Year-round school seemed so promising. So why did CMS just kill it?

Families who wanted to see Bruns Academy switch from a continuous learning calendar, or CLC, to a traditional late August start date showed up with signs at Tuesday’s school board meeting.
Families who wanted to see Bruns Academy switch from a continuous learning calendar, or CLC, to a traditional late August start date showed up with signs at Tuesday’s school board meeting.

Six years ago, it seemed obvious that students in high-poverty schools would benefit from year-round school, designed to keep their skills from slipping during a long summer break.

But after a trial run at four Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools produced no measurable gains, it seemed equally obvious to some that the district should stop spending $830,000 a year to keep that program alive.

This week brought a lesson in why nothing in public education is as simple as it seems.

The school board voted to end year-round calendars at the four schools. Starting this summer, about 1,700 students at Bruns, Byers, Druid Hills and Thomasboro will report for classes in late August, along with the rest of the state’s public schools, instead of mid-July.

But that happened only after members weighed difficult choices, lamented disappointing outcomes and got thoroughly tangled up in their own voting process.

“It makes so much sense to me,” said Vice Chair Elyse Dashew, who recalled applauding the start of the year-round experiment. “I wish the whole state worked this way.”

But it doesn’t, and most agree that part of the problem with an alternative calendar at four schools was that families and employees could end up with clashing calendars if they also have children at any of the 171 CMS schools that start in August.

Complaints from some families in the Bruns zone sparked the vote on ending year-round school.

A no-brainer?

When private donors pledged $50 million to boost achievement at West Charlotte High and eight feeder schools, one of their focuses was providing more instruction time. Project LIFT (for Leadership and Investment for Transformation) got special permission from the General Assembly to experiment with year-round calendars.

Educators and advocates watched with high hopes as two elementary/middle schools got an extra 19 days of class — the donors footed the $2 million-a-year bill — and two others stuck to the standard 180 days but spread it out from July to June, with fall and spring breaks.

It seemed like an obvious solution to the well-documented national phenomenon of summer learning loss. Many students see their test scores slip between the end of one school year and the start of another, but the slump is greatest among students who don’t have access to books, summer camps and other enrichment during the summer.

The first year-round school bells rang in July 2013.

In 2017, an independent report comparing the four year-round schools with other CMS schools serving disadvantaged students brought disappointing news. Neither the shorter summer breaks nor the extra time produced measurable academic gains after three years, the Observer reported at the time.

The Project LIFT board stopped spending $2 million a year to provide the 19 extra school days, but CMS continued the July-to-June schedule at all four schools.

Until Tuesday, that was the plan for 2019-20 as well.

Challenge from parents

Denise Watts, the CMS administrator in charge of Project LIFT schools, has repeatedly noted that the four schools were selected for year-round calendars because they were most in need of help. Poverty was so entrenched in those zones and academic disadvantages went so deep that there was no real comparison, even to other high-poverty CMS schools, she said.

But the Biddleville neighborhood in the Bruns zone has begun to change. Newer, bigger homes are rising on the site of old ones and white residents are streaming into what was once a black neighborhood, the Observer has reported.

Some of those families have tried to rally around Bruns as their neighborhood school. But they said the July start date was a deterrent that wasn’t helping any of the students. For months they’ve lobbied the school board to scrap that schedule, also known as a continuous learning calendar.

Some have described their quest as an attempt by more affluent families to reshape Bruns for their own convenience. “Looks like power and privilege won out,” a West Charlotte High educator wrote on Facebook after Tuesday’s vote.

Josh Robertson, the white father of a Bruns kindergartener, acknowledged the racial and class tension at the board’s Feb. 12 meeting. He said the educators at Bruns are “fighting to repair a broken school and save generations of our kids,” and noted that he’s helping by volunteering in several classrooms.

“Are the critics there? No,” he told the board. “Then I would ask before they offer criticism about the color of my skin or the size of my house that they spend some time at my school.”

At that meeting, the board directed Superintendent Clayton Wilcox to come back Tuesday with a report on the year-round calendars. His recommendation: Keep the July-to-June schedule for 2019-20, then end it.

New data on costs, attendance

Wilcox and Watts told the board Tuesday that employees had already been told to plan for a July start. Pushing it back by six weeks would delay paychecks they may have budgeted for, they said.

Likewise, parents who entered the magnet lottery for programs at Bruns and Byers had done so with the understanding that school would start in July.

The report brought a new tally of the cost of the alternative calendar: $830,000 for 1,730 students, spent on transportation, salaries and academic enrichment camps offered during breaks.

It also brought confirmation of a long-discussed concern: A significant number of students don’t show up in July. Attendance at the four schools averaged 82 percent in July, compared with 95 percent during the months when all CMS students are in school.

That means hundreds of students are missing as many as 20 days of the 180-day year, Watts acknowledged. That’s a level that classifies as chronic absenteeism, even if they never miss another day, and is considered a major marker of academic risk.

Watts told the board that even though there’s no hard evidence of academic benefits, teachers and principals have told her there’s value that can’t be measured. For instance, she said, educators say their students are better off during the summer because they “have a shorter summer to possibly get in trouble, be in the neighborhood with unstructured opportunities.” And she said most parents support the year-round schedule.

What did we just do?

School board member Sean Strain moved to end the year-round schedule immediately. That’s when things got confusing.

With members Rhonda Cheek and Ericka Ellis-Stewart absent, the board split 3-3. Ruby Jones and Thelma Byers-Bailey sided with Strain, while Dashew, Carol Sawyer and Margaret Marshall voted to keep the alternative calendar in place for one more year.

Board Chair Mary McCray abstained, saying no one had asked for her view before the meeting and “I wanted to see how the vote was going to fall.”

She first announced that her abstention meant the superintendent’s recommendation for one more year would stand. Then, after prompting from Dashew, she revised it to say it meant that Strain’s motion had passed 4-3, ending the year-round program immediately.

“That is correct, isn’t it?” McCray asked. “We are ending it. The (year-round calendar) will end.”

But about 30 minutes later, as the board finished the last agenda item, McCray said CMS lawyer Andre May had advised her that the abstention actually meant Strain’s motion had failed and the board hadn’t settled anything.

They tried again, and eventually the vote was 5-2 to pull the plug immediately. McCray and Marshall joined the three who had voted for Strain’s plan.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.