A Challenging Start Makes Way for Smooth Run
“People run into me at the grocery store...and say, ‘Thank you for what you do. I don’t have kids in school, but I’m glad you’re here. I know you have a really tough job.’ ”
Those are the kind words Nancy J. McGinley hears from strangers, today, in what she calls the “big, small town” of Charleston, S.C. But they’re a far cry from the frigid reception she felt starting in 2007, during her first few years as superintendent of the expansive, racially and socio-economically diverse Charleston County (S.C.) School District (CCSD).
“Charleston has had a notoriously difficult school board that has made [things] very contentious,” says McGinley.
She’s talking in particular about a 2008 incident splattered across the front page of the Charleston Post and Courier and other local media. Five school board members told the Courier that another member—angry that an item of his might not make the next meeting’s agenda—told a district office employee that he had "gotten rid of" the previous superintendent, Maria Goodloe-Johnson, and would "get rid of another," meaning McGinley.
“I’m the longest-running superintendent they have had because Charleston is a place where superintendents haven’t lasted,” says McGinley, adding that some previous board members bullied the school chiefs. “The previous superintendent would get emails from board members written at 2 a.m., directing her to do things. That’s the kind of nonsense that drives people away.”
The rogue board member’s nasty comments (to which he admitted in a follow-up newspaper article) did the opposite of what he might have wanted: McGinley says that it galvanized her relationship with several members who believed in her and wanted to work with her, not against her. “We went on to make significant progress,” she says.
Now, the school board, with a few new members, is more cohesive and has come to have a greater intolerance of bullying others. And she praises the new board cohesion and community support for new initiatives that she spearheaded that led to improvements such as the district’s recent best-ever South Carolina State Department of Education Report Card ratings two years ago.
In 2010-2011 school year, the district received a “Good” Absolute Rating for its school performance exceeding the standards for progress according to the state’s “2020 SC Performance Vision,” and an “Excellent” Growth Rating for the district’s substantial improvement in the achievement of historically underachieving groups of students.
But others found that McGinley was leading the way and behind the successes, and that she was just being modest. “At the onset, it was clear that [McGinley’s] work to create consistent curriculum standards and high expectations were one of her great strengths, which she has continued to model to this day,” says Chris Fraser, chair of the school board.
Since she set foot in the job more than five years ago, McGinley has since restructured the associate superintendents’ roles; replaced most principals; and helped craft “Vision 2016”—the district’s five-year blueprint for stronger literacy, better technology, and more teacher accountability. “The stability I’ve brought has been positive,” McGinley admits.
Before being appointed superintendent in 2007, from 2004-2007 McGinley was Charleston schools’ chief academic officer in charge of creating core curriculum and benchmark testing. When she became superintendent, CCSD had 23 underperforming schools labeled “At Risk,” and didn’t meet the state’s standards for progress toward the 2020 SC Performance Vision.
So McGinley acted to create stronger leadership at the school level to reverse the trend. “I deliberately set out to replace anybody I did not think was a good principal,” she says, believing that great principals develop, motivate, and attract effective teachers, while ineffective principals have the opposite effect.
In five years, 80 percent of Charleston’s school principals were new. The renewed focus on principals leading effective teachers brought successes. In 2007, the percentage of ninth graders reading at a fourth-grade level was 21 percent. In 2011, it was only 13 percent. And by 2011, the district’s at-risk schools were cut to 11. McKinley hopes it will sink to a single digit by the end of this school year.
“Each iteration of the work over the years to move the district forward … has [enabled] the district to recruit and retain outstanding top talent who seek to make a difference in education,” Fraser says. “Each year we have seen gains and improvement in outcomes and also in our ... operational savings,” noting that among other tough financial choices during her superintendency, McGinley closed five low-enrollment, low-performing schools to save money.
Middle Management Restructure
When McGinley took office, there were six associate superintendents to supervise the district’s 80 schools. It’s previous model put elementary, middle, and high schools on each associate’s watch according to geographical areas. Today, one associate superintendent is in charge of each of the elementary schools, the middle schools, and the high schools, and a fourth associate superintendent is head of a 14-school “Innovation Zone,” created to comprise some of the district’s historically struggling schools. They have an overall poverty level of 98 percent. “I wanted associate superintendents who were experts in their level,” McGinley says, noting that, in general, high school superintendents don’t really want to be discussing recess.
By grouping associate superintendents by a school’s age range, they could better focus on that school level’s needs. The change led to salary money saved from restructuring the positions, and most of the Innovation Zone’s schools moving from “At-Risk” to “Average” ratings on the state’s report card.
In spring 2012, “Vision 2016” was announced as the next five-year phase of the district’s strategic plan—Charleston Achieving Excellence. McGinley first launched the Charleston plan in 2007 to strengthen literacy-based learning and teacher effectiveness, innovative schools and systems such as the district’s magnet schools and its Innovation Zone, and communitywide partnerships.
Those partnerships were evident throughout 2011, when 750 community members shared feedback at 10 community engagement meetings held by the district for administrators and the community to share what each side wanted accomplished in the district by 2016.
Vision 2016 builds on Charleston Achieving Excellence to help accelerate student achievement. “In 2007, we said we wanted to raise the graduation rate, but we didn’t say to what level and by when,” recalls McGinley.
With Vision 2016, there are achievement goals paired with annual targets in three areas: third-grade math, English, and language arts; eighth-grade math, English, and language arts; and the high school graduation rate.
From their 2011 success rates, the Charleston district is striving toward the following jumps by 2016:
• Third-grade math: From 70 percent in 2011 to 93 percent in 2016
• Third-grade English/language arts: From 80 percent to 98 percent
• Eighth-grade math: From 69 percent to 82 percent
• Eighth-grade English/language arts: From 69 percent to 85 percent
• High school graduation rate: From 72 percent to 81 percent.
The plan was approved with 66 percent of the community’s vote in May 2012 thanks in large part to McGinley’s “ability to involve and interact with everyone,” says Lisa Herring, the district’s associate superintendent for academic and instructional support.
“She’s masterful in how she leads,” says Herring, who has worked with McGinley for two and a half years. “Her vision cascades out to the community, to businesses, to parents, and she’s very strategic in being clear about goals but inviting [business and community members] into the conversation.”
Fraser says that with Vision 2016, McGinley has “set aggressive targets for education results” and has “embraced an evaluation model for her team that will reflect the objective results that she, the board, and the community expect.”