Working Together for Change: Strategic School Design in Charlotte-Mecklenburg

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“With your back to your partner, change five things about your physical appearance.”

Former principal Suzanne Giminez surveyed the principals, assistant principals and teachers assembled before her for this Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) School Design Training session, facilitated by ERS and education consulting firm Public Impact (PI). The participants looked to one another for ideas to accomplish this icebreaker activity: nametags, jackets, scarves, jewelry, and shoes were soon removed. After turning back to their partners and describing the changes they made, nearly all session participants proceeded to pull on their removed items again. The changes were merely temporary.

“Not so fast” Giminez continued, “Keep the five changes, and with your partners, change another three things.”

For a moment no one moved—there was even a chuckle as a teacher observed there was nothing else she could remove with decency. But then creativity flowed through the room, and scarves became belts, rings became necklace pendants, and jackets turned into capes.

“What was harder? The first set of changes? Or the second set of changes?”

 Ryan E. Collins, from Northwest School of the Arts,
gets creative during the icebreaker.

In Charlotte's Student Success by Design Cohort, ERS and PI are joining forces with 17 school-based teams to implement real changes: not by merely removing things or stripping down to basics, but by rethinking the status quo and repurposing existing structures to best serve student and teacher needs. This was the second session in a series designed to introduce principals and their school leadership teams to the concept of strategic school design and to support the process of change management. 

Participants had various reactions to the opening exercise: some felt they were out of options when they got to the second round, while others felt the first round made them more creative and willing to think outside the box later. Giminez instructed everyone to maintain at least one of the changes, as a reminder that they were not embarking on a process for change’s sake, but for sustainable solutions to best support  students and teachers.

Before the session, each school team completed ERS’ tool called School Check with their ERS or PI coach. This tool helps school leaders identify their schools’ goals and highest-need areas, such as prioritizing teacher teaming and collaborative planning time, or supporting the development of teacher expertise in their buildings. During the session, we dove into the various strategies they could use to address those needs. We have now collected examples of how schools across the country are implementing innovative school design on our School Design in Action page.

Afterwards, the school teams had some time to think about those strategies in the context of their building, with their students and their teachers. School teams were fired up about the potential of implementing thoughtful new practices alongside the strong aspects of their current school design. For example:

  • Some middle school principals recognized that their school's four-block schedule limited their flexibility to adjust time for struggling students; during the session, teams considered how an “intervention and enrichment” block could support these students further.
  • Individual teachers were cited as stellar candidates for multi-classroom Leadership roles, where great teachers can impact more students and teachers with their best practices.
  • Other teams reconsidered the current structure within which Special Education/English Language Learner teachers provide support, and whether having those teams specialize in content areas would bring greater instructional expertise to each classroom.

Everything was on the table—doing things as they have always been done before was not enough. Throughout the room, we heard school design teammates asking one another: 

"Is that strategic?"

"Is it intentional?"

"Does this align with our primary goals?"

Over the next few months, the Success by Design Cohort will continue to probe these important questions as teams design their school visions. We are enthusiastic about all the incredible thinking these school leaders have done thus far, and cannot wait to see what we will come up with together!

Suzanne Giminez and staff from Smithfield Elementary School during the session.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' Student Success By Design Initiative is made possible by support from the Belk Foundation.