Education catalyst – Reports, convening are priorities

By Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The decision on whether youngsters in Charlotte and Mecklenburg County should be bused to school to achieve racial balance is in the hands of the federal courts. Whatever the means of transportation, however, a local nonprofit wants to make sure the schools meet the needs of all children.

“One of the enormous challenges is to serve all children,” says Tom Bradbury, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Education Foundation.

The group was formed in 1991 after a task force headed by Bill Lee, the late Duke Energy chief, called for a new entity to champion the improvement of education in the local public schools.

For several years, the foundation made grants to teachers, using money it raised from corporations, foundations and individuals.

But the foundation now has shifted its attention away from grantmaking, focusing instead on research and advocacy.

Handing out grants “really doesn’t change the schools,” says Bradbury, who became president last September after serving as an editorial writer and associate editor for The Charlotte Observer.

The group’s research and advocacy efforts range from tracking community opinion and assessing school performance to convening community leaders and training parents.

Every year since 1995, for example, the foundation has commissioned a poll of registered voters on their attitudes about and expectations for education.

This year’s “community assessment,” conducted by KPC Research and released in June, found strong support for schools and high confidence in teachers and administrators, but mediocre marks for the school system and little confidence in the school board or county commissioners.

Voters also were polarized over neighborhood schools and busing for racial balance – and showed little understanding of the controversial issues of vouchers, charter schools and the state’s new “no social-promotion” policy.

“We will continue to work to focus on and improve the public’s understanding, not just of schools in the abstract, but how schools do for different groups of students,” Bradbury says.

This fall, the foundation will issue its first report on the state of public education.

Other foundation efforts include training parents to help their children improve their achievement in school, and organizing small groups to study particular issues.

This year, the parent-training program is focusing on neighborhoods that feed West Mecklenburg High School, and on businesses.

The study groups will examine outside funding for schools from the PTA, parents and must pass to graduate from high school.

Thanks to funding from Duke Energy Corp., the foundation recently revamped its Web site, which will feature news and online discussions about education issues.

The foundation sponsors an annual meeting for the community that this year took the form of the first-ever education summit in the county. It also plans this fall to launch a series of lectures, inviting outside speakers to talk about education.

The group also plans to update and publish online the guide to school resources that it published in 1994.

In addition to its own projects, the foundation teams up with other groups. It is part of a collaborative effort funded by the Ford Foundation, for example, to raise student achievement in West Mecklenburg. And it works with the James J. and Angelia M. Harris Foundation in recognizing teaching excellence.

Despite its name, the foundation is a traditional nonprofit, raising money to pay for its research and advocacy programs. It does not hand out grants.

“Our name is highly misleading,” Bradbury says. “The foundation has increasingly over the last five or six years moved into advocacy.”

The foundation is just completing the first phase of a year-long campaign to raise $490,000 from 71 companies. In the first phase, the foundation has raised nearly $200,000. The second phase begins in late August.

Charles O. Izzard, resident manager at Brown Brothers Harriman & Co., is chairman of the foundation’s development committee.

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