News: Charlotte Exclusives

The Lords of Indiscipline

CMS still in denial over behavior problems in schools

All one can conclude from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ latest attempt at a plan to deal with chronically under-performing schools is that let’s hope Judge Howard Manning Jr. gets better answers than the elected school board. Dr. James Pughsley and staff effectively punted when given the opportunity to explain exactly how CMS intends to improve its weakest links.

Pughsley disavowed published reports that the cost of bringing the targeted schools up to par would be $52 million, or roughly a cool million more for each of the system’s 51 high-poverty Equity Plus schools. Instead of giving the board, or the public for that matter, any idea of what needed reforms might cost, Pughsley trotted out a laundry list of new staffing and resource plans with no firm indication of how they would improve student performance.

Sadly, some of the proposals just do not pass the smell test. For example, the idea that that class sizes in targeted schools can be reduced to 15 or 16 students is absurd. It will never happen. Besides, assume a teacher’s aide in classrooms of that size and you’ve moved from teaching to tutoring, which is still a tacit admission that CMS cannot actually teach some of its youngsters.

The only real action CMS seems prepared to take is lining up school board support for a possible Pughsley directive that would force experienced teachers across the system into the lowest performing schools; a gambit that has quickly become the silver bullet for all that ails CMS. Setting aside the questionable assumptions upon which this notion rests, it is obvious that CMS plans to game the system should this drastic move ever be undertaken. CMS will have an even greater incentive to deny that there are serious discipline problems in the low-performing schools as ordering experienced teachers in these schools is supposed to fix all the problems.

It is not difficult to see how things might proceed even after the promised new support staff and security is added to low-performing schools. Teachers “drafted” into those schools and who still have security concerns will first be ignored by the Ed Center, then told there’s actually no problem, then told there might be a problem, then told a fix is on the way…Whoops! Those teachers’ three-year tour of duty is over, time to start the string-along process with a new crop of draftees. CMS never has to actually do anything to address those concerns.

However, the discipline problems are real. Evidently weary of getting scooped by Creative Loafing and The Rhino Times on the topic of lax school discipline and poor school performance, The Charlotte Observer finally waded into the CMS info vault with Freedom of Information requests. The result is data that backs up what CMS teachers have said all along, that a small number of repeat offenders play havoc with the classroom setting, and that CMS keeps routing them back to the classroom.

CMS handed out 52,600 suspensions last year, with a few hundred students accounting for more than 5,000 of them. One student was suspended 31 times and some 450 others suspended at least 10 times. This is madness. If the first, oh, half-dozen suspensions do not produce a change in behavior why continue? Why continue to subject teachers and other students to continued disruptions? Despite pressure from elected officials, parents, and teachers, and now some belated media attention, CMS refuses to give a coherent answer to this vital question.

This intransigence on the discipline issue is destined to limit any hope of real improvement for the schools that need it the most. Consider that after Pughsley’s newly proposed professional headhunting and national searches are done and what are presumably very well-paid and talented principals for low-performing schools are in place, they would be handcuffed by CMS regs which hands all discipline decisions beyond a 10-day suspension to top CMS administrators downtown. This makes no sense. You declare an emergency to force your best teachers in failing schools, spend millions on additional programs and staff, and hire the best principals you can find only to deny them full control over their schools?

If CMS and Pughsley were truly serious about radically improving the learning environment at the system’s weakest schools those principals would be given the power to be judge and jury for chronically disruptive students. The school board would still have to approve a principal’s recommendation for expulsion, but that recommendation could not be intercepted and reversed by an Ed Center bureaucrat.

More importantly, suspensions of longer than 10-days, or exclusions, or perhaps a stint at a final-chance alternative school, should be at the sole discretion of principals. Perhaps that way the farce of dozens of 10-day suspensions can be avoided when real, long-term consequences can be handed out by empowered school administrators.