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Charlotte-Mecklenburg's Roller-Coaster Ride to Prominence

How strategic staffing and data helped turn around some of the state's worst schools.

If you wanted to summarize the yin and yang of education reform in the 21st century, you could do a lot worse than using Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools as an example. On one hand, the district's reputation for underachieving results is so well known that, a half dozen years ago, a North Carolina state judge presiding over an education dispute trashed some of the districts' failing schools as committing "academic genocide."

On the flip side, the district's recent gains outperformed those of 74 high-poverty, high-minority urban districts to grab one of the most coveted urban prizes in education, the Broad Prize. This 141,000-student district earned $550,000 in scholarships for its students by besting the other finalists, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Broward County Public Schools, both in Florida, and Ysleta Public Schools in El Paso, Texas.

Even with this high point, some bad news and uncertainty await the district. Broad used Charlotte-Mecklenburg's 2009-10 test score data to award its 2011 prize. The district's more recent test results show some regression, possibly due to its ongoing spending concerns. And its key leader through the resurgence, Superintendent Peter Gorman, resigned this past summer to join News Corporation, while three at-large board members declined to run for reelection this November.

Taking Bows
"The prize recognizes that we've made great strides in turning around student performance by focusing on outcomes," says Eric Davis, school board chairman. A finalist twice in recent years, Charlotte-Mecklenburg snared the grand prize this year by building on past advances, making them broader and deeper. "The changes are bigger than any one superintendent; they are part of our DNA," he adds.

Broad Foundation spokeswoman Erica Lepping says Charlotte-Mecklenburg won not only for narrowing achievement gaps and boosting performance of its most disadvantaged students but also by raising standardized test scores and the aspirations of its high-achieving minority students faster, in many cases, than did the state as a whole.

"One statistic popped out," Lepping says, noting that 62 percent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg's African-American students took the SAT exam, more than in any of the other 74 competing districts. And that's a key indicator of college aspirations, she explains.

Another telling improvement: The district's graduation rate rose from 66.6 percent in 2007-08 to 72.2 percent in 2010-11. Not yet satisfied, the district is shooting for a graduation rate of 90 percent and setting targets to ensure students keep pace with each year's work and stay on grade level, all by 2014.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg's academic turnaround is all the more remarkable because employees were already coping with the stress of state oversight, some 500 layoffs, and a relatively flat budget the last four years even while enrollment rose 5 percent in that time. Add in Gorman's abrupt decision to leave and the uncertainty on the school board and it's an even more stunning achievement.

"The reality is that our community burns out superintendents in three or four years, and Gorman lasted five, which means we were living on borrowed time," admits Davis. "It's a highly visible, controversial job, and, with such diverse community opinions and needs, most any decision will create displeasure. We have to address this [burnout problem] to achieve sustained performance."

Interim superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh, who is not a candidate for the permanent job, says the key to the district's success was Gorman's strategic staffing initiative, which turned around underperforming schools by installing new principals and up to seven key staff members per school, creating a core team for change.

"There needs to be an effective leader in every school, which attracts effective teachers and helps them make faster gains," he says. "Everyone buys in and works together to move forward."

Other key underpinnings of Gorman's plan were the implementation of data-driven instruction, which gave teachers portal access to student assessment data, and the use of professional learning communities to improve teaching, Hattabaugh says.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg also boosted overall achievement by earmarking proportionately more teachers, coaching, and other resources for low-performing neighborhood schools to help them increase scores and make gains. And it gave strategic staffing principals in turnaround schools more flexibility to reach academic goals.

In addition, the district took steps to win support from community groups and private foundations and created "Parent University" to give parents practical advice on helping their children to succeed in school.

One School's Progress
Suzanne Gimenez, a strategic staffing principal hired to jump-start change at Devonshire Elementary School, models in microcosm the improvements CMS is striving to achieve throughout the district.

"We're a 90-90-90 school," she says proudly. Ninety percent minority, 90 percent poverty, and working toward 90 percent at or above the state average in English or math assessments, she explains. In a single year, the school rose from 34 percent to 55 percent at grade level in reading, 54 percent to 82 percent in math, and 25 percent to 82 percent in science. "There wasn't a sense of urgency before," she adds.

Gimenez achieved a successful turnaround by analyzing student performance and creating order, structure, and accountability, setting high standards for teachers and students alike, and modeling what was expected. She also forged a collegial community, gaining teachers' buy-in by treating them as decision makers and encouraging feedback. She does daily classroom checks and requires six hours of collaborative classroom planning a week.

"Each grade level knows what the plan is each day; teachers are prepared to talk about what they are going to teach and how," Gimenez says. "They turn their lesson plans in to me and I sign off on them. I have high expectations."

In addition, Gimenez added single-sex classes as an option for grades 1-5, and hired English and math facilitators instead of classroom teachers for two of the seven extra positions. She also added flexible math and English groupings and extra daily English and math blocks for additional help, enrichment, or practice, according to individual student needs.

Finally, mirroring the district, she scrutinizes every expenditure of money and resources to maximize learning, opting for tutoring, for example, over field trips.

Ta'Rai Richardson, a fourth-grade teacher at Devonshire Elementary, says the changes at the school have been "huge," with teachers able to focus on the current year's work instead of filling gaps from the previous year.
With better strategies and flexible, performance-based groupings, students aren't left alone to do work they don't understand, Richardson says. This, in turn, cuts down on discipline issues and eases classroom management.

Uncertainty Ahead
Award in hand, Charlotte-Mecklenburg still faces choppy waters ahead: the search for a new superintendent, upcoming board elections and their potential impact on the path of reform, a new push for pay-for-performance, and potential backlash from 11 school building closings this year to save $5.2 million. (Funds will be redirected from transportation, central office, maintenance, and real estate and earmarked for teaching.)

Chairman Davis says he believes the district is up to the challenges, pointing to community feedback that shows support for the district's focus on academic achievement, despite some anger over school closings.

As for the superintendent position, Davis says the board will conduct a national search, hoping to have a permanent replacement by spring. Winning the Broad Prize can only help, he adds. "Winners like to be with winners."

About the Author

Pamela Derringer is a contributing writer for Scholastic Adminstr@tor magazine.

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