Grading Asheville’s schools

On the heels of the start of another school year, Asheville City Schools administrators are poised to release an assessment of the school system’s progress toward meeting goals the school board set last year at its annual retreat in Boone.

But before the report — tentatively titled “The Annual Report of School Progress” — has even been released, critics, activists and longtime school-system watchers are raising their eyebrows and sounding skeptical. Some question whether the report will even be made available to the public. Others predict that its figures will be misleading and the results doubtful.

At the same time, however, spokespersons for the city schools are touting both the report and the goals that are its basis (collectively identified as the Strategic Plan for Excellent Schools) as direct evidence of the system’s renewed dedication to excellence and honest communication.

“Our philosophy is to be open,” says Asheville City Schools Superintendent Karen Campbell. “We have no secret information here, other than that which relates specifically to the [individual] children.”

But Bob Smith, executive director of the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council and a member of the city schools’ Minority Achievement Task Force, sounded a different note that echoed the feelings of many people interviewed for this story.

“I’ve had a difficult time getting information from [the school system],” he said, indicating that he’d had to take requests for what was supposed to be public information all the way to Raleigh to get results. “It’s like there’s a wall of silence [in the school system that] you have to pierce to see what the situation is, before you can attempt to correct it.” When informed of the administration’s intent to evaluate its progress openly, he chuckled, saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

In the meantime, it’s as if a battle line had been drawn in the sand. On one side stands the school system, promising honesty and a renewed commitment to quality education. On the other side are weary, sometimes wary, activists and parents who say they’ve heard that same pledge many times over the years, to no avail.

Before the city schools go public with their self-evaluation, though, Xpress thought it might prove interesting to see how the two sides would rate the school system’s progress toward achieving the goals it set for itself this year.

The preliminary figures are in from the Asheville City Schools, giving some indication of what the report will likely say.

And, to gauge the sentiment on the other side, Xpress interviewed 17 parents, activists, students and teachers representing a wide range of involvement with the schools. Each of these people wrote the system a “report card.” To create composite scores, the highest and lowest scores were tossed out and the rest were averaged, in order to refect how the bulk of the respondents felt.

The school board’s stated goals were broken down into six main categories addressing a variety of problem areas, ranging from student performance to teacher incentives. Following each category are a number of specific objectives.

Here are the results. Each of the school board’s stated goals is presented, followed by some of the specific objectives, as well as comments from both sides. Interestingly, the respective ratings differed significantly in only one area — increasing student achievement.

Strategic Goal 1: Increase student achievement.

Objectives:

• Increase the number of minority students passing the AP and honors classes by 10 percent and the number registering for those classes by 25 percent.

• Increase by 10 percent the number of students in grades 4, 7 and 10 who pass the North Carolina Writing Test.

• Increase to 90 percent the percentage of eighth-grade students passing the Computer Competency Test.

• Schools not meeting expected growth in 1997-98 will meet expected growth (the progress students are expected to achieve in one school year) in the 1998-99 year. Schools meeting expected growth in the 1997-98 year will achieve exemplary growth (expected growth plus 10 percent) in the 1998-99 year.]

Suzanne Elms, who has watched her four children work their way through the Asheville City Schools, had mixed emotions about the past year. “My son spent about two-thirds of his freshman year reviewing seventh- and eighth-grade math,” she said, noting her disappointment. “I even contacted the head of the math department about it, because he wasn’t learning anything new, just reviewing from the years past. On the other hand, we could not have asked for a better history teacher: Mr. Williams was excellent.”

Bob Smith agreed about the past school year’s roller-coaster feel, saying that some areas had seen improvement, but that others still needed work. “I’d give them a passing grade,” he said. “Still, I’d like to see an effort from them to be more inclusive and help kids achieve.”

Another parent, who did not wish to be identified, indicated that this past year had not been as good for her child as previous years. “I know this is very subjective,” she said. “But the school system was just not there for my child this year.”

Some questioned both the way achievement was measured and the impact of attaching too much significance to test scores. Kathy Fox, who has two children in the system, took issue with the emphasis on test results. “What I see is a worsening of the pressure to succeed on specific tests,” she said. “My children are not learning to read and write: They’re learning to take a test. Rather than learning the fundamentals of math, reading and writing, they go to school and practice to take a test. They [the school system] also expect a parent to do an awful lot of teaching at home — teaching that used to be done at school.” She paused for a moment, then drove home a point that no one else had mentioned. “I guess what bothers me about it all is that the schools want to be commended for things they should be doing anyway. The schools should be safe. Your children should learn.”

Overall grade from those interviewed: D.

School-system spokesperson Carolyn Moore acknowledged that there are still areas that need improvement, but indicated that the administration is pleased with the past year’s results.

“We had seven of nine schools attain exemplary growth last year,” she said. “The number of honors classes where minority students achieved passing grades rose over 200 percent. The number of advanced-placement classes where minorities achieved passing grades rose 140 percent. There were mixed results from the North Carolina Writing Tests administered to fourth-, seventh- and 10th-grade students, and we did not meet the 90 percent ratio of students passing the eighth-grade Computer Competency Test. Overall, though, we’ve had a pretty good year, with the individual schools making some outstanding efforts.” She further explained that the areas where schools had fallen short of their projected goals would be carried over into this year’s strategic plan.

Moore was reluctant to measure any of the strategic goals with a letter grade. Her comments, however, indicate a school system that feels it did significantly better than the D grade others gave its efforts.

Strategic Goal 2: Provide orderly, safe, clean, drug-free schools with environments conducive to learning.

Objectives:

• Reduce the number of incidents requiring disciplinary action.

• Ensure that disciplinary plans are fairly and consistently applied to all students.

• Ensure an alcohol-and-drug-free environment.

• Increase overall attendance by 0.25 percent.

This question often drew a blank stare from respondents, as they mentally reviewed the year for incidents. By far, most agreed that the school system had done a much better job this past year, with respect to both disciplinary actions and creating a safer learning environment.

Moore, though, was quick to point out how the school’s efforts have paid off. “We had a significant decrease in the number of drug- and alcohol-related cases,” she said. “We also have more students involved in the drug- and alcohol-prevention programs. Our out-of-school suspensions are down, and we’ve not had any incidents involving weapons this past year, either.”

Campbell was also pleased with attendance figures that surpassed the quarter-of-a-percent increase the plan had set as its target. “Our attendance figures increased almost a full percent,” she said, adding, “I’m very pleased with those numbers.”

A draft copy of the administration’s findings identifies only one problem relating to Goal 2: reducing the overall number of disciplinary actions. “Fewer students required out-of-school suspensions, but more student discipline referrals were handled by administrators,” the draft findings state. Most other objectives were either met or exceeded.

Recent Asheville High graduate Lesley Penland agreed that the schools felt safer this past year. “We had security officers at school who everyone knew, and who were easy to get to. They carried radios and were easy to talk to. It seemed like they were always around,” she said. “So, yes, it felt much safer than before. I’d give them at least a B, because I do think they made some effort to make the school safe.”

The grades from those interviewed averaged out to a B, which seems to coincide with the school system’s self-evaluation.

Strategic Goal 3: Recruit, retain and develop a highly skilled work force capable of achieving system goals.

Objectives:

• Match or exceed the North Carolina level of 20 percent minority professional staff.

• Increase the number of Teaching Fellows.

• Increase the number of teachers fully licensed and assigned to teach in their field.

• Increase the retention of high-quality teachers.

Most of those interviewed gave two grades for this goal — one related to the teaching staff in general, the other dealing with the recruitment of minority staff. Here’s how they felt about Asheville City Schools teachers.

“I’d give them a B,” said Elms. Despite some disappointments last year, she continues to believe that the teaching staff as a whole does a good job. “There are some excellent teachers in the school system,” she said. “Some not so good, but [there are] more good ones than bad ones.”

Mary Culbertson, whose son attends Jones Elementary, also gave teachers a B grade in general, but took issue with the succession of principals the school has had. “We’ve had three principals in three years, and some of those have been wonderful. Just about the time you get used to one, though, they’re moved or replaced. It creates an inconsistent environment for the parents, and I’m sure it does for the children.”

When it came to the objective of recruiting more minority teachers, however, the grades fell significantly.

“I’d give them an F-,” said Diantha Harris, a third-grade teacher at Jones Elementary. Harris says she’s seen little or no effort from the system to bring in more minority staff. “What I see is exactly the opposite. When minority teachers leave, they’ve been replaced with persons not of color. They can’t say the people who apply aren’t qualified, either, because I know some of them are.”

Penland agreed. She worked in the main office last year at Asheville High and says she saw the number of minority staff actually decline. “It’s decreased,” she said. “I can’t remember any new minority teachers since I started at Asheville High. If I had to give them a grade, it would be an F.”

The administration acknowledges that recruitment of minority staff is an area that still needs improvement, noting that the number of professional minority staff decreased from 55 to 49 over the past year. Superintendent Campbell spoke openly about the problem: “We have teams of recruiters that go out and actively search for qualified teachers in underrepresented groups. What we’re finding is that the pool of applicants is not very large, and it’s shrinking. I’ve talked to schools all over, and every one is having the same problem — that’s part of it, too. We’re out there looking, but so is everyone else. It’s kind of ironic that we have a dwindling pool of applicants at a time when we have so many more opportunities.”

Overall, though, Moore says the system is fairly pleased with its progress in achieving a highly skilled work force. Those interviewed agreed with that assessment, assigning a composite B grade. Both sides also recognize the need for a more racially balanced work force. The difference lies in the perception of how much of an effort the administration is making to reach that goal.

Strategic Goal 4: Enhance communication from and within the school system.

Strategic Goal 5: Encourage family, community and school partnerships.

Although these are listed separately in the Strategic Plan for Excellent Schools, our respondents tended to address them together in their comments. Two objectives, in particular, drew the most comments: One (from the fourth goal) concerns maintaining effective community involvement; the other (from goal 5) promises a more family-friendly atmosphere.

“We’ve had a very positive experience,” said Kathy Hallman, whose daughter was in second grade at Claxton Elementary last year. “They’re definitely trying to get you active in the school, and there are a lot of opportunities for parents to be involved — things like Cleanup Day, where parents and children went over one Saturday and cleaned up around the school. They also do at least one play every year, and ask for parents to help with things like building the sets, and [with] the painting. I have a friend who used to go in to the school and help with the reading. There’s just a lot of ways you can participate, if you have the time.”

The reactions of others interviewed were much the same. Diantha Harris gave Jones Elementary an A grade on its family-friendly atmosphere. Another parent, who asked not to be identified, gave her child’s school a B+. There were a few harsher critics, but even they assigned grades in the C range. Overall, the grade for Goals 4 and 5 averaged out to a B.

The administration’s draft results indicate that the system feels it has achieved most of the objectives under these two goals. The publication of the Annual Report of School Progress this fall will satisfy the last remaining objective. Moore praised the individual schools for their efforts, saying, “Much of the emphasis here was at the school level, and their response was excellent.”

Deciphering the spin

When the final figures have been posted and the report circulated, parents will encounter some impressive numbers, such as a 200 percent increase in the number of honors classes passed by minority students, and a 140 percent rise in the number of advanced-placement classes passed by minorities. The Strategic Plan for Excellent Schools, however, called for increases in the number of students passing classes, not an increase in the number of classes passed.

Furthermore, percentages themselves can be deceptive. The 140 percent rise in the number of advanced-placement classes passed by minorities, for example, reflects a change from 15 classes passed in the previous school year to 36 this past year. That’s significant progress, to be sure, but the actual numbers remain small for a student population that is almost half minority.

There are other items to consider, too. The number of students passing the eighth-grade reading test rose from 79.1 percent to 79.4 percent. But the school system’s preliminary results completely ignore the fact that, despite significant gains, fourth- and seventh-grade students are still performing below state levels on the writing tests. Asheville Middle School’s precentages actually decreased from last year, with only 47.9 percent of students passing the test. That’s almost 23 percentage points below the state level.

Still, the school system has made impressive gains in many areas. The administration is also producing a parent handbook intended to reduce confusion about policy issues, and give parents information about both systemwide statistics and those for particular schools. The handbooks, said Moore, will be sent home with children near the start of the school year.

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