In 2006, Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District made a bold move. It began to strategically staff a subset of its lowest-performing schools with its district’s best principals. Five years later, 27 schools have truly turned around–double-digit student performance gains, teachers working together, and virtually no discipline issues. The strategy? Make school leadership a priority. But the district didn’t stop there. Since then they’ve worked to secure a “rock star” principal in every school by focusing on improving principal training programs and developing the principal pipeline.
Like most district leaders, Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s leadership team is focused on constantly improving its schools. In 2006, 27 of its schools were the lowest-performing schools in the district and had plateaued in terms of student achievement. “The graduation rate in some of these schools was as low as 50%,” says Ann Clark, Deputy Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. “We had to do something.” New Superintendent Pete Gorman’s strategy for improving the schools was to invest in human capital, since most of the district’s budget was tied up in people. “His goal was to get the most from each employee in the district and to put our best people where they were needed most–in our lowest-performing schools,” explains Clark.
Gorman, Clark, and their team held a focus group with some of the top teachers in the district and asked them what it would take for them to move to a low-performing school. The teachers responded that most importantly, they would want a highly effective principal. In addition, they requested to go as a team, have autonomy, eliminate the “toxic” people, and have additional compensation.
“Our teachers told us that school leadership mattered most.”
“The school principal is a lynchpin position, and we knew if we could get an effective principal in every one of our struggling schools, it would make a difference.” The first step was to identify the right leaders.
Select: Clark’s ultimate goal was to have an effective leader in every one of the district’s 159 schools, not just the 27 lowest performing. The immediate need, however, was turning around the lowest-performing schools. Clark and her team developed a vetting process to identify principals to take on this strategic staffing assignment. The selection process included looking at each principal’s performance evaluation, student growth (not just proficiency), human relations skills, and experience working in a high-poverty school. Clark’s team identified leaders who were instructionally grounded and who had consistently produced more than a year’s worth of student growth. And they selected leaders with a proven track record of leading people, hiring top talent, and navigating micro-politics. “Most important,” says Clark, “we chose leaders who truly believed that every kid could learn.” In short, the principals they identified were “rock stars,” most of whom came from higher-performing schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district.
Honor: Then Gorman, with Clark, personally invited these individuals to lead one of the 27 schools. “Out of 27 principals, only one person turned down the job,” says Clark. Rather than make the role of leading a struggling school a punishment, Clark and her team shifted the paradigm and elevated the role as an honor. “Being tapped for this position became equivalent to being named ‘Principal of the Year.’”
Support and Compensate: Principals were also given incentives for taking on the position. They received additional compensation, were able to handpick up to seven individuals to join them, and make their own decisions about running their school. The 27 schools were given additional support as well. “We designated them as our 911 schools,” explains Clark. “When the principal or a teacher in one of these schools was having challenges or needed something, the central office was expected to treat the situation like an emergency call.
“It was amazing to see that when you give great leaders the latitude to make the changes that need to be made, the results come.”
“We gave these principals a blank slate to work from. Some chose to focus on the early grades, believing that if you make interventions early improvements will have staying power through the grade levels. Others chose to bring in talent to focus on the tested areas right away. Still others brought in literacy or math facilitators and teacher leaders. One principal chose to focus on wrap-around services in the community and the non-profit organizations working with children and families beyond the schoolhouse. And yet another chose a family model where students had multiple teachers and were regrouped daily based on their level,” explains Clark. Each principal was given the autonomy to do what he or she thought needed to be done for his or her students.
Sustain: The district didn’t stop with 27 schools. Its goal was to ensure that it had an effective leader in every one of its 159 schools. Clark’s team designed three alternative licensure programs to assure their colleges of education could deliver the caliber candidate they needed. This district “literally co-teaches principal licensure programs” with the local colleges of education. Now Clark says, “We have 25–30 principal-ready candidates coming out every year, so I don’t have to worry about the talent pipeline anymore. The greatest challenge I have now is that I have lots of principals calling me to ask, ’What would it take for me to go to a Title One school?’”
Today, Charlotte is a Broad Prize-winning district. The students in the 27 targeted schools have made double-digit gains in math, literacy, and science, and there’s a clear academic focus. “The cultures have dramatically changed too. Parents are welcome at the school and there is a family feeling. There’s an energy and spirit. There’s a unified focus on doing right by the students. There’s a vision and a clear mission. And one of the strategic staffing principals was just named ‘Principal of the Year,’ for the district,” says Clark. “I never doubted that we were going to be successful because of the leaders we chose, I had that much confidence in them.”
“Now that we have the right leaders in place across the district, I know that they can recruit, select, retain and develop the teachers and other talent in their building, and that’s how we will close that final loop. This has been an incredible five-year journey.”
Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District partnered with Educational Resource Strategies (ERS) on this strategic initiative. Says Ann Clark, “We came to view ERS as part of our team. They helped us do a diagnosis of our resources: time, people, and money, and they brought a unique perspective in terms of looking at specific job titles against student achievement. ERS pressed us hard to dig below the surface and challenge long-standing traditions. They’re not a vendor, they’re a partner. What an amazing relationship it continues to be.”