CMS teachers take bonuses to switch schools

Thirty top teachers have heeded Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' call to transfer into seven struggling schools.

Superintendent Peter Gorman calls it the district's biggest success in a long struggle to get effective, experienced teachers into schools that need them most. He coupled hefty bonuses – $20,000 over three years – with the chance to join star principals who hand-picked a team of academic leaders.

“We had more applicants than positions,” Gorman said, noting that previous tries had seen bonuses go unclaimed.

True to his word, Gorman didn't let the principals pluck too heavily from any one school. But the teachers came disproportionately from other high-poverty schools, some with academic woes of their own, an Observer analysis of CMS data shows. Suburban schools with the most high-performing teachers lost few or none of them.

To be eligible for the recruitment bonuses, teachers had to make better-than-average reading and/or math gains with their students in 2007. The 930 teachers on that list came disproportionately from the affluent southern suburbs. Only 35 percent came from high-poverty schools, known as FOCUS schools.

But 70 percent of the teachers who switched came from FOCUS schools.

Why switch?

Andrea Foggie, for instance, was a high-performing math teacher at West Meck High, which has been the target of turnaround efforts for several years. Now she'll teach at Ranson Middle – inspired, she says, by the chance to work with Principal Nancy Hicks and reach students before they're too far behind.

“Maybe I can make more of an impact there,” she said.

Hicks moved from Carmel Middle, a south suburban school where 28 percent of the students come from low-income homes, to Ranson, where 69 percent do. She enticed two Carmel assistant principals, a behavior-management technician, a literacy facilitator and a math teacher to join her. That was the largest pull from any school.

Tyler Willoughby, the math teacher, spent his first three years at Marie G. Davis Middle, one of the district's poorest and lowest-performing schools. He left, he says, drained by the constant struggle to control behavior. At Carmel, better behavior and strong parent support helped him strengthen his academic techniques.

“I feel much more well-rounded now,” he says.

Hicks and other principals say they were less interested in their recruits' latest assignment than in their passion for connecting with impoverished kids and parents while demanding high-level work.

“The bottom line is high expectations for children,” says Westerly Hills Principal Kendra March. “Children rise to the occasion.”

Not about numbers

Weak test scores put the seven schools on the turnaround list. Strong scores put teachers on the bonus list.

But the teachers who switched don't talk much about numbers. Again and again, they cite personal relationships as the reason they transferred and their best hope for change.

Sandra Dayse was happy at Elizabeth Traditional Elementary, a popular magnet where scores are high and poverty relatively low. Eight years ago March hired her for that job. Now both say they're eager to work together again.

The bonus didn't hurt, adds Dayse: “With the economy being what it is right now, every penny counts, especially on a teacher's salary.”

Dayse showed up Monday to check out her new fifth-grade classroom at Westerly Hills. She was disappointed to find older computers and dingier classroom furniture than she had at Elizabeth. But she said she'll have the room looking good for her students by Aug. 25.

A delicate balance

Next week CMS will hold sessions for the teachers and administrators recruited through Gorman's “strategic staffing.” They'll talk about their roles as leaders and the challenges they'll face.

Among those challenges: Meshing with faculty who didn't get the extra money and saw colleagues pushed out to make room for the new stars.

Hicks said she has created a leadership team of faculty who were at Ranson before she came.

Mary Sturge, the new principal at Reid Park Elementary, said her “strategic staffing” recruits will get their training later because she has scheduled sessions for the entire staff next week.

“You don't just come in and say, ‘There's a new sheriff in town' and blow everything off the face of the earth,” she said.

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