Tuesday, May 4, 2010

An open letter to the CMS school board

“It should be your care, therefore, and mine, to elevate the minds of our children and exalt their courage; to accelerate and animate their industry and activity; to excite in them an habitual contempt of meanness, abhorrence of injustice and inhumanity, and an ambition to excel in every capacity, faculty, and virtue. If we suffer their minds to grovel and creep in infancy, they will grovel all their lives.”
- John Adams

To the School Board, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools:

I am the father of three students at Smith Academy of International Languages: two in the French program, one in Chinese. Next year, my wife and I will have five students there: two in French, two in Chinese, and one in Spanish. The year after next, we’ll have six there. It is a remarkable school, and it does a remarkable job fulfilling the exhortation above, made 250 years ago by John Adams, then an unknown 21-year-old.

Smith instills students with a love of learning, a spirit of hard work, and a global worldview that encourages them to look around and appreciate those who are like them and those who are different. Every school is supposed to do these things, but Smith actually delivers, with a student population that is diverse in every way that I can think of: Every race, major religion, socioeconomic group, and part of Mecklenburg County is represented. It’s a bit like a miniaturized United Nations (but without the problems that mar the full-sized version).

I am writing you today regarding the proposed 2010-2011 schedule change for Smith. The proposal, a bell schedule of 9:30-4:30, is consistent with proposals for various middle schools, but it is not the optimal solution for Smith (which is not a middle school) or for CMS as a whole.

Keeping the bells at the current schedule of 8-3 and using alternate consolidated busing stops (See below) will allow CMS to make necessary budget cuts and, simultaneously, to avoid the harmful consequences that would be an unavoidable outcome of the schedule change.

Maintaining the current Smith bell schedule may, it is true, force you to change the busing hours for another school or schools. While this will inconvenience families at those schools, leading to some level of attrition as they move from one school to another, the impacted schools can absorb new students, which Smith cannot do in grades 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, and 8 (six of its nine grades). Traditional neighborhood schools are staffed with hard-working, dedicated individuals, but the educational experience is largely interchangeable between a given pair. Smith is unique; it has no equal.

Depending on how CMS resources are allocated after the proposed bell change, the move that you have proposed will lead to various outcomes, all negative. Any of these outcomes will create significant problems for Smith families, making it impossible for some students (low-income ones, in particular) to attend. The attrition rate is an unknown, but 25% is reasonable. As I’ll explain below, it will also make CMS as a whole less efficient.

Smith faces unique challenges because it is a language immersion school and cannot leverage its relatively large size the way that other schools can. This is due to the nature of a language immersion program. A brand-new student enters Kindergarten with a commitment to learn the majority of his/her school subjects in a foreign language (See “Magnet Program Expectations Agreement – World Language”, attached, that parents must sign: http://www.cms.k12.nc.us/cmsdepartments/ci/MagnetPrograms/Documents/World%20Languages%2010-11.pdf). English is taught in parallel to the students learning Asian languages, and as students come closer to their EOGs, those in European languages begin taking English as well. If a student above the first grade attrites (above the sixth grade for middle school), s/he cannot be replaced, except by a new student who is fluent in the target language.

If, say, 25% of third grade students attrite, a traditional school would have the opportunity to save 25% by laying off 25% of the third-grade teachers. For a school with eight third-grade classes, then, 25% attrition would create the capacity to lay off two teachers and one assistant (if an assistant is shared between classes), a savings that maintains the same level of efficiency (student:teacher ratio).

At Smith, however, there are two classes for each language. In effect, this means that it is equivalent to four small elementary schools and five small middle schools that share some resources, because languages cannot be combined to make a new class. So, to use our 25% example again, let’s say that 25% of the third-graders at Smith attrite and that this is uniform across the languages. We lose 12 of our 48 French students, 12 of our 48 Chinese students, 12 of 48 German, and 12 of 48 Japanese. Now there are four programs that are running at 75% capacity, and no teachers can be laid off without botching the programs.

In order to achieve the FTE savings that we could achieve at another school, we would have two choices: 1) Create a class with 36 students for one teacher (A 36:1 ratio is, obviously, absurd for elementary students) or 2) Consolidate classes by grouping grades creatively (but sub-optimally, from a learning perspective, and counter to the current learning model at Smith)– in other words, to continue our example above, we might have one second grade class for each language, one third grade class for each language, and one combination second-third grade class (or three combination second-third grade classes). It is unclear how students could be fairly allocated into these three theoretical mixed-grade classes.

In either of these scenarios, Smith must reinvent how it educates students, even though its current model delivers performance above CMS averages for many key metrics. Expecting Smith to continue its current high level of EOG performance (to use one example) under these conditions is an exercise in wish thinking (which is generally, though not universally, frowned upon for adults).

Either will also lead to a number of Smith teachers, who are in the United States on work visas with a goal of citizenship, having to go back to their country of origin. Considering the investment that CMS has made in these new Americans (or, technically, potential Americans), willfully implementing a policy that undoes their path to citizenship is a gross waste of dollars that CMS has already spent helping them to become great teachers and freshly-minted national resources.

A third option would include CMS leaving teacher populations at Smith alone in order to avoid the overcrowded classes and/or sub-optimal grade combinations above. This will cost CMS incremental dollars (well into six figures per year) because additional teachers would be required to teach former Smith students at their new schools, but there would be no Smith staff cutbacks to offset the additional FTE elsewhere. It would also increase the cost per student at Smith and make it appear less efficient, although its problems would not be of its own making.

I include the third option for the sake of completeness, although I assume that it would not be the path recommended by the board. While your recommendation to change hours is ill-informed or ill-considered (or both), I assume that you are intelligent professionals who will not knowingly make education more costly from a financial perspective (while simultaneously making it worse for students). If you do follow through with the proposed bell change over the legitimate objections made by me, other parents, the PTSA, and teachers (if they are bold enough to complain to the school board), what will be genuinely troubling and perplexing is that you will knowingly be harming students and their ability to learn, families and their ability to manage their finances, teachers and their ability to teach, administrators and their ability to manage something as complex as a school.

All three of these scenarios will lead to excess capacity at Smith facilities (at least for a few years), while simultaneously placing additional stress on the already-overcrowded schools which would absorb incoming Smith students. This is a lose-lose result for Smith and the rest of CMS because of the systemic inefficiency that is a natural outcome of significant attrition from Smith.

I propose that we go the opposite direction, that we elevate the status and importance of Smith, leave its hours alone, make more careful busing decisions, and use it as a model for creating more immersion schools in Charlotte and across the nation.

Here’s how and why:

How: Better Scheduling, Smarter BusingI propose that we keep the current bell schedule but use late-starting elementary schools, community centers, churches, YMCAs, businesses, or a combination thereof for consolidated stops. A secondary proposal, which would provide additional savings, is to have consolidated stops within the five-mile radius as well. I do not have the data to size the cost savings from the consolidated stops within the five-mile radius.

The chief problem with the proposed busing plan is that many parents (myself included) would not feel comfortable dropping their children off in a high school parking lot, after school is in session, essentially unsupervised until they are shuffled onto the bus, and then picking them up after they are shuffled off the bus in the (late) evening.

This is a relatively reasonable plan for middle-schoolers, but a five-year-old? At a high school? At night? That’s as unrealistic an idea as a 36:1 student:teacher ratio. I’m disheartened that this wasn’t taken to its logical conclusion: alligator pits and/or prison yards as appropriate drop-off/collection points for impressionable, defenseless children who are 3' 6" tall, trust everyone, and will put any nearby object into their mouth. (I say this in jest, obviously, but the point is that while we might wish that our high schools were safe places, the reality is that all too often, they are not safe; wishing does not make things so, and they are certainly not appropriate places for vulnerable, innocent, little children.)

Instead, let’s consider an alternative: Expand the current system of consolidated stops. You can assign buses to whatever public elementary schools you like, so they’re ok. Parks & rec could approve the use of their facilities, and it’s hard to imagine objections there. I’m only guessing, but I imagine that the YMCA, grocery stores, department stores, and shopping malls would be happy to allow their parking lots to be used as consolidated stops. AM stops would occur before there is a rush of customers (for stores), so it wouldn’t inconvenience them, and PM stops would give them a stable, dedicated set of adults who are guaranteed to be on-site every day. People are more likely to run into the grocery store if they’re already there to pick up their children than to get the kids, drive to a different store, get them out of the car, and then do the shopping. This presents a win-win-win situation for parents, CMS, and businesses.

Parents are the best guarantors of their children’s safety, so let them police the area around the buses, organize the kids, and spend time at the consolidated stop each morning and afternoon. This will save on public safety costs required to staff high schools with additional security guards or police officers (and/or allow those who are already at the high schools to fulfill their primary duty of watching high schoolers).

Use the best available models to determine bus stops. This could be done through computer modeling (e.g. looking at population clusters and selecting central locations from a list of available stops) or by creating an online poll which would let parents vote on where they should be (These would probably be the most cost-effective methods). Either would increase bus usage and help to decrease the amount of congestion around Smith, which creates traffic problems daily. Since these are optimized/emerging solutions, either would provide effective stops that are in the center of population clusters.

Use buses as a source of advertising revenue, if possible. This is completely separate from the rest, but a placard on the side of a bus saying “Harris Teeter” or something along those lines would help to subsidize the cost of busing. Offer a discount to stores/chains that volunteer their parking lot as a consolidated stop. (For those who object that this is crass commercialism, my response is that we’re a commercial society; it’s a source of our wealth and a lot of our strength. Let’s work with local businesses to create mutually advantageous partnerships.)

My proposal obviously differs from your middle-school plans. As I mentioned earlier in this letter, however, Smith is a unique K-8 school, and given the natural constraints placed upon it as a language immersion school, it requires a unique solution or set of solutions.

One size does not fit all.

As mentioned earlier, other schools will object that they will face attrition if they are forced onto a later bell schedule. I can understand why they would be upset. Large-scale attrition at other schools will not make CMS less efficient, however, and it is not an existential threat to most schools.

It is not an overstatement to say that the time change does present an existential threat to Smith. I have a hard time imagining Smith being able to manage 36:1 student:teacher ratios or the grade-combo classes mentioned above. How else can it manage?

If you are to make this decision for us rationally and responsibly, you must be prepared to answer this question. I do not believe that you (or anyone) can, because any attrition rate high enough to force layoffs and generate cost savings will wreak havoc in the programs, and until the class of incoming Kindergarteners has finished fifth grade, Smith will be crippled by attrition and inefficiency. We will break faith with the families who entered Smith, trusting that their children could reasonably expect to complete the program, and with those foreign nationals whom we’ve sponsored and who give so much to teach our children.

Why Smith Academy: The Global Market, Global Competitiveness, and the Future“Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for... [T]he countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”
– Barack Obama

“Global competitiveness starts here.” - Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

The American economy is not in great shape, and it will take a long time to recover from the current mess that we, our parents, and our grandparents have created. Fiscal responsibility isn’t a watchword of the federal government (or the state, for that matter), and the national debt is on the rise. In 1980, it was 26% of the GDP. A couple of years ago, it was ~40%. Right now it’s 53% of GDP. By 2020, it’s projected to be ~90% of GDP. This will have a significant impact on the value of money and the quality of our lives, and it’s unlikely that we will fix it any time soon; if we do, it will be by increasing the freedom of markets and increasing international trade (while cutting government spending, which is, obviously, far outside of the scope of this letter). We need more productive citizens.

Religious extremism is on the rise worldwide, and rather than working more cooperatively, the last decade has seen an increase in antagonism between nations and ethnic groups. We need more enlightened citizens.

As manufacturing continues to move to developing countries, the skills required for American workers will be increasingly managerial and service-related (e.g. finance), or we will be an empire in decline, rather than a nation that continues to rise. We need more well-educated citizens.

In order to be better-off and to increase global prosperity and peace, America must be a leader in an increasingly-global, increasingly-free market. Increased trade with other countries will create wealth here and abroad. The more nations rely on one another for trade, the more they see one another as vital partners and the less they treat one another as antagonists. If we are to overcome religious fundamentalism and excessive nationalism, it will be through finding positive outcomes to nonzero-sum games (e.g. economics, education).

This is another way of saying that we need to work with others to make things better for both, rather than working at cross purposes and making them worse. Having a cross-cultural, international perspective helps. So does understanding, fundamentally, that cultures vary and that different cultures speak different languages. So does being able to communicate fluently in multiple languages.

This is all well and good, but it is all theoretical, one may object. One elementary school in one city in one county in one state cannot change the direction of history. Perhaps. Probably. However, Smith provides an exceptional model for how American schools can and should function. Not all schools, perhaps, but some schools, schools where parents and students have committed voluntarily to a multilingual education.

A Smith Academy education is a global education, and it works. Test scores are great. Every key metric is, especially compared to CMS averages. Why aren’t we using it as a model for other schools? Let’s just take a moment to do a thought experiment: What if we opened two more language schools in Charlotte? What if we sent a delegation of educators and/or board members to conferences to promote the success of Smith? It wouldn’t revolutionize education, but it might encourage other places to try it. Maybe we could spawn a handful other language academies.

This wouldn’t solve all of the problems that we, as a nation and as a species, will face, but it might make things incrementally better, here and there. It might make Charlotte better off in 20 years, or North Carolina, a bit. If other schools copy us, it will definitely make a difference, perhaps a significant one.
Let’s not go in the wrong direction.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools are giving a select few individuals a competitive advantage in the global market. That’s exactly what schools should be doing, but more should be doing it, and for more students. This is an example of the “neighborhood effect” that justifies using tax dollars for the promotion of the common good via education (See Milton Friedman in Capitalism and Freedom).

Why change our hours, create more hazardous bus stops, and make effective schooling a more onerous task? It is your job to make it an easier one, and it is my job (and the job of all parents) to take the tools that you give us and help our children craft an extraordinary future.

Budget cuts are necessary in difficult times and prudent in good times, and I recognize that you are doing your best to maintain the high quality education that we parents have come to expect, while figuring out how to do so with significantly fewer resources. In addition to being a parent, I am a taxpayer and want my money to be well spent. Budget cuts can be a good thing, but let’s do them in a way that will preserve the current level of efficiency or increase it, not make CMS less efficient.

One might be inclined to grovel and beg or, alternately, to growl and demand. Instead, I will state firmly but gently, as many other parents are doing, that if you continue down the path that you have laid out, you will be making a mistake, that you have come up with a bad idea, that you will be making CMS less efficient, that you need to think differently.

I exhort you to be open to the possibility that we parents, who come from all walks of life and are highly involved in our children’s education, might know better than you, because we are closer to the action, and we can offer a democratic, emerging solution. Just as a free market is more efficient, productive, and effective than a command economy, a solution that emerges from the cooperative collaboration of many key stakeholders (and parents are the most important members of this category) will be more effective, efficient, and likely to promote eudaimonia (human flourishing) than one pushed down from a sort of central command.

There is a perception, based on how your proposal was drafted and communicated--without the involvement or input of parents, teachers, or the school itself--that you are going to push through this schedule change regardless of what we say. Please act in a way that belies this perception. Do not make a decision that is or can be perceived as feckless and reckless but, rather, act from that part of yourself that believes most intensely in the pursuit and practice of representative democracy, the creation of win-win solutions to difficult problems, and the use of reason to make the best decisions.

Thank you for all that you do. Thank you for giving our children the opportunity to learn in two languages, starting when they’re only five years old. Thank you for listening to us parents and for remembering that we come from every district, since this is a county-wide magnet. We are vocal, articulate, intelligent, tenacious, involved, and willing to be politically active when it is time to elect the members of the next school board.

I appreciate all that you have done, are doing, and will do for the sake of our children, the future. Please do the wise thing.

Gregory Garrison


  1. Mr. Garrison, Thank you for articulating your thoughts so well and so eloquently. Best Regards, Marc Gentile (parent to a 1st grader at Smith--Chinese)

  2. Greg...nothing to say except. Thank you and very well said!
    Nezire(Smith Mom)

  3. Thank you!
    - Becky Aelick
    (2 boys in the German program)

  4. Greg - I am very impressed by this letter and every word reflects what I have been wanting to express, but did not have the ability to put it on paper - Thank you and very well said!
    Karen (1 boy in 6th grade German program)

  5. Thanks, David Bryan

  6. Mr. Garrison-

    Well Done!! Thank You!! Sincerely hope this letter was sent to the BOE & it was READ by the BOE! Well stated on how we all feel!

    Thanks Again
    Mary Kennedy (2 kids in German program- both middle & elementary)

  7. Thanks so much for the kind words, y'all. I sent this via-email to the BOE about an hour ago (the text, a word doc, and a link to this blog). Hopefully at least some of them will read it and be open to hearing what we have to say. And hopefully the joke about alligators and prisoners in the middle doesn't turn them off; humor was the least alarmist way I could think of to communicate how risky high schools can be to the defenseless.

    I look forward to seeing as many of you as possible Thursday at 6:30. Hopefully we can fill the multi-purpose room so that it's standing-room only!

  8. Great letter, Greg! You have (very eloquently) expressed the concerns of many, many parents.
    - Melissa, mom to 2nd grade German student and a rising Kindergartner whom I hope will complete this program.

  9. Incredible... thanks so much for putting it so eloquently... Deborah Canter, mom to 4th and 7th Japanese... 7th grade Japanese students will be the 1st to be k thru 8 in that program...