CHCCS Parents Pan New Dual Language Magnet Plan

CHAPEL HILL-The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City school board on Thursday backed away from a proposal to covert an existing elementary to a new dual language magnet in time for the start of the 2014 school year.

“I am not interested in doing something super major by 2014. I think our communities will not support that and I can’t support that,” said Board Chair Shell Brownstein.

More than 100 parents turned out to protest both the plan and the timing, as many said they learned of the proposal only four days prior to Thursday’s school board meeting.

The majority of the 40 speakers pleaded with the school board to reconsider separating the traditional and Spanish dual language students at Carrboro Elementary.

“That’s what this program is supposed to do, integrating our community. It is working,” said Charlie Wiss, father of two at the school. “Why would you want to dismantle that? I really don’t know.”

Although no school was named as a potential site for a new magnet school, Carrboro parents fear the plan to combine Mandarin and Spanish dual language classrooms together at one magnet school would pull apart Carrboro Elementary, where currently half the students are enrolled in the Spanish dual language program.

Many parents expressed frustration that school officials would consider such a sweeping change less than a year after both wide-spread redistricting and the conversion of Frank Porter Graham into the district’s first magnet.

Carrboro Alderman Jacqueline Gist said she’s so strongly opposed to the plan that she was moved to address the school board in public for the first time in her twenty-four years as an elected official.

“On behalf of our community, for economic development reasons, for the good of our children and for the walkability of our community, please do not take our children away from our school,” said Gist.

Alderman Sammy Slade also addressed the school board, alternating between English and Spanish. Both Aldermen said Carrboro leaders would likely vote next week to formally oppose the plan.

This latest dual language debate was sparked by the need to address overcrowding at Glenwood Elementary, home of the district’s Mandarin Chinese dual language program.

Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese said increased enrollment in the Mandarin program combined with growth in the school’s attendance zone put the district’s smallest school nearly 100 students over capacity this year, with that number expected to rise in coming years.

***Listen to LoFrese’s presentation***

CHCCS Mandarin Dual Language Presentation

And while spot-redistricting for Glenwood may be a short-term solution, LoFrese said the school board needs to develop a comprehensive, long-range plan for the future of the Mandarin program.

“A plan for Mandarin dual language is needed really before proceeding with the movement of any students,” said LoFrese.

He suggested that slowing the expansion of the program might be the best choice for the district at this time.

“I kind of feel like we may have had horse blinders on as we’ve tried to get the Mandarin expansion to fit,” said LoFrese. “And so I question whether the lens needs to be broader and consider whether we really should be trying to develop solutions to facilitate an expansion at this time, at the expense of disruption to the district.”

Some school board members were hesitant to embrace the idea of a slow-down, having voted in 2012 to expand the program and more recently to add an additional dual language classroom at Glenwood.

Board member James Barrett explained the latest expansion: “There was a unique opportunity to add a single class because of a wonderful teacher who could teach both [languages]. That was a unique opportunity. We took advantage of it and started this class earlier than we had originally planned to.”

Though no vote was taken, the majority of the board indicated a preference for spot-redistricting to temporarily relieve overcrowding at Glenwood while officials explore other options and look to create a broader plan for the dual language program.

Superintendent Tom Forcella said that ultimately, changes to the dual language program could impact the district as a whole.

“I understand the concern from the people from Carrboro, but you have to understand that, as this conversation evolves, it is not just including Carrboro, it’s Seawell, it’s Rashkis, it’s FPG and it’s Northside as we get deeper into the weeds of what the ramifications could be,” said Forcella.

Currently, the school board has no timeline for a decision on spot-redistricting, the magnet plan, or other proposals. Administrators will return with recommendations for the board in the near future.

For Northside And FPG, New School Year Marks Dawn Of New Era

Northside Elementary School principal Cheryl Carnahan shows off the new building.

CHAPEL HILL – Students in Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools head back to school on Monday morning–and for two elementary schools in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro district, the first day of the new year also marks the first day of a new era.

Frank Porter Graham Elementary School reopens Monday as a dual-language magnet school, the first in the district. “We’re delighted to be the district’s first magnet school,” says principal Emily Bivins, “and (we’re) looking forward to the opportunities in using bilingual education to close the achievement gap, particularly for students who historically have not been successful in our schools.”

FPG Principal Emily Bivins (in Northside library)

FPG Principal Bivins speaks at a press conference Thursday at the new Northside Elementary School.

More than 500 kids are enrolled at FPG, about half of which are new students in the district’s Spanish dual-language program.

Meanwhile across town, the new Northside Elementary School is finally open for business after years in the making–with 496 students enrolled and 80 employees on staff–and school officials like principal Cheryl Carnahan (formerly of Estes Hills Elementary) say they couldn’t be more excited.

Carnahan says Northside’s mission statement is “Thinking, learning, and growing, with purpose, persistence, and pride.” Purpose, persistence, and pride are joined by a pedagogical approach that’s eminently forward-thinking, while still nodding back to the past.

Northside principal Cheryl Carnahan 1

Carnahan speaks at Thursday’s press conference. (The sunbeam is intentional: Northside is designed to maximize natural light.)

A tour of Northside Elementary is striking: every facet of the new building is consciously tailored to be both eco-friendly and high-tech, from the placement of the windows to the design of the students’ chairs. Reflectors and skylights throughout the building maximize natural light to save on electricity; that electricity is channeled instead into a wide variety of state-of-the-art technology–including iPads (one for every two students), high-speed wireless Internet, and interactive whiteboards that also function as massive touch screens. (Chalk on a slate is ancient history.) Students sit on chairs designed to allow for wiggle room (they’re even comfortable for adults), and the teachers wear microphones to ensure sound quality.

Northside Elementary School classroom

Moseley Architects construction administrator Steve Nally (L) points out some key features in a Northside classroom.

“It’s a different way of thinking about technology,” says Carnahan. “Our focus is always on what (we can) do to collaborate, communicate, and create with our technology.”

But even as Northside looks to the future, it’s also making a concerted effort to stay rooted in its historic past. Its location at 350 Caldwell Street is also the site of the original Northside Elementary, which served as Chapel Hill’s elementary school for African-Americans prior to integration. That history is preserved on the first floor of the three-story building, with a commemorative wall, a trophy case, and a gallery of decades-old photos–a veritable museum of the Northside community’s educational history.

Northside Elementary history wall

The history wall, downstairs.

That history will make its way into the classrooms as well: Northside’s approach revolves around student-driven, “project-based” learning, and Carnahan says the first schoolwide project will focus on Northside.

“(The project) will be about 12 weeks and will start in October…building community and looking at the history of our school site,” she says. “The essential question is, how can we as historians document what has happened in the past, and use that for the present and project to the future?”

And since the school is seeking to look in two directions at once, it’s only fitting that Northside’s symbol is the compass–there are dozens of them on the walls, floors, even the clocks–and the team name is the Navigators.

Neither Northside nor FPG are opening without controversy, of course. In 2012, parents at FPG protested strongly against the school board’s decision to convert the school to a dual-language magnet—and earlier this year, parents across the district spoke out against the new redistricting plan, which moved a large number of students out of their previous schools to ease overcrowding and make way for Northside.

And as students across Chapel Hill-Carrboro return to class, school officials behind the scenes are still contending with another round of budget cuts at the state level–not to mention the threat of an even more difficult financial strain next year, when the district’s fund balance is projected to run dry.

Still, Monday is a day of pride and optimism for local schools–Northside, FPG, and everywhere–as thousands of Orange County students return to what remain two of the top-rated districts in North Carolina.

“It is going to be a great school year in Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools,” says district spokesperson Jeff Nash. “It was a great year last year, and we have every reason to believe that despite anything you might see coming outside the Beltline, this (too) is going to be a great school year.”

Northside Elementary rooftop garden

Northside Elementary’s rooftop garden. (Yes, it has a rooftop garden.)

Northside Elementary cafeteria

Skylights abound in Northside’s cafeteria.

Northside Elementary Playground

One of Northside’s three playgrounds. (They’re divided by grade level.)

Northside Elementary Playground artificial grass

A closer look at the playground: that’s actually artificial grass down there.

Northside Elementary auditorium gym

Not far from the history wall, Northside’s gym/auditorium–complete with elevated stage–nears completion.

Northside Elementary School plaque

(No school is perfect.)

Northside Elementary exterior

The exterior of Northside Elementary School. (Note the light reflectors installed in each of the windows.)

Turning, Voting, & Smart Service

In the aftermath of the recent election, I found myself struggling to find a new topic.  I’d written in support of the defeat of Amendment One and in the aftermath of its passage, all topics I considered seemed overwhelmingly mundane.  

I’d been noodling on one in particular and often dismissing it when I heard a segment of The Commentators on WCHL that brought up the exact topic:  turn signals.  Commentator Raleigh Mann suggests many cars today must be built without them since so many cars aren’t using them (to hear the original, click here and scroll down to Raleigh Mann’s May 29th presentation).

My version of his lament is in parking lots.  While drivers may be operating at a slow enough speed to react in time to prevent a collision, there are few other places where drivers have choices as varied as in a parking lot.  Is the car nearby heading left, sort of left, straight, right into a nearby spot, right ahead at the next parking lane?  There’s a lot for the other guy to figure out.  

There’s also a lot to watch out for with small children often hidden behind shopping carts (and bigger people!).

There are very few saints behind the wheel and I’m not setting myself up as one so this message is a reminder for me as well.  Safely and politely signaling your intentions while driving costs us nothing (this point is how I justify this topic in a column on spending!) and can make a big difference even if it’s only in relieving daily aggravation.

Now to a bit of a grab bag:

  • As the Chapel Hill 2020 Comprehensive Plan heads to Town Council, many people have been thanked and rightly so.  But everyone who either lives, works, or plays in Chapel Hill owes a major thank you to co-chairs Rosemary Waldorf and George Cianciolo for the countless hours of hard work they donated to all of us.  Further, many of the town staff worked a spectacular number of hours in between all of the public meetings.  We owe them our gratitude. 
  • The Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district’s recent decision to create a magnet school at Frank Porter Graham Elementary was difficult, divisive, and brave.  I do not have a child enrolled in FPG nor will I, so I sit on neither side of this issue.  As a parent of a school-age child, I am absolutely passionate about his school so I empathize with those who fought to protect FPG as it is.  However, the elected school board members did something many in Washington seem unable to do: vote their conscience regardless of the political repercussions.  Wonder if any of those politicians have the stomach for higher office?
  • Finally, my never-ending quest to find good customer service came in a conversation with a Cary furniture store.  In dealing with the need to procure a sleeper sofa in time for a relative’s visit, I explained my relatively short timetable (a few weeks but that’s miniscule) in furniture time and the salesperson at Nowell’s turned me away.  That’s right: in this economy, in that business, he turned me away, saying he couldn’t guarantee the sleeper on our schedule.  The store earned nothing from me that day but it will one day thanks to that honesty.