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October 2005
CMS Schools Need More Focus on Excellence
By John Paul Galles

In March of this year, Foundation For The Carolinas convened a task force of citizen leaders to oversee a study focusing on structure and governance requirements for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School system (CMS) funded with approximately $500,000 pledged by a consortium of donors.

With over 118,000 students enrolled, CMS is the 23rd largest school district in the U.S. and the largest in the Carolinas. Enrollment is expected to increase by another 50,000 students over the next decade. The task force is focusing on two strategic questions. First, what is the ideal governance model for our public school system? Second, what is the ideal school management structure required to serve a rapidly growing Mecklenburg County?

The task force has already held three town hall meetings. Summaries of the feedback from those meetings are incredibly outspoken and clear. A consensus of feedback has centered on teachers’ distrust of CMS administration and the dysfunctional nature of our existing school board. Poor communication and bureaucracy have been repeatedly offered as obstacles to an improved CMS operation.

Exacerbated by the exponential growth, debate over inadequate facilities and student assignment plans is significant. Hopefully, though, these concerns will not distract from our determination to find and implement innovative and best practices from around the world to improve the operation of our schools and the success of the learning process itself.

One such example of innovative thinking is being implemented system-wide by the Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS). With about 40,000 students and five high schools, IPS is carving those high schools into 24 small academies in a sweeping reform to boost the scores and radically improve graduation rates. The new smaller schools operate in the existing buildings with the existing teachers.

Each new high school is organized around themes such as health and wellness, science and technology, leadership and the arts and each operates with only a few hundred students. Those students have the same teachers all four years with an integrated curriculum tailored specifically for student advancement.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is backing the project, suggesting that going small is the key to making sure these high schools are successful. They want campuses where every student is known by name and no one slips through unnoticed.

To its credit, CMS is already testing this model with a grant of $350,000 from the Gates Foundation at Olympic High School. There they have broken students and teachers into five smaller schools within the larger school facility.

Olympic principal Pamela Espinosa maintains that, with the increasing globalization, it is imperative that education in the United States change. She says that the current education model “is very archaic... built upon the agricultural and industrial society of the past,” and indicates that today’s student must learn how to deconstruct and solve problems. Education must look “completely different,” in her words, and soon if the United States is to compete with other nations.

According to Espinosa, “The heart of reform and the essence is how we change teaching and learning.”

Currently, Olympic is the only school in North Carolina participating in the program funded by the Gates Foundation. School officials will be studying the “schools within a school” concept during the course of the 2005-2006 school year.

Fearful of fads within education like the open schooling concepts of the ’80s, CMS superintendent Haithcock cautions that results are not yet conclusive that this smaller school concept will be beneficial. Among other things, she is anxious to do more to encourage and support teacher planning and preparation.

To be sure, CMS needs more than an optimal governance model and structure to meet the needs of this school system. It needs leadership that works together, communicates well and is able to reach a consensus and effectively execute appropriate action, moving forward with new and different ideas for improving students’ performance. And it needs to be aggressive in seeking new ways of preparing students for the demands of this increasingly globalized world.

John Paul Galles is the publisher of Greater Charlotte Biz.
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