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Leadership Profile: Ann Blakeney Clark

Charlotte’s turnaround artist has lifted its schools to new heights.

Maybe the toughest problem in education today is how to turn around an underperforming school. There are plenty of theories, some high-profile successes, and more failures than anyone can remember. When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina set out on its efforts to turn around its most troubled schools six years ago, they wanted not only to improve their schools but to create a system that could be replicated throughout the district, and across the country. At every step of the way, Ann Blakeney Clark has been at the forefront, overseeing the strategic staffing program to install high-quality principals and teachers in these schools. She's received a shelf-ful of awards for her efforts (and is up for a major AASA award to add to them), and was recently promoted to deputy superintendent. Scholastic Administrator sat down with Blakeney Clark to learn about her successes and to see what she's working on next.

Q When did this turnaround program begin, and why?
A In 2006 we realized we had to face the fact that we had too many subpar schools and had to do something about it.

Q What's the driving principle behind the program?

A Strategic staff, the premise of which being that we had to have an effective leader in every school and an effective teacher in every classroom. Ideally, this would mean having people who had demonstrated success in working with disadvantaged kids and who had experience working in poverty schools.

Q Given that many educators want to move on to better schools as part of their career path, was it difficult attracting the high-caliber principals and teachers you wanted?
A For principals, we found ways to affirm the principal's work and acknowledge him or her for achieving extraordinary results. We did this in the way we designated the principal of the year, along with giving him [or her] extensive recognition through the media.

Q How about teachers?
A We asked quality teachers what it would take for them to teach in a low-performing school. These evolved into the five tenets of the program. The first was having an effective principal. The second was that they wanted to go as a part of a team, not simply on their own. Third, they wanted the autonomy to make their own decisions. Fourth, they wanted toxic staff to be removed. And fifth, they wanted to be fairly compensated.

Q How do these principles work in practice?

A Strategic staffing has extended to 27 schools. In the elementary and middle schools, the principal can pick a team of seven outside of himself, which includes an assistant principal and the teachers. For the high school, the team is 12.

Q Did anyone you tried to attract turn you down?
A We had only one principal who was not interested.

Q Did you have any measurable goals for academic results?
A Our goal has been to achieve two extra months of growth for every school year, and we have succeeded in that.

Q How did you go about replacing "toxic" teachers?
A Principals are allowed to displace seven staff members in each lower-grade school and 12 in each high school.

Q What was parental reaction to these changes?
A One of our main criteria for principals was human relations. I would say we did a good job in choosing our principals. They made a compelling case that this was the right and moral thing to do for low-performing schools, that it was their duty and honor to make these improvements. We haven't had parents coming to school and complaining.

Q How about the board?
A The board was extremely supportive right from the start, and continues to be so as the program yields results.

Q Has strategic staffing been completed in all 29 schools?
A The final one will be completed by the end of this year.

Q Your district won the Broad Prize last year. What was that experience like?
A We have been a finalist three times, and this last time won the award [in October 2011]. It acknowledged the progress we had made toward eliminating achievement gaps. Although we celebrated and appreciated the acknowledgment, we woke up the next morning seeing we still had a lot of work to do. It was certainly a nice shot in the arm to be in the national spotlight and be recognized for our efforts. It's inspired us to work even harder. We've been contacted by educational leaders across the country, so the idea is being spread.

Q How has the prize money helped?
A We received $450,000 to be used exclusively to grant college scholarships to-and honor-students who made similar progress through their high school years.

Q On the personal side, you've been nominated for the 2013 AASA Women in School Leadership Award.
A The AASA nomination is an honor. But the recognition is the work done for the entire community. I'm simply an ambassador, one leader privileged to be nominated and become one of the finalists. [The winner will be announced at AASA's conference in 2013.]

Q Any leadership tips to share with your peers?
A I think leadership matters at all levels of the organization-superintendent, principal, teacher. My experience has taught me that leaders are in the human relations business. How well you do there can either make you or break you.

Q Any pitfalls in leadership that you've observed?
A I've seen some leaders, who were up at the top of the ladder but didn't have anyone behind them, struggling. You have to be surrounded by a supportive team. Otherwise, if you're off on the top of the mountain all by yourself, it can be very lonely.

Q How do you work with people so you can achieve this team support?
A At the end of the day, my central philosophy is that all of us should put a kid's face on every decision. Sometimes it's a particular student; other times it might be a group, such as all of the students in a particular course, or females. But if you put students' faces on all of the decisions you and your staff make, then they're much more willing to come along with you as a team.

—Late Fall 2012—

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