Principals' high marks spell empowerment

First in a series.

In Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, this could The Year of the Principal.

A district known for issuing countywide orders is giving school leaders new power. Students, parents and teachers are about to see how that plays out, in settings that range from schools in trouble to academic showcases.

Forty-eight CMS principals have won the right to new freedom based on strong academic performance. Among the innovations: South Charlotte Middle School Principal Christine Waggoner and a handful of others will try all-male and all-female classes.

Seven principals, most pulled from that high-performing list, are taking on new assignments in struggling schools. They got 10 percent pay bumps and bonus money to recruit teams of hot-shot teachers and administrators.

Nancy Hicks, who left suburban Carmel Middle for high-poverty Ranson Middle, acknowledges that her success or failure will play out publicly: “I don't think you find yourself in this position if that's the kind of thing that makes you nervous.”

Mary Sturge, who took over Reid Park Elementary, says her bosses have asked her what she needs, rather than telling her what to do: “They're modeling the leadership style that they're looking for.”

With the power comes pressure. Since Superintendent Peter Gorman arrived in summer 2006, he has removed five principals and shuffled many more. There are rumblings that principals can become scapegoats for problems rooted in homes and communities.

Meanwhile, CMS is working with Winthrop University in Rock Hill to groom talented teachers as future principals, hoping to create a model that districts around the region can copy. And Gorman is working with New Leaders for New Schools, a national nonprofit that trains urban principals, on a plan to tap more educators and outsiders, including former teachers who have moved into business or nonprofit leadership.