By Robert E. Pierre
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2007
CHARLOTTE -- Senior Jasmine Weiss is an educator's dream, an A-plus student who is captain of the basketball team and drum major of her school's marching band. Colleges collectively are offering her $3 million worth of academic scholarships.
Weiss might be just the kind of success story that D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) had in mind when he presented his education strategy to the D.C. Council -- in a document that his staff lifted in part from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.
She is the beneficiary of a school system that is considered one of the best in the nation at educating minority students. Even at such poor-performing schools as West Charlotte High, where Weiss, 17, attends, there are programs to nurture highly motivated students.
"My whole family went here," said Weiss, who has always taken advanced courses. "The course work is hard. I don't think you can judge a school based only on test scores."
Although there is plenty to admire about Charlotte's schools, there is also a growing chorus of critics who question whether Charlotte's successes reach beyond an academic elite.
Charlotte's students overall perform well in elementary school, for instance, but those gains largely disappear by high school, where many arrive needing remedial work. In the latest round of statewide tests, the yawning achievement gap between black and white students widened.
It is also unclear how much Charlotte's experience applies to the District. Charlotte's sprawling system of 129,000 students has more than twice as many pupils as the District and includes suburban and rural schools. The District's enrollment has declined for more than a decade; Charlotte is growing by 5,000 students a year. In national tests, Charlotte's fourth- and eighth-graders topped the list for urban schools in reading and math, while the District brought up the rear.
These differences raise questions in Washington about whether Charlotte's performance is broad enough or relevant enough for the Fenty administration to follow. Victor Reinoso, deputy mayor for education, who took responsibility for the copying, said he did not visit Charlotte or talk to educators here while preparing the D.C. strategy. Nearly one-third of that strategy was directly lifted from Charlotte's plan.
At West Charlotte High, considered one of North Carolina's poorest-performing high schools, the racial makeup (88 percent black) and poverty rate (75 percent) are close to those of some District schools, but the campuses feel worlds apart.
West Charlotte's 50-acre campus allows students and visitors to roam freely between numerous buildings patrolled by security officers in golf carts or on foot. There are no metal detectors like those in D.C. high schools. And unlike the crumbling infrastructure in many District schools, West Charlotte has a functioning pool, theater and beauty salon in addition to classrooms.
Yet in Charlotte, critics ask how the system can be a model with so many unresolved problems, such as racial testing disparities, poor parent involvement and a dearth of qualified teachers at underperforming schools. Last fall, for instance, after North Carolina instituted tougher math tests, black and Hispanic students -- many of them poor -- had pass rates up to 40 percentage points lower than whites.
Two years ago, a local judge accused Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools of "academic genocide" and said 10 of the school system's 17 high schools needed major changes to bring up "dismal" test scores. Those schools continue to struggle.
Superintendent Peter Gorman, who arrived less than a year ago, is implementing a plan to boost failing schools by giving principals at low-performing schools first dibs on good teachers and discretion to fire nonperformers. Entire school staffs can receive extra pay if student performance improves. Many of the items copied in Fenty's plan -- including expanded middle school programs, partnering with a university to provide exposure to college, chances for high-schoolers to earn associate degrees -- are so new that they either have not been started or are just getting staffed up.
How effective those programs will be is uncertain. "No large urban district has closed the achievement gap," Gorman said. "However, there are individual schools and clusters of schools where it has happened. In those cases, it can all be traced back to people. We're looking for the best people."
But finding the best people often results in a churn in the superintendent ranks. Gorman is Charlotte's fourth superintendent in four years. The District has had six superintendents or acting superintendents in 10 years, and there is persistent speculation that Fenty wants to replace Superintendent Clifford B. Janey. Gorman's boss is a nine-member elected school board, and there is no discussion of a mayoral takeover. Seven mayors are within the school district boundaries.
Gorman has staked a large part of his credibility on a newly created "achievement zone" of 10 high schools and a soon-to-open "Eight Plus" academy, where eighth-graders underprepared to enter high school will be sent for a year of remediation. The Fenty plan also has an "Eight Plus" proposal.
One of those targeted schools is West Charlotte, which was considered the pride of the black community when it opened in 1938 -- much like the role the District's Dunbar Senior High School once played.
"We were the flagship," said Mabel Latimer, 72, who graduated from West Charlotte in 1952. "We had adult parents raising children. We listened. We knew if something happened at school, they would call our parents."
Three great-grandsons attend West Charlotte, but Latimer said her alma mater, which integrated decades ago but is nearly back to its previous all-black status, is hurting. Three-quarters of the 1,600 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. And although the freshman class numbers 650, fewer than 250 are in this year's senior class, in part because of dropouts.
Just as in the District, the problems, said Principal John Modest Jr., start in grade school, where students are being passed along before they have mastered basic skills. Sixty-seven percent of West Charlotte ninth-graders arrive each year reading below grade level, he said.
"If you've got 300 to 400 students each year who are not proficient in reading and math, that's how you become a low-performing school," he said.
One of the Charlotte system's notable attributes is that although some parents have fled, many middle-class white and black families remain, fighting for better schools.
At West Charlotte, Kimmie Weiss's daughter, Jasmine, is among six students expected to receive a prestigious International Baccalaureate diploma this year. She thinks others could be just as successful with help.
"All students can excel if the right resources are in place," Kimmie Weiss said.