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A Partnerships Case Study

School Design at the System Level in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

“We came to view ERS as part of our team...they pressed us hard to dig below the surface and challenge long-standing traditions. They’re not a vendor; they’re a partner."
Ann Clark
Former Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

Learn more about all our work in Charlotte-Mecklenburg and other district partnerships.

Of schools planned to extend the reach of excellent teachers
Of schools planned to have 90+ minutes of weekly collaborative time for teams
Of schools planned to increase time and/or attention strategy for highest need students

ERS has partnered with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) on a series of projects since 2008. We have worked with leadership teams to monitor, analyze, and assess how resources are used across the district, and we have become trusted advisors and thought-partners to the district leaders. Our analyses have contributed to the development and evolution of many of the district’s key programs—including the strategic school design effort discussed in the story below.

The Challenge

In 2014, the CMS leadership team decided to target strategic school design in a new way. Based on the ERS Strategic Resource Map results, CMS identified clear opportunities for shifting school-based resources that would likely lead to overall improvements in student performance. For example, they sought to intensify individual attention during the 6th grade transition year; they also worked with leaders to better differentiate resources more for struggling students; and they wanted to increase expert support as a cost-effective step to improve student performance through middle and high school.

Succeeding in these kinds of school design improvements at scale, however, required a decentralized strategy, where the district equips school leaders with the support and tools they need to make sustainable and effective change. That means the district needs to provide accurate, relevant data, along with the guidance and time necessary to leverage that data into strategic action.

How did ERS support CMS school design?

In addition to the original Strategic Resource Map and subsequent resource analyses, ERS supported the CMS strategic school design effort to be more than a school-by-school strategy. Our work both targeted school leaders’ capacity to improve their schools while simultaneously ensuring that district leaders were prepared to implement the enabling conditions necessary for each school’s success. This included:

School Leader Support

From 2009-2011, ERS worked with the district to evolve and expand its Strategic Staffing Initiative (SSI), a school turnaround strategy that places strong principals with a team of highly effective teachers and administrators at low-performing schools. ERS provided SSI principals with data analysis, research, case studies, and trainings. From 2013-2016, ERS partnered with Public Impact to support CMS on the Student Success by Design Collaborative. This effort integrated several ideas behind strategic school design: helping school leaders implement a teacher leadership model, allowing teachers to reach more students, and supporting teacher efforts to advance their careers with additional pay for taking on additional responsibilities. Leaders from 17 schools received training on how to identify school priorities; they also created updated school plans with resource strategies to address those priorities. The initiative continues to grow, now with more than 31 participating schools.

District System Support: School-level, easy-to-use data

ERS developed School-Level Resource Use Reports for every school in the district. These reports help principals reflect on their current resource use and enable them to make more strategic resource decisions. Each three- to five-page report synthesizes key data on teacher effectiveness, student performance, teacher load, and use of time and money across classes.

District System Support: School Design Guidance Tool

ERS created an E-Book of 19 School Design Strategies for Middle Schools. This resource was specifically tailored to the CMS context, documenting promising strategies and implementation resources for middle school grades that can address the challenges presented from CMS’ five key focus areas.

Key Outcomes

Many CMS schools continue to provide examples of best practice for schools around the country as showcased in the ERS mini documentaries below. Although they still face many challenges, these schools are improving. In 2017, CMS 8th grade math performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) ranked first in NAEP’s urban district group called Trial of Urban District Assessments (TUDA). And in 2011, CMS also won the prestigious Broad Prize, which honors large urban school districts that show the greatest academic performance improvement while reducing achievement gaps.

Outcomes specific to the ERS support for strategic school design include: 

  • The Student Success by Design initiative helped participating schools make important progress, such as:
    • 100% of schools planned to extend the reach of excellent teachers
    • 80% of schools planned to have 90+ minutes of weekly collaborative time for teams
    • 70% of schools planned to increase time and/or attention strategy for highest-need students
    • Many of the schools experienced dramatic improvements to student achievement. For example, Coulwood Middle School moved from the 14th percentile of schools in Charlotte to the 54th percentile in the year after participating in the initiative. Since partnering with 17 schools in 2016, the initiative has grown to over 31 schools as of 2018. The results that participating schools have seen includ creating sustainable professional development plans for teacher leaders and school leaders, and creating a talent pool process to ensure only the very best educators are offered teacher leadership roles for more pay. Learn more.
    • CMS identified 13 policy changes to the district funding system that would give middle school principals more flexibility to support effective school design practices in their schools. In the 2015-16 year, there were four policy changes implemented:
      • Quarterly early release days to create additional planning time for teachers
      • Principals can redirect the value of 1.0 FTE (full-time employee) toward other funding priorities if they choose
      • Additional resources to K-8 schools in the form of .5 or 1.0 FTE
  • The ERS School-Level Resource Use Reports were used by principals and community superintendents during the school planning process to identify gaps in current resource use and to plan for necessary school design changes. CMS also developed the capacity to generate these reports independently in all schools in future years. To develop this capacity, ERS worked closely with academics, school supervision and IT to review metrics and outputs, guiding questions, and methodology, and to determine how to set up reporting and calculations.
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