In the last six months, I have had the privilege of hearing two school administrators address constituents regarding their principles, their goals and their ambitions: in April, Erskine Bowles delivered his inaugural address as the 16th president of the University of North Carolina (UNC) system; and in August, Dr. Peter Gorman introduced himself to the Charlotte Rotary Club as the new superintendent of the Charlotte Mecklenburg School system (CMS).
In our interview this month with Erskine Bowles, he expands on his inaugural address demonstrating his commitment and facing up to the challenges he confronts in his administration. Having grown up in North Carolina and attended UNC, Erskine has a tremendous advantage knowing the state and its people. He committed his first 100 days to listening and learning. It is clear from his presentation that we must improve our school systems dramatically on all levels.
Dr. Gorman is brand new to Charlotte having assumed his position only two months ago. Having working previously in Florida and California, he brings experience and education pertinent to the task of leading CMS. In his address, he provided a well-balanced overview of himself and the school district as he sees it, articulating three simple tests that he applies to all of his school programs: Are they sound educationally? Are they good for kids? Are they fiscally responsible? He has also committed his first 100 days to learn about the schools, the community and what the public has to say.
Given his extremely political position, the new superintendent is walking a straight and narrow path, emphasizing his interest in learning about CMS, its promise and potential. It was too soon for him to layout a set of plans and ambitions. He did, however, remind people that, “There is value in compromise,” and that, “We have got to get all working together.”
In his remarks, Gorman described Judge Manning as “brilliant” for having been able to force so much change without having issued a ruling, prompting change through statements, letters and press conferences. Gorman did say that CMS must “step up to the plate” and focus seriously on ensuring good results in its high schools.
As a new superintendent, I would expect Dr. Gorman to be cautious and not promise more than he can deliver. I would also expect him to demonstrate support and enthusiasm for projects already underway that have potential to improve our schools, as well as a desire to pursue every potential project that might offer promise to our failing high schools.
We know that Charlotte has low performing high schools that are not working. Most recently Judge Manning threatened to close Garinger, Waddell, West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg high schools. He ultimately opted not to close them, commenting that strategies at each of those schools appear to be moving in the right direction. Among those changes, Garinger is being broken into two smaller schools and new leadership has been provided at the other schools.
Within the next year, it will be important for Dr. Gorman to step up to these challenges with his own set of recommendations for change and improvement. At that point, we will learn what kind of leader he chooses to be. What will be his analysis of the problems? What solutions will he propose and what risks will he take? What kind of leader and manager will he be?
Leadership is paramount to bringing change that makes a real difference. We have two very capable administrators guiding our schools. In large measure, their success will depend upon their own strength of leadership, level of commitment, and ambition to succeed. Their direction must be clear: their choices of courses to pursue as well as not to pursue must be made with conviction and resolve, so that others can draw strength and commit resources in unity behind them. The future of our students’ education and eventually our own economy will reflect how well we have been able to coalesce common ambitions and plans for execution.