School Staff Reverse Decision to Split Advanced Middle School Program

Administrators in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools district reversed an earlier decision to split a program for high-performing middle schoolers.

LEAP, which stands for Learning Environment for Advanced Programming, serves selected students in Chapel Hill and Carrboro Schools who consistently perform two grade levels above their own. All LEAP middle schoolers from Chapel Hill and Carrboro study at Smith Middle School.

Previously, school administrators had decided to send some rising LEAP sixth graders to Phillips Middle School for 2015-16 to relieve overcrowding at Smith. Last week, parents got a letter from administrators saying the district would keep all the LEAP students at Smith next year.

“We have recently received new projections that indicated a slowing of growth and the need for our next middle school to be further off than expected (not until 2023),” the letter from Superintendent Tom Forcella, Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese and Assistant Superintendent Magda Parvey says. “This latest information has caused us to rethink the approach to LEAP for next year.”

About 75 people came to a Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board meeting before the recent decision. The majority were students, and parents and supporters of LEAP students. Many protested the previous decision to split the program.

The program is for students in grades four through eight. The school board did not make either decision: to split the program or to keep the program at Smith.

Imagine going to a new school unexpectedly and leaving all your friends; you would feel lost, said student Paul Lyerly at the board meeting.

“And some people when they’re lost they just want to hide in the bathroom all day,” Lyerly said. “Why would you want all the best LEAP kids to hide in a bathroom when they could be learning?”

Parents said they did not have a say in the decision to split the program. And several people expressed concern that boys outnumber girls in the program and that all thirteen students reassigned to Phillips were boys.

On the other hand, some said the split would be beneficial to the school system as a whole. Dianne Jackson, a media specialist at Glenwood Elementary School, said the fresh start at Phillips could give an opportunity to bring more racial diversity to the program.

“I came to the district in the early eighties and upon arriving, became a member of the newly formed Blue Ribbon Task Force whose charge was to examine the performance of African American students,” said Jackson. “Notable is that I have been involved in that work in my thirty plus years in this district.”

Jackson said she has seen few black and Latino students in academically gifted programs in her years of work in the school district. She said factors that influence underrepresentation of minority students in these programs include a lack of referrals to the program, teachers and students’ beliefs, and culturally biased tests.

Wake County Schools has partnered with Duke University to identify more minority and low-income children for gifted programs, the News and Observer reported in December. This could help point the way for area school districts.

Smaller Gifted Ed Budget Cuts Still Draw Fire From CHCCS Parents

Parents who thought the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board had backed off plans to make budget cuts to the district’s gifted education program were disappointed Thursday night to find some cuts were still on the table.

“These target AIG program cuts will ultimately bring down our district’s ACT and SAT scores as well as university placement,” said Kim Ehrman, one of eight speakers protesting the newest proposal before the board. “Will you be here to witness the result of your academic cleansing as our district embraces mediocrity?”

The school district faces a $3.6 million dollar shortfall next year. Earlier in the budget process, the school board considered cutting half a million dollars from the gifted specialist program, which would result in the loss of seven and a half full time positions.

In response to a slew of negative feedback from parents, the board last week opted instead to ask county commissioners to cover the entire $3.6 million dollar budget gap.

However, recognizing that county leaders are unlikely to fully fund that request, the school board on Thursday considered a second list of possible budget cuts totaling $821,000. Under this revised scenario, the gifted education program could still face a $214,000 cut, resulting in the loss of three specialists.

Board member Andrew Davidson said the budget represents their best effort during tough times.

“We’re not making these cuts because we want to get rid of these programs or because we have other priorities we want to slide our money towards,” said Davidson. “We’re making them because we have to.”

Once again board members including Mike Kelley sought to focus attention on the actions of the General Assembly.

“What we’re seeing here is an assault on public education,” said Kelley. “I wasn’t necessarily wanting to say that so frankly, but that’s clearly what is happening. Our response to this has to be as a community.”

Kelley called the budget cuts “a shared sacrifice,” and he urged members of the school community to avoid infighting over scarce resources.

The board endorsed the list of proposed cuts, but said the budget negotiation process is not yet complete. The board will present its budget request to county commissioners on April 29.

CHCCS Board Eyes Cuts To Gifted Ed To Balance Budget

CHAPEL HILL- As local leaders wait and wait for a final state budget, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools board members are struggling with how to fill the funding gaps, even before they know exactly what those gaps will be.

The school board came together for an unusual Monday meeting to consider a $1.7 million dollar package of possible reductions at the local level that could help ease the blow of projected cuts to the state education budget.

And while board members agreed that tough choices must be made, the board was split on a plan to cut the number of gifted education specialists down to one at each elementary school.

Jamezetta Bedford said after four years of budget cuts, the reductions might be unavoidable.

“I’m very reluctant, but I don’t know what else to cut,” said Bedford. “Because we have cut athletics, we have cut foreign languages. I don’t know what else to give up.”

The plan would reduce the total number of specialists through attrition and reassignment, saving the district $385,000. But nearly a dozen gifted education teachers and parents of gifted children came out to protest the cuts, saying it would jeopardize an already overburdened program.

Wendy Morgan has a child in the gifted education program at Morris Grove.

“I’m concerned that the creative energies that allow our gifted children to accomplish difficult and impressive feats could easily be overlooked,” said Morgan. “Without the appropriate channels for their gifts, it’s not only possible, but it is likely that many gifted children will become classroom behavior problems.”

Board members argued the size and scope of the gifted program is part of the problem. Citing failures to implement new teaching models and inconsistent implementation from school to school, James Barrett said it’s clear the current model isn’t working.

“We have a demonstrated need for better gifted education,” said Barrett. “What they’re doing today is not better gifted education, and so taking the cut, in some ways, is the shock that’s needed to improve the process.”

Still, some on the board including Michelle Brownstein worried that cutting the staff by a third without revamping the program would leave students underserved.

“We’re not there yet,” said Brownstein. “The best we have right now is our gifted education specialists. I don’t see how the classroom teacher can meet the needs of all the kids in these classrooms without their help.”

Adding to the confusion is the ongoing delay in the state legislature, as next year’s spending plan is tied up in negotiations about a possible tax system overhaul.

Lawmakers passed a continuing resolution to keep the government funded through July 31, but local leaders hope to sign off on a budget next week.

Under the Senate’s proposal, the district could lose as much as $1.3 million in funding for teaching assistants, while the House plan would only cut about $300,000. If the final budget more closely resembles the House plan, administrators might not need to implement the proposed reductions at all.

No votes were taken, but the board gave general approval to a series of less controversial cuts, including delaying the addition of a special education classroom and forgoing a onetime bonus to personnel. Members were less certain about a plan to start charging a fee for driver’s education, pending more information about a waiver system.

The proposed spending cuts will return for a formal vote next Thursday, when school board members plan to approve the final budget, even if the state budget is still in limbo.