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NC: Putting the best leaders in the neediest schools

Effective principals are key factors in student and district success

Summary: District officials in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools believe that effective principals directly impact student achievement and, as a result, are placing the district’s top principals in the neediest schools.


When Suzanne Gimenez became principal at Devonshire Elementary School in Charlotte, North Carolina, she had one mission: improve student achievement.  

In the year preceding Gimenez’s arrival, 54.2 percent of Devonshire’s students performed at or above grade level on the state end-of-grade math test.  Students’ reading and science performance were even worse with only 33.9 percent and 24.6 percent respectively achieving that benchmark.  The state had designated Devonshire a “priority school” and Devonshire entered its fourth year of Title I School Improvement under No Child Left Behind for consistently failing to demonstrate improvements in students’ math and reading performance.

“One of the first things I did as soon as I was appointed was, I wanted all of the assessment data for the school.  I wanted to know how the kids had done on their testing,” Gimenez says of her arrival in 2008.  “I immediately saw where their strengths and weaknesses were.  There weren’t a lot of strengths, but at least I knew what I was dealing with.”     

After three years under Gimenez’s leadership, 93.5 percent of Devonshire’s students performed at or above grade level on the state math test, while more than 80 percent reached the benchmark in science, both higher percentages than the district and state averages.  Student performance in reading, meanwhile, increased more than 20 percentage points in that time, with 55.3 percent of students scoring at or above grade level last year.  Gimenez says she won’t stop until at least 90 percent of her students reach the benchmark in reading.

District characteristics
Name: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
State: NC
Type: Urban
Grades: Pre-k–12
Enrollment: 136,969
Students per teacher: 15.31

Student characteristics
Economically disadvantaged (free and reduced price lunch enrollment): 50.4%
English language learners: 11.1%
Students with disabilities: 10.3%

Student Racial/Ethnic Composition
White: 32.7%
Black: 44.3%
Hispanic: 15.5%
Asian/Pacific Islander: 24.7%
American Indian/Alaska Native: 0.4%
Multi-racial: n/a
Sources: New America Foundation Federal Education Budget Project and National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data
“I’ve been sent here to turn this school around and that is what I’m going to do,” says Gimenez.  “And I’m not done yet.”

Gimenez is one of 26 principals involved in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Strategic Staffing Initiative, a program where the district taps its top performing principals for placements at its lowest performing schools.
“We’re taking the strongest leaders and putting them where there is the greatest need,” explains School Board member Tom Tate. “Leadership is a key thing to turn around a school.  It is the principal to start with, but it’s not just the principal.  It’s also the facilitators, the other administrators, and the teachers.”

The district implemented Strategic Staffing in 2008, after talking with its top teachers about what would encourage them to transfer to the district’s lowest performing schools, explains Ann Clark, chief academic officer.  Working with a highly effective principal topped their list, Clark says.  The teachers also wanted to transfer in teams, have greater flexibility to implement classroom instructional practices, and receive better compensation, Clark adds.  The district embraced those needs and developed the Strategic Staffing program.

In practice, the district starts by identifying a principal with experience leading a Title I school with superior student academic achievement, defined as students consistently gaining more than a year’s worth of academic growth in a year’s time, Clark explains.  Then, district officials match that top performing principal to a lower performing school with a similarly high-needs student population and invite the principal to transfer to the new post for a minimum of three years.  If the principal accepts, he or she may bring as many as seven staff members―including teachers, instructional facilitators, and assistant principals―to the new school.  The transfer team also receives additional compensation: a 10 percent salary supplement for the principal and assistant principals, and a $10,000 bonus for teachers the first year and a $5,000 bonus in years two and three.  During the fourth and fifth years of reform, school staff beyond the transfer team also can qualify for $5,000 bonuses as well, Clark adds.  The first year of the program the school system requested and received additional local county funds to support the initiative and continues to fund the effort with local money.
Clark stresses the district never forces a principal to transfer, and only one has declined the new assignment since the program began.

“If you offer this up as an honor you get people who see taking on your toughest schools as a sign that they are the best this district has, and wow is that a powerful message,” says Clark.
Gimenez certainly saw it that way, especially as one of the first seven principals selected.  “I was very honored,” she says.  “It felt really good for the recognition that you had been doing a good job and the confidence was there that you could follow through with this initiative and make it work.”

But the improvements at Devonshire, where 97 percent of students qualify as economically disadvantaged, did not come easily.  When Gimenez arrived, the school did not have any structure or established procedures, she says.  So she began by designing a master schedule, which she still manages, to establish large blocks of instructional time for students and daily team planning for teachers.
“Children of poverty or of a lower socio-economic status need structure,” she says.  “There may not be structure in other parts of their life.  They may not know where they are going to eat or who will be home to watch them, but they know when they come to school, we are here the same every day.”

Gimenez did not remove any of the existing staff members at Devonshire, either.  Instead, she placed the teachers she brought with her at key grade levels to reduce class sizes.
Using student data effectively also has been key to Devonshire’s transformation, Gimenez says.  The school district maintains an online portal that allows teachers to access up-to-the-minute data about any student’s attendance, discipline, and assessment performance at any time, says Clark.  Devonshire has become a model school in using the system, Clark adds.

Gimenez maintains a central chart in the teacher planning room that displays the school’s overall student performance.  Then, in daily planning sessions, the school’s math and literacy facilitators work with grade-level teacher teams to further analyze student performance on the district’s formative assessments, Gimenez explains.  The teachers analyze which concepts students have mastered, identify areas where students need remediation, and discuss effective strategies for presenting content.  Back in their classrooms, meanwhile, individual teachers perform regular “pulse checks,” Gimenez says, to monitor the progress of individual students.  During the daily schoolwide “intervention and enrichment” block, teachers work with small groups of students to provide either remedial instructional or activities where students can practice the concepts they have mastered.
Gimenez has involved the students in the data process as well.  Starting in second grade, students maintain individual assessment notebooks to track their performance in each subject and even identify areas where they need to strengthen their skills, she says.

“They are assuming some of the responsibility for their learning,” says Gimenez.  “The kids want to do well.  These kids want to learn.”

Gimenez’s style is just one example of a successful principal’s approach to school reform and the district recognizes that.  Consequently, the district provides the Strategic Staffing principals considerable freedom to implement the strategies they believe best fit their individual schools.  School Board members like Tate believe that a school’s academic performance ultimately determines whether the principal’s efforts have succeeded.
“We have tried to get the principals to do what they think is best based on their track record,” says Tate.  “These are creative principals.  These are leaders who know how to lead, so we ought to turn them loose as much as we can.”

Lessons learned
  • Develop a principal pipeline.  As a companion program to Strategic Staffing, Charlotte-Mecklenburg developed an internal preparation program that produces 25 principal candidates each year, says Clark.  This program offers a regular supply of principals the district uses to “back fill” the leadership positions that open up when the Strategic Staffing principals transfer to their new schools, Clark explains.  “We’re an urban-suburban school district and if we pulled 25 rock star [principals] out of our top performing schools and those top performing schools struggled without that leader, then Strategic Staffing isn’t something we would be talking about,” says Clark.  “You’ve got to have a back fill strategy.  If you don’t have a deep enough bench to back fill the school principal you are pulling away, you have to wait until you are in a position to do that.”
  • Use a pull strategy rather than a push strategy to re-assign staff.  “Inviting people to take on a challenge, often the way it is done and how it is shared with the internal and external community can make it such an honor that you have people coming toward the opportunity, rather than seeking people out,” says Clark.  “I have regular contact from principals in the district asking what would it take for them to be a Strategic Staffing principal.  What we’ve created is being tapped for this is an honor.”
  • Don’t overlook the needs of the existing school staff.  Tate admits that he initially had some concerns about the bonuses the Strategic Staffing transfer team receive and worried about how the differential compensation would impact the existing school staff who do not receive the bonuses.  To address that, the school district expanded the funding available to Strategic Staffing schools and now allows any staff member who contributes to the school’s improved student achievement to receive a $5,000 bonus in the fourth and fifth years of reform.
  • Change takes time.  Similarly, district officials found that the three-year commitment they request from their Strategic Staffing teams is not always sufficient to make significant improvements in student achievement.  Extending the compensation bonuses into the fourth and fifth years not only encourages the Strategic Staffing teams to remain at their new schools, but also helps retain other effective staff members and continue the school’s improvement, says Clark.


Stacy Sneed, Media Relations Specialist

Phone: (980) 343-6243
Email: stacy1.sneed@cms.k12.nc.us

Tom Tate, School Board Member

Phone: (704) 502-3093
Email: tom.tate@cms.k12.nc.us

This story was written by Kristen Loschert, a freelance writer in Falls Church, VA.  Loschert has been writing about education for nearly 15 years.

Posted: August 1, 2012

©2012 Center for Public Education

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