CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The school closings that took effect last year will save Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools millions in the long run, but brought mixed academic results for students, according to a report presented to the school board Tuesday.
Then-Superintendent Peter Gorman and the school board approved the closings in fall 2010, effective in 2011-12. They said the closings would save money that could help avert teacher layoffs. The new settings were also supposed to provide better academic opportunities for students.
Superintendent Heath Morrison told the board Tuesday it’s too early to declare the changes a success or failure, but it’s important to present the first year’s data.
“Some of the data looks promising. Some of the data looks discouraging,” Morrison said. “It is a one-year snapshot.”
The report focused most intently on eight combined elementary-middle schools created last year to take students from three closed middle schools. Academic results varied widely by school, subject and grade level, in ways that defied easy analysis. Morrison and his new chief accountability officer, Frank Barnes, cautioned that gains or drops in test scores aren’t necessarily caused by the new settings.
But one thing was clear: Students who struggled in the old high-poverty middle schools are still struggling in the new pre-K-8 schools. In six of the eight, fewer than half the middle school students passed last year’s state reading exams, the report showed.
“The reading is terrible,” said board member Richard McElrath, a retired middle school teacher. “I voted for it and I pray that it works, because if this doesn’t work, what are we going to do for these kids who can’t read?”
Jan McIver, principal of Thomasboro Academy, told the board about having to help close Spaugh Middle and open the new pre-K-8.
“I do believe that the positives outweigh the negatives,” she said. “I do believe it was the best thing for my students.”
Costs and savings
CMS spent $6.9 million revamping buildings, moving mobile classrooms and otherwise getting ready for last year’s mergers and moves. But it is saving $5.2 million a year on support staff, utilities and other costs for the buildings that closed, the report shows.
The closings let CMS avoid $138 million in renovation costs, including $10.7 million that was in the 2007 bond package for Amay James prekindergarten and Davidson IB Middle School. The rest, including an estimated $70 million to replace or renovate three center-city middle schools that closed, would have come up in future bond campaigns.
“The takeaway from this is that the plan saves us money,” planner Scott McCully said in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting.
Board member Joyce Waddell questioned whether the report looked at all costs, such as a federal improvement grant for Waddell High that CMS forfeited when it decided to close the school.
McIver said she and her fellow principals would like to see opportunities for their schools to host athletic teams. Now, students who want to play sports must travel to full-sized middle schools. McIver said that makes it hard to build school pride.
Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark said CMS will study that, including the possibility of added costs for creating sports facilities.
The most controversial closings were those that affected thousands of students, most of them African Americans from low-income families, attending Waddell High and Spaugh, Wilson and Williams middle schools. The decision to close those schools brought protests and accusations of racism. Critics said closing schools would devastate already fragile neighborhoods, and accused CMS leaders of failing to properly prepare for the upheaval they were creating.
The report acknowledges that CMS underestimated enrollment at many of the elementary schools that added prekindergarten and middle school grades to absorb students from closed schools. Many of them went from being far below capacity to needing mobile classrooms. So did Harding High, which absorbed most of the Waddell students.
Clark said that’s partly because the CMS formula that provides more teachers for high-poverty schools creates a need for more classrooms.
Data on discipline at the merged schools was not released Tuesday because it hasn’t been verified by the state, Morrison and Barnes said.
“I can tell you right now that is not going to be a positive piece of data,” Morrison said.
Test scores vary
Harding saw a huge drop in pass rates on state exams. For instance, 94 percent passed the Algebra I exam in 2011, compared with 50 percent in 2012. That was expected, because the school went from being a magnet that only accepted students who arrived on grade level to a neighborhood school serving students who had struggled at Waddell.
Barnes said CMS did not compare results for the International Baccalaureate magnet students who remained at Harding last year and those from the previous year.
Results at the eight newly-created preK-8 schools varied widely by school and grade level. Most of the eight saw gains in elementary school reading proficiency but slumped in math, according to the report. Math proficiency ranged from 37 percent at Westerly Hills to 83 percent at Berryhill. Reading proficiency ranged from 39 percent at Bruns to 67 percent at Berryhill.
Barnes also analyzed results for individual students at the preK-8 schools. Last year’s fourth and fifth-graders, who stayed at elementary schools that changed, saw slight gains in the percentage who were proficient in reading and math. Sixth-graders, who stayed at their old schools but became middle schoolers, dropped in math but rose in reading.
Seventh- and eighth-graders, who moved from middle schools to the new merged schools, rose in math but were flat in reading.
Board Chairman Ericka Ellis-Stewart, who criticized the closings as a CMS parent before being elected to the board in 2011, said CMS needs to do more to get feedback from parents affected by the change.
“I’m really interested in what have we learned?” Ellis-Stewart asked. “What will we do differently? What will we replicate?”
Morrison said much analysis remains to be done. He said he’ll present the one-year report in the community and continue with annual updates.
He said he’s been asked about the closings since he was hired in April. The two most frequent questions: Will he consider reopening any of the schools, and will he create more pre-K-8 schools?
Morrison said he’ll consider both, but he sounded more enthusiastic about replicating the combined elementary-middle schools. “I’m very much a person who believes in K-8 as a model,” he said.