CMS Beacon plan will target 14 low-performing schools for change

Amid a swirl of uncertainty about state testing and school letter grades, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is about to release its own list of 14 chronically struggling schools that will be targeted for intensive aid.

The Beacon Initiative will be the latest entry in a parade of projects to turn schools in impoverished neighborhoods into citadels of academic achievement. Most, in CMS and across the country, fade after a few years, when money runs out, leaders change or results prove elusive.

CMS has earned national attention for efforts such as Project LIFT, an effort to improve West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools; and strategic staffing, which brings successful principals into low-performing schools. Superintendent Heath Morrison says his effort will build on those launched by predecessors.

But unlike most “school turnaround” programs, Morrison said, this won’t start with a prescription or a menu of options. Instead, he said, the first few months of the 2014-15 school year will be spent studying the needs of each school to craft individual long-term strategies.

“We can’t have any schools that are chronically underperforming and are failing to serve our children,” he said recently. The “beacon” name was chosen because “we want to shine a light on schools that need additional support.”

Morrison plans to name the schools and spell out details in August.

Trends are clear

The timing may seem odd. Test scores for 2014 haven’t been released. The state is still working out plans to issue A-F letter grades for schools based on those results. Recent changes in state exams and the way they’re scored have created fluctuations in proficiency rates.

But administrators have reviewed several years of data, and Morrison said it’s clear which schools have consistently fallen short on mastery of academic skills and measures of student progress.

Those schools almost always serve large numbers of students facing poverty and its accompanying hardships, from dangerous neighborhoods and unstable homes to the challenge of attracting top teachers to schools that get a bad reputation.

But some such schools have made consistent progress, even if their students don’t always pass state exams, Morrison said. Those schools won’t land on the Beacon list, he said, even though they may get Ds or Fs from the state based on low proficiency.

Paul Pratt, longtime principal of Berryhill School, was among the panel of administrators who drew up plans for the Beacon Initiative. The preK-8 school on Mecklenburg’s western border, where almost 90 percent of students come from low-income homes, consistently outperforms other high-poverty schools. The 2013 proficiency rating was just over 40 percent, but the school earned an extremely high growth rating for student gains.

The next level

CMS is viewed as a national leader in efforts to improve struggling schools. The district won the 2011 Broad Prize for Urban Education.

In 2008, then-Superintendent Peter Gorman launched a strategic staffing initiative, which brought new principals with a track record of success into low-performing schools. Those principals had a chance to oust unsuccessful teachers, with recruitment bonuses provided to bring in a new team. The goal was to produce major improvements in three years.

Soon after the first year ended, the program was earning national acclaim. But most “strategic staffing” schools performed no better than other high-poverty CMS schools, and some early gains faded. By the end of the third year, Gorman had resigned to take a job with a private education company.

Project LIFT, for Leadership and Investment for Transformation, brought $55 million in private pledges. The five-year project enters its third year in 2014-15. Some early signs are promising, including a jump in West Charlotte’s 2013 graduation rate, but data remains inconclusive so far.

Kelly Gwaltney, CMS’ chief school performance officer, said the Beacon initiative will build on both of those efforts. Some Project LIFT schools may be on the Beacon list, helping them plan for years after the private money runs out, Morrison said.

In April, CMS put out a call for a partner to help with the research and planning. Universities, consultants and private companies have submitted proposals for how they could help. Selection of a partner will be part of the August unveiling.

The plan calls for a “deep needs analysis” to be completed by January, so any requests for extra money in 2015-16 can be part of that year’s budget planning.

Morrison said he doesn’t plan to replace principals at all the Beacon schools. Some have been appointed in the past year or two and made a good start, he said, but need help with a long-term strategy.