Memphis Looks to Charlotte Public Schools

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The last time that Memphis and Charlotte were mentioned in the local news together was 1993, when the North Carolina city won one of the two NFL expansion franchises that Memphis had long sought.

On Monday, Memphis will again look to Charlotte, this time at its racially diverse consolidated public school system with more than 135,000 students. The Transition Planning Commission meets at Christian Brothers University's Sabbatini Lounge with leaders of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system.

Since 1993, Charlotte, the home of Bank of America, has left Memphis in the dust. Not only does it have an NFL team, its population grew 35 percent between 2000-2010, while Memphis declined .5 percent despite annexations. Its growth since 2000 has exceeded even Nashville by 300 percent.

In public education, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is famous as the city that gave America busing for desegregation after a series of court cases and failed efforts to establish an integrated school system. Today, the system has substantial white, black, hispanic, and Asian populations. The combined Memphis and Shelby County system, by today's numbers, will be about 75 percent black.

The Transition Team, which was joined by the new joint school board, looked not so much at the consolidation in Charlotte, which occurred in 1960, but at the system's ability to raise student achievement for all students and maintain a racially diverse population.

Fast facts on Charlotte-Mecklenburg: 136,000 students, 168 schools, 9 school board members; 53 percent of students are economically disadvantaged; 42 percent black, 32 percent white, 16 percent Hispanic; $1.15 billion operating budget; 40 magnet schools that attract 25,000 students.

The four visitors included a former superintendent, the current board chairman, a former school board member, and a former principal. The system won a national award this year for excellence in urban education, but this was not a butt-patting session.

“Progress has been painfully slow, and at the rate we are moving in Charlotte it will still be 15 years before the achievement gap is closed,” said former superintendent Pete Gorman.

He urged the committee to “build a bench” of future principals and assistant principals from among promising young teachers; move good principals and five teachers as a group to the toughest schools but not against their will; give new leadership three years to turn around a school; give good schools more autonomy; measure improvement, not raw scores, so that even college-prep schools must show improvement year over year; pick a superintendent for the consolidated district sooner rather than later; give the schools with the poorest students the most money, and give the wealthiest schools the least money; and expect to move on if you are the superintendent that has to close schools.

“You can’t close schools well,” he said, adding that "to do the job well, I sometimes question if it's physically possible."

Some differences between Memphis and Charlotte quickly became clear in the question-and-answer session. Charlotte’s downtown is its biggest economic engine, much moreso than the suburbs. The state legislature blocked efforts of municipalities to set up separate school systems and the number of school districts in the state has shrunk from 175 to 115. The cap on charter schools has been lifted, and this year there 20 applications were approved. Gorman said he expects “a glut of them,” perhaps more than 100. Arthur Griffin, a former board member, said the public schools went after private-school students with some success.

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