As South Charlotte Middle School Principal Christine Waggoner walks the eighth-grade hall, she finds five boys sprawled on the floor.
No worries. They've just found a new place to work equations. Moving around is supposed to jump-start the male brain.
Waggoner is among 48 Charlotte-Mecklenburg principals recently granted new academic freedom in what has been a top-down district. She made one of the boldest opening moves, launching single-sex classes.
The guys, who wear dress shirts and ties on “Manly Mondays,” get a little more noise and activity. The girls in the classroom next door have an array of colored markers and decorated papers on their desks, which are arranged for face-to-face discussion.
Teachers say both groups ask and answer questions more freely, without fear of looking dumb in front of the opposite sex.
Public scrutiny often shines on failing schools. Leading a suburban school like South Charlotte – where gifted kids are abundant, test scores high, poverty rare and parents engaged – might seem like a breeze.
Not so, says Waggoner. Her challenge is to push the academic stars while helping a growing number of kids who left low-scoring urban schools for a better opportunity.
She is driven not only by her own vision, but by district officials who scrutinize her data and parents who, in the words of the PTA president, “don't tolerate ‘adequate.'”
She was honored to make Superintendent Peter Gorman's “freedom and flexibility” list last spring, a distinction granted to principals with a history of strong results. The goal: Unleash innovation and recognize that different schools have different needs.
But Waggoner, a 62-year-old cancer survivor who believes her work keeps her healthy, didn't wait for permission to take charge of her school.
In six years at South Charlotte, she has created electives that let students delve into World War II, develop leadership skills and design their own science experiments. She has kids researching such topics as disease in Africa. Separating girls and boys to see if they learn better is just the latest twist.
Waggoner is spurred by her belief, backed by recent research, that middle school sets adolescents on the path to success or failure.
Her message to students is the same, regardless of their background: “If you do it our way, we can almost guarantee you will be successful when you get to ninth grade.”
Waggoner's office door displays her name written in Hindi and Farsi.
She's always been intrigued by world culture. As a 30-year-old teacher in Maryland, she got restless and signed up with an overseas placement agency.
She landed a gig teaching seventh-grade social studies in Tehran, Iran. That was in 1978. Before the school year was out, the Islamist revolution forced Waggoner to flee.
With a year left on her original two-year leave, she went to St. John's International School in Brussels, Belgium. After a year living in the heart of Europe, where teachers could dash to Paris for dinner, she told her old school she wasn't coming back.
In Brussels, Waggoner encountered the International Baccalaureate program and got her first principal's job. She became part of the international movement to create middle schools that cater to adolescent minds. That's how she met North Carolina's middle school specialist, who eventually persuaded Waggoner to interview with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.
Then-Superintendent John Murphy wanted to start an IB program for Charlotte middle schools. Waggoner was the perfect match. In 1992, after almost 14 years overseas, she came to Charlotte.
At Marie G. Davis Middle, she launched an IB magnet that drew high-achieving kids countywide. But a lawsuit that toppled court-ordered desegregation shook CMS. In 2002, Davis, south of uptown, became a neighborhood school, serving some of the county's poorest kids.
The change brought a massive staff shuffle. When the superintendent asked what Waggoner would like to do, she told him her expertise was with strong students who can handle IB-style education.
She was sent to South Charlotte Middle. It had lost its principal and a big chunk of its students and staff to brand-new Jay M. Robinson Middle.
Waggoner had to rebuild South Charlotte's identity. She spent extra time getting to know her faculty and reassure them they were as good as the teachers the former principal had lured away.
At the end of that year “we had terrific scores – and we beat Robinson,” Waggoner recalls gleefully.
On a chilly January afternoon Chuck Lansing led students outside to see if they could pop a balloon using dry ice and water.
Lansing, who holds a bachelor's and master's in chemistry, lets the class choose experiments. They'd already tinkered with electrical circuits and soaked an egg in vinegar until it turned rubbery. Now, “the consensus was that it's time to blow something up.”
Students who chose Lindsey Cantrell's Normandy class have already met a Holocaust survivor and crafted résumés for Axis dictators.
Cantrell, a former Normandy scholar at University of Tennessee, asked to add the WWII seminar to this year's slate of optional classes. Waggoner, she says, always urges teachers to “use your passion and talents.”
The 45-minute extra class, since copied by other CMS middle schools, is just one way South Charlotte challenges its academically gifted students.
Allowing creativity also invigorates teachers, who can get bogged down in tests and basics, says Cantrell.
Math teacher Caroline Butler followed Waggoner from Davis, eager to keep working for someone who's always pushing to try something new.
“She has freedom and flexibility,” says Butler, “but I feel like I do, too.”
‘Like a CEO'
Five days before school opened, parents poured into South Charlotte.
While her bosses were still pondering single-sex classes, Waggoner had selected students, notified their parents and lined up a national expert to explain the concept.
She wanted to try the technique with different types of kids. Some classes would tap top-scorers, others decent students who might flourish in a new setting.
Some parents took umbrage at the letter explaining why their kids had been chosen. Were they being stigmatized?
PTA President Jill Balick describes South Charlotte families as “an academically motivated population,” where many can afford private school and expect public schools to be just as good.
Parent involvement is a plus. The PTA is currently raising $50,000 to put Promethium boards, a high-tech interactive whiteboard, in every class.
But it means Waggoner must always be ready to explain herself. She's known for giving parents candid answers, Balick says: “Whether they like her decisions or not, they respect her knowledge.”
At the August meeting, Waggoner apologized for any confusion created by the letters, assured parents they could opt out of single-sex classes and let the expert make his pitch.
Sarah Murphy, whose daughter was picked for an all-girl class, asked to get her son into an all-boy equivalent. She, too, says Waggoner has parents' respect: “She is extremely warm and friendly with students and parents, but she's a bottom-line person, like a CEO.”
New kids, old standards
Seventh-graders Jessica Stubbs and Sharika Hankerson spend about an hour each morning getting from their eastside homes to their southside school.
They don't know the details of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which allows students at certain low-scoring, high-poverty schools to transfer. They just know they're going to “a good school.”
They rave about a favorite math teacher. “She makes math more funner,” says Sharika.
“More fun,” corrects Jessica, who hopes to be a doctor or lawyer.
First semester, all South Charlotte seventh-graders wrote grant proposals for easing disease in Africa, a task that combined writing, math, science and geography. Jessica says friends at other schools don't do that kind of work.
“I feel challenged,” she says. “It's a good feeling.”
South Charlotte's 900-plus students include more than 100 who transferred in, mostly from the high-poverty Albemarle Road and Cochrane zones. This year's poverty level hit 16 percent – low by CMS standards, but up from 12 percent last year.
Waggoner is chagrined to report that her 2008 pass rate on state exams dipped to 89.6 percent. It's a score most principals would kill for, but just shy of the usual “School of Excellence” label.
Based on last year's scores, Waggoner has about 70 students at risk of failing this year's reading exams and 35 behind in math. They'll use that 45-minute extra period to beef up their skills.
For the first time this year, South Charlotte recruited mentors for struggling students, a common step at high-poverty schools. Here, the PTA stepped in and found about a dozen adults eager to help.
No matter where kids come from, Waggoner says, they can meet high standards. She and the eighth-grade teachers are about to crack down on late work: After a week, there will be no credit, a move designed to prepare the kids for high school.
After Christmas break, a new student showed up in an oversized T-shirt and sagging pants. Waggoner told him he was welcome – after he went home to change clothes.
“Do you know,” she recounted with a smile, “the mother thanked us!”