Con­cerns over year-round school ben­e­fits led to board’s de­ci­sion

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Local - BY ANN DOSS HELMS [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

Six years ago, it seemed ob­vi­ous that stu­dents in high-poverty schools would ben­e­fit from year­round 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.

Last 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 midJuly.

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 end- ing 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-toJune sched­ule for 201920, then end it.

NEW DATA ON COSTS, AT­TEN­DANCE

Wil­cox andWatts 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 year­round 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 El­lisSte­wart 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 (year­round 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.

IN 2017, AN IN­DE­PEN­DENT RE­PORT COM­PAR­ING THE FOUR YEAR-ROUND SCHOOLS WITH OTHER CMS SCHOOLS SERV­ING DIS­AD­VAN­TAGED STU­DENTS FOUND THAT NEI­THER THE SHORTER SUM­MER BREAKS NOR THE EX­TRA TIME PRO­DUCED MEA­SUR­ABLE ACA­DEMIC GAINS AF­TER THREE YEARS.

ANN DOSS HELMS [email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

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.

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