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Plenty of new principals, but churn is slowing in CMS

John Wall (center, white shirt), shown when he started at West Charlotte High three years ago, has been promoted, part of this year’s principal churn.
John Wall (center, white shirt), shown when he started at West Charlotte High three years ago, has been promoted, part of this year’s principal churn. jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

As CMS prepares to ring the opening bell on 168 schools, about 40 will have principals who weren’t at those schools this time last year.

And believe it or not, that’s a sign of stability.

I started writing about the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools revolving door in February 2012, when the district saw 57 principals leave their jobs in the first five months of the school year. At that time, CMS had 159 schools and the district was in an interim year between Superintendents Peter Gorman and Heath Morrison. CMS was still reeling from a painful round of school closings, cranking up the pressure that faces principals everywhere.

Last year CMS opened with four new schools and principal changes at 46 existing schools, according to Brian Hacker in the public information office.

When he gave me a tally for 2015-16, there were four more new schools and 31 existing schools with principals who weren’t there at the start of 2014-15. Since his late-July report CMS named two more new principals, and as of Tuesday three vacancies remained (Albemarle Road Elementary, Collinswood Language Academy and Ashley Park PreK-8 School).

Leadership change can be stressful to families and faculty, not to mention education reporters trying to keep up with who’s who. But it’s a fact of life in a large organization (CMS has more than 18,000 employees). Good folks get promoted, retirements happen, and yes, there are always a few matches that just don’t work.

Churn at the very top continues, too. Morrison left under pressure last November, after less than two years in the job. CMS veteran and Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark took over, but she only plans to stay a year.

Still, she and her folks have been focused for quite a while on “the leadership pipeline,” with a goal of keeping schools stable even when facing change.

Project LIFT, a nine-school administrative zone that has received an infusion of private money and public attention since it debuted three years ago, is a microcosm.

Hiring great principals is a key to making gains at West Charlotte High and its feeder schools, but expecting them to stay forever isn’t realistic, says Project LIFT Zone Superintendent Denise Watts.

For instance, when she recruited John Wall from Wake County to take the helm at the long-struggling high school in 2012, he told her he’d be looking to move up after three years, Watts said. Timisha Barnes-Jones joined him as an assistant principal, and in 2013 she was named co-principal, overseeing an academy that helped students catch up on credits. She was also in training to step into the top job, Watts said. And that’s what happened when Wall was promoted in June to oversee the schools in the Vance High feeder pattern.

At Ranson Middle School, Principal Alison Harris got an out-of-state job offer. Watts countered with a promotion to an administrative post in the LIFT Zone, keeping the expertise Harris had built up. Assistant Principal Erica Jordan-Thomas stepped up at Ranson this summer.

As Project LIFT enters the fourth year of a five-year turnaround quest, only one original principal remains: Jan McIver at Thomasboro Academy. Ashley Park is in the hunt again, after Assistant Principal Jeanette Reber got promoted to principal there in 2013, then moved to Statesville Road Elementary this summer.

Picture those kinds of shuffles going on across 168 schools, and you begin to see why the idea of 40 new principals is just business as usual.

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

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