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One school turnaround artist's formula

June 29, 1010

A westside Charlotte middle school that had been among the state's lowest-performing middle school made academic strides this past school year.

The principal who oversaw the transformation says that having a small band of highly motivated teachers was far more central to that success than having the right teaching materials.

And behind Denise Watts' "you make it cool to be smart" slogan -- and perhaps just as central to the school's turnaround as the motivated teachers -- were the high-performing students already at the school. Low-performers began to emulate the high-achievers this past year, and Watts said the adults built progress on the high-achieving students' "leadership, their creativity, their academic performance."

Highly motivated teachers playing off top-notch students: It's a time-honored formula.

Supt. Peter Gorman sent Watts to Spaugh from Mint Hill Middle in 2009 as part of his strategic staffing initiative designed to turn around low-performing schools. Each such principal gets to take a few administrators and a few teachers to create a small team to shake up whatever was not working at the low-performing school they entered.

Watts spoke as the CMS school board is mired in a public debate over principles to guide school closings, financial cutbacks and even program dissolutions that the board is expected to mandate by November to cut CMS's budget for a third recessionary year.

"More than anything," said Watts, "the reason why Bishop Spaugh Community Academy was successful this year in getting some momentum in that turnaround effort was because of staffing.

"The staffing issue is the biggest piece of this, more so than the materials. There is a lot of money from Title I that allows for the materials to be purchased. The issue is the right people on the bus.

"And I cannot stress to you enough the need to get the right people.

"I had no issues getting people to come to me, to the lowest-performing middle school in the state. I had no issues. People wanted to come because they knew what was going on.

"What stopped me was the constraints of policies from getting the right people on the bus. I was able to bring a team but I wasn't able to bring everybody who I knew could get the job done…. There's evidence of success all across this nation when you get the right people on the bus with the same commitment and passion."

Bill Anderson, executive director of Communities in Schools, was listening Tuesday. "If anybody ever went to that school two years ago and then went this year to Spaugh Middle School, the change was unbelievable," he said. "It was unbelievable because the expectations among the new teachers truly made the difference."

"My job at Spaugh has been no more difficult than it was at Mint Hill, and in some ways more rewarding," Watts said. "It is about the people in that building that are committed to doing the work.

"Resources are great. I would like to know the definition of equity. Are we talking about material goods, monetary or people? I continue to go back to the people issue.

"We can get the work done if I could have the people that I need to get the work done.

"There is so much Title I money to buy material goods. Over a half a million dollars at Spaugh. I could not spend it all. Now, I couldn't use it to enhance the facility, but I could use it to buy professional development, tutoring for the kids. If I had had that money at Mint Hill, it would have been heaven. I didn't have it. My PTA couldn't match the Title I money I had at Spaugh. It was about the people in the building that facilitated the use of that Title I money.

"The strategic staffing initiative has been dead on. There is no way I could have done the work at Spaugh this year without myself, my assistant principal that I brought with me, my academic facilitator and five teachers. That team of people made the difference in the school. So to be able to bring more people, and people are willing to come.

"One of the things that Dr. Gorman said this year in March was that he was closing the transfer fair. I had a lot of people who wanted to come, but at that point couldn't come because there was no transfer fair.

"So I really pushed and we were allowed to bring in some people. So I was able to bring in three or four additional teachers. Some of the things that restricts:

"It's very difficult to fire a teacher, very difficult. And I mean it is almost impossible to get rid of a bad egg.

"The rule right now is two years of documentation. So my question has always been, well, who is going to allow their child to sit in there for two years while I document them out?

"I had seven action plans this year that I now have to carry on, this assistant principal will have to carry on for another year. Kids are sitting in that room, so that has been very difficult."

Late in the meeting, Watts said Spaugh was hurt another way: Teachers displaced from other schools landed at Spaugh against their will.

"I had three teachers moved from other schools because their allotments were cut. And so they land at Spaugh, they really don't want to be there, and you have to figure out how to get 'em to want to be there, which is difficult. You want people who want to do the work.

"There are high flyers at every school. At Bishop Spaugh Community Academy we had kids that were very high-performing. One of the things that I instituted when I got there was really starting with a cohort of sixth-graders that are going to take algebra by the time they get to eighth grade, and will take that Spanish for the high school credit, because all that had been done away with.

"So even within these pockets of low-performing schools, you have kids who are performing very high. And we need to keep the conversation about all kids going, not just the ones who need it the most.

"If we don't, we're in essence committing educational malpractice if we just say we're going to ignore these kids….

"We have high-performing kids. Those are the kids who keep the school afloat, so you definitely want to continue to build on their leadership, their creativity, their academic performance…. And then you get more kids to join that cohort, and that's how you begin to change a school around. You make it cool to be smart. You make it cool to be creative. You make it cool to be innovative, and to be a leader…."

Gorman clearly sees Watts as such a leader. Effective Thursday, he's promoted her to be area superintendent for secondary schools in the low-performing Central Zone. The promotion may be good for CMS, although it puts at risk the momentum that Watts helped build this past school year at Spaugh.




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