Feature                                                       Pages 16-20


Strategic Staffing    

Five tenets of Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s initiative that lands top-skilled educators in the district’s bottom-performing schools


Business and industry leaders do not flinch at the idea of placing top talent in struggling departments and divisions. This is not always the case in public education.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools made a bold statement to its community in its strategic plan by identifying two key reform levers — an effective principal leading each school and an effective teacher in every classroom. This statement was followed with a commitment to place a top principal and the most talented teachers in the district’s struggling schools.

While this strategy placed the school district in the national spotlight and earned the district commendations for its courage in placing its most skilled educators where they were needed most, it begs the question: Why is assigning top talent to the lowest-performing schools viewed as a courageous move and not a regular course of doing business in our public schools?

Ann Clark
Ann Clark (right) and Principal Tonya Kales

Imperative Action
We viewed low-performing schools as a problem of some urgency. A consolidated city-county district, Charlotte-Mecklenburg is North Carolina’s second-largest school district, with 140,000 students in prekindergarten through grade 12. More than half of its failing students are concentrated in a third of the schools. The district’s overall success depends in large part on how well and how quickly it can improve its bottom performers.

The solution was a strategic staffing initiative the district developed and launched in 2008. In four years it has exceeded expectations, turning around almost all of the 24 participating schools. Student achievement on state tests has soared as much as 20 points in a single year at some schools. The initiative also has drawn praise from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who visited a strategic staffing school in 2010. It has proven to be a strategy that, with some fine-tuning, can be extended past the initial three-year design.

One of the first principals involved in the strategic staffing initiative called this the most ethical initiative he’d ever seen in education. That’s a good assessment of its value. All of us in education have a moral and ethical imperative — and a mandate from the U.S. education secretary on down — to improve our schools and make them places where students learn and succeed. Strategic staffing has done this for Charlotte-Mecklenburg with outstanding results.

The initiative is based on a belief that the principal is the most important element in school success, tempered with the understanding that a principal can’t do it alone.

Supporting the initiative are experience gained from earlier district efforts and a willingness to adjust the strategy as needed. It is rooted in earlier district attempts to strengthen schools, including some lessons learned about what does not work — lessons we learned through a focus on continuous improvement in teaching and learning outcomes.

Tailored Incentives
Charlotte-Mecklenburg leaders gathered opinions from a wide range of high-performing principals and teachers about what it would take for them to choose to lead or teach in a struggling school.

That research helped us develop a plan for strategic staffing that included five tenets:

1. A great leader is needed — a principal with a proven track record of success in increasing student achievement. Also, great teachers will not go to a troubled school without a great leader as principal.

Over and over again, our highest-performing teachers told us that a highly effective principal would be the determining factor in a decision to transfer to a low-performing school. Teachers insisted a turnaround principal must have a proven track record of increasing student achievement and narrowing the achievement gap.

Additionally, the teachers described a principal with the skill to strike a balance between pressure and support for the academic and cultural changes that needed to be put in place for instructional and school culture changes.

The district’s leadership was keenly aware that one principal acting alone would be unlikely to achieve the transformative change needed in a struggling school. Leading a low-performing school to excellence would require a team of highly effective and committed educators.

As one strategic staffing teacher put it: “I would follow my current principal to any school she chose to lead. That is how much the principal is a factor in my decision to stay or leave a school.” This particular teacher left one of the highest-performing suburban elementary schools in the district and moved to one of the lowest-performing elementary schools with a 96 percent poverty rate.

The revelation that the principal’s leadership was the critical variable in assembling top-tier teachers propelled the school district to initiate a parallel effort to design and implement its own principal pipeline program. It was aligned to the district’s strategic plan to have high-performing principal candidates ready to fill principal vacancies at schools losing a principal to the strategic staffing initiative. We could not risk removing an effective principal from a high-performing school and potentially creating an unintended consequence of declining achievement at that school.

2. A team needs to go to the school so a person is not alone in taking on this challenging assignment. There is strength and support in numbers.

While teachers articulated quite clearly the importance of hiring a highly effective principal to lure highly effective teachers to a low-performing school, teachers also were emphatic they would not go alone to a struggling school. Teachers were eager to go with a team of like-minded colleagues with a genuine belief in every student, proven positive impact on student achievement and a “do whatever it takes” attitude.

Based on this feedback, the school district allowed each principal to recruit a seven-member team of highly effective educators as teachers, literacy facilitators and assistant principals to join the reform effort at the struggling school.

Principal Suzanne Gimenez persuaded two of the top teachers and the literacy facilitator from the school she was leaving after 11 years as its principal to join her at Devonshire Elementary School, which was one of the first seven schools to undertake the strategic staffing initiative in 2008.

In addition, Gimenez brought a former math facilitator as a dean of students and hired three additional teachers with a proven track record of achieving an average of more than a year’s worth of growth with students in an academic year. She also recruited a talented team she knew would raise the capacity of existing teachers at Devonshire through a collaborative teacher planning process. (See The Family Model’s Flexible Grouping.)

This strategic staffing team was asked to make a three-year commitment to the school and was expected to produce substantial increases in student achievement — more than one year’s growth in learning in one year’s time — and to transform the culture of the school to one of high expectations for students, staff and parents. In order for a teacher to be selected for such a team, the teacher had to show evidence of producing more than a year’s worth of growth in a school year for students.

Mary Sturge
Principal Mary Sturge (left)

3. Staff members who are disruptive and not supportive of reform need to be removed from the school.

As excited as talented educators were to move as a team into a low-performing school, they knew what awaited behind the doors of the school was likely a culture of low expectations and complacency. Teachers expressed specific concerns about a “toxic teachers’ lounge” where an adult-centered viewpoint and negative attitudes prevailed.

As a result, the strategic staffing model included an opportunity for the principal to identify seven educators who would be removed from the struggling school prior to the arrival of the strategic staffing team. Teachers or administrators identified for exit from the school resigned, retired or, in limited situations, were reassigned to another school.

Strategic staffing principals approached the opportunity to remove staff members in a variety of ways. Many of the strategic staffing principals reviewed math, reading, science and writing results on state assessments to target a specific grade level that needed an infusion of highly effective teaching to lead the grade-level collaborative planning process.

Principal Mary Sturge at Reid Park Academy chose to displace teachers in kindergarten through 2nd grade as part of her overall strategy to focus on the achievement gap at the point it was the narrowest in the early grades. Rather than strategically targeting the infusion of proven talent to the tested grade levels for a more immediate impact on student achievement, Sturge opted for a longer-term return-on-investment strategy with her focus on the early years.

4. Principals must be given the time and authority to reform the school and be freed from the school district list of “non-negotiables” that constrain autonomy.

As part of the negotiated agreement with the strategic staffing team members, the principal was granted freedom and flexibility with accountability for student achievement results. This autonomy for decision making included staffing, scheduling, selecting of instructional programs, budgeting and training for staff. In addition, teachers were granted autonomy to make instructional decisions for their students — such as the family model at Ashley Park PreK-8 School (see Leading the Wagon Train).

At Paw Creek Elementary, Principal Mary Jo Koenig chose to invest in a technology strategy that put technology tools in the hands of teachers and students. As a technology-savvy principal with a commitment to 21st-century teaching and learning, Koenig devised a comprehensive professional development plan for using technology to engage students in their learning. She transformed classrooms from teacher-centered to student-centered learning environments.

5. Not all job assignments are equal in difficulty, and compensation should be varied to match.

While teachers were clear that the principal’s quality was the key factor in a decision to transfer to a struggling school, the message from teachers was equally clear that compensation matters. Financial incentives were structured to recognize that the principals and teachers were taking on a serious challenge. 


The Family Model’s Flexible Grouping

Principals and assistant principals in the targeted schools received a 10 percent pay supplement to their base salaries. Teachers and facilitators received a $10,000 recruitment bonus for year 1 plus a $5,000 retention bonus for the second and third years of the commitment. The size of the bonus was heavily vetted with teacher focus groups. As one teacher stated, “This bonus needs to cover more than my monthly dry cleaning bill.”

Midcourse Adoptions
With a current total of 24 strategic staffing schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg has continued to refine the model since the first year of implementation in 2008. Based on feedback from each cohort of schools, we’ve adopted these design changes:

  • Allowing start dates for principals to move from July to February to give principals time to observe teachers and make better-informed staffing decisions;
  • Granting principals flexibility in team composition to meet unique profile needs of a school;
  • Requiring the development of an entry plan by the principal;
  • Securing compensation beyond year 3 of the model for any teacher producing more than a year’s worth of growth for students to retain staff beyond the original three-year commitment;
  • Providing training on strategic school design for each team prior to the start of the school year; and
  • Building a strong principal pipeline so the district has a talented pool of principals to replace a strategic staffing principal being reassigned to a struggling school.

The school district now finds itself in the enviable position of having principals contact the district leader for strategic staffing to inquire about selection criteria for a principalship. One principal recently asked, “What would it take for me to go to a struggling school?” How many districts have administrators asking to be assigned to a high-poverty, low-performing school? Probably very few.

Being selected as a strategic staffing principal has been elevated to a status position comparable to principal of the year. Principals now view the selection as a badge of honor.

Likely Phaseout
Charlotte-Mecklenburg has moved from being a courageous district placing the most talented principals in a struggling school to a district where talented principals and teachers seek opportunities to serve students in low-performing schools. Most exciting of all, the district will be positioned in fewer than two years to phase out the strategic staffing initiative as a result of having an effective principal leading every school.

A school district’s courage has led to academic success for students in the lowest-performing schools. To think all it took was recognizing talented principals and teachers and inviting them to share their talents with our neediest children and schools.

Ann Clark is chief academic officer of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in Charlotte, N.C. E-mail: a.clark@cms.k12.nc.us


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