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Leadership Profile: Frank Till Jr.

The North Carolina superintendent has drawn national attention to his district by emphasizing individual student growth.

Last spring, Frank Till Jr., Chief of Cumberland County Schools in North Carolina, received the news that his district was one of four finalists for the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education. The award, which recognizes large urban districts that have made significant progress in increasing student performance and closing the achievement gap, contributes $1 million in scholarships to students across the four selected districts.

Cumberland certainly qualifies. Of the district's diverse student body of 53,000, about 60 percent live in poverty. Despite this, the district boasts the lowest achievement gap for low-income and minority students of any urban district in North Carolina. (While largely urban, the sprawling district encompasses some rural areas.) In recent years, the graduation rate has increased at twice that of other large urban districts across the country.

"We were thrilled to be a finalist," says Till. "We made a decision early on that we would not emphasize the scholarships because those were monetary-type things, and that isn't what we're about. What we're about is growth for every student.

"While Cumberland County didn't take home the grand Broad prize (a distinction that went to Houston Independent School District), the district's merit as a finalist has put it on the map.

Due "True North"
There's a common direction among the 7,000 staff members in the district's 87 schools. It's a vision that Till has dubbed "True North"—a goal that all students should achieve individual growth, not just overall proficiency in a class or a school.

Early in his tenure, Till found that neither the high-achieving students (the "4s," according the state's four-point testing scale) nor the low achievers (the "1s") were making much progress. However, when "2s" and "3s" made progress, overall proficiency rates in a class or a school went up. But where did that leave the 1s and 4s? "We stopped talking about proficiencies and started talking about every student making it," Till explains.

That practice is what Till and staff members like Peggy Raymes, principal of Margaret Willis Elementary School, credit with narrowing the achievement gap. "When you send your child to my school, it doesn't matter if 90 percent of the kids pass the test," says Raymes, a 30-year veteran in the school system. "A kid can pass a test and not have grown. The emphasis for us—and Dr. Till really supports this-is growth for our students, growth for us professionally. Are we getting better every day, and are we having a positive impact on the lives of our children?"

Creating a Playbook
When Till arrived in Cumber­land County in 2009, he took a close look at policies that hadn't been updated in more than 20 years. "We found out that nobody shared data," he says. "[Now] we spend a lot of time talking about data and trying to find the causal effects."

Till and Ron Phipps, the district's associate superintendent of evaluation and testing, created a playbook for each school that allows principals to access and manage up-to-date assessment results.

Teachers have conversations about the data and what's working and what's not working in their classrooms, says Raymes. "[Dr. Till] has created a climate that has allowed us to talk very openly and honestly with one another. It's not a competition. It's about finding out what's working and determining if you can use that strategy in your building."

On a district level, Till has also established a formal communication system. He formed vertical teams so that teachers from across grade levels and schools could meet and share ideas once a month. "It's talking about the common things in a community, because our farming community is much different than one of our inner-city communities," explains Till. Principals from each of those vertical teams report back to an instructional council, which makes decisions about district policies.

Board member Larry Lancaster says Till's communication efforts and the value he places on stakeholder input account for the district's success.

"He's everywhere in the community—whether it's parent advisory groups or business advisory groups or meeting with principals," Lancaster says. "You wouldn't see it on a billboard, but it's so many small things that have made such a big difference."

A Renewed Focus
The greatest challenges that Cumberland County faces are the same ones that plague other schools in North Carolina. Education has taken a hit as the result of a new governor, Republican Pat McCrory, and a fresh group of legislators.

"We've lost so much funding that it's created problems we didn't have years ago," Lancaster says, explaining that large class sizes and the loss of teachers' assistants are among the hurdles. Also, legislators have ruled that teacher tenure will be phased out completely by 2018 and that educators will no longer receive automatic pay increases when they earn master's degrees.

"Some of the things that the legislature has done to teachers has caused morale problems, but we're pushing forward," says Till. These are among the difficulties he will have to tackle over the course of his contract, which was recently renewed through 2017.

You're less likely now to hear about "True North" in the district's schools. It's not that they've gone off-course, but after such a banner year—which includes both the Broad Foundation nod and accreditation district-wide—everyone is now talking about taking student achievement "A Step Above."

Winter 2014—

 

 

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