CMS wants principals to stay for at least three years

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg students return to classes Monday, more than a third of the schools will be led by principals who weren’t there a year earlier.

Leaders at 60 of the district’s 164 schools have been changed because of resignations, retirements, promotions and internal moves, according to numbers provided by CMS. Most of the changes were intentional: Only 11 of the schools will be led by new principals from outside the district. The changes mark the third straight year of significant shuffling under Superintendent Heath Morrison.

The district appears to be working to counteract the annual game of musical chairs. Morrison and chief school performance officer Kelly Gwaltney are this year asking incoming principals to make a three-year commitment to their school before asking for a new assignment or leaving.

“Schools begin to flourish when you get the match right. Sometimes you get a really good principal, but the match at the school was not ideal,” Morrison said in an interview with the Observer late last month. “I want to make sure that principal is going to be there for at least three years, unless there is a huge system need.”

There’s nothing to indicate that the situation at CMS is much different from other large urban school districts, and CMS officials insist there’s nothing to be concerned about.

Gwaltney said the district has a stringent selection process and a talented principal pool to draw from. New principals are also given a lot of support, she said.

Research over the past decade has shown that frequent principal turnover can lead to increased teacher departures and lower student performance. It’s also often a symptom of increased pressure on principals to produce immediate turnarounds and keep up with an ever-growing slate of legislative and policy mandates.

“The job truly has become almost overwhelming,” said Diane Adams, principal at Providence Spring Elementary in south Charlotte for 12 years. “It’s almost more than someone or several someones can handle.”

‘Unnerving’ for teachers

Mallard Creek High is on its fourth principal since the northeast Charlotte school opened in 2007. Two of the former principals have been promoted to zone superintendents, and another was Gwaltney.

Mallard Creek High parent and PTA president Barb Cook said that much change can be “unnerving,” especially for the teaching staff.

“As soon as they get used to one principal, that person has moved on and been promoted to a new role,” Cook said.

She said she served on a principal interview panel and asked candidates about their career goals to ensure they wouldn’t treat the job as a stepping stone.

“While we want to have people who are good candidates for those positions, we just want to keep one for a few years,” Cook said.

Colette Forrest’s son, Bobby, is going into second grade at Irwin Academic Center, an elementary school uptown. All three years, he’s had a different principal.

“That is kind of like, ‘Wow,’ ” Forrest said. “But he hasn’t been negatively impacted.”

She said parents and teachers she talked to were excited about the incoming principal, Vanessa Ashford, who Forrest described as collaborative and focused on improvement.

“For me, I’m elated,” Forrest said.

Ashford spent nine years as principal of Eastover Elementary. She said teachers often worry about expectations under a new principal.

She said she applied for the job at Irwin because she wanted the experience of leading a magnet school. She doesn’t know why so many principals have moved around in the past year, but she acknowledged principals now face new mandates on testing and must develop skills to better serve students with medical and emotional needs. That’s made the role more stressful.

“The whole job has changed,” Ashford said. “You have to be ready to take care of them, and you can’t be squeamish.”

Pressure on schools

When a school has rapid principal turnover, teachers are more apt to leave. That can dampen student performance, said Ed Fuller, a professor at Penn State University’s College of Education who studies principal issues.

“Some of the teachers don’t mesh with the new principal style or vision, so they choose to move on to a different school,” Fuller said. “To have schools that are improving, particularly in terms of student achievement, you need to have principal stability.”

But that goes against the tides in urban school districts. In the largest districts, the average high school principal stays for 3.6 years, Fuller said. At an elementary school, it might be five to six years, with middle schools falling somewhere in between. Odds are, at any school, the student will be there longer than their principal.

“There’s so much pressure now on districts to raise scores quickly,” Fuller said. “I think they’re pulling the trigger on changing principals more quickly. They think they’re doing something positive, but that churn just kills schools.”

West Charlotte High and its eight feeder schools are entering the third school year of Project LIFT, a $55 million public and private partnership aimed at raising graduation rates and test scores. Part of the project includes bringing in the right principals, but that hasn’t stemmed turnover.

Two Project LIFT schools will have new leaders this year; three had new principals last year.

“Certainly, it keeps a school off-kilter a bit any time you’re bringing in new principals,” said Denise Watts, superintendent of the Project LIFT zone. “But our kids are pretty resilient to change. They adapt pretty quickly.”

She said several departures were promotions and called it a positive that CMS and other districts are looking to LIFT schools for talent. But she acknowledged the stress principals face, particularly in highly scrutinized schools.

“It’s hard work, and the expectations are high,” she said. “You’re going to get three to four years out of somebody,” and then they can burn out.

A new principal

When Mary Newsome welcomed students to Stoney Creek Elementary on Friday for an open house, it was her first time interacting with the school’s children and parents.

She had spent the past four years at Winecoff Elementary in Cabarrus County and was named to her new post at a school board meeting earlier this month.

She’ll spend the early part of the school year shuttling between the two schools as Winecoff searches for a replacement. At her previous school, Newsome said each student was hand-placed into their classroom for the next year. That won’t be possible this year. “It does take time to build relationships and trust with the community, and get to know your students,” she said.

The late change caught parents by surprise. Mason Miller had been named principal of the school in January 2013, and Renee Holmes said parents were never given an explanation of why he left. Miller couldn’t be reached. CMS did not answer an inquiry from the Observer about why he departed.

“I actually found out from another parent. She told me he was leaving, and I was like, ‘But he just got here,’ ” said Holmes, who is active with the school’s PTA. “The kids get adapted to one principal, and then the first time you look, that principal leaves. It makes you wonder, ‘What’s going on at Stoney Creek? Why are these principals leaving?’ ”

Despite the late arrival, Newsome doesn’t think the transition to her leadership at Stoney Creek will be overly difficult.

“What’s difficult for teachers is they’re just sometimes unsure about what someone is looking for. Everyone has a different focus,” she said. “When you have a good leader, it’s black and white. You’re able to tell what’s expected and what’s not.”

Related stories from Charlotte Observer