Suburbs have more of the top teachers – will some move?

Though some of Mecklenburg County's most effective teachers work in struggling schools, kids in the high-flying south suburbs are more likely to have teachers who can help them get better at reading and math, a new list shows.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools recently ranked 930 successful reading and math teachers based on gains their students made in 2007. The list, part of a new reform effort by Superintendent Peter Gorman, helps principals at seven struggling schools recruit star instructors with $20,000 bonus packages.

The Observer got that list to see where the top teachers work. It sheds light on what Gorman has pegged as his toughest challenge: Making sure all students get a fair shot at learning from strong teachers.

And it highlights the tension emerging this summer as CMS tries to match some of its best educators with the students who need them most. Gorman's plan means shuffling up to 70 teachers before school opens in August, at a time when principals thought they had their faculty lined up for the coming year.

“I am in complete agreement with CMS providing quality administrators and teachers in all schools,” says Teresa Sevener, a parent at Community House Middle, which under Gorman's plan recently lost its principal to a high poverty school. “But I reject the idea of them stripping their successful schools to do so.”

The list shows some teachers are already making a difference in needy schools. For instance, the top-rated high-school math teacher was at West Meck, one of four low-performing high schools under pressure to improve.

Children at a handful of high-poverty elementary schools, such as Pinewood, Merry Oaks and Shamrock Gardens, were about as likely as suburban peers to have top-rated teachers.

But they were the exceptions.

Students at south suburban Community House, Jay M. Robinson and Mint Hill middle schools were about three times more likely to have teachers that helped them make more than a year's progress than counterparts at Ranson, Wilson and Cochrane, all high-poverty schools with low scores.

A tough sell

CMS has spent years trying to figure out how to get top teachers into needy classrooms – preferably without alienating faculty and families at strong schools.

Research shows excellent teachers are a disadvantaged student's best hope of keeping up. “Children need them,” said Chief Academic Officer Ruth Perez. “They deserve it.”

But too often, Gorman has said, teachers seek jobs in schools where children come better prepared, parent support is strong, and neighborhoods and schools are more desirable for teachers' families. Twice since he arrived in 2006, Gorman has talked about forcing teachers into struggling schools. Both times the school board shot him down, fearing mandatory transfers would drive CMS teachers to private schools and nearby districts.

CMS has had limited success recruiting volunteers. Last year teachers could get up to $10,000 and a 15 percent pay hike for switching to four low-scoring high schools. The district had money left over because there weren't enough takers.

Gorman's latest plan, for six elementaries and one middle school, also dangles money. But officials hope the chance to work as part of a hand-picked team tips the balance for hesitant teachers. He named new principals for the seven schools and gave them money to recruit a handful of administrators and up to five teachers each from the high-growth list.

The team strategy came from teachers and principals, who say even the best educators get worn down without the support of talented, motivated colleagues.

Kim Cobb, a South Meck English teacher who was No. 2 on the high school list, calls the new approach exciting. She didn't consider the previous high-school offer because it didn't include the chance to be part of a high-performing team.

The chance to earn $20,000 extra over the next three years “weighs heavily on my mind,” she says. But Cobb, who created a special English class for freshmen entering South Meck with the lowest reading scores, decided to stay put. She wants to work on her master's degree and eventually be a principal.

She says she looks forward to the day when all teachers are rewarded for classroom gains, something CMS is working on.

Stay or move?

Dozens of teachers on the high-growth list are already at high-poverty schools. But a far larger share are concentrated in the suburban swath of south Charlotte, Matthews and Mint Hill, where poverty is rare, test scores are high and parent involvement strong.

As the seven new principals interview teachers, the question is whether the teachers they seek are interested in moving.

About 200 from the list turned out recently to hear Gorman, Perez and the principals make their pitch. But that meant more than three-quarters skipped the session.

The teacher shuffle will be biggest in elementary schools, which have smaller staffs to start with. Up to 30 top elementary teachers – five for each of the six targeted schools – can take the bonuses to move, creating vacancies at their current schools.

And up to 30 teachers at the target schools can be pushed out to make room. They'll be assigned elsewhere.

Ranson Middle, the only higher-level school that's part of this plan, can recruit five from the 538 middle and high school teachers on the list.

By starting small, Perez says, CMS can test the approach without more disruption. The district employs more than 8,000 teachers.

By the end of June, principals will learn whether they're losing teachers . Students and parents may not realize who's gone until classes start in August.

Robert Avossa, the area superintendent in charge of CMS's South Learning Community, says his schools will be fine, even if some good teachers move. CMS is attracting experienced applicants from states that are losing students and closing schools.

“The quality of candidates at our job fair was way above what I've seen,” Avossa said.

The ultimate test will be whether the seven schools improve. Gorman has warned the public not to expect a one-year miracle.

He's giving the new teams three years to make a difference.