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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

New CMS Academic Chief Talks Reading Failure, Morale And History

Matthew Hayes, deputy superintendent for academics at CMS, talks about his new job at WFAE.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has a new deputy superintendent in charge of academics – basically the guy who makes sure 150,000 students learn to read when they’re young and eventually graduate as capable, well-rounded teens.

Superintendent Earnest Winston named Matthew Hayes to that post, which hadn't been filled for several years.

Few people know CMS like Hayes. He’s a second-generation CMS graduate – class president of West Charlotte High’s Class of 1991 – who married a Garinger grad. They both went to work for CMS, where Matthew Hayes has been a teacher and a principal at Olympic and North Mecklenburg high schools.

Of course Matt and Tracey Hayes' two children go to CMS.

Hayes brings a personal perspective to one of the district's most stubborn challenges: Preparing children to read at grade level by third grade.

"A lot of people don’t know but I was retained in third grade because I had a reading deficit, a comprehension issue," Hayes says. "During that time, when I repeated third grade, I had a teacher that took the time to sit down and say, you know, 'You’re not able to do this and this is why.' ”

Lots of teachers and volunteers have tried that, over and over. Yet third-grading reading proficiency remains stuck around 40 percent for CMS children of color and poverty. State results are similar.

CMS is pinning its hopes on a new reading curriculumbeing introduced at all the district’s elementary schools. Hayes has seen CMS swing between phonics and "just read. Read, read, read!" The new curriculum combines phonics and free reading -- "with a scientific method in which to do so."

The curriculum is, of course, much more complicated than that. But one key is that every elementary school will use it, Hayes says.

"The curriculum is basically designed to create a base for all of our kids," Hayes says. "Cause what we realized was that students that were on one side of the county may be having a different learning experience than students on a different side of the county."

For decades CMS has swung between this approach and giving schools freedom to tailor their lessons to their kids’ needs. This signals a swing toward uniformity, at least in the early grades, Hayes says: "Very much so."

Hayes said both principals and teachers have felt "a little beaten up" in recent years. He says one thing district leaders can do is help principals and teachers deal with what he calls “the whirlwind.” 

"It’s all the outside things that interfere with people being able to do what they need to do," he says. "As a district and in my position, I’m dedicated to pulling apart the pieces of that whirlwind that don’t have to exist."

For example, Hayes cited the state’s freeze on using Istation, a new testing system for young readers. Shortly before schools opened, a state technology official put that program on hold amid a battle between vendors, politicians and educators.

Normally, Hayes says, CMS would have rushed to find an alternative and hastily train faculty.

"But you know what? We stepped back and said, why do we do that?"

The result: CMS is waiting until second semester to launch Istation testing. Hayes hopes that frees some faculty time, at least for now.

Hayes is part of a new leadership team convened by Earnest Winston, who became superintendent in August after Clayton Wilcox’s forced resignation. Like Hayes, most of Winston’s new lieutenants have deep roots in CMS – unlike some new superintendents, who have turned to outside experts.

What does that mean?

"The main thing you’re going to see is a common voice, and the common voice is around access for all kids, and that all kids will learn," Hayes says. 

He acknowledges that’s not exactly revolutionary, but "I think that’s huge, because that’s an easy statement, but we know from history it’s hard to do."

Actually, that describes almost everything public schools have to do: Easy to talk about, hard to make real change. The one thing Hayes says residents of Mecklenburg County can rely on is that the new leadership team of CMS veterans and parents won’t just fly in and fly out.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.