Innovation, Incentive Drive North Carolina Schools’ Continued Success
On a hot and sunny Monday morning in April, Kimberly Vaught, assistant principal at Devonshire Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C., stood in the school’s front hallway, greeting students as they arrived for school.
“Good morning, Hello Kitty,” she said to a tiny child carrying a Hello Kitty backpack almost as big as she was. “How are you?”
The little girl said nothing, but silently put her arms around Vaught’s legs – which was about as high as she could reach – for a quick hug before she headed off down the hallway for class.
Vaught is in her fourth year at Devonshire, whose student body is about 51 percent African-American, 43 percent Hispanic and almost 97 percent low income.
Devonshire is an elementary school in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, a school district that serves about 136,000 students from the city of Charlotte and communities in Mecklenburg County.
The school used to operate almost as a social services center, with parents coming in for help finding babysitters, or housing, or food; academics took a backseat, said Vaught.
That changed with the arrival of Principal Suzanne Gimenez in the summer of 2008, one of the first seven principals charged under the Strategic Staffing initiative with turning around some of the district’s most troubled schools.
Strategic Staffing is a 3-year-old initiative in the district that places high-performing principals in the district’s lowest-performing schools; the initiative is based on the premise that an excellent leader, when armed with the right tools, can turn around a school’s performance.
Devonshire had not made Adequate Yearly Progress, or AYP – an annual target dictated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act – for five consecutive years prior to Gimenez’s arrival, according to Gimenez. On the 2008 North Carolina End of Grade reading tests, just 26 percent of the school’s third-graders scored at or above grade level, and only 35.6 percent of fourth-graders scored at that level.
At the school level, about 34 percent of its students were proficient in reading on the 2008 state test while about 54 percent were proficient on the math test that year.
“All I had was an empty building and some data,” said Gimenez, recalling her arrival at the school in the summer of 2008. “I knew where the kids were. I knew what they knew, what they didn’t know, and basically, it was a pretty gloomy picture.”
Under the school system’s Strategic Staffing protocol, Gimenez could have removed five existing teachers from the school, but she chose not to.
“I did not eliminate anyone in this building. Now, some people eliminated themselves very quickly,” she said. “It (was) an easy place to hide out.”
Processes and procedures, once lacking, were put in place; there is, according to Gimenez, a system for everything.
Those systems are now so taken for granted that the kids police themselves, effortlessly following the process for entering the building in the morning, getting their breakfasts and starting in on their morning work, according to Vaught.
“The kids are now holding themselves, as well as others, accountable for the learning process,” she said. “You’ll hear them say, ‘So-and-so’s not doing this.’ … They’re starting to put positive peer pressure on each other, and they also hold the adults accountable.”
Indeed, the 500 or so students at the school streamed quickly and seamlessly through the hallways that Monday morning to their classrooms and by 9 a.m. they were well into the business of the day.
Tools for success
Alex Porras took a break from his fifth-grade studies to show a visitor his data binder. The binders, which are kept by all students at the school, were an initiative introduced by Gimenez. In the book, Alex recorded his attendance and whether he completed his homework: both were almost perfect.
He also recorded his performance on tests given throughout the year, coloring in a bar graph with brightly colored crayons to record his progress.
“This helps us,” he said. “We can look back any time we want, and we can see what we got and if we’re improving. … (Then) at the end of each month, we’ll write our personal monthly goal.”
Alex hadn’t yet decided on a goal for that month, but needed to be better about checking his work.
“’Cause sometimes I work way too fast, and I make careless mistakes,” he said with a smile.
The model Gimenez has used to reinvent Devonshire is not the only way to successfully turn a school around.
At Ashley Park, another strategically-staffed school in the district, the principal has implemented a “family model,” in which all the teachers at a given grade level own all the students. For example, all of Ashley Park’s second and third graders are grouped together and taught by all six teachers at that grade level.
On the surface, Ashley Park and Devonshire, as they’ve been reincarnated, could not look less alike: There’s the family model on one end, with all the messy chaos that the word “family” implies, and then structured precision, with a system and process for everything, on the other end.
But the schools are both exemplars of one of the district’s guiding precepts: a strong leader, with the right support, can change the direction of a school.
Finding leaders is the key
It’s a precept embraced by the federal government as well, which, in two of its four turnaround models, calls for replacing principals at failing schools. Another model calls for restarting the school under different management, and a final model requires closing the school outright.
The problem, said CMS School Superintendent Peter Gorman, with just shutting down the district’s low-achieving schools and sending those students elsewhere is that more than half of the CMS students who were failing were enrolled in less than one-third of the district’s schools – and many of those schools were located near each other.
(Gorman, who joined the district in July 2006, recently announced that he would be leaving CMS to take a leadership position at News Corp.‘s newly formed educational division. News Corp., a diversified media company, is The Standard-Times’ parent company.)
“If we close down a failing school, where are we going to send them?” he asked. “You can’t fire your way to greatness, just close every school down. You’ve got to do some things where you bring stars into the schools.”
Recognizing that great principals can’t be plucked from the sky, the district has been very deliberate about cultivating a strong pipeline of upcoming leaders as well as developing a multi-year principal induction process that ensures new principals have the support and the training they need to succeed in their roles, according to Ann Clark, the district’s chief academic officer.
Getting into a leadership position in CMS used to be a matter of self-selection: teachers who decided they wanted to be a principal and who went to graduate school to do the required coursework became principals, said Gorman.
“We didn’t tap people on the shoulder and say, ‘You know what? You’re a star. You have potential. You’re a great teacher and leader, have you thought about going to graduate school?’” he said.
The district developed its own master’s degree in partnership with a local university, in which the courses are taught by university professors and CMS staff. Twenty-five people are accepted into the two-year program each year. The district has also partnered with New Leaders for New Schools, a New York City-based nonprofit focused on training leaders for urban public schools.
“We’ve had over 170 principal changes in five years with (178) schools,” said Gorman. “Now I want to be clear some of those folks are the same principals that were there; we’ve moved them to a different school. … But a hundred of the folks, approximately, are new.”
“We’ve had to grow our own because we just decided: self-selection is a bad plan for building a pipeline of leaders.”
Success is rewarded
As a district, CMS started exploring performance-based payment models before Gorman was hired as superintendent. In 2007, the district was awarded a five-year grant through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund to implement a pilot pay-for-performance program, which CMS titled Leadership for Educators’
Advanced Performance, or LEAP. Within the district, the program is known as TIF-LEAP.
(The grant was written under the district’s former superintendent, but awarded after Gorman was hired.)
The program was originally tied to the state’s performance bonuses, which were awarded to schools or teachers who showed high growth on the end-of-year state tests. The district’s bonus system used the same criteria, so qualifying teachers or schools received a double bump, according to Susan Norwood, director of the TIF-LEAP program.
North Carolina is a right-to-work state, and there are no teachers’ unions in the Charlotte school district. In New Bedford, the teachers’ union contract contains a salary schedule under which a teacher’s pay is determined by the number of years of employment and the teacher’s level of education.
Once Gorman came on board, however, he broadened the scope, pushing the district to look at more measures of teacher effectiveness and how those tied in to performance pay, said Norwood.
The program, which is being piloted at 20 schools across the district, is now focused on two areas: getting teachers to use data to change, or guide, their instructional practices with the goal of improving student achievement; and refining a growth measurement that captures the value a teacher adds in the classroom.
The value-added measure is based on a student’s growth, not a student’s overall performance, thus avoiding penalizing teachers whose students are on the lower end of the performance spectrum. The measurement also seeks to determine what portion of the growth, or lack thereof, was due to the teacher as opposed to other factors outside the teacher’s control.
The district is moving toward a pay-for-performance model — Gorman has said he wants every employee of CMS, from the superintendent on down, under pay-for-performance by 2014 — and the question now is: What exactly will that look like?
The system — the measurements themselves and how those measurements will link to compensation — is still being designed, but the district has committed to developing a model that does not allow annual income to fluctuate wildly and that does not decrease anyone’s salary from what it would be under the current structure, according to the district’s website.
Gorman pointed out that the idea of having effective leaders or teachers is not controversial; what can be, however, is what the district means by “effective” — especially when meeting or not meeting that criteria can affect pay.
The model the district is currently exploring would use the value-added measurement as one part of an overall assessment of effectiveness. The district is hoping to finalize the different measures that will count toward effectiveness and the new compensation system by the end of the 2011-12 school year, according to a presentation on the district’s website.
“I am pushing people out of their comfort zones,” said Gorman. “If we think people are just suddenly going to latch on to this and feel good about it, no way. This is hard.
“We’re doing more of really holding teachers and holding principals accountable,” Gorman continued. “We let principals go; we let senior staff go. We do let teachers go, too. It’s harder, but folks that aren’t performers, we let go. And that’s hard, because we want to think everyone’s here for the love of a child, and they are, but just because you love kids don’t necessarily mean you should be a teacher.”
In January 2008, Eric Ward, then just 32, was sent to fill the principal position at Wilson Middle School with the uneasy assignment, handed down by the district, of interviewing all the school’s staff, deciding who to keep and who to let go — and then working with everyone for the rest of the school year.
It was Ward’s first job as principal, although he had spent several years as an assistant principal for instruction at two different high schools in the district.
The school’s scores at the time were abysmal: In 2007, less than a third of the school’s students were performing at or above grade level on the state tests.
As Ward conducted staff interviews, he felt that the teachers were, largely, not bad teachers; they just needed more direction, he said. So instead of a wholesale firing — which is what the federal model calls for — he kept most of the teachers, and embarked on a program of staff development focused on teaching the teachers how to teach, giving them instructional strategies and a clear vision for the school.
Ward also seized on strategies promoted by Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, a national program that focused on improving student performance and getting students ready for college, as the school’s central precepts.
Students enrolled in AVID take an elective in which they learn study and organizational skills, learn how to think critically, and receive tutoring. AVID strategies can be in any class, regardless of whether it’s an official AVID elective or not, and that is the approach Ward has taken.
For the last few years, about 26 teachers from the school have attended an AVID summer conference, and the number of students at Wilson actually enrolled in AVID has grown from about 30, when Ward started at the school, to 171. Wilson started experimenting with some more targeted interventions: He brought into the school a mentoring program, known as COMPASS, that he describes as a cross between military-type training and a 4-H program.
Wilson was strategic in which boys — the program is only for male students — he selected for COMPASS, choosing a mix of “high flyers” and students who had some behavioral challenges but also leadership potential, reasoning that if he could get that latter group of kids back on track, it would have a disproportionately positive effect on the school’s culture.
On a Wednesday morning in April, the boys, about 30 of them, were grouped in the school’s gym, being led by Sean Weaver, a pastor who founded COMPASS with his wife, in an exercise akin to Simon Says on steroids known as “Last Man Standing.”
Weaver called out directions or questions — “What do you seek?,” and the boys chorused back: “Success.” As the students missed one order or another, they sat down, usually of their own volition: integrity, said Weaver’s wife, Kimberly, is one of the key teachings of the COMPASS program.
After the drill, he quizzed the boys, one by one, on their studies, their grades, their attitudes, finding weak spots or potential problems in just a question or two.
Weaver managed to be both jovial and stern with the students, injecting enough levity that he avoided a hectoring or nagging tone.
“What do you need to do to make (your social studies project) an A?” he asked sixth-grader Ricky Alexander.
“Put some color on it,” said Ricky.
“Well, so put some color on it!” Weaver said.
The program works, said eighth-grader Isaiah Donnelley. Isaiah wasn’t doing badly in school before he started in COMPASS three years earlier, but his experiences with the initiative have helped him focus more, he said.
“I like (COMPASS) because it’s taught me how to be a man and how to handle situations in life,” he said. “It’s taught me how to have patience.”
Ward didn’t limit his experimentation to the extracurriculars or special programs. He brought a number of teachers from Teach for America into the school — about 11 teachers in his second year at Wilson — and started a few same-sex classes, which has worked well so far: Both boys and girls in the single-gender classes are outperforming the rest of the school on formative assessments given throughout the year and on the state tests at the end of the year, according to Ward.
Ward has used test data to make some strategic decisions on assigning teachers to these single-gender classes: a sixth-grade, boys-only English class performed well enough with their teacher that he had her follow the boys to seventh grade; meanwhile, the data showed that another teacher at the school, who had been teaching mixed-gender classes, seemed to be disproportionately successful at teaching girls — while she was a good teacher across the board, the girls in her classes tended to make more than a year’s worth of growth — so Ward assigned her to a seventh-grade, all-girls class.
Taken apart, the strategies Ward has employed don’t sound like much — nothing fancy, or flashy, or overly expensive — but the effects have been nothing short of remarkable. In 2007 — the year before Ward started at Wilson — about 32.1 percent of the school’s students were testing at or above grade level; in 2010, that number was 60.1 percent, according to Ward.
Asked about his success, Ward pointed to the importance of staff development, of giving his teachers the tools to be good, effective instructors. He said he gave his teachers a clear direction and purpose. And, perhaps most importantly, he has inculcated his staff with a strong belief in the school’s students and their ability to succeed.
Despite the progress Wilson Middle School has made over the past few years, the school is being closed next year, a victim of the district’s precarious budget situation, and its students sent to other middle schools or K-8 schools in the district.
Ward will be taking over as principal at West Mecklenburg High School as of July 1. About 99 percent of the teachers at Wilson secured positions at other schools in the district by early June, although some of them are still looking for other jobs outside CMS, said Ward.
While budget numbers have yet to be finalized, CMS is looking at cutting about $43 million from its budget, cuts that will likely result in the elimination of some teaching positions, according to a district spokeswoman. The district’s proposed fiscal 2012 operating budget is $1.1 billion.
Wilson is one of 11 schools that will be closed as part of the district’s cost-saving measures. Other schools, like Ashley Park, will be expanded to accommodate students from pre-K through eighth grade. Even schools that are on neither the closing nor the expansion list will feel the fallout from the budget situation as their boundary lines are redrawn to accommodate students who are suddenly school-less.
“We have raised the bar and closed the achievement gap for more and more of our students every year,” said Gorman, the district’s superintendent.
But, he continued, “Our cuts we’re looking at making this year are so severe — and it’s on top of previous years’ cuts — that when you look at them, we think (the successes we’ve had) are in jeopardy.”
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