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New CMS Superintendent Winston: 'You Have To Keep Students First'


Today is Earnest Winston’s first full day on the job as the new Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools superintendent. It’s been a whirlwind three weeks for the former chief engagement officer and ombudsman.

It began with the board naming him acting superintendent after suspending Clayton Wilcox. A week later Wilcox resigned. Then, on Friday, the board made Winston’s position permanent without conducting a national search. He joins WFAE's "Morning Edition" host Lisa Worf to talk about his plans moving forward.

Lisa Worf: So, did you ever think a month ago you'd be the next superintendent of CMS?

Earnest Winston: I knew it was a possibility but I had no way of knowing for sure that this opportunity would come my way. But I am excited about it.

Worf: When you say a possibility: Even before the CMS Board dismissed/suspended Clayton Wilcox, you were thinking maybe possibly in the next few years?

Winston: Well, more specifically after the board asked me to become the acting superintendent I knew there was a possibility that they could ask me to stay on longer to make sure that we had a successful leadership transition.

Worf: Unlike many superintendents, you've never been a principal and you don't have any degrees in education. Why do you think your choice makes sense as superintendent?

Winston: That's a great question, and I think the board wanted to make sure that we have stability in our school district. We just implemented a new strategic plan and the board wanted to make sure that we have an experienced leader — someone who knows this district who knows this community. I would also say that I think it's very important that people understand that I believe there's more than one pathway to becoming a superintendent. And I think if you look at some of the other districts across the country, many of whom have been very successful, they have nontraditional leaders at the helm of their school district. So, I think it's important to remember that success. You know, how you come into the profession doesn't necessarily define your success. But leadership is the most important thing.

Worf: So, you've been around CMS' central office for about 13 years now and you served as top aides to Heath Morrison and Clayton Wilcox. What did you learn about their abrupt departures that you think will help you as superintendent?

Winston: One of the things that I learned from all of the leaders that I had the pleasure of serving with is that you have to keep students first. No matter what is happening around you, you always have to be student centered. Keep them at the forefront because I and the team that I have the honor of serving with, we wake up every day with a singular focus, and that is how can we improve outcomes for all students so that we're setting them up on a path for success?

Worf: Really, so nothing about learning from the departures?

Winston: Well, you know, I think one of the things that's important is that we realize that all people are important and that we have to have respect for everyone no matter what your position is in the district. And, so, I try to be the same person every day no matter who I'm talking with. And I think that's extremely important to treat all people well.

Worf: And you felt like that didn't happen before?

Winston: There are varying levels of that. But one of the things that that is important to me, one of my core values, is respect and respecting all people.

Worf: As far as their departures in dealing with the board: What did that teach you about that?

Winston: One of the things that that taught me was the importance of always communicating with the school board.

Worf: Do you think the public deserves to know the allegations against Wilcox that prompted a suspension?

Winston: Well, that's a question that I can't answer. That's a board matter, and I want to stay focused on the things that are within my purview, and that's educating all students well.

Worf: So, how do you start moving forward as far as restoring trust in CMS after you've had these departures with no explanation?

Winston: That's a great question. One of the things that you will see from my administration and our team in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is a greater sense of transparency. I want to make sure that the public, our families, our staff members understand why we make the decisions we make. We want to make sure that they understand the processes behind those decisions that we make. We believe — I believe — when there's greater transparency people feel more engaged in the district and the work that we do.

Worf: And you have this this departure, of course, hanging over as far as transparency questions. But, I mean, where are areas that you've seen that could have had more transparency in the past that you intend to open up?

Winston: I think I don't want to — because I'm still in the process of listening and hearing from different constituencies, so it may be a little bit premature. I'm happy to come back and talk more specifics. But in terms of transparency, I think overall there is a need for greater transparency in public education as a whole. We want to make sure that people understand why we are doing the things that we do.

Worf: But you know this district so well. Shouldn't you already know these areas where we should bring more clarity to?

Winston: You're absolutely right. Let me give you one example. We have a process for selecting principals — new principals — in the district. And I think it's important that the public understands that process. I think it's important that families understand what that process looks like: Who makes the recommendations, who ultimately makes the decision, if it's an internal transfer, if it's an external person coming into the district. I think it would behoove us to just make sure that everyone understands that process.

Worf: What are your top priorities now?

Winston: My top priorities are to move this district forward. It's a district that I love and care for tremendously. We have a strong strategic plan in place. My immediate focus is making sure that we have a successful opening of schools on Aug. 26.