Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has earned national acclaim for innovative programs to break the link between poverty, race and academic failure.
Ironically, one of its biggest success stories hasn’t been part of those efforts. Windsor Park Elementary gets no hiring bonuses to lure top educators. No philanthropists are pitching in to spur reform there. The east Charlotte neighborhood school doesn’t even have a magnet program to entice high-fliers.
“We’re just your run-of-the-mill elementary school,” said Principal Kevin Woods.
Well, not exactly.
An overwhelming majority of the students are nonwhite and come from impoverished families. About one-third are learning to speak English.
Often, such concentrated challenges are a formula for struggle. But Windsor Park’s students far surpass state and CMS averages for low-income and minority students. With a combined pass rate of 82 percent on 2012 reading, math and science exams, Windsor Park’s goal is to match performance at Providence Spring, the highest-performing and most affluent elementary school in CMS, Woods says.
“If you’re a parent of a student who’s not on grade level, it doesn’t mean anything to you that 80 percent are,” he said.
Educators, policy-makers and foundations have sunk vast amounts of brain power and money into creating results like this, often with little to show for it. Woods and his faculty say their secrets aren’t sexy: Hire the right people. Make wise use of talent and money. Match students with the teachers who are right for them.
Tyler Ream, the zone superintendent in charge of CMS’ high-poverty elementary schools, agrees.
“I do not think there is necessarily a secret to their success,” he said. “I think Windsor Park’s improvement has everything to do with the consistency of a talented and dedicated leader and staff doing what they do best with minimal disruptions and turnover.”
Woods came to Windsor Park in 2007. At the end of his first year, when the state made it harder to pass reading tests, the school had a combined pass rate just under 48 percent.
That was far from the worst performance in CMS, which may explain why former Superintendent Peter Gorman never targeted the school for “strategic staffing” shakeups, with bonuses to entice stronger faculty.
But Woods wasn’t happy. He had worked at Idlewild and Montclaire elementaries, which had proven that low-income students can succeed. At Windsor Park, low scores meant he had to send home letters telling families they had a right to transfer their children to higher-performing schools.
In the fall of his second year, CMS sent reviewers to do in-depth studies of many schools, including Windsor Park. Windsor Park got low ratings for academic achievement and instruction. The experts described a school where children were safe, happy and respected their teachers, but weren’t getting the rigorous, engaging lessons that would help them excel.
“We used that as a challenge,” Woods said.
Long-time teachers at Windsor Park say they and their students were hobbled by the highly formatted lessons CMS used to require. For instance, Open Court/Imagine It!, a phonics-based reading program, spelled out exactly what student should read and how teachers should present the material.
Kate FitzGerald, a first-grade teacher who has been at Windsor Park nine years, said those lessons often failed to reach their students who were just learning English. Teachers now have more freedom to choose reading material and craft their lessons.
“I’ve noticed a humongous change,” FitzGerald said.
More freedom means some lessons will soar while others flop. Administrators and teachers zero in on what works and do “learning labs,” in which other teachers in the grade level watch a successful technique.
For instance, Jenifer Brown, who is new to Windsor Park, said she was having trouble getting her lowest-level students to start writing. Facilitator Liz Bickerton, a veteran at the school, demonstrated a lesson in which students took turns writing words and helping each other sound out the spelling. The kids felt comfortable with that, and now they’re easing into individual writing, Brown said.
Woods also revamped the way the school uses its English as a Second Language teachers. Instead of having them pull out individual students who need extra help, he assigned each of the five ESL teachers to a grade level, where they plan and teach with the classroom teachers. That helps students stay on track with the class, even as they’re mastering the language, he said.
Competing for teachers
Despite recent reports detailing shortcomings in the CMS hiring process, Woods said the recruiter who works with Windsor Park does a good job of providing strong candidates. But that’s just the start of the hiring process.
Woods and the faculty narrow the list and invite finalists to come teach a mini-lesson. They say teachers can talk a good game without being good with students – or with the particular students they’ll teach at Windsor Park.
Camille Murphy, who was hired from Tennessee this year, said she interviewed with several schools. Coming to teach a math lesson was intimidating, she said. But it not only helped the school feel like she was right for the job – Woods said his team interviewed about 100 candidates for 12 jobs this year – but convinced her she’d feel at home.
“I kept saying, ‘Why do I have to do this? I’ve never done this before,’ ” Murphy, who teaches second grade, recalled with a laugh. “But when I got the job, it was worth it.”
Woods faces another challenge: Many high-poverty schools around CMS can offer recruiting bonuses of $10,000 or more, through such programs as strategic staffing and Project LIFT, to entice teachers who have proven themselves effective at helping kids make gains. That includes many of the teachers who have moved his school ahead.
Fifth-grade teacher Heather Cribb and fourth-grade teacher Katey Alkire are among those who have gotten such offers and declined. They say they’ve become too attached to their students and co-workers to leave.
Alkire talks about how her colleagues supported her after her father’s death, and when she faced medical problems.
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” she said. “This is where my heart is.”
Apartments and rental homes make up most of Windsor Park’s zone. That means student mobility is always going to pose a challenge, Woods said. Students move among three or four east Charlotte schools as their parents shop for the best deal on rent. Upwardly mobile families tend to move on when they’re ready to buy a house.
As Windsor Park’s scores improved, the school was no longer forced to offer transfers. But Woods heard from parents who didn’t think his school could challenge their gifted children. They’d seek magnets or lower-poverty schools a little farther south.
Woods created one class for gifted and high-performing students at each grade level. Even in the other classes, there are activities broken out by ability, so the high-fliers can tackle more challenging work.
In the class for gifted kindergarteners, teacher Miya Stodghill worked with a small group on a recent morning. Other children sprawled on the rug or sat around desks, independently reading books at the first-grade level.
Windsor Park’s test scores have climbed steadily. In 2012, the school topped 80 percent for the first time. Coupled with a high growth rating, which indicates students made strong progress regardless of where they started the year, that earned a state “School of Distinction” label, rare for a school where so many students come from poverty.
People are taking note. Windsor Park leaders recently made a presentation to a state conference of high-poverty schools. Visitors from inside and outside CMS are coming to see what they’re doing.
The district recently sent a crew to hang a “School of Distinction” banner in the entry. It’s an emblem of pride, but no one feels complacent.
At the end of this year, students across North Carolina will take new tests. Scores are expected to drop because the exams are designed to be more rigorous. And because of delays in calculating the grade-level cutoff for the new exams, students won’t get a second chance if they fail the first time.
Labels such as “School of Distinction” will disappear, replaced by letter grades.
Woods said he can’t predict Windsor Park’s grade. If it’s low, he said, his faculty will take it as another challenge.
“We never want to get to think, ‘Oh, we’re the model school,’ ” he said. “We don’t want to be a one-hit wonder.”