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CMS Board Frustrated Reform Hasn't Lived Up To Expectation

Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools has been trying to get its best teachers and principals in the most struggling schools through an initiative called strategic staffing. The schools have made big gains, but they're still far from where the district expected them to be at this point. Several school board members voiced frustration about that at Wednesday night's meeting.

Tom Tate has been on the school board for seven years. During that time he's seen his fair share of reforms and improvements too. But last night after a presentation on student test scores, he was clearly discouraged.

"We're moving in the right direction, but it's so slow and I just don't think we can go this way," said Tate. "I was grateful for strategic staffing, but it looks like it just peters out."

Thirteen elementary and middle schools are at least three years into what the district calls strategic staffing. CMS uses bonuses to lure principals and teachers to these schools and then gives principals more flexibility. They can bring on new teachers and get rid of others.

Most of those schools have seen a lot of improvement, but still far from what the district expected. The goal was to have 90 percent of students at grade level after three years. That's well above the district's average. Devonshire Elementary is closest to that goal at 71 percent. But five of the schools are at 50 percent or below.

The first couple of years saw big gains, but this year most of those schools started losing ground.

"The initial gains are the result of changing some adults. The harder work is about moving individual students," Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark told board members.

Clark says the district has been tweaking the program. She heard from principals at these schools that not enough teachers would stick around for the long haul. So the district now offers retention bonuses after the third year to those teachers who are seeing improvements in students. But keeping a principal around has also been a challenge.

New superintendent Heath Morrison hasn't said what he plans to do about the program yet, but he told the school board he thinks it's "a really good model."

"But I think we do have to answer that question: how do we sustain it, how do we build a culture that outlasts the principal that we first put in there with strategic staffing."

CMS has added schools to the program each year since its start in 2008. There are now 26 schools under strategic staffing.