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February 2009
Obsessed with Achievement
By Ellison Clary
 He presides over one of the nation’s largest public school systems, but Dr. Peter Gorman employs a simple measure of success.

     Did Susie have a good day at school?

     The superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) calls that a performance referendum “that goes on every day in every one of our homes.” Parents say to him most frequently, “All I want you to do is match my child’s needs and help them grow educationally.”

     Gorman believes the answer to that simple question is positive more often for the 137,000 students in Pre-K through 12th grade. With 174 schools, CMS ranks in the top 25 in size.


The Pace of Improvement

     “For the National Assessment of Education Progress, the nation’s report card, we’re the highest scoring large system with an urban core in the nation,” he says. “For our SAT scores, we’ve come from being 17 points behind the state to being equal with the state.”

     But he quickly voices frustration that academic achievement isn’t improving fast enough. “Every student should have that minimum one year’s growth in one year’s time,” he says. “Understand you’ve got to have that growth happen exponentially for some kids to catch up.”

     By example, he says, a seventh-grader who tests at second-grade levels can’t close the gap by growing 1.1 grades a year.

The pace of improvement seems an obsession for Gorman, who took the top job at CMS in mid-2006 and who aspires to lead it for at least a decade.

     Perhaps his biggest obstacle is funding, particularly in recessionary times. As he participates in a this interview, he has recently announced budget cuts from a state mandate to pare $5.3 million in funds it provides to the system’s $1.2 billion budget.

That’s only .75 percent of the state allocation, says Gorman, adding he wants to make initial cuts as painless as possible.

     Then he mentions a letter from Harry Jones, Mecklenburg County manager, asking him what a 5 percent reduction in state and county money would mean.

“That’ll be $17.5 million,” Gorman calculates. “Just to offer the same services next year, our county piece will need to go up $20 million. We’re opening six new schools next year. We have the average inflationary costs like everyone else.”

     Since few want less money to impact the system’s 19,000 employees or to spark cutbacks at schools, the system must operate more efficiently. Gorman believes that is happening.

     Though the system includes more than 20 million square feet of space, compared to 8.5 million in 1985, it employs a smaller maintenance staff today. Maintenance people simply work smarter, he says.

     He’s proud of a reduction in the cost to build a new school—from $136 to $132 per square foot. Meanwhile, the system is paying more attention to constructing schools with environmentally friendly precepts such as emphasizing natural light and using renewable materials.

     CMS is on its way to reducing mobile classrooms by 15 percent by 2011, mainly by opening new schools. That pace is sustainable, Gorman says, as long as sales of bonds in the $516 million issue voters approved in 2007 remain on track.

     “We’ve not raised our meal prices for our students’ lunches in eight years,” he adds. “Yet we had a $12 million surplus last year. And in eight years, food and production costs have gone up, yet the meals per employee produced have gone up to balance that.”


Hard Times Impact Goals

     Still, Gorman admits that hard financial times will have an impact on seven ambitious goals he set in late 2006. Their achievement target was 2010.

     “We’ve decided we’re going to hunker down on the first two,” he says. Those are increasing student learning and building a more effective instructional staff.

     He’s quick to add that, even with budget constraints, the other five goals that include an emphasis on safe and orderly schools must receive some attention. If violent campus incidents scare parents and students, for instance, then learning is likely to suffer.

The system’s quality of teaching is improving, Gorman says, for several reasons.            Recruiting and hiring has been enhanced by the economic bind that has hit the Midwest and Northeast harder than the Carolinas. “We’ve found more teachers coming to us,” he says. “Our volume has increased and our quality has increased.”

     Better principals are also a factor, says Gorman, who has replaced a quarter of those he inherited and has another 40 retirement-eligible.

     “I’ve never seen a great school with a poor principal,” Gorman maintains. “Great schools have great principals.”

     Early on, CMS negotiated with Winthrop University to tailor a graduate school curriculum that leads to a master’s in school administration. It accepts 25 top teachers each year.

     In December, CMS won a partnership with New Leaders for New Schools, a nationally recognized non-profit that helps educators and non-educators alike become successful principals in high-need schools. Those chosen must have some classroom experience, but can come from non-profits, corporations or the military, as well as from school systems.

     “We’ve got a lot of vacancies coming up,” Gorman says. “I want the best group of folks.”

     Gorman calls CMS morale good but not great. He lists several factors.Among them, society doesn’t hold teachers in the esteem they once enjoyed, and some Charlotte area residents view the public system as dysfunctional. Difficult economic times mean a teacher’s spouse may be concerned about a career, possibly with a bank that is trimming payroll.

     Still, many teachers and principals believe they are doing what they should be doing, he says.

     He thinks CMS is building community faith in its performance. “I believe in choice for parents,” Gorman professes. “I want us to be good enough that parents consider us. In the majority of cases, I think they do.”


No Child Left Unimproved

     Still, he recognizes that numbers point to a preponderance of students from poverty-level homes.

     “We’re up to 48 percent free and reduced-price lunch,” he says, “yet the county is in the 20s for percentage that live in poverty. That tells me we’re losing market share in areas that are less-impoverished.

     “I don’t have a concern about teaching kids in poverty,” he continues. “But we should more closely mirror the community.”

     What does concern Gorman are newly minted teachers who aren’t equipped for special challenges of children living in poverty. “We’ve got kids who go home and don’t have dinner,” Gorman says. “People just aren’t prepared for that.”

     Students’ racial breakdown is 41.8 percent African-American, 33.7 percent Caucasian and 15.5 percent Hispanic. Some schools are easily identifiable by race.

     Gorman cites a strong push for neighborhood schools accompanied by a robust desire for diversity in classrooms. He says he participates regularly in discussions about how to balance both.

     Gorman is friends with Arne Duncan, the former Chicago Public Schools superintendent who is President Obama’s secretary of education. He believes an early hurdle for Duncan is reauthorization of the “No Child Left Behind” program.

     Calling himself a program advocate, Gorman explains what he calls his “biggest beef” with it: The program mandates a child should read on the seventh-grade level if he or she is in the seventh grade. But it doesn’t take into account dramatic improvement, such as with a student who begins seventh grade at a second-grade reading level and, during the year, improves to mid-year sixth grade.

     By a “No Child Left Behind” measure, West Charlotte High School Principal John Modest’s widely recognized academic improvement efforts are classified as a failure, even though he has brought the school from 39 percent of students performing on grade level to 61 percent.

     Gorman recently received encouragement on the performance of West Charlotte High from an unlikely source. Superior Court Judge Howard Manning, who in 2005 threatened to close West Charlotte and three other low-performing CMS high schools, dialed Gorman’s cell phone with praise.

     “He told me how proud he was of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,” Gorman smiles. “He in particular cited West Charlotte.”


Direction Early On

     Gorman decided in college he wanted to be an educator. He rose through the secondary education ranks from elementary teacher to superintendent of the Tustin (Cal.) Unified School District with 20,000 students. He and wife Sue, whom he met at Michigan State University, decided they wanted to be involved with a large system. They visited both Charlotte and Las Vegas and chose Charlotte.

     He calls his parents Dave and Joyce Gorman major influences as he was growing up in Dearborn, Mich., the middle of three brothers. His dad, a Ford Motor Company executive, emphasized options and choices.

     “If you make decisions and leave yourself options,” his father told him, “you control which direction you go.”

     A strong mentor of Gorman’s is Tim Quinn, founder and president of Michigan Leadership Institute. Quinn also is managing director of The Broad Center for the Management of School Systems and the national Broad Urban Superintendents Academy. Gorman calls Quinn often to sound out ideas.

     “What I really like is, he never tells me anything,” Gorman says of Quinn. “He asks me questions to help me find the path on my own.”

Quinn succinctly lists Gorman’s attributes as native intellect, integrity as a human being, and passion for serving kids.

     “He takes a business-like approach to an organization that doesn’t customarily run like one,” Quinn adds. “The work he has initiated in terms of system-wide accountability in Charlotte is as good as any I’ve seen around the country, and I’ve been really interested in that.”

      “We tell folks we’ve got to deliver our message with clarity, context and candor,” Gorman says. He mentions the December reports customized for each school and sent to all parents. “We’re proud of the progress reports for the majority of our schools,” he says.

At 44, Gorman plans to run CMS for years to come. Once 9-year-old daughter Katie completes high school in CMS, he might make a change. Meanwhile, an often-fractious school board could sack him with severance most anytime.

     Another way he could leave is if Education Secretary Duncan invited him to Washington, a request he would consider. “Arne’s not asked,” he quickly adds.

     Gorman wants to stay in Charlotte long enough to see if measures he’s initiated generate lasting positive results. “You don’t get to call anything a success until you know when you’re gone, it sticks around,” he says.

     “We made a lot of promises,” he adds, citing the campaign for the successful bond issue of 2007. For the inevitable next bond drive, the CMS goal is to campaign on “Promises made, promises kept,” he says.

     Ending his interview, Gorman adds a last sentiment. “I don’t think this job is doable for a person who has a family without the complete support of their family,” he says. “My family makes sacrifices, and they do it willingly, and I couldn’t do my job without Sue and Katie.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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