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PreK-8 schools in CMS struggle but show bright spots

    Eighth-graders Santos Espino-Reyes (left) and Daren Lawrence (right) read in Spanish in a first-grade class at Berryhill School. Two years after CMS rushed to merge high-poverty elementary and middle schools, most of those students remain behind their peers, even at other high-poverty schools, according to a preliminary study. Berryhill is different, the one school that CMS officials say stands out as more successful.
    Merging elementary and middle schools means eighth-graders like Ron McQueen mingle with younger children in the lunchroom. Berryhill reports few discipline problems.
    Eighth-grader Preston Nichols (right) chats with second-grader Anastasia Zinns (left) during lunch at Berryhill School.
    In a new CMS report, Berryhill School stands out for success merging older students, such as eighth-graders Santos Espino-Reyes (left) and Daren Lawrence, with younger ones, such as the first-graders they read to Wednesday.

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Two years after Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools hastily merged high-poverty elementary and middle schools, most of the preK-8 schools continue to struggle with academics and discipline, according to a new CMS report.

Most of the 5,100 students who attended those schools last year were less likely to pass state exams and more likely to be absent or suspended than peers in high-poverty CMS elementary and middle schools, according to a report presented Tuesday.

The report also highlighted encouraging trends, such as strong academic growth ratings and growing acceptance from faculty and parents. One of the eight, Berryhill School on Mecklenburg’s western edge, broke the pattern by outperforming the traditional high-poverty schools.

Superintendent Heath Morrison told the board he wants principals to learn from Berryhill’s success, even as CMS and the University of South Carolina delve deeper into data on the merged schools.

“I think ultimately when they’re done well K-8s hold up as a very sound instructional model across the country,” Morrison said.

The ability to make that model work matters to the entire county, as CMS prepares in coming years to launch five combined elementary/middle schools in locations from Davidson in the north to Ballantyne in the south. In addition, the district already has four merged magnet schools.

But the eight schools serving impoverished neighborhoods – Ashley Park, Berryhill, Bruns, Byers, Druid Hills, Reid Park, Thomasboro and Westerly Hills – have faced extraordinary challenges since then-Superintendent Peter Gorman and the school board scrambled to close schools and save money during the 2010 budget crunch. They voted to close Spaugh, Wilson and J.T. Williams middle schools, all of which had high poverty levels and a history of academic struggles, and reassign those students to the eight elementary schools.

Those schools also added prekindergarten when school began in 2011, going from six grade levels as K-5 schools to 10 as preK-8 schools. Buildings were hastily upgraded for science labs and other essential changes, while mobile classrooms were hauled in to handle the surge of students.

Promises and questions

The school closings sparked angry protests from residents who said impoverished neighborhoods and minority families were bearing the brunt of cost-cutting change. Many parents worried that young children wouldn’t be safe with adolescents and that older students would be denied opportunities available at regular middle schools.

CMS leaders countered that the merged schools, with relatively small groups of middle school students, would create a safer setting with a more personal touch.

The changes were approved shortly before Gorman resigned to take a private-sector job in 2011. Morrison, hired in 2012, promised public reports on the success or struggles of the merged schools.

On Tuesday Chief Accountability Officer Frank Barnes presented a preliminary report for 2012-13, done in partnership with the USC Office of Program Evaluation. Barnes said CMS is paying $150,000 this year for the research help, with a more detailed study coming in spring.

Surveys of parents and teachers showed growing enthusiasm for the model, Barnes said. Thirty-eight percent of teachers said they believe the merged structure has academic benefits for students, up from 17 percent the first year. But 37 percent reported no academic impact and 13 percent called it detrimental.

Thelma Byers-Bailey, who opposed closing schools as a Lincoln Heights neighborhood activist before being elected to the school board in November, said she is “encouraged by the positive parental response.”

Signs of trouble

But the numbers raise doubts about whether the students are faring better than they would have in the old settings.

The report compared 2012-13 data from the preK-8 schools with results from CMS elementary and middle schools where at least 75 percent of students come from low-income homes, known as Title I schools. All eight preK-8 schools had poverty levels topping 90 percent last year.

Across the country, high concentrations of poverty are linked to lower academic performance. Schools serving impoverished students often see high turnover in teachers and students, lower levels of family involvement, less academic support for students outside of school and distractions ranging from homelessness to neighborhood violence.

Before the merger, the three middle schools that were closed and most of the elementary schools that took their students were among the district’s lowest performing. Even then, Berryhill Elementary significantly outscored most other high-poverty schools.

Most of the preK-8 schools performed worse than the high-poverty elementary and middle schools. At the bottom were Reid Park and Druid Hills, where more than 85 percent of students failed new state tests of reading, math and science. At Reid Park, 22 percent of students missed at least 10 percent of the school year, or 18 days. The out-of-school suspension rate at Reid Park was almost 43 per 100 students, much higher than the rate for high-poverty elementary (8.4 per 100) or middle schools (29.9 per 100).

Morrison noted that Reid Park got a new principal this year. The struggling school has been the focus of CMS improvement efforts for years, and a coalition of government and nonprofit agencies is trying to create a support network for families.

Bright spot at Berryhill

Berryhill stood out on all measures. Its 40.9percent proficiency rate on state exams, coupled with a strong rating for student progress, topped most high-poverty schools in a year when tougher new tests sent scores plunging across the state. CMS and state pass rates for all students were below 50 percent in reading and math, and just above 50 percent in science.

Berryhill reported only 15 out-of-school suspensions last year, for a rate of 2.6 per 100 students.

Morrison said Berryhill has one clear edge: Stable leadership and faculty.

Paul Pratt came to Berryhill Elementary 11 years ago, after retiring as a principal in Clover, S.C. He has led the school ever since, keeping a core of teachers and support staff.

Adding middle school and prekindergarten shook that stability, he says. “It is an ongoing work in progress.”

But Pratt says the added grades let his school build on strong relationships with family and students. Many of this year’s eighth-graders have been at Berryhill since kindergarten or first grade. Just over half the students are Hispanic, and bilingual staff have worked to make connections with parents who may not speak English.

Pratt says fights, weapons and controlled substances at school bring a prompt out-of-school suspension, but faculty seek other options for lesser offenses. For instance, a student who walks out of class might lose the freedom to socialize before class and during lunch for three to five days. Repeating that behavior could lead to suspension, Pratt said, but the goal is to work with the student and parents to head off the problem.

Vision for future

In November voters approved $290 million in school bonds. That package includes $24.7 million to add gyms and specialty classrooms at several of the preK-8 schools, as well as $30.4 million to build a new preK-8 school in west Charlotte to relieve crowding at Berryhill and Reid Park.

But the new school isn’t scheduled to open until 2017, with the additions at existing schools finished in 2019.

“It’s going to be a hard wait between now and a new school,” Pratt said.

Meanwhile, Barnes and Morrison acknowledged that older students at the preK-8s aren’t getting the same range of classes, clubs and sports that students at full-sized middle schools get.

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