standards for passing reading tests. The next year the state started giving students a second chance to pass exams, which brought a big bump to most schools.
The failure of West Charlotte and Harding high schools to test the required number of students brought questions from several members. CMS has declined to release information about performance at those schools, citing the states refusal to issue an official rating.
But raw data the state released to the Observer show West Charlotte with a 44 percent pass rate on algebra I, English I and biology exams, and Harding with 64 percent, the two lowest high school scores in CMS.
Clark and Morrison both talked about how hard it can be to get students at high-poverty schools to show up for exams, and said faculty worked to get students to show up. Clark said most of the missing students were ninth-graders who were already failing the classes and were not motivated to come back. They said, Why bother? I can start my summer job. I can leave to go out of town.
Falling behind in ninth grade is a strong predictor that students wont graduate.
It breaks my heart, board Chairwoman Ericka Ellis-Stewart said.
She joined colleagues in saying CMS needs new ways to make a difference.
We dont have a lot of time, she said. These are childrens lives and their futures we are dealing with.
Rhonda Lennon, one of the boards most conservative members, and Richard McElrath, one of the most liberal, agreed that teachers cant be blamed for the failure of students who dont even show up.
We have to start demanding accountability from the adults in these childrens lives, said Lennon, who represents the north suburbs.
Tell the community they need to get their kids to school, said McElrath, who represents west Charlotte. The parents have got to cooperate with us if they want their kids to be educated.
Ellis-Stewart and Morrison agreed, but cautioned against blaming parents.
We have to meet parents where they are, Ellis-Stewart said.
Were not pointing fingers, Morrison said. I think parents do the best they can with what they know to do.
Morrison said hes met many business, faith and community leaders who are eager to help CMS. It will really be on us if we fail to take advantage of all the help that will be offered, he said.
Clark said CMS will present more detailed analyses of academics and other issues at the strategic staffing schools and at schools that were merged in the wake of last years closings.
Before being elected to the school board in November, Ellis-Stewart was a Harding parent who criticized the boards decision to merge the low-performing Waddell and the high-performing Harding.
People really want to see answers and hear explanations so they know whats going on, she said.