Like most principals, Paul Williams is well known only within a limited circle of students, families, faculty and volunteers.
But principals like Williams are key to Superintendent Heath Morrison’s plan to keep Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools relevant in a time of challenge and competition. Williams, the 36-year-old leader of McClintock Middle School, is a pioneer in the quest to reinvent one of the nation’s largest public education districts, one school at a time.
When the 2014-15 magnet application month begins Jan. 11, Williams and his crew will be marketing a new STEAM magnet – the trendy term for science, technology, engineering, arts and math – in the southeast Charlotte neighborhood school.
As school poverty levels have risen and many affluent families have fled, McClintock has long struggled to compete with magnets and private schools. But with charter schools proliferating and private-school vouchers debuting in North Carolina, Morrison says every school needs to find a competitive niche.
“We had a captive audience. Now there’s a lot of options,” Morrison said. Williams, he said, “has this tremendous belief that he wants his school to be a school of choice.”
When Williams took the helm at McClintock in 2012, he inherited some strengths that pushed him to the front of Morrion’s “school redesign” project. The school had built a powerful partnership with Christ Lutheran Church, which provides high-tech summer camps and brings hundreds of kids and families to Tuesday evening family nights at school. The volunteers and teachers had developed an award-winning robotics program.
And McClintock, which opened in 1955, was finally getting a new building, designed to emphasize science and technology.
Williams, a former kindergarten teacher and elementary school principal, arrived with the energy and enthusiasm of a Labrador puppy. He gleefully dons a kilt to rally the Mighty Scots, and has become known for leading fellow principals in CMS cheers.
“Our volunteers love him,” says Amy Daniels, outreach director for Christ Lutheran. “He’s very energetic. He’s daring,” she added with a grin, nodding at Williams as he roamed a recent family night in a plaid kilt and electric blue sneakers.
Williams says the eighth-graders were initially wary of his style: “My rah-rah speech was not working on them.” But he says by the end of his first semester, his students had accepted him.
“It’s a relationship thing,” he said. “Once they get to know you and know you’re going to be there day in and day out for them, like a lot of our veteran teachers that have been here over the years, they will respond. So goes the leader, so goes the culture.”
Willing to scramble
Williams had to win over his new faculty quickly, too. Morrison wanted a school to pilot Teach to One, a blended learning math program developed by the nonprofit New Classrooms. The program requires rearranging the classrooms and using technology to tailor different types of personal and virtual instruction for each student. To succeed, the faculty would have to buy in, not just the principal.
Williams had pitched the program to his teachers. When New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose came to Charlotte to visit prospective schools, he asked Williams to convene his math teachers to talk – right in the middle of class time.
The traditional answer would have been, “We can’t do that. Everyone’s teaching.” But Williams hustled to get administrators and support staff to take over math classes.
“Our math teachers came down to the media center within 7 1/2 minutes,” Williams recalls. “It took some scrambling. But (Rose) said that was probably one of the main reasons that he would consider us, because our teachers were willing to do that.”
McClintock was chosen, and the Teach to One classes began this year.
Wooing the community
McClintock, located near the intersection of Monroe and Rama roads, has plenty of affluent families in its zone. But when court-ordered desegregation ended about a decade ago, McClintock emerged as a majority-minority school. In the ensuing years, white enrollment dropped and poverty levels soared.
“People opt out because there are a lot of black and Hispanic students and a lot of poor students,” Williams said.
New state exams, designed to be more challenging and present a more realistic picture of student readiness for college and careers, brought another setback. When the results were released in November, McClintock’s proficiency rate on math, science and reading exams was 23 percent, down from 65 percent under the old system.
“It was a big sucker punch to the gut for all of us to see those numbers,” Williams says.
McClintock staff and CMS leaders keep hearing that the community wants to support the school, if only they can feel confident it’s safe and academically challenging. Many have asked for a magnet program.
Morrison announced plans for a McClintock STEAM magnet this fall, and the school board gave its approval in December. The program is in high demand, with CMS launching new STEAM magnets and new charter schools focusing on the same theme.
Williams’ task is to sell families on the promise of cutting-edge technology, great teachers and individual attention. The school has already shown that its students can excel in national robotics competitions normally dominated by private schools and affluent suburban public schools.
In the past, some magnets have been pockets of excellence, located within a high-poverty school but mostly apart from the rest of the students. Under this plan, neighborhood and magnet students alike will have access to the most challenging classes and clubs. The goal is to prepare them for East Mecklenburg High’s Academy of Engineering.
Williams is “totally into East pride,” says East Meck Principal Rick Parker. “He’s just got that deep relationship-building skill.”
In the coming year, more principals will bring forth plans to tailor their schools to community needs. They’ll be asking their staff to take on new challenges, even as many say morale is being eroded by budget cuts and changes that devalue public schools.
Williams will be there to offer advice and cheer them on.
“I get really excited to come to school every day,” he said. “The kids, the families – I get lots of hugs, I get lots of high fives. The teachers work their butts off and I’m really inspired by that. It’s just a lot of fun to come to work.”
Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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