Thursday, March 22, 2012

R.I.P. FOCUS schools

A program that was once at the heart of this community's effort to cope with the consequences of high-poverty schools was quietly laid to rest at this week's Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools budget session.

The most noteworthy thing about interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh's acknowledgement that CMS no longer has FOCUS schools is that anyone raised the question.  Like so many efforts launched with great fanfare, it has been quietly nudged to the sidelines as leaders and strategies changed.

The program, originally knows as Equity and created under Superintendent Eric Smith, came out of the court battle over race-based assignment. When the old assignment plan was overturned and the school board hashed out a race-neutral "choice plan,"  the board and county commissioners agreed to provide extra aid to schools with the highest levels of students on lunch aid.  It was an acknowledgement that the new plan was likely to create more schools with higher levels of poverty (it did) and that those schools would need extra help for students to succeed.

The first few CMS budgets I covered,  starting in 2002,  brought heated debates over whether the county was paying the full cost that commissioners had agreed to.  The Equity schools were renamed,  bizarrely,  EquityPlusII schools.  Under Superintendent James Pughsley, they became FOCUS schools, for Finding Opportunities: Creating Unparalleled Success.  Those schools got about 30 percent more in their budgets for teachers and supplies,  and many argued that wasn't enough.

When Peter Gorman became superintendent in 2006,  he launched new strategies,  such as providing "weighted" faculty formulas that take into account poverty levels at all schools.  He argued that it didn't make sense to provide all-or-nothing aid based on whether a school fell just above or below an arbitrary percentage of students getting free or reduced lunches.  Whenever I and others asked about the FOCUS program,  Gorman said it existed in a more limited form.  But it stopped coming up during recession-driven budgets that focused on cuts and layoffs.

On Tuesday,  when the board reviewed Hattabaugh's plan for 2012-13,  Tom Tate, who has been on the board since 2005, asked about the FOCUS schools.  Hattabaugh said the FOCUS program is gone,  replaced by the weighted staffing formula and efforts to recruit strong educators to the most challenged schools.

The challenge of promoting success at schools where most students come from impoverished homes remains,  of course. In just a few weeks,  the board will choose someone to succeed Gorman,  and that person will no doubt bring a new set of tactics.

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