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First day good for students, rough for computers

By Ann Doss Helms, Steve Lyttle and Lawrence Toppman
ahelms@charlotteobserver.com

Despite some computer-related headaches, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools celebrated a smooth opening day Monday.

“I’m going to give everyone in the district an A,” said Superintendent Heath Morrison at a wrap-up conference. “Well, an A-minus, because there’s always room for improvement. I am so proud of our school district.”

While scheduling had more problems than usual on the first day, things could have been worse. The state has just switched to the new PowerSchool data system, and state officials warned that slowdowns and crashes were likely.

“We kind of have to grit our teeth and bear it,” said Principal Michael Jones of Hopewell High, where a surge of new students and PowerSchool slowdowns created long waits for schedules. Otherwise, he said, the first day was “awesome.”

Other districts had bigger problems: The website for Union County’s district and all its schools was disabled by a human error, and staff hurried to create a temporary site for crucial links.

“Unfortunately, mistakes happen. We are working to correct the error and ensure this cannot happen again,” Chief Technology Officer Tony Burrus said in a note on the temporary page.

CMS expects to grow by 2,700 students, to almost 144,000 K-12 students and 3,100 in prekindergarten. Statewide, projections call for an increase of 17,200 public school students, bringing the total to a little more than 1.5 million.

Attendance numbers weren’t available Monday; Morrison said schools he visited seemed to have larger-than-expected numbers of new students.

At CMS’ Albemarle Road Elementary, which expects more than 1,300 students in pre-K through grade 5, faculty members wrote every child’s name, bus number and bus stop location on strips of masking tape, which they stuck to the students. Morrison watched as teacher Lynne Wiesecke tagged kindergartners before afternoon dismissal.

“You’re trying to make sure each and every one is on the right bus, and you check and double-check and triple-check,” Morrison said. “The logistics are staggering.” He later noted that buses had an on-time arrival record Monday of 88.2 percent, up almost 1 percentage point from last year.

Cool start

Across the Charlotte region, buses rolled out before dawn in autumnal weather. Temperatures in Charlotte dropped to 56 degrees, missing the day’s record low by 1 degree.

Morrison, who has two kids in CMS, was awake soon after 3 a.m. and visited a southeast Mecklenburg County school bus stop about 6.

“Is this too early to be up?” Morrison asked Providence High students at an intersection off McKee Road. He got a predictable chorus of “Yes,” but several teens said they were looking forward to the start of school.

“I’m excited,” Providence senior Anna Duncan said. “This is my final year, and I want to do everything I can to make it my best.”

Allenbrook Elementary joined schools across the country in urging dads to bring their children to school on the first day, part of the “ Million Father March” movement to get men involved in education. About 40 fathers and grandfathers showed up at Allenbrook.

Michael Strong brought his 7-year-old son Donovon to first grade, though it meant he had to rush to work afterward. He said his wife told him about the push, and he agrees it’s important for fathers to show up: “If we do, they tend to achieve more. Both parents need to be involved.”

Struggling with schedules

Opening day always brings glitches in class scheduling, but several principals said this was worse than usual.

State and district officials had warned that first-day data flooding the new system could cause slowdowns. Staff at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction could not be reached Monday afternoon for details on the statewide situation.

At Hopewell and other schools, the problem was compounded by an influx of new students. The official count is taken on the 20th day of school because most schools have some students who show up late.

Jones said he had 35 to 40 who came in Monday to register, joining other students who had gaps in their schedule. At times, it took up to 45 minutes to get one student’s schedule processed, Jones said, but counselors and the registrar are working to get classes lined up quickly.

Sharon Shaner, a parent of a Hopewell senior, said she was discouraged by the scene when she arrived to volunteer her help at 6:45 a.m.

“The problems are endless,” she said. “I don’t see how teachers will be able to teach anything in the first week without creating problems for students (who) finally get their schedule correct sometime next week.”

At McClintock Middle School, the media center was filled with families of new students and those with schedule problems.

The Leatherwood family got back from a beach trip Sunday night to find that sixth-grader Marie’s schedule had arrived in the mail. It had only one class listed, fourth-period math. So mom Allison Leatherwood waited with Marie and third-grade son Jennings to get a full schedule.

Even elementary schools faced glitches. Albemarle Road Principal Tyler Ream said some families registered in the summer but showed up Monday to find students weren’t assigned to a classroom. “It’s not the first impression you want to give,” he said.

Opening-day overview

Morrison acknowledged computer headaches in his final assessment, noting that North Carolina spent six months installing a system South Carolina took two years to apply.

At the same time, he was upbeat about conditions overall. When asked about incidents of mold on some of the system’s 938 buses, he said every reported example of mold in a bus or classroom has now been addressed.

He mentioned 67 teacher vacancies and stressed he wanted the most-qualified applicants: “We could fill those tomorrow, but we have hardworking substitutes in there teaching.”

And he spoke about the customized security plans for each school: new ID badges, cameras, limited points of access to the buildings.

“Before parents ask how much math and social studies their children learn, they want to know that students are safe,” he said. “We’re making schools more secure.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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