School & District Management

Major Change Eyed for Charlotte, N.C., Schools

By Jeff Archer — January 03, 2006 4 min read
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Worried that a district with a national reputation for improvement could lose its luster, civic leaders are pitching a wide-ranging plan to reorganize the Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., schools.

The proposal, which is to be discussed in a series of public meetings this month, includes shrinking the size of the school board and electing its members differently, and giving successful schools more freedom in how they operate.

Based on an eight-month study by outside consultants, the plan was prompted by concerns that rapid growth, changing demographics, and an often-divided school board could threaten academic progress in the 120,000-student system.

“We felt that we couldn’t just tinker at the edges of reform,” said Harvey Gantt, a former Charlotte mayor who co-chairs the citizens’ task force behind the plan. “We had to talk about something a little bit bolder and more innovative.”

The 16-person task force, made up mostly of business leaders, was formed last spring by the Charlotte-based Foundation for the Carolinas. With $675,000 raised by the foundation, the panel hired the Washington-based American Institutes for Research, or AIR, to lead an examination of the system’s governance and management, and to survey local opinion on the district.

Their plan comes as the district continues to win accolades. Results released last month from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed its black and needy students scored better than the national average for such students in urban areas in 4th grade reading and in 4th and 8th grade mathematics.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s success since the mid-1990s in raising performance and narrowing the achievement gaps between its minority and white students also has been recognized by the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based group of urban districts, and the Broad Foundation, a philanthropy in Los Angeles that supports efforts to improve urban education.

One District, More Choice

Yet the district faces significant challenges. High school performance has lagged. Overall enrollment is expected to jump by 50,000 students in the next decade. And the end of racial desegregation efforts in the district in 2002 has resulted in greater concentrations of poverty in parts of the district.

In a sign of public dissatisfaction, local voters in November rejected a $427 million school construction bond. Some activists have pushed to break up the system into smaller districts.

“What we’re dealing with now is a district in which almost everything in its external environment has changed,” said Steven Adamowski, who led the study for AIR and is a former superintendent of the Cincinnati public schools.

The AIR report contends that the district’s long-standing strategy of using the same instructional programs across the system—an approach called “managed instruction”—is out of sync with its rising enrollment and the clustering of poverty in some schools.

Under its recommendations, Charlotte-Mecklenburg would remain one district, but divide itself into at least three semiautonomous regions, each headed by an area superintendent reporting to a districtwide, CEO-style schools chief. High-performing schools would get wide latitude to decide programs and policies.

District leaders would focus on fixing the lowest-performing schools through intervention teams charged with diagnosing problems and prescribing remedies. Schools that failed to improve for three years could have their staffs replaced.

To give parents new options, a fourth superintendent would oversee a districtwide system of “choice schools” with distinctive themes and programs, run by community groups or outside providers. The report also strongly recommends opening new, small high schools and breaking current ones into schools-within-schools.

The consultants also call for a seven-member school board, with one member picked by county commissioners. For the rest, voters in each of six regions of the district would pick two candidates in a primary, who would then compete districtwide in the general election.

The change, which would require state legislation, is meant to result in board members with both districtwide and regional interests. The board now has nine members: six elected by particular districts, and three elected at large.

Another proposal aimed at leadership stability is the creation of a permanent civic group to advocate for needed changes in the school system, support strong school board candidates, and carry out annual assessments of the district’s progress.

Kit Cramer, the vice chairwoman of the district’s school board, agreed with the general thrust of the proposals, even though, as an at-large member, she would lose her seat under the plan. But she cautioned against moving too quickly.

Another board member said the plan doesn’t go far enough. Larry Gauvreau supports splitting up the merged city-county system.

“What really needs to be done,” he said, “is to push more power into different parts of the county through deconsolidation.”

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