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February 2006
Debunking the Myth
By Susanne Deitzel

There is no denying it. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) is a newsmaker; it has been for decades.

First there was the high-profile 1971 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which upheld court-ordered busing to achieve desegregation. Two decades later, the debate resurfaced creating the genesis of the CMS School Choice Assignment Plan. The plan, designed by then Superintendent Dr. Eric Smith, its incumbent challenges, and Dr. Smith’s abrupt departure in 2002, generated a lot of attention with which his successor Dr. James Pughsley would have to contend.

Dr. Pughsley retired in April of last year after an embattled tenure mired in muddled assignment logistics, busing complaints, rapidly overcrowding schools and the perception of inadequate student performance. Pughley’s well-regarded, yet scrupulously tight-lipped leadership has been followed by that of CMS Interim Superintendent, Frances Haithcock.

Engaging and practical, Haithcock continues to carry the cross of CMS leadership with what she calls “missionary zeal.” Vexed by the same problems of past leaders – student performance data, a cataclysmically accelerating student population, an endless quest for capital resources, discipline crises, and the threat of parental coup d’etats – Haithcock’s last eight months have been a wild ride.

The combination of these factors have provided parents and taxpayers a veritable ‘all-you can-eat’ complaint buffet, and it appears the public is plenty hungry. The CMS system is a regular feature story in just about any publication in Charlotte, and when the plat du jour isn’t the district’s problems, it’s a play-by-play of local school board meetings slathered with petty bickering and partisan shots.

Yet, when Haithcock is given the opportunity to speak, the dust surrounding CMS seems to settle and the view becomes clearer and rosier than one would have imagined. In fact, Haithcock, who cut her career teeth as a teacher, has since seen the view from just about every position in the educational field. She is deft at splitting the issues’ wheat from the politics’ chaff, and on a good day, makes the impossible seem possible.


Running the Gauntlet

To be sure, Haithcock is no greenhorn in the education game.

She began teaching in Florida at the age of twenty, after graduating from UNC-Greensboro. She served as a guidance director, an assistant principal, a principal, and an area superintendent, before being elevated to the position of deputy superintendent of educational services for Florida’s Broward County (Fort Lauderdale) schools, presently the nation’s sixth largest school district.

Her position was parallel to an opening in CMS, then headed by Dr. Eric Smith, who was interested in having Haithcock interview. It was an offer she almost refused out of hand, but she was finally cajoled into making a Saturday trip to the Queen City.

As Haithcock tells it, Smith was every bit the academic savant. “During our conversation, I kept thinking, ‘I want to work with this man.’ I saw more academic leadership in him than I had ever seen in a superintendent. You could instantly tell that not only were his heart, soul and mind completely invested in his mission – which was 100 percent about educating children – but that his level of expertise was highly impressive.”

One gets the same sense about Haithcock. She runs the gauntlet laid by Smith and Pughsley like a champ, but does so with her own savoir-faire. If Smith’s aura was academic, and Pughley’s administrative, then Haithcock’s could perhaps be called communicative. By attempting to bridge the gaps between boardroom and classroom, administration and academia, taxpayer and parent, she hopes to get things accomplished by achieving a reasonable level of consensus.

There are certainly plenty of naysayers as to whether this can be accomplished. Furor over complicated and divisive issues hit its climax at the polls when a $427 million school bond initiative was voted down in November 2005. Pundits speculate that taxpayers want more accountability over school spending.

But what Frances Haithcock is trying to accomplish appears to be what the community is asking for: a voice in the future of its schools.


Engaging the Community

Haithcock has made concerted efforts to engage communities. The findings of a newly assembled Citizens’ Task Force and subsequent meetings between Haithcock and Mecklenburg County Commissioner Bill James will further facilitate this.

The task force has been charged with entering various communities, soliciting feedback, and hopefully answering questions left lingering after the bond failure.

Says Haithcock, “We need to engage the community to determine what a school capital package needs to look like. How much do we want for growth, for renovation? What sources do we want to use to fund it – sales tax, impact fees… bonds? How do we best go about accommodating a capital package?”

She adds, “We also need to do a better job at explaining our solutions and the data we have collected, as well as demonstrating that these decisions affect everybody in the economic region. We have to isolate the facts and present them clearly to dispel the idea, once and for all, that this is a failing school system.”

Sometimes a clear presentation of the facts seems pretty hard to come by. The press is rife with contradictions; one metric has school scores down, another finds them up; some focus upon particular socioeconomic groups, some don’t; some rate high schools, others elementary schools. But Haithcock says, “There is blatant data that CMS is teaching kids at a higher level every year than the other large districts, states and entities we are compared with on a national level.”

She adds, “People from outside the district visit us almost every week to figure out how we are doing so well and remark that they don’t understand why Charlotte doesn’t embrace its school system.”

Reports from outside the CMS fishbowl appear to corroborate this sentiment. The Wall Street Journal, “How Charlotte Tops Big Cities in School Tests,” Newsweek magazine, “100 Best High Schools in America List” and Forbes magazine, “The Best Education in the Biggest Cities,” included CMS in their reportage. Recently, results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) also showed that CMS outranked all nine other urban school districts that participated in the assessment.

That kind of coverage can’t be smoke and mirrors. So, what is the public missing?


Scores, Salaries, Global Advantage

One thing is obvious. Personality appears to be superseding principle with regard to major players on the CMS stage. Local press abounds with school board infighting that leaves little room or interest for printing the latest round of test scores.

Plus, taxpayers without children and without exposure to the school system simply don’t have the window through which to view the bang for their buck.

Haithcock explains, “Of people with children in school, 95 percent are happy with that school. However, we believe that those who don’t have access to what the principals and teachers are doing at the school level are easily misled into believing the system is failing.”

The overriding objective, as Haithcock sees it, isn’t one to be solved by discussions involving systems and analyses. She says it is rather “attracting, retaining and incenting quality educators to CMS.”

Competitors like Atlanta, and other districts with the size and characteristics of CMS in Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee, all pay higher salaries for teachers. Elaborates Haithcock, “I have a district level science coordinator with a Ph.D. who could go to a South Carolina classroom tomorrow and make $10,000 more than she makes in her position here.”

Unfortunately, the competition doesn’t stop in our backyards either. Haithcock says, whether we have kids in school or not, we should all be concerned about the education these students are receiving. That, if we fall behind globally in education, we fall behind globally, period.

“Gone are the days when labor alone can sustain a region. Skills are the name of the game, and the only way to have a healthy economy is to have educated people who can power its economic engines,” says Haithcock.

She continues, “I have observed classrooms in China and Germany, and studied Japan’s structure. In these countries the number one priority for children is education, and it is a community concern. Since education is prescribed by the government, they don’t have a choice about systems of implementation, placing all emphasis on the quality of the lessons that are being taught. Teachers have the luxury of time to find and perfect the best way to teach a concept, and then students spend much more time learning those concepts.”

Average attendance for schools in these countries is 220 days of school, as opposed to the U.S. average of 180. In addition, the average school day in these countries is 8.5 hours, as opposed to the 5.5 hours in the U.S., and well-performing students often attend additional tutorials on the weekend voluntarily. Not surprisingly in these countries, teacher pay is proportionately higher and teaching is regarded more highly than many other professions.

In the U.S., educational freedom includes developing efficient systems to implement that education. To address those concerns, a Charlotte’s Citizen Task Force was assembled with $500,000 of corporate money as well as the business acumen and political largess of figures such as Cathy Bessant of Bank of America, former Charlotte mayor and architect Harvey Gantt, Krista Tillman of Bell South, and Michael Tarwater of Carolinas Health Care System, to assess the system of implementation of education, releasing an initial report in mid-December to a surprisingly thoughtful public and professional response.


Task At Hand

So what does Frances Haithcock have to say about the task force, its corporate leadership, and its findings to improve the current situation at CMS?

“I think that the task force and its findings are a positive development that will help us connect with the community and engage it in the future of the school district. It has opened an avenue for discussions that can lead us where we need to be.” She adds, “But we need to be careful. Each decision should be well-studied, and not an attempt to ‘fix the things that ain’t broke.’”

By the beginning of the 2006-2007 school year, Haithcock would like to see a more competitive plan to attract and retain quality teachers, and to continue new programs offering teachers ample opportunity for lesson building. She also hopes to see positive trends in high school test scores to demonstrate that the changes CMS has implemented are working. And, she hopes that the CMS school board will recognize the pivotal impact of its public discourse, and that communities will understand the urgency of the concerns that the school board is working to address, including the very visible capital concerns on the table.

Cumulatively, what Frances Haithcock asks is that everybody throws their hat into the ring for CMS progress. Haithcock assures that she will remain committed in the interim post through its term ending in June 2006. In the meantime, the school board is making progress in its formal superintendent search process.

Will Haithcock still be in the game after June? Only time will tell. She is waiting to see if the CMS huddle evolves into a game plan where she feels her skills and perspective still make her a valuable player.

Regardless, it is evident that this is one championship none of us can afford to lose. Early returns on Haithcock credit her for her openness and willingness to listen, and for overhauling discipline policies and giving high schools more flexibility. In the opinion of at least one school  board member, Joe White, “She has done everything that the people in this community have hollered that they wanted.”


Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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