To the untrained eye, it looks like learning's going on.
Students in the Bruns Avenue Elementary School classroom have their books open, their mouths closed and their eyes focused on their lessons.
But minutes after Principal Steve Hall strolls in, he folds his arms and frowns. The teacher is using prepackaged workbooks, he notes. She's not interacting with students. As far as he can tell, she's leaving the teaching to the workbook.
“She should know better than that,” he says. “We're going to have a conversation.”
Hall's discerning eye, sharpened by three decades of experience as a teacher and principal, helps explain why Superintendent Peter Gorman asked him to leave one of CMS's most successful elementary schools and take on Bruns, one of its most distressed.
Hall, principal of the year for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, joined six other leaders this school year in switching campuses. Last week, Gorman announced he is moving seven more. His message: Low-performing schools can be turned around, but only with his strongest principals.
In Hall, a 62-year-old New York City native, Gorman might have found his most eager acolyte. And at Bruns, the superintendent's plan could find its toughest test.
The school, off West Trade Street, posted the county's lowest elementary school reading scores last year on newly recalibrated end-of-grade tests.
Virtually all schools' scores dropped, but not like Bruns'. Of the 256 students who took the tests, 48 passed – a miserable 18.8 percent.
“I can't tell you for print what I told my wife when I saw those scores. It was street-level language from New York,” Hall says. “We weren't just behind. We were comfortably behind.”
When he asked why, teachers said they'd had trouble with discipline. They spoke of their struggles with an overwhelmingly poor student body.
PTA President Floyd Long said the previous principal, Alvin Gipson, tried hard, even staying after school to coach athletics teams. (Gipson, who relatives said moved back to his native Pennsylvania, couldn't be reached.)
Under Gipson, heavy faculty turnover left a staff of mostly rookie, second- and third-year teachers.
Hall could have brought as many as five replacements and several new administrators, but he mostly stuck with the staff on hand.
They have his trust. But he wants one year's academic growth in every student, plus another 10 percent to close the achievement gap with their peers.
“In schools like Bruns it's very easy to think these kids aren't capable of rigor,” he says. “And that's a tragic mistake.”
Every student can learn
Bruns is a long way from Sharon Elementary, the suburban south Charlotte campus Hall led last school year.
Bruns sits in the middle of Seversville, a low-income neighborhood of mostly 1920s mill houses near uptown. More than 95 percent of the students receive subsidized lunches, compared to about 13 percent of Sharon's.
Hall says apart from Sharon, he's worked with low-income students most of his career. He started in 1967, teaching English and reading in the tough Brownsville section of Brooklyn. He also taught in the Bronx and on Long Island until 1994, when he moved to Charlotte.
He remains a 1960s-style, save-the-world idealist. A portrait of Robert F. Kennedy hangs on his office wall, and a big red button sits on his desk. Push it, and a recorded voice says, “That was easy.”
It's there, Hall says, to reinforce his belief that his job is simple, even at a school like Bruns. Every student, even those from troubled backgrounds, can learn at high levels if the school excels.
Virtually every educator says this. Hall believes it so deeply that he looks surprised, then offended, when a visitor suggests success will be harder to achieve at Bruns.
“I really resent the implication of that,” he says. “This isn't a job to be avoided. Not everybody is prepared for it. Not everybody's prior training might translate. But for me, it was a good fit.”
‘Have to be optimistic'
With his wire-rimmed glasses and salt-and-pepper beard, Hall looks and sounds like a brainy academic. But he has a gentle, easygoing air; first- and second-graders offer hugs as he visits classrooms.
During his first Bruns staff meeting, he faced a roomful of teachers anxious to know how – or if – they fit into his plans.
“He talked about it being a mission that he has, that we're all missionaries,” says Area Superintendent Joel Ritchie. “People were coming up to him afterwards and saying, ‘I'm really glad you're here.'”
A good leader can turn a school like Bruns around, one educational researcher says.
“The principals who are successful in these situations tend to be very committed to this work not as a job, but as a calling,” says Stephen Jacobson, a Buffalo, N.Y.-based professor who has studied principals in high-poverty schools. “You have to be persistent. You have to be optimistic, even as you accept that there are going to be some defeats.
“This is hard work. No question about it.”
When he walked through the building early in his tenure, Hall was shocked to find broken computers, art room paintbrushes crusted with dried paint and a music room with broken instruments.
He felt it signaled a deeper problem: Bruns had gotten so used to failure it stopped expecting first-class equipment or top-flight results.
Realizing how badly CMS leaders want the principal reassignments to work, Hall told Gorman what Bruns needed. The CMS brass came through. The school has new art and music supplies, new art and music teachers, and fully functional computers.
“It was one of the ways I could make a statement to this staff and this community and these kids that they deserved the exact same things that kids get at McAlpine,” Hall says, referring to the school in the affluent southeast suburbs.
He used $70,000 in federal money to buy SMART Boards that let teachers project laptop images onto interactive whiteboards. He brought in an online program that provides personally designed reading and math help for students.
He offered donated Charlotte Bobcats tickets to parents who signed up for the PTA; membership shot from a handful to about 125.
To quell behavior problems, he staggered lunch times so the cafeteria was never more than half full. During classroom changes, he required all students to walk single-file, to the right.
Heading down a stairwell one morning, he ran into students talking so loudly their voices echoed off the walls. He stopped the line and stood face-to-face with one of the prime offenders.
The boy, shoulders drooping, looked at the floor.
“You're a smart boy. You're just making bad decisions,” Hall whispered. “Stand up like you're proud, like you are somebody.”
Focus on growth
With a master's in reading, Hall sounds downright professorial in dissecting the language deficits plaguing low-income children.
The research is consistent, he says. Some low-income families, struggling with past-due bills, develop a survival mentality. First things first: keeping the lights on, getting to and from work, putting food on the table.
Trips to the library and nightly reading times start looking like luxuries. Children head off to school knowing fewer words and having more struggles with comprehension than their wealthier peers.
Hall's answer: an educational MASH unit – academic triage for the neediest readers.
He set up an intensive reading classroom, and rearranged the master schedule so students in kindergarten, first and second grades could be sent there in groups.
He put three teachers in charge of 90 of the poorest readers. Their task: find out what's wrong, address it, then track progress until the deficiencies disappear.
When a group of third-graders arrived one recent morning, Shamecca Kirk, the school's K-2 reading specialist, took some of them to sound out consonant blends.
LaShawnda Dollard helped others with writing by turning troublesome vocabulary words into poems.
Teacher assistant Keydra Cypress worked with a third group on reading comprehension.
Asked about the 18 percent pass rate, Kirk says the school was slow in reacting to low-achievers last year.
“It wasn't caught in the beginning of the year, like we're doing it now,” she says. “The K-2 foundation wasn't as strong. The team we're putting together now, I think we're making it stronger.”
She shows one student's scores. The first-grade girl began the year reading 40 words per minute. She's up to 53.
When teachers used made-up words to test her decoding ability, she failed to sound out one. Tested again at midyear, she decoded 43.
Results of initial schoolwide tests are similarly encouraging. But the biggest benchmark comes at year's end: the high-stakes end-of-grade exams. Even if the school doubles its pass rates in reading, more than half of Bruns' students will still fail.
Just focus on growth, Hall tells his staff. He, like other principals in the reassignment project, has signed up for at least three years.
“Wherever they were last year, we're taking them and showing growth,” he says. “The momentum of change is building. Eventually, it will feed on itself.”