As chief academic officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) in North Carolina, Ann B. Clark (M.Ed. ’82 Spec Ed) can take a good share of the credit for leading the district’s impressive advances in student achievement on a number of fronts.
The district, which is the 18th largest in the country, has faced the typical challenges of a large, urban school division. Fifty-three percent of its students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch and one tenth are English language learners. Yet, between 2007 and 2010 the district narrowed the achievement gap between white and minority students by 11 percentage points in high school reading. Last year 62 percent of the district’s seniors took the SAT exam. Over 89 percent of the district’s schools averaged more than one year’s academic growth for students, which is a substantial gain from 54 percent in 2006.
“Philosophically, you can’t be in the excuses business as educators,” Clark says. “I believe a quality education can be what helps turn the tide of poverty in this country. Your home life and economic status can’t determine your academic achievement.”
“Philosophically, you can’t be in the excuses business as educators.”
Clark took a few moments from her work to answer some questions for Education Connection:
What success under your purview at CMS are you most proud of?
Without question, I am most proud of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools being recognized as the Broad Prize for Urban Education winner in the fall of 2011. The Broad Prize is given to the urban district with the greatest student achievement gains with particular success in reducing the achievement gap over a four year period. In addition, CMS was a finalist for the Broad Prize in 2004 and 2010, and I am thrilled about our academic progress on behalf of every student.
What important lessons have you learned in the process of achieving this success?
CMS chose two key levers for our reform strategy. These two levers were to have an effective principal leading each school and an effective teacher in each classroom. Realizing that we were not where we needed to be with either of these key levers, CMS initiated a Strategic Staffing Initiative to place our most effective principals in our lowest performing schools with a team of five to seven highly effective teachers, literacy facilitators, and assistant principals. These teams are granted freedom and flexibility with accountability to implement a turnaround strategy matched to the unique needs of the schools.
How do you balance strategic staffing and aggressive school turnaround efforts with principal/teacher stress and burnout?
The urgency of the graduation cohort rate and student achievement gap in CMS has required us to strategically staff 24 schools in the last three years. Our kids cannot afford for us to slow our pace and that is why our strategy focused on placing our top talent in our neediest schools.
What do you wish every teacher knew?
In CMS the title of our strategic plan is “Teaching Our Way to the Top” for a reason. No school district in this nation can be more successful than the level of effectiveness of its teaching force and teacher impact on student achievement.
Clark has nearly 30 years of experience in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, since joining the district in 1983 as a teacher of behaviorally and emotionally disabled children. She served in various school leadership positions for nearly a decade. In 1994 she was named National Principal of the Year by the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Later, she moved to district administration and become chief academic officer in 2009.
by Lynn Bell
Photo by Tom Cogill