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Berry Academy advocates fret STEM program competition
School's advisory panel wants clarity on future
Published Tuesday, August 5, 2014 6:59 pm
by Herbert L. White

Advocates of Phillip O. Berry Academy’s science, technology and math curriculum want Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to clarify the school’s future as a magnet program.

A committee of business, academic and community leaders has asked the school district for data relating to test results, policies and demographics at Berry in the wake of duplicate programs across the county. Newer health sciences academies have recently opened at Olympic and Hawthorne high schools; the  Charlotte Early Engineering College, which opens at UNC Charlotte this month, is CMS’s first early-college high school and its students earn credits that can be applied to a four-year degree.

“There’s no doubt it dilutes the program” at Berry, said PTSA President Kim Graham, a graduate of a STEM magnet high school in Philadelphia. “We didn’t have three or four STEM programs across Philadelphia. We had one, maybe two.”

Berry Academy, which opened in 2003, has three on-campus academies: engineering, information technology and medical.

“We want to make sure we preserve the STEM nametag and by doing that the students who come to Phillip O. Berry are interested in either medicine, information technology or engineering,” said Oronde McLean, who chairs Berry’s Advisory Board. “If they don’t have that, they tend to get students who aren’t very interested in what we have to offer.”

CMS officials declined comment, citing a proposed meeting with Berry supporters.

With new programs drawing STEM students across Mecklenburg County, Berry advocates argue the pool of prospects opting for the westside campus will become shallow. With fewer students inclined to study those disciplines at Berry, science and technology courses will take a hit along with the school’s academic standing.

“I wondered last year as a freshman parent what the level of commitment was to academic excellence,” said Graham, whose daughter Aryn is a Berry sophomore and aspires to become a doctor. “I think I expected more focus on things that were more stimulating activities. The planning and execution often seemed rushed and poor. I think we had more communication in terms of athletic schedules than we did of academic activities.”

Berry’s one-time lead over its peers in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools and statewide has eroded as more non-STEM students enrolled.

In 2013, 56.2 percent of its students met the standard in End of Course exams in English II compared to 53.4 percent in CMS and 51.2 of all N.C. students. In biology, Berry’s 55.0 percent beat the district (47.7) and the state (45.6); in algebra, Berry (26.4) lagged CMS (38.1) and the state overall (36.3).

In 2012, Berry Academy, also known as POB, outpaced the district and state in all three categories as North Carolina changed its testing mechanism: 95 percent proficiency in English to CMS’ 82.6 and the state’s 82.9; 95.0 in biology (versus 84.2 and 83.0); and 92.9 in algebra (compared to 75.1 and 78.7).  POB, which earned the 2010 National School Change award by outperforming 89 percent of all N.C. campuses, dropped to 67.6 percent in 2013.

If those trends continue, board members contend STEM students, teachers and career opportunities like internships at local businesses will disappear.

“If the community and parents are not engaged, we’re not going to be around in the next year or two,” McLean said. “We’re not screaming or yelling. We just want to know what’s going on.”

Berry Academy draws its enrollment from across the county, but primarily in east and west Charlotte. African Americans make up 76 percent of the student body compared to 12 percent Hispanic and 5 percent white. Sixty-seven percent are economically disadvantaged and qualify for free and reduced lunch; the student-to-teacher ratio in 2013-14 was 16-to-1.

In the 2011-12 academic year, 40 percent of POB’s 1,455 students – roughly 580 – took Advanced Placement, or AP, courses and tests, according to data provided to the College Board. Half passed AP exams, which demonstrate success in college-level courses.

“My daughter is extremely motivated,” Graham said. “However, because she’s in the medical science academy, she’s going to have to have access to quality internships and an accredited program with high-quality educators and students who have a focus on academic excellence and not just phoning it in, so to speak.”


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