Your Schools

CMS crunches numbers on how to support its neediest schools

Schools like Thomasboro Academy get extra teachers from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools based on the poverty level.
Schools like Thomasboro Academy get extra teachers from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools based on the poverty level. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Leaders of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools have started crafting an arcane formula with big implications for students, teachers and taxpayers.

It will be used to assign additional teachers to schools with the greatest need. Figuring out how to measure that need is the task the school board began on Tuesday and will return to Nov. 10.

The idea behind the number crunching is that Mecklenburg County taxpayers hire additional teachers to ensure that kids who need the most help have a fair shot at success, whether their struggles come from hunger, trauma, disability, family factors or neighborhood distractions.

“These teachers need relief in the classroom,” said school board member Ruby Jones, a retired teacher and administrator. “I’ve been in these classes. I’ve mentored in them. It’s an almost impossible task.”

For years CMS has assigned extra faculty based on poverty, as measured by students who qualify for federal lunch subsidies. But since CMS started providing free lunches for all students in 74 of its 168 schools, those numbers have become inconsistent and unreliable.

Test scores would seem to be the obvious substitute. After all, school poverty is viewed as a good indicator of academic need because it tracks the rate of failure on state exams.

But consider a principal getting a message that goes something like this: “Congratulations on your school’s improvement. You’ll be losing two teachers next year ...”

So the current thinking is to look at students whose families qualify for food stamps or other financial assistance. Those numbers come to CMS from outside agencies that verify eligibility.

Another factor officials are looking at is the percentage of students who arrive at a middle or high school performing below grade level – a twist on test scores that doesn’t penalize those schools if they help students catch up.

We’re actually seeing a reverse achievement gap.

Consultant Jonathan Travers, comparing performance of poor kids in low-poverty schools with nonpoor kids in high-poverty schools

Jonathan Travers, a consultant with Education Resource Strategies, brought up another variable: The higher the concentration of poverty in a school, the worse students perform. In CMS’ lowest-poverty schools, 59 percent of low-income students and 86 percent of those who didn’t qualify for lunch aid passed exams in 2014, according to a graph Travers showed the board. In the highest-poverty schools, 35 percent of low-income students and 46 percent of nonpoor students passed.

In other words, low-income students in the more affluent schools do better than middle-class students in schools where most of their classmates come from poverty. “We’re actually seeing a reverse achievement gap,” Travers said.

Board members voiced support for crafting a new formula and continuing the extra staffing for high-needs schools. But many also aired frustration that so far the progress at the most challenged schools has been slow.

I feel like a lot of our children have a gap before they ever grace our doors. They’re born in a gap.

CMS board Chairwoman Mary McCray

“We’ve only made incremental change with student achievement under the current allocation process. Is what we’re proposing enough to move the needle significantly? ... It seems like it might not be,” said Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who asked for a plan to “really blow it out of the water.”

Rhonda Lennon said the district needs to keep shifting support to the neediest schools, even if some of the north suburban schools she represents don’t benefit. “We need to put the money where the children have the needs academically, as well as socioeconomically,” she said.

Tom Tate questioned whether it’s possible to spend enough money to give students at high-poverty schools a fair shot. Part of the solution, he said, may lie in an ongoing review of student assignment.

“It’s been awfully difficult to figure out how to make a difference in the highest concentration of poverty schools, if we’re going to continue having schools like that,” he said.

Board Chairwoman Mary McCray, a retired teacher, said many students’ problems start before they reach school. “It’s going to take more than us to assist with getting rid of some of these gaps,” she said.

Eventually, she said, if the additional support doesn’t pay off, CMS needs to be candid about it and try a whole new approach.

“Are we going to have the guts to say, ‘Community, this is not working’?” McCray asked.

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

Learn more

To learn more about proposals for CMS teacher allocation formulas, go to www.cms.k12.nc.us/boe/Pages/SchoolBoardMeetings.aspx The slides used in the presentation are part of the Oct. 27 agenda; click “Student Weighted Staffing Redesign Project.”

The meeting did not air live because it was in a different location, but the video is posted. Go to “Board meetings – live via video streaming” and choose the longer video dated Oct. 28. Discussion of the formula starts at 1 hour 7 minutes.

The school board is scheduled to approve a new formula at its Nov. 10 meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.

  Comments