By Ann Doss Helms
Black and low-income teens in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are now outperforming their peers statewide and in Wake County, new state report cards show.
It's a dramatic turnaround from five years ago, when statewide comparisons for high-school students sparked local embarrassment and statewide censure, and a judge accused CMS of “academic genocide.”
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Consider: In 2004, CMS black students' pass rate on state high-school exams was 45 percent, 10 percentage points below the state average and 18 points below Wake's black students.
In 2009, CMS black students had a 65 percent pass rate, 12 points above the state and 6 points above Wake's. CMS's low-income and Hispanic students outperformed the same groups statewide and in Wake, though by smaller margins.
Superintendent Peter Gorman said he's pleased by the progress but dismayed that minority and low-income students remain so far behind white and non-poor classmates. Pass rates were well above 80 percent for CMS white students and those who don't qualify for lunch aid to low-income families.
Gorman and experts agree it's too early to celebrate, while almost half of CMS's low-income students aren't graduating on time and some reforms remain unproven.
“We are improving performance at a faster rate than other districts,” he said. “But if you are a child that gets a free lunch in Mecklenburg County, you're not competing for a job with the kids who get free lunch in Wake. You're competing with all kids.”
The annual report cards are bound to spark renewed debate in Charlotte and Raleigh about the best ways to close those gaps, which occur in virtually all American schools.
When CMS's disadvantaged kids trailed those in Wake, many in both cities blamed the large number of Charlotte schools with high concentrations of poor and minority students. Wake, which has fewer low-income students, uses student assignment to balance poverty levels. Backers of that approach say it's tough to recruit top educators and set high expectations in high-poverty schools.
This year, Wake's voters elected a school-board majority who want to overturn that district's assignment policy and let schools reflect the neighborhoods they serve, much like CMS.
CMS officials have tried various ways to improve low-performing, high-poverty schools, including reassigning star principals, offering hefty bonuses to teachers willing to transfer in, and revamping high-school classes to give weak students more time to prepare for state exams.
Gorman, who took CMS's top job in 2006, will pitch a new four-year plan for academic improvement today.
North Carolina's white and middle-class students have consistently performed well on state exams, and generally do even better in Mecklenburg and Wake.
Minority and low-income students tend to trail, and have seen more fluctuations in pass rates as the state has tinkered with testing. In recent years, CMS's performance has edged up, while Wake's disadvantaged kids have flagged.
Last month Wake school officials released a study by William Sanders, a national expert on education data, that said students in Wake's higher-poverty schools did worse than expected compared with similar schools statewide, according to a (Raleigh) News & Observer report.
John Dornan, executive director of the Raleigh-based advocacy group Public Schools of North Carolina, knew about that report. But he said Wednesday he was shocked to hear that CMS, long held up as a horror story of what could happen if Raleigh were to let schools resegregate, was outperforming Wake on many measures.
“Wow,” he said, when told about the report-card results. “Could it very well be that (CMS efforts) are paying dividends? It's hard to think of another explanation.”
Cautions for CMS
Troubling signs for CMS remain.
Last year only 52 percent of low-income students and 56 percent of black students who entered CMS high schools four years earlier got diplomas. Those rates compared poorly with the same groups in Wake and other urban and suburban districts.
And one of CMS's efforts to boost high-school performance raises questions about whether gains will continue. Schools have created prep courses to help weak students get ready for the exams they must pass to graduate, such as algebra, biology and English I. Often students take a prep course first semester, then take the course with the exam second semester.
But an Observer investigation found that two schools that saw huge gains on pass rates also saw participation in those required classes plunge. Gorman has acknowledged that having weak students postpone those classes for a full year could create a temporary surge in scores.
Some teachers and parents say they believe weak students are being kept out of required classes to boost school scores, hindering their chances at graduation. The Observer has requested more detailed data.
Cheryl Pulliam, director of the Queens University Public Education Research Institute, said the latest results are encouraging but not definitive. She said Gorman has made “gutsy” moves to improve academics at high-poverty schools. But she cautioned against reading too much into one year's results.
“You want to make sure these aren't blips,” she said. “If these trends continue, it's more significant.”
School report cards for all N.C. public schools (including charters) and districts are available at www.ncreportcards.org. Click tabs at the top of each page labeled “High student performance,” “Safe, orderly and caring schools” and “Quality teachers and administrators” to get more data.