After 33 years in CMS, Ann Clark faces biggest test yet

Superintendent Ann Clark reads “Green Eggs and Ham” to first-graders at Montclaire Elementary last week. Improving student reading skills is one of her top initiatives.
Superintendent Ann Clark reads “Green Eggs and Ham” to first-graders at Montclaire Elementary last week. Improving student reading skills is one of her top initiatives.

When the new special education teacher reported to Devonshire Elementary School in 1983, Principal John Fries blurted out the first thing that came to mind.

Ann Clark was 25 years old and had only one year of teaching experience. But she stood 5 feet 11 inches tall, and Fries told her he was glad of her height. She’d be responsible for a room full of children with behavioral and emotional disorders, a charge that would challenge even a veteran teacher.

Over and over the students tested Clark, recalls Fries, now retired from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She responded with consistency, making it clear she expected them not just to behave but to learn.

“She had the patience of Job,” Fries says. “If it comes to a battle of wills, Ann Clark’s going to win it.”

Clark, 57, recently won the chance to lead CMS for another year – a year that will test her and the community in extraordinary ways.

Clark hopes to help the school board craft a student assignment plan that can rally a divided county and break the cycle of poverty and failure.

“This is our moment,” she says, “to come together as a community around our values.”

In Charlotte and across America, big-city superintendents often swoop in like rock stars, roll out fix-the-schools programs, then bounce quickly to the next opportunity before results are in. Clark has spent 33 years with CMS, and won the top job by pushing through rejection and public criticism.

Wonkish and restrained in public, she nevertheless inspires strong feelings in supporters and detractors.

The former describe a warm, loyal person who has given her life to public education and disadvantaged children. They say her experience, connections and commitment make her the right person to guide the school board through tough choices about where students go to school and how to create equal opportunity.

Critics see her longevity as a burden. Some black parents and public officials say she represents a system that has repeatedly failed children of color and poverty. They say she’s the wrong leader when fresh vision is sorely needed, and have blasted the school board for being slow to replace her.

Clark promises no quick fix. Instead, she says she’s patiently teasing out threads of success. She cites rising graduation rates as a sign that change is happening, even as the loftiest promises fall short.

Recent board meetings have been long and messy. The Feb. 9 vote to extend Clark’s contract through June 2017 came in a session where racial tensions flared and black board members voiced their distaste for keeping her longer.

The meeting broke up at 11:30 p.m. At 7 the next morning, Clark was on a bus lot thanking drivers for their work. That afternoon, she paused to talk about her first year in a job that many would consider punishing.

“It has been incredibly joyful and energizing,” she said. “I’ve watched a lot of superintendents in 33 years, and watched the stress wear on their energy, their health. That has not been the case for me.”

Charotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Ann Clark made a plea to the board to pass a set of goals for the student assignment process. The board passed a set of goals 7-1 on Tuesday night.

The mission is personal

Ann Blakeney Clark always wears a necklace with a stylized version of her initials – a reminder, she says, of the family who set her on her path.

Her father, Blakeney “Blake” Clark, was the child of two rural Virginia educators. He quit college to work, eventually building a furniture business in High Point while raising three children in Greensboro. (He was also a skilled golfer and tournament official at the Masters, inspiring a love of golf in his only daughter.)

Her mother, Nancy Clark, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college. She volunteered at a Greensboro special education school with her daughter in tow.

Both talked constantly about the importance of education, Ann Clark recalls.

Her older brother, Blakeney Jr., had serious physical and cognitive disabilities. He died when he was 8 and Ann was 6.

That’s why Ann Clark set out to teach disabled children. For her undergraduate study she chose Davidson College, which she had fallen in love with during a family visit as a child. It was a first and lasting tie to the county that would become her home.

Her college roommate, Beth Goode, married classmate Ernie Reigel, and the three remain close today. Ernie Reigel, now a Charlotte lawyer, recalls Clark as a sociable and athletic student whose loyalties still run deep. “Ann has always been there for people who are going through difficult times in their lives,” he said.

Clark went on to graduate school at the University of Virginia, worked one year as a special education teacher in Virginia Beach, then began her 33-year relationship with CMS.

The magical years

Five years after showing up to work for Fries as a Devonshire special education teacher, Clark was named principal of Shamrock Gardens Elementary School.

Today, she calls the 13 years she spent as a principal at three CMS schools the highlight of her career.

Clark never married or had children. She gained a reputation for working long hours and striving for a sense of family pride at each school.

When Clark took over at Shamrock in 1988, it was part of a paired elementary school system that CMS used to comply with court-ordered desegregation. Students went to Shamrock, surrounded by racially mixed neighborhoods, for kindergarten through third grade, then moved to Oaklawn Elementary, in a mostly black neighborhood, for grades 4-6.

Test scores rose in Clark’s two years at Shamrock. The school got new playground equipment, computers, covered walkways and a nature trail. She worked with First Presbyterian Church to create A Child’s Place, offering Shamrock as a stable place where homeless students could learn. A Child’s Place remains active today, serving hundreds of homeless students around Mecklenburg County.

In 1990 Clark moved to Alexander Graham Junior High, a school that would cement her reputation as a rising star.

Clark calls it “a magical time.” Students from public housing mingled with classmates from some of Charlotte’s wealthiest neighborhoods. It was, Clark says, an incredible community of students, parents and faculty.

Steven Carmichael, one of those students, says he arrived as a rebellious seventh-grader facing challenges at home. He credits Clark and a guidance counselor for getting him involved in peer mediation and leadership – activities that not only turned him into a student role model but steered him toward a career in counseling.

He and Clark stayed in touch as he graduated from high school, then college. Last year she enticed him to work for CMS; he’s now a counselor at Joseph W. Grier Academy.

In 1994, at the age of 35, Clark was chosen as national Principal of the Year, an honor that gave her a chance to present President Bill Clinton with an Alexander Graham sweatshirt.

An Observer profile at the time talked about how she had fun with her students. At the end of intramural sports, she challenged students to pull her on a sled. When a student was picked to be principal for a day, she had two of her largest students stage a mock fight to show him the job was “not all glamour.”

That article quoted Clark as saying she had no desire to move into central offices. “The job of superintendent does not loom out there as something I look forward to doing before my career in education ends,” she said.

Instead, Clark said, her dream job was to open a new school, which would let her build a faculty and a school culture from scratch.

Moving up

She got that chance in 1996, when she was tapped to oversee the launch of Governor’s Village, a four-school cluster in northeast Charlotte, near UNC Charlotte and IBM headquarters. At that point, magnets had begun to replace busing as the district’s key strategy for desegregation, and the cluster included magnets open to children whose parents worked nearby.

Clark became the first principal of Vance High, which opened in Governor’s Village in 1997.

Jametta Martin-Tanner was a special education teacher in Florence, S.C., when she rode with a friend who was interviewing for a CMS job. Martin-Tanner met Clark and ended up working at Vance. She remembers a principal who demanded a lot but had fun and cared about her people.

When a new teacher was struggling financially, she says, Clark rallied the faculty to make sure she had furniture. Meanwhile, Clark pushed Martin-Tanner and others to “keep striving to do better.”

“None of us are surprised if we receive a card in the mail from her, encouraging us,” says Martin-Tanner, who is now principal of Ridge Road Middle School and a recent CMS principal of the year.

Carrie Cook, now a Charlotte Chamber executive, was a student at the new school. As an opening speaker at Clark’s recent “State of Our Schools” event, Cook talked about her former principal as a lifelong mentor.

In a later interview, Cook said she understands why people might say Clark lacks sizzle.

“She was buttoned down even then, very no-nonsense,” Cook recalls. “She’s not your cheerleader. She’s just going to go out and lead by example and expect you to fall in line.”

A tumultuous time

In 2001, Clark says she received “an unexpected tap on the shoulder” from Superintendent Eric Smith, urging her to change her mind about central office work. Smith and James Pughsley, who was Smith’s deputy and later succeeded him, persuaded Clark she could make a difference on a bigger scale, she says. She was promoted to oversee high school academics, moving steadily upward to become a top lieutenant for a series of superintendents.

Clark stepped into district leadership at a time of upheaval.

A long, bruising court battle over desegregation had forced the school board to craft a race-neutral student assignment plan. Tens of thousands of students switched schools, and the district’s focus turned to helping schools that would see their concentrations of black, brown and impoverished students skyrocket.

A series of superintendents launched high-profile efforts to pump in extra money, recruit top faculty and provide administrative support. The goal was to bring the performance of African-American, Hispanic and low-income students up to the level of white and middle-class peers.

CMS logged setbacks and successes. In 2005, a judge blasted CMS for committing “academic genocide” in its high-poverty high schools. In 2011, CMS won the national Broad Prize for Urban Education. But as the judges acknowledged, Charlotte’s disadvantaged students had not caught up. The district was merely doing better than many big cities.

The effort most closely identified with Clark was Project LIFT, launched in 2010 under Superintendent Peter Gorman. A group of corporate philanthropists and local foundations, working through Foundation for the Carolinas, pledged $55 million for a five-year venture. The goal: To turn West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools, some of the district’s lowest-performing schools, into academic powerhouses.

Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of the Foundation for the Carolinas, says Clark’s history of working for students, in the district and on community boards, has earned her high standing in the philanthropic community. Project LIFT leaders have been among her strongest supporters.

“Ann has a longevity and knowledge of our system in every level that is extraordinary,” Marsicano said. “She is a steady captain of the ship.”

But as Project LIFT emerged, so did a school closing plan that would batter Clark’s reputation in the black community. With the recession squeezing money for CMS, Gorman launched plans to close and consolidate schools that had academic weaknesses and/or outdated buildings. Despite protests from parents and community activists, the shuttered schools were overwhelmingly populated by low-income black and Hispanic students.

“I’ve not in any way deflected the fact that I was on the leadership team,” Clark says now, though she points out that she was neither the superintendent nor a member of the school board, which made the final call on closings.

“A decision was made,” Clark says, “and I would never look in the rear view mirror and second-guess decisions that were made by our board.”

Trying for the top

By then, Clark had also changed her mind about capping her career with a superintendency. In 2010 she attended the Broad Superintendents Academy, a leadership training program that counted Gorman among its graduates.

Soon after the school closing vote in 2011, Gorman blindsided the board by resigning to take a job in private enterprise. He had led CMS for just under five years.

Clark applied to take his place. She was among three finalists who met the public in spring of 2012.

Many CMS employees and community members championed her candidacy. But others questioned whether her persona was more suited to a staff meeting than a high-visibility job rallying public support.

Some board members thought she was the best choice, but the nine emerged from closed-door talks with a unanimous vote to hire Heath Morrison, the young and charismatic superintendent of schools in Reno, Nev.

Clark became Morrison’s deputy. A year later, she was among three finalists for superintendent of Wake County schools. This time she lost out to James Merrill, who had 16 years’ experience in the Wake district.

By fall of 2014, Clark says, she had filed the paper work to retire in March 2015. She planned to tell Morrison on Dec. 1, she says now, and had lined up a job supporting children and families in Charlotte, though she won’t name the organization.

But in October, everything changed.

Tapped to lead

That’s when CMS general counsel George Battle III launched an investigation into Morrison’s activities, culminating with a recommendation to the board that he be fired.

The report, which the Observer eventually obtained, said Morrison had misled the board about construction costs for a new school at UNC Charlotte, instructing Clark to speed through a report to avoid board members’ questions. It also listed Clark as one of 14 employees interviewed during the investigation, quoting her as talking about “a culture of fear” among CMS employees.

In November 2014, Morrison resigned. Clark, as deputy, stepped in.

Morrison and the board signed a confidentiality agreement, which Clark now says restrains her from discussing her role in the investigation.

She says the board asked her to stay while they searched for a long-term replacement, and she agreed to postpone retirement and a new career. In January, she and the board signed a contract for her to serve as superintendent through July 2016, specifying that she would not be a candidate for the long-term job.

Clark says she insisted that the title not be “interim superintendent” because that sends employees and the public a message that serious business is on pause.

“I wanted it to be clear: We’re moving forward,” she said. “We’re not pumping the brakes here.”

Taking the top job meant she had to live in Mecklenburg County. She moved from her Iredell County lake house to a Plaza Midwood apartment, a change that means she’s never really off duty unless she’s traveling. After recent wrist surgery she hopes to get back to playing golf. But Clark insists that CMS is her family, and her friends say that’s not hyperbole.

“I have never met anyone that loves the district more than she does,” says Martin-Tanner.

The race question

While Clark moved ahead, the school board seemed to be pumping the brakes on a search.

Behind closed doors, members were talking. Some wanted to keep Clark longer. Some were trying to recruit Maurice “Mo” Green, a former CMS deputy superintendent who had moved on to lead Guilford County Schools.

Publicly they were silent. As months ticked by, public frustration simmered.

Colette Forrest, a CMS parent and political activist, emerged as Clark’s most vocal and persistent critic.

Forrest, an African-American single mother whose son is in a magnet school, has called public attention to the role of race in education since her son started school. When CMS hired a white female principal to succeed a black male, Forrest emailed board members and local media to question the choice, saying the district didn’t listen to African-American parents. “I deliberately chose (the school) because of its scores, its student/staff diversity and the fact that it had an African-American Principal,” she wrote in 2013.

When Clark started with CMS, it was a majority white district with relatively low poverty. Today, with competition increasing and demographics shifting, fewer than one in three students are white and more than half the students come from low-income homes. Forrest and others say that makes it vital that district leaders understand and connect with the families who make up the district’s majority.

Last fall, Forrest says, she ran into Clark at an event and congratulated her on her pending retirement. When Clark said she might stay longer, Forrest became alarmed. In September she sent an email blast saying that “members of the wealthy, privileged establishment” were trying to make Clark the permanent superintendent, breaking the board’s promise of a search and denying the African-American community a voice. In October she led a group that spoke at a school board meeting, urging a quick search for new leadership.

“I know that everybody thinks I have this ax to grind with Clark and I don’t,” Forrest said recently. Instead, she says, she is frustrated that black and low-income students have made so little progress.

“We’ve got an insensitive superintendent who does not care about children of color,” said Forrest, who says she’s considering a run for school board in 2017.

Forrest cites Clark’s role in school closings, the shortcomings of CMS efforts to improve mostly-black schools, unspecified hiring decisions and even a recent last-minute decision to close schools on a Monday morning when bad weather threatened, which Forrest said showed insensitivity to minority and single parents who had to scramble for child care.

County Commissioner Vilma Leake, a former teacher and school board member, has also voiced concerns about Clark’s record, citing her leadership role when CMS did the controversial school closings.

“I’m not sure that the black community – and I can’t speak for everybody – is too keen on the services that Ann has rendered,” Leake said last fall.

Clark also has numerous black supporters. The Charlotte Post, a newspaper that calls itself the voice of the black community, honored her last fall and recently opined that complaints about her role in school closings are “unfortunate and without merit.”

But even supporters say distrust in the black community goes beyond a handful of critics.

“It is real,” says Sarah Stevenson, a 90-year-old former school board member and longtime community activist who counts herself a fan of Clark. She pauses when asked to explain the problem.

“It’s a black-white trust thing for some people, period,” Stevenson says.

Forrest says she’s not seeking a black superintendent. Instead, she says, she wants prompt action to choose a better leader.

County Commissioner George Dunlap, a former school board member, agrees that the issue isn’t the superintendent’s skin color. “The black community would be just as hard on a black superintendent who did not increase performance,” he said.

Moving forward

As superintendent, Clark is shepherding Project LIFT through its fourth year, while pushing a CMS “Beacon Initiative” to take some of its lessons to other struggling schools.

In the first three years, measurable gains from Project LIFT have been elusive. But Clark says there has been one clear success: Project LIFT Academy, an off-campus site where West Charlotte students who had fallen behind could go for a mix of online learning and personal instruction to catch up and graduate. She’s expanding that approach to three other high schools that are part of Beacon.

Clark points to rising graduation rates as a clear victory, for Project LIFT and other CMS high schools. West Charlotte has gone from 56 percent before Project LIFT to 76 percent last year. Last year 87 percent of CMS black students and 83 percent of students from low-income homes graduated on time, up from 62 percent and 60 percent five years ago.

Yet she acknowledges that college-readiness exams indicate that many black and low-income students are graduating without the skills they’ll need to succeed in college or skilled work.

“The gap in graduation rate is about to disappear,” Clark says. “That’s what I want to see happen for student achievement. We’re not there yet. That’s what inspires me, motivates me, keeps me with a sense of urgency.”

She has made a “North Star” reading campaign her signature program, urging CMS employees and the public to volunteer an hour a week with a struggling reader or at-risk high school student.

Helping the children is important, Clark said recently, but almost as important is making sure central-office staff sit face to face with the children and teachers they serve.

At 7:45 every Wednesday morning, Clark reads to a third-grader. She won’t name the child or the school, saying the boy doesn’t know his reading buddy is the superintendent.

“I really just want it to be my hour a week where I get to be Ann,” she says.

Plenty of other challenges fill Clark’s plate: She’s trying to launch a bond campaign, improve the preK-8 schools that were created during the school closings, prepare a 2016-17 budget and address the academic weaknesses that could undermine the value of a diploma.

Future in the balance

But the issue that will define Clark’s legacy is student assignment.

Decisions about boundaries, magnets and concentrations of poverty will fall to the school board, which has been circling the topic for almost a year. Recent meetings have drawn hundreds of parents, some of them adamant that any misstep will create massive flight and erosion of public support.

Without a judge demanding change, the board must chart its own path through the public opinion minefield. And the superintendent must help draw that map.

If Clark has her map in mind, she isn’t tipping her hand beyond broad talk about the importance of choice and making all schools attractive to families. Only after the board approves goals and guiding principles, she says, can she and her staff outline options.

At the board’s Feb. 23 meeting, some members seemed reluctant to take the first step, suggesting they needed more time to revise wording they’d already spent months crafting.

Speaking more forcefully than she has in the past, Clark told the board that further delays would be a mistake.

Soon after, the board approved the goals.

Hours of meetings and countless difficult decisions lie ahead.

Dunlap agrees with Clark that this is a critical moment. He says he believes she has done a good job, but he understands the wariness and weariness of black constituents who blame her for past failures.

“I think Ann has a unique opportunity to prove people wrong,” Dunlap said. “What she does to lead this student assignment effort, to end pockets of poverty, will hopefully change some hearts and minds.”

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms