Bear with me if you've heard the story of sixth grader Brandon Kathman. Brandon endearingly calls himself “an alumni” of Villa Heights Elementary School, the school he “graduated” from last year.
Brandon became a TV star of sorts this week. He appeared at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board meeting Tuesday night to deliver an impassioned speech about preserving Villa Heights as a magnet school.
He left those of us in the packed chamber with mouths agape at his eloquence, composure and smartly devised, persuasively delivered argument. At the end, the applause was long and loud. I turned to the guy behind me and said, “Wow.”
I thought about Brandon Thursday morning as I listened to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman give his second State of Our Schools report. Gorman mostly talked about the many positives CMS has – positives that don't get as much attention as they should. And peppered throughout the audience were students, parents and school leaders to bring those positives to life.
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There were students such as Kevin Lang, who attends Myers Park High School and was one of just 24 students in the nation to qualify for the U.S. Physics Team. There was Pang Yang, whose family is from Vietnam and who began learning English as a second language in CMS. She is now an honors student with a 4.7 GPA at West Mecklenburg High.
There were also families such as the Burtons, whom I talked to just before Thursday's event got started. Joe Burton told me about how he and his wife methodically checked out school systems and communities before relocating from Michigan two years ago. Charlotte won out over places such as Dallas, and they couldn't be happier with the three CMS schools their kids attend – North Mecklenburg High, J.M. Alexander Middle and David Cox Elementary.
In truth, all I needed to hear was Brandon at the school board meeting to appreciate the strides CMS is making to help students – in the words of Tuesday's theme – “turn potential into performance.” A report on the progress of four CMS “challenge schools” – high schools given extra resources to improve lagging academic performance – buttressed that theme.
The results are noteworthy: West Charlotte went from 35 percent performing on grade level in 2005 on End-of-Course tests to 61 percent in 2008; West Mecklenburg from 45 percent to 58 percent; E. E. Waddell from 47 percent to 57; Garinger, which has split into specialized small schools, from 41 to 43 percent.
Across the system, scores are up on both national and state tests.
But none of that negates the continuing and increasingly difficult academic challenges CMS faces.
Gorman acknowledged that poverty, lack of diversity and insufficient crucial resources in some schools are obstacles to learning for many students. He said the achievement gap is still daunting and requires the help of the larger community – parents, businesses, churches, civic groups, individuals – as well as educators.
That help involves substantial commitments of time, energy and money. The problems “are linked to complex social issues with no easy, one-step answers,” Gorman said.
He's right. The answers aren't easy. The challenge is daunting. But the rewards are worth the investment.
Not sure? Consider these words from Brandon to the school board:
“Our schools are like the ocean liners that carried the immigrants to Ellis Island. Those boats carried the immigrants to new lives. Our schools carry us students to our new lives. If you hope to be carried to a better life, you want a sturdy boat. And even though Villa Heights is small, it is a very sturdy boat.”