When two nominees for Charlotte Woman of the Year landed neck-and-neck in the voting, it was an easy call to make a double award.
Ann Clark, deputy superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and Anna Spangler Nelson, a philanthropist who has helped raise $55 million for CMS, share a history of dedication to public education. And that gave the previous winners who choose their successors a chance not only to celebrate two individuals, but to mark a community’s values.
“Their selection is a powerful statement about the importance of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to the quality of life in our community,” said Velva Woolen, chair of the Women of the Year board.
Nelson and Clark have been crossing paths for so long that neither remembers when they met. Over the past couple of years, they came together to launch Project LIFT, a public-private partnership to boost nine west Charlotte schools. Together and individually, they have garnered national attention for CMS.
But people who know them say both shy away from the acclaim they’ve earned for their work.
“I thought, here’s a great opportunity, given the work in her community, in her own backyard, to lift her up,” said Barbara Ann Temple, vice president of education for the Arts and Science Council, who nominated Clark. She said Clark has mentored her for more than 15 years.
In the family
Nelson seems briefly stumped when asked how she started working with public education. “It’s a bit of a family business,” she says.
She was a CMS student when court battles over desegregation rocked the community in the 1970s. Her father, C.D. Spangler, won a seat on the school board and pushed to make busing work. When white students from the affluent Myers Park neighborhood were reassigned to the formerly all-black West Charlotte High, some of the Spanglers’ neighbors left public school. Nelson stayed and graduated with West Charlotte’s class of 1980.
“It was a quality experience at an excellent school,” she recalls.
She went to work for the family foundation, which has pumped millions into public education. The C.D. Spangler Foundation has helped expand Teach For America in CMS, and in 2009 distributed almost $4 million in grants to CMS, ranging from scholarships for black males graduating from West Charlotte to $1,000 for each principal in the district to spend at his or her school.
In 2010, Nelson worked with the Leon Levine Foundation to convene the community’s leading philanthropists. The challenge: How can we pool our money to make a big and lasting difference for public education?
The result was Project LIFT, for Leadership and Investment for Transformation. The group decided to target West Charlotte High and the eight schools that feed into it, working with children and families from prekindergarten to graduation in hopes of breaking cycles of academic failure in impoverished neighborhoods.
In the years since Nelson graduated, West Charlotte has changed. Racial and economic integration have evaporated; most students are now African-Americans from low-income homes. But to Nelson, it remains her school: “That school seemed real to me and something I cared a lot about.”
The recession posed hurdles, but Project LIFT, co-chaired by Nelson and Richard “Stick” Williams of Duke Energy, raised $55 million in pledges, to be spent over the next five years.
Tom Lawrence, executive director of the Leon Levine Foundation, says Nelson’s passion and ability to see the big picture turned the group’s ideas into reality. She urged the LIFT founders to think beyond the school walls, incorporating health care and other family services, Lawrence said.
“She’s the consummate professional and a passionate leader,” he says.
Devoted to CMS
Clark, a Greensboro native, got her introduction to Mecklenburg County as a student at Davidson College. She became a special-education teacher, working with students who have behavioral and emotional disabilities.
She got a job in Virginia Beach, Va., but came back to Charlotte in 1983. CMS was moving students with disabilities into schools with other children, an approach that would become the national norm, and Clark wanted to be part of it.
She moved up the ranks. She was national Principal of the Year in 1994, when she was at Alexander Graham Middle School, and later opened Vance High. Temple, who had heard good things about Clark, signed on to be part of her faculty.
Temple says Clark always encouraged her to keep growing, whether that was earning a Ph.D or national board certification, and eventually even leaving CMS to work for the Arts and Science Council.
For several years, Clark has been the district’s top academic official. She was part of the administrative team that led CMS to the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2011.
From the start, Clark worked closely with Nelson and the other philanthropists who developed Project LIFT. That work continued when Superintendent Peter Gorman resigned in summer 2011. In spring of 2012, the school board chose Clark as one of three finalists to replace him.
Clark’s supporters cited her deep knowledge of the district and the community, and noted how much of her time and energy she devotes to CMS.
When the board chose Heath Morrison, an outside candidate, he voiced his admiration for Clark and promoted her to be his deputy.
A rare partnership
By the time Morrison arrived, Project LIFT was drawing national attention. While it’s not unusual for foundations to raise money for public schools, the arrangement Clark, Nelson and their respective groups worked out is one experts say they haven’t seen before.
The school board and LIFT’s private board agreed to run the nine schools jointly, with LIFT helping pay for administrators and providing bonuses to recruit top teachers. The effort, which began this school year, has already provided summer programs for at-risk students and digital access for students and families. The goal is to dramatically boost achievement at all schools, with West Charlotte’s graduation rate moving from 54 percent last year to 90 percent by 2017.
Morrison says he has benefitted from the energy and expertise of Clark and Nelson. And the two Women of the Year can’t say enough good things about each other.
“I would just describe Anna as being the wind beneath my wings, and the wings of this community,” Clark said of Nelson.
Nelson says that Clark has stayed with CMS, even though she’s had plenty of opportunities to leave. “She just pours herself into the work of the school system,” Nelson says.
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