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North Carolina academic growth measure shows Coulwood middle school is anything but average

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Ann Doss Helms
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WFAE
Math teacher Joshua Johnson fills a leadership role that helped Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Coulwood STEM Academy top the state for math growth last year.

According to North Carolina’s school performance grades, Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Coulwood STEM Academy is average. The middle school in northwest Charlotte was graded C for the past school year, based mostly on an overall pass rate of 52% on state reading, math and science exams.

But that grade doesn’t tell the full story.

“I don’t think there’s anything average about us,” says Principal Janet Moss.

You’d expect a principal to say that. But Moss has the proof — specifically, a calculation that shows how much academic growth students made over the course of a school year.

Pass rates strongly reflect factors outside a school’s control. Low-poverty schools with large numbers of white and Asian students tend to top the list.

The growth measure gives a shot to schools like Coulwood, a high-poverty Title I school where 90% of students are Black or Hispanic.

North Carolina crunched numbers for 2,532 public schools. Only one, a K-12 charter school located north of Raleigh, came in higher than Coulwood.

Coulwood had the state’s highest rating for growth in math and for English language learners in all subjects combined.

That kind of ranking is about more than bragging rights. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and across the country, pandemic setbacks were devastating to Black and Hispanic students, low-income kids and English language learners. And math is where students across the country took the biggest hit.

CMS officials say Coulwood’s success in all of those areas could chart a path to recovery.

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Jennifer Lang
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Coming out ‘phenomenal’

Matt Hayes, the CMS deputy superintendent in charge of academics, says Coulwood’s extremely high rating is no fluke.

“Before the pandemic, they had good growth,” he said. “Coming out of the pandemic, they have phenomenal growth.”

To come in that high, Coulwood students had to do well in all subjects. But they really shone in math, logging the highest growth of any North Carolina school.

As the “STEM Academy” name indicates, Coulwood puts an emphasis on math, science and technology. Moss says the school offers special classes that teach students to be medical detectives and work with 3D printers. There’s also a flight and space class.

“We have a flight simulator that’s super cool,” Moss said.

About one-quarter of the school’s 600 students opt in through the CMS magnet program. The rest come from surrounding neighborhoods.

But it takes more than cool electives and a magnet theme to show the kind of growth Coulwood did. Hayes pays close attention to high-growth schools.

“There’s a common theme that you’ll see in those schools,” he said. “One, you’ve got a strong leader that has high expectations.”

That would be Moss, who has been Coulwood’s principal for 10 years.

Shorter classes, longer lunch

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Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
Coulwood STEM Academy Principal Janet Moss

Moss has restructured the school day in ways that might seem counterintuitive. For instance, she reduced the amount of daily time students spend in each subject, from 90 minutes to one hour. She says that’s pretty much the maximum attention span for adolescents — and most adults.

“It was a leap of faith for some teachers,” Moss recalls. “I told them if you follow me through this and just trust me, you’re going to take out all the fluff, you’re going to take out all of the wasted time.”

The key, she says, is having a sense of urgency about making that hour count. “And the kids get that sense of urgency and if there’s a sense of urgency it must be important.”

One thing Moss doesn’t rush is lunch break. Students get a full hour for what Moss calls a brain break.

“During that time, they can use their electronics, they can talk to their friends, they can play games,” Moss said. “A lot of the girls want to dance and film themselves dancing and make TikToks, and that’s just fine.”

Teachers also get a full hour with no duties and no meetings.

The idea is that everyone returns recharged for afternoon classes.

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Ann Doss Helms
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WFAE
Charles Smith teaches seventh grade math at Coulwood STEM Academy.

Single-gender classes

Students move through their daily classes with the same group of classmates, a strategy for creating closer bonds. And for sixth and seventh graders, those classes are segregated by gender.

Brock Elgin teaches sixth grade math for boys, and he calls the arrangement a beautiful thing.

“They can’t just sit down and be lectured to. They get fidgety. So our classrooms are kind of activity-based. We let them move around a little bit,” Elgin said.

Coulwood math teacher Brock Elgin.jpeg
Ann Doss Helms
/
WFAE
Coulwood math teacher Brock Elgin

Without girls present, Elgin says, his boys are less likely to hold back for fear of being embarrassed or to act up to impress the girls.

Obviously, teachers are another key to outstanding growth. Eight years ago, Moss hired math teacher Joshua Johnson to fill a role called multi-classroom leader. It’s part of a system that was pioneered by CMS that offers significant pay raises for highly effective teachers to coach colleagues and reach more students. That system is now spreading across the state.

Elgin was one of two first-year teachers who arrived at Coulwood with Johnson.

“We were getting whupped in the classroom and he kinda showed us the way,” Elgin recalls.

Johnson moves in and out of all classes, providing support to teachers and filling in when they need to step away. Moss says he also helped experienced teachers who weren’t getting good results find better ways to reach their students.

Coping with COVID-19

Of course, the school closures and turmoil that accompanied the pandemic upended progress at Coulwood, just like everywhere else. Moss says she minimized the damage by assigning custodians, secretaries and other hourly staff to sit in on Zoom classes. If a student didn’t log on or fell asleep during class, the assistant called parents. If the student appeared distracted, that adult broke in to give a nudge.

The folks helping keep students on track included bilingual staff who could communicate with Spanish-speaking families and about 85 students who are still learning to speak English.

“When our kids came back from the pandemic, we still had a lot of work to do, but I felt like that put us in a good position to regain our ground,” Moss said.

When consistent in-person classes resumed last year, Coulwood faced a surge in behavior problems, as many schools did. “Everybody came back a little spiky,” Moss said.

She decided that sending kids home would be counterproductive, since many problems seemed to stem from re-adjusting to school procedures and in-person contact. So students who got into fights or disrupted class were sent to “virtual intervention,” a room at school where they could do remote classes with supervision. They had to complete social-emotional lessons related to the underlying causes of their behavior and talk to a counselor and Principal Moss before they could return to regular classrooms.

Double whammy, outstanding numbers

Wood says Elgin’s sixth-grade math classes faced a double whammy last year: They were making the transition to middle school, which is traditionally tough. And they were coming out of a disrupted year where students across the country lost ground, especially in math.

SAS, the analytics company that generates school growth ratings, also creates value-added ratings for North Carolina teachers. Those numbers aren’t in yet, but Moss predicts that Elgin will earn the top spot. At the start of last school year, she says, 16% of his students were on grade level.

“And they ended the year at 73% on grade level,” she said.

Growth ratings can sometimes mask persistent failure to master grade-level standards. But the 2022 report shows that Black, Hispanic, low-income and English learner students consistently scored higher proficiency than their counterparts in CMS and across North Carolina. Often, the differences were dramatic.

For instance, 48% of Coulwood’s Hispanic eighth graders passed the reading exam, compared with 36% of Hispanic eighth graders districtwide and 38% across the state. In sixth grade math, pass rates for Coulwood’s Black, Hispanic and low-income students were almost double the district and state averages. More than 60% of Coulwood’s English learners passed sixth grade math, compared with less than 20% across CMS and North Carolina.

Elgin says the first step is to convince students they can succeed.

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Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
Matt Hayes

“A lot of these kids, this demographic has not had previous success in math,” he said. “And they come in and we look at the numbers and they’re given a less than 1% chance to pass the EOG and then they go on to do so. So it starts with inspiring a thirst for knowledge.”

Top officials in CMS say they’ll look to schools like Coulwood for lessons in how to succeed with students who need the most help overcoming pandemic losses and long-standing racial disparities.

When Hayes, the deputy superintendent, talks about instruction that brings that kind of results, he talks about teaching with integrity. He says that means knowing the state standards like the back of your hand, using the district’s curriculum, and still knowing how to adapt a lesson to meet individual students’ needs.

Elgin has his own way of putting it.

“We do it the Coulwood way,” he said. “And as the data shows, it works.”

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.