Two principals who played pioneering roles in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ urban reform movement – Suzanne Gimenez at Devonshire Elementary and Arlene Harris at Billingsville Elementary – are retiring this summer.
Their departure comes at a time of change for CMS, as Superintendent Heath Morrison prepares to launch his own efforts to help children of poverty succeed.
Gimenez, who worked 42 years with CMS, and Harris, a second-career educator recruited by a principal training program, represent different paths to leadership.
Both took on struggling schools where most students live in poverty. Both were part of programs that earned CMS national acclaim for its work to improve such schools.
And both saw their students make gains, though challenges remain.
“The higher you set the bar, the harder students will work to meet that expectation,” Gimenez said this spring, when Devonshire won a national award for its work with boys of color. Last week NBC’s “Today” show featured Devonshire as a success story.
Just over 90 percent of Devonshire students passed state math exams in 2012, a threshold that many high-poverty schools strive for but few achieve (2013 results are not yet available).
In Harris’ three years at Billingsville, the pass rate in math rose from 51 percent to almost 77 percent.
Reading remains a struggle at both schools and at many others across the state. State lawmakers and CMS leaders are seeking ways to ensure that young students don’t fall behind.
Gimenez came to CMS in 1971, as a second-grade teacher at Paw Creek Elementary. She moved up through the ranks, and had spent 11 years as principal of Nations Ford Elementary when Superintendent Peter Gorman launched his strategic staffing plan in 2008.
He asked seven of his most successful principals to step up for three-year assignments in some of the district’s neediest schools, with the expectation that they’d produce dramatic results by the end of three years. The “strategic staffing” twist was that he gave them power to displace some teachers and money to offer recruiting bonuses to a team of teachers and administrators willing to join the effort.
Gimenez was among the seven, going to Devonshire in east Charlotte.
Results at the seven schools were uneven, but Devonshire was one of two that stood out for success. Strategic staffing drew national attention and was cited as a factor in CMS willing the Broad Prize for Urban Education in 2011.
‘The School That Could’
Gimenez dubbed Devonshire “The School That Could,” and introduced such strategies as boys-only classes. In April the school won $10,000 from the Coalition of Schools Educating Boys of Color, and Gimenez announced plans to use the money for classroom iPads.
Tyler Ream, the zone superintendent who oversees Devonshire, says everyone talks about high expectations, but Gimenez is “unrelenting” in demanding more of herself and others.
“And she has the relationship skills to pull it off,” Ream added. “She’ll hold you accountable for results but she’ll support you along the way.”
Finding more leaders
As strategic staffing expanded, one weakness became clear: Reassigning top principals wouldn’t cover the need.
Gorman signed a contract with the national New Leaders for New Schools (later shortened to New Leaders) to recruit and support a corps of candidates ready to make changes in urban schools. The group requires education experience, but touted its ability to find leaders from nontraditional backgrounds.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation and MeckEd agreed to help pay for the training and recruitment. The group got 184 applications for the first class and chose nine, including Harris.
Harris’ first career was as an insurance executive in Philadelphia. After raising her family, she began a second career in education, working in schools in some of Charlotte’s more affluent neighborhoods.
Once accepted by New Leaders, Harris spent a month studying urban education at Boston University. Then she went to Ashley Park, a high-poverty elementary school in west Charlotte, to intern with veteran Principal Tonya Kales. Gorman picked her to lead Billingsville, a long-struggling school, in 2010.
When New Leaders debuted in Charlotte, officials said the goal was 90 percent on grade level in five years.
Harris is leaving short of that time frame, and Billingsville remains far short of the goal. Despite gains in math, it remains among the state’s lowest-scoring schools. In 2010, just under 25 percent of students passed the reading exam. In 2012, 38 percent passed.
But Morrison said Tuesday the numbers don’t show how much Harris has strengthened the school. He promoted Assistant Principal Michelle Johnson to take her place and said the strength of the leadership team is a testament to Harris’ work.
“I didn’t see any classroom in that school where I wouldn’t want to send my children,” Morrison said.
Naming new principals is just the start.
Ream is stepping down from the job supervising high-poverty elementary schools. On Tuesday, Morrison named two new zone superintendents: H. Allen Smith from Denver, Colo., and Kales, who came to Ashley Park during the second year of strategic staffing assignments.
Morrison hasn’t said which schools Kales and Smith will work with. He is reorganizing his administration, but says he isn’t ready to announce specifics. Among the questions is whether he will keep all the high-poverty schools grouped in separate administrative zones, a move launched by Gorman, or make them part of geographic zones.
Morrison’s plan calls for principals to play an even stronger role in improving their schools, working with faculty and community to create unique “dream schools.”
“I believe that transformation and reform happens best when it happens at the schoolhouse,” he said.
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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