In Their Own Words

Charlotte School Leaders Describe Their Strategic School Design

For the past five months, ERS and Public Impact have worked closely with 17 Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools on strategic school design as part of the Student Success by Design initiative. Strategic School Design refers to how school leaders organize people, time, technology, and money within their schools, revolving around their instructional vision and school needs. Through multiple training sessions and one-on-one coaching, this initiative provided school leaders with time and support to create new school designs. ERS Principal Associate Rob Daigneau explains that this project had a few goals, “to extend the reach of excellent teachers, to ensure enough collaborative planning time, to ensure that teachers can quickly identify struggling students and provide additional need-based support, and to plan for financial sustainability.”

Below, three school leaders describe their experience redesigning their schools this year and Rob Daigneau gives more detail on the initiative.

Leaders from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools share next steps for their strategic school designs

Eric Ward, Principal of West Mecklenburg High School

Q: Why did you choose to participate in the Student Success by Design Initiative?

One of my goals was for students to experience something different. We saw that their experience with traditional education wasn’t working. So why continue to do the same thing?

Q: As part of your strategic school design, you’re making some instructional changes such as time-tech swaps—which is where students can use technology to master the material at their own pace and then work with the teacher at other times. How will this change the experience for students?

In the past, it’s been them in the classroom, doing a lot of rote learning at their desks. The teacher gives a set of instructions and then they do the independent work, maybe using groups now and then.

Our instruction will look different now that it’s mastery-based. Students can now learn at different paces. Some students will work on the computer with a “reach associate”—someone who monitors the classroom while students are working. Other students might get pulled out to work with the teacher. A multi-classroom leader can even pull groups from several classes and work with them separately. This requires a lot of common planning time for the teachers. Our teachers will get at least 180 minutes a week.

Q: What were the best aspects of the Student Success by Design process?

It was important to get time away from school. It was also helpful to just dig into data, and look at our student needs. We got to really talk about how our school works.

Q: What advice would you give other school leaders who are considering bold changes?

It’ll be very messy in the beginning, but don’t worry about messing it up. For the most part, you have nowhere to go but up. Find the pockets of teachers who want to make the change and have a positive attitude, and emphasize them. This kind of change is scary, but take the right people with ambition and belief, and they can do it.

Janet Moss, Principal of Coulwood Middle School

Q: When you started the redesign process, did you already know what strategies you wanted to focus on?

We knew we had to change, but we weren’t sure how. This process helped us focus on the biggest impact changes. It was good in that we could be very reflective about how we use our time and expertise, and where our strengths and weaknesses are.

Q: How did you identify your strengths and weaknesses?

One of the more interesting things we did was to shadow our students through a day of classes. We saw the level of boredom, disengagement, and lack of rigor they encountered. So we thought, “No wonder we have the numbers we have!” Holding a mirror up to ourselves and seeing exactly how a realistic day looks, outside of the “ed jargon,” was very eye-opening and humbling for us.

Q: How did this experience affect the design changes at your school?

Our teachers need to be more effective. We can’t change our students, but we control how our staff make relationships with children. We have vacancies to work with, and we pay particular attention to on-boarding, to the interview process. We ask our teachers situational questions to see how they handle students. We are also going to use multi-classroom leaders who will coach, co-teach, and do small groups, and they will be directly responsible for the success of both the students and teachers in their group.

Q: What is some advice you would give other school leaders who are considering strategic school design?

I would say be very prepared for the humbling effect that is going to happen when you peel back layers of what you thought was going on. Also, make sure the team that supports it is a cross-section of your school. We had a good mix of old and new—someone to bring history, someone to bring innovation. It’s amazing and worthwhile. If your school is perfect, I’d say don’t do it. But I haven’t seen that school yet.

Emily Warnke, 3rd grade teacher and school design teammember, Winget Park

Q: How do you describe the changes at your school to your friends and family?

I have lots of family in education so I always go around saying, “We are transforming education!” When you think of an elementary school, you think you get your letter, and it says you’re going to be in Ms. E’s class and there are 25 other kids in the class. We’re changing that so that in 3rd grade, we’ll have three classrooms of 25 students. They’ll have a teacher for literacy, one for science, one for math, and a fourth block that’s personalized learning time.

Q: That sounds great, but maybe a little confusing for little kids. How will you handle that?

We’re building in a lot of collaboration time for teachers. We’ve begun some flex time this year, and we’re also only going to pilot this model in the 3rd and 5th grades this year, so we’ll know how it works and if we can expand to 2nd and 4th next year.

Q: When you started the design process, how did you determine what to focus on in your school?

One of the things we used was School Check—a self-assessment tool which helps you identify your school’s strengths and weaknesses and identify your goals. That helped us focus on literacy. That’s why we decided to start the “multi-classroom leader” model with 3rd grade, because 3rd grade is the Read to Achieve Year in North Carolina. And in 5th grade we’re preparing them for middle school.

Q: How has your relationship to your school changed through this process?

I’ve been a parent or teacher at the school since it opened, so I have a lot invested in this school. My investment has increased through this process. It was great to be able to decide what we want to do, rather than CMS downtown deciding. We have autonomy to make our own decisions and say, “Let’s try this out and see how this works.”

Rob Daigneau, ERS Principal Associate and School Design Coach

Q: What is strategic school design?

For us, strategic school design refers to how school leaders organize people, time, technology, and money within their schools, revolving around their instructional vision and school needs. What works at one schoolmay not work at a second school, because each place has unique needs.

Some schools might implement block schedules instead of period schedules to give teachers more time with students and to plan with each other. Others might implement enrichment/intervention blocks to reach struggling students, create a “multi-classroom leader” role to allow excellent teachers to reach more students, use technology in new ways, or start an advisory model. You can use your resources in many different ways to accomplish the same goal.

Q: What did the schools in this cohort do differently than in past years?

First, they attended five training sessions on strategic school design and received one-on-one support from a coach—either through ERS, Public Impact, or the district. The goal was to create a strategic school design plan that matches resource use to student and teacher needs. When schools do their annual planning, sometimes they are only able to tinker on the edges—adding some curriculum here or a PD unit there. We gave these school leaders space for deep reflection and to think about bigger changes.

Through the workshops, we looked at lots of examples of how highly effective schools organize their resources, and helped schools identify their current strengths and weaknesses. The coaches pushed the school leaders by asking about the trade-offs and alignment across their various initiatives. Also, these schools were empowered to do certain things that other CMS schools are not yet allowed to do, such as creating new teacher leader positions like “multi-classroom leader” and “reach teacher.”