Assignment, diplomas and Peter Pan: 5 takeaways from the CMS State of Schools event

Ann Clark gives state of CMS address

Clark's theme was to encourage the community to believe in the school district, it's teachers and students. She came full circle Wednesday when she gave her final CMS State of Our Schools address at Vance High School where she was once the princip
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Clark's theme was to encourage the community to believe in the school district, it's teachers and students. She came full circle Wednesday when she gave her final CMS State of Our Schools address at Vance High School where she was once the princip

Superintendent Ann Clark’s final State of Our Schools message ended Wednesday with a tribute to Tinkerbell.

Clark, who will retire next year after 34 years with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, gathered dozens of educators and community leaders at Vance High for her annual wrap-up. The theme was “believe,” and Clark let student speakers drive home the message.

She gave the final word to Northwest School of the Arts eighth-grader Keyon Pickett, who evoked the famous “clap if you believe in fairies” scene from the play “Peter Pan.”

“Why would you believe in your students?” he asked. “Well, because we’re the future teachers, educators, community leaders, inventors, artists that will shape the success of our society.”

“Today,” he said, “I want you to clap your hands if you believe in me.”

The rest of his words were drowned out in whoops and applause.

Of course, Clark and other adults also had something to say about a district that serves more than 147,000 students. Here are five takeaways.

1. Clark sees reversing school segregation as her legacy.

Clark said she chose Vance for Wednesday’s event because she had been the principal who opened it almost 20 years ago.

“I was (still) the principal at Vance High School in 2001, when our student assignment plan literally transformed the school,” she said. “I have watched, for the last 16 years, as our school system has resegregated.”

She referred to the changes that took place after a series of court orders overturned race-based assignment. The neighborhood-based plan that emerged led to high concentrations of poverty in a wide band of schools where black and Hispanic students are the majority. Meanwhile, many suburban schools are majority white and have low poverty.

The school board recently voted unanimously for a new magnet lottery system that will use socioeconomic status in an attempt to reduce concentrations of disadvantaged students. The board is now moving into a second phase of the student assignment review, focusing on neighborhood schools.

“One of the reasons I wanted to stay and lead this amazing district was because I saw this moment,” Clark said. “I believe there is an incredible will in this community to do student assignment really well.”

2. CMS has earned some bragging rights.

Clark talked about a seven-year streak of rising graduation rates, with 89.6 percent of last year’s class graduating on time. She also noted that in 2016 CMS saw more schools earn top grades from the state, based on student performance on exams. The number of schools graded F has dropped to five, and more than half of the district’s 163 schools topped the state’s targets for student growth.

She noted that CMS’ performance topped the state average and other large districts on almost every measure. On growth, “we didn’t just lead ... we left our competition in the dust,” Clark said.

3. The diploma isn’t the real goal.

While celebrating the graduation rate and vowing to hit 100 percent, Clark noted that a diploma is only meaningful if students are prepared for college, the work force or the military.

“Our overarching goal is to prepare our students for success later in life,” she said. “Raising the graduation rate is very important, but we want that diploma to be a passport to later success, a meaningful measure of what a student has learned and can do.”

She brought up half a dozen seniors and recent graduates to talk about earning college credits, scholarships and vocational training that helped them get jobs. Among them was Zabdi Samuel Olvera, a West Mecklenburg High senior who talked about his difficult childhood and his life as “one of 11 million undocumented students living in the United States.”

The crowd rose to its feet as he talked about earning a Golden Door Scholarship that let him tell his father he can now afford to go to Davidson College.

“OK, folks, I hope we’re really clear now,” Clark said, “that this is why we support public education and this is why we are proud to be a part of CMS.”

4. Community partners are key.

Clark lauded the work of numerous community partners, from UrbanPromise Charlotte, a Christian group that provided support for Olvera, to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, which is working with CMS to boost literacy and make sure all students have access to library material.

She also noted the revival of the CMS Foundation, which is gearing up to increase volunteers, bring in more donations and “create a culture of schoolanthropy.”

5. The school board is looking ahead.

Board Chair Mary McCray celebrated the board’s “remarkable journey over the past 18 months,” including “a very successful search for a new superintendent.”

The board met privately for almost 12 hours on Monday interviewing two finalists for the job. It’s unclear whether members have agreed on a favorite; McCray has said the board will make an announcement only after members make a choice and the candidate accepts the district’s offer.

“We’re looking forward to an even better year in 2017 as we welcome a new leader to the district,” McCray said.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms