Feature                                                       Pages 22-25



Leading the Wagon Train   

A take-charge turnaround principal on how she’s used strategic staffing for schoolwide gains


My journey as a strategic staffing principal in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has been one of ups and downs, scary turns and some great success for our students. It began in May 2008 when I was asked to move to Devonshire Elementary School with marching orders to “turn the school around.”

Susanne Gimenez
Suzanne Gimenez (right)  

Because of its failure to meet annual yearly progress for four years, Devonshire had been designated a State of North Carolina Restructuring School. It was a bleak and gloomy place that couldn’t effectively educate children of poverty. The staff realized the students — 98 percent of whom qualified for free or reduced-price lunch — were not learning.

Peter Gorman, then the superintendent, and his executive staff described for me the transition process and staffing guidelines as one of the first seven schools to undertake the district’s strategic staffing initiative. I remember looking at the guidelines and thinking, “This sounds like heaven.” I could design my own team in ways that could complement my strengths and weaknesses. I was entitled to handpick five teachers who were deemed highly qualified based on their track record of raising academic achievement, plus a literacy facilitator. I also had the option of selecting an assistant principal.

A Shared Journey
I felt as if I were the leader of a wagon train in the Old West. I knew I would lead the wagons to a destination where students would receive the education they deserved and be successful learners. I knew I needed to line up the wagons in a strategic order of experienced and inexperienced drivers. Those with experience would be placed every four or five wagons, while a team on horseback would double back periodically to ensure every wagon was in line and did not need help.

At the end of the day, the wagons and stakeholders on this journey became a family. We shared experiences from the day and recognized the progress we were making. I provided updates on the journey for the coming day and fielded their feedback. As the leader of the wagon train, I always was looking at how to realign the wagons for faster travel, monitoring a wagon or team of wagons having difficulty and continually planning the journey to reach the planned destination.

I looked for teacher leaders with proven track records. They needed to share a philosophy about the right and the ability of all children to learn. Importantly, the teachers needed experience working with students of poverty with an understanding of learning styles and relationship building.

I brought in two teachers from the elementary school in Charlotte that I had guided for 11 years to lead the 4th- and 5th-grade teams, as well as my literacy facilitator. I wanted at least three staff members who knew “how I do things” and could be leaders in the wagon train. I hired the other three teachers following lengthy interviews. I kept the existing assistant principal because I needed someone with a history of the school.

Minimizing Tension
As part of the strategic staffing initiative, I opted to keep the five teachers who might otherwise be displaced by the handpicked newcomers. We had to address the school’s average of 26 students per classroom — a number much too large when dealing with students of poverty. My ideal classroom size is a 16:1 ratio. Our students need a combination of “get in your face” instruction and one-on-one attention. Working with a smaller group of students allows the teacher to recognize what each child knows and needs to know to succeed.

The decision to retain all existing staff was considered carefully. I did not want the new staff I was bringing in to appear to be the “chosen ones.” While the five teachers who were part of the strategic staffing initiative did receive a bonus over the three-year period for moving to a persistently failing school, I wanted all staff to be on the same playing field.

Fortunately, the building of a family/team approach and holding everyone to the same expectations tended to release the tension about the differentiated compensation. The teachers with the bonuses modeled high expectations and held their teammates accountable for meeting the same. The wagon train had leaders who worked alongside their peers to provide support and opportunities for crucial conversations.

A Rallying Cry
In educating the staff of Devonshire Elementary on the journey we were about to pursue, I wanted to create an environment of trust and honesty. I was candid about the difficult task ahead. Teachers had to understand that children of poverty can and will learn if taught effective strategies through a quality lesson. I said, “If you cannot give your all and meet the expectations that the students deserve, you need to find another place to work.”

We focused on the needs of the 590 students at Devonshire and what is best for them educationally — not on practices designed to make teachers happy. We would work collaboratively to make it happen. I began by introducing a theme song, “We Are Family” by Sister Sledge.

At the first staff meeting, I presented the “good, bad and ugly,” the state of Devonshire and discussed its grim status. I told the staff we needed a war cry, and they adopted “Believe and Achieve.” I could not have picked a better rallying cry.

Most importantly, I told the staff I would lead them through the process; hold their hands; tell them what effective instruction looked like, what it smelled like, what it tasted like; and tell them where we would be after the first year.

We put in place a structure, a foundation for success, for daily procedures and daily collaborative team planning for instruction. I shared “The State of Devonshire” throughout the school year to see where we were in meeting the needs of students and where we needed to do things differently. The math and literacy facilitator would lead daily planning and become the support system of the wagon train.

That first year was “the deer was in the headlights year.” The staff looked at me with blank stares, listened to what I had to say and worked to meet the expectations. Some staff had the intrinsic skills to begin the journey on a positive note. Some bought in to the behaviors quickly but did not change their belief system. The first-year results strengthened their belief system. They could make a difference.

As the wagon train moved toward our destination, it was evident that some wagons could not or did not want to keep up with the pace. The horseback riders kept moving them along, but to no avail. Some wagons needed to turn around and choose another route better suited for their personal journey. It was neither longer easy for a teacher to “hide out” in a high-poverty school where there were no expectations nor accountability for any of the stakeholders.

Once the expectations were set and all stakeholders became accountable for teaching and learning, some teachers struggled. Within the first year and a half, six teachers who could not or chose not to meet expectations left the school to begin a different journey.

Recounting Progress
Since that first year, we have had a tradition at the beginning of each school year. We revisit the previous year and list the innovative ideas that were meaningful. It’s an awesome form of feedback and unity. It allows us to truly understand the journey and prepare to restructure the wagons for the next year.

These were the prevailing emphases during the first three years of the strategic staffing initiative at Devonshire Elementary:

  • Year 1 — new instructional strategies; teacher accountability; “no excuses;” student accountability; faith in the process; structure; and a clear plan.
  • Year 2 — increased student engagement; instructional rounds; trust in each other; starting to believe; and more focus on student achievement.
  • Year 3 — working toward results of a 90-90-90 school in math; student investment; family and teachers were a part of the process.

The school has made significant strides. Math proficiency, which was hovering around the 50 percent range on the state’s standardized exams when I arrived, moved to 93.7 percent of students performing at or above grade level in 2010-11.

Literacy proficiency has been less satisfying. Students are not progressing as quickly as I would like, so my administrative team and I tossed the literacy program being used by the school district in order to create our own model. So far, the results show improvement.

Recommitting Together
In beginning my wagon-train journey as a turnaround principal, I traversed nearly impassable routes, rough storms, a few plagues and personal sickness. We hit roadblocks but always jointly recommitted to the journey after some regrouping.

The children who come to Devonshire Elementary may not know where they will sleep at night, whether anyone will be home when they get there or whether there will be food to eat. But they do know that school is a safe and secure place for learning, the same each day, and filled with caring teachers who want them to be successful.

I am a take-charge school leader, someone who never gives up or accepts “no” as an answer. I was highly motivated to turn around Devonshire in one year. With my fifth school year soon to begin, our wagon train continues with a staff that shares my beliefs, is passionate about students and believes our students can learn through the use of innovative strategies.

Suzanne Gimenez is principal of Devonshire Elementary School in Charlotte, N.C. E-mail: suzanne.gimenez@cms.k12.nc.us


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