Take a troubled urban school district with almost two dozen non-performing schools, impoverished students and racial imbalance and what do you get? A recipe for educational disaster?
No. A challenge, says Eric J. Smith, superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina. In 1996, Smith took charge of the 109,000-student school system and quickly started making changes. He centralized management, giving local schools less autonomy. He used Title I money that was paying for remedial elementary programs to fund a new full-day preschool program focused on literacy. He enrolled thousands of high school students in advanced placement courses and he asked for more tax dollars to fund his initiatives.
"We are waging war against those things that get in the way of being successful,'' Smith says. "We can't control where a child comes from, whether it's a house of poverty or affluence, but we can control what happens during the school day."
Smith, who was named Superintendent of the Year by the North Carolina Association of School Administrators and was one of four finalists for the AASA's National Superintendent of the Year in 2001, was so sure he could turn things around in Charlotte that he agreed to cash bonuses based on his performance. The bonuses were tied to four specific goals: increase student achievement, provide safe and orderly schools, increase community collaboration and create effective support networks.
And he has made great progress in achieving them, supporters say.
"He is a quiet storm" says Board of Education Chairman Arthur Griffin Jr. "He's very passionate and emotional when it comes to teaching and the learning process."
Griffin says Smith's philosophy can be summed up in one line. "We can fix it; we can make it work."
To achieve the goals, Smith took some quick-and controversial-steps.
He reduced class sizes from 23 to 16 at elementary schools with high amounts of impoverished students. He used $7 million in Title I funds to start the Bright Beginnings preschool program to serve lower-income students. He laid out a detailed district-wide disciplinary policy, and he pushed for certification so local high schools could teach more advanced placement courses.
Helping Minorities Under his leadership, African-American students have made major strides.
In 1991, only 77 African-American students were enrolled in AP or International Baccalaureate courses. This year, more than 1,200 African-American high school students are enrolled in college-level courses. Reading levels among African-American students have increased 46 percent. The Bright Beginnings program has grown from 200 students to 3,000. And Smith wants to increase that to 4,000-almost half of the preschool students in the district.
"He articulates the needs of students who have been left out,'' Griffin says.
Smith, for example, switched students in the middle of the school year into algebra courses when test results showed they were proficient in their math skills. Two-thirds of the children were African-American.
Because of these efforts, Smith received the top urban educator award from the Council of Great City Schools.
But the achievements have not come cheaply. Charlotte's school budget has grown from $443 million in 1995-96 school year to a proposed $806 million for the 2002-2003 fiscal year. Local funding from Mecklenburg County has increased from $129 million to $275 million.
"Our basic strategy is to be very honest with parents and the community. We started talking about goals and where we were and the gaps we had to fill," Smith says. "I think some people are fearful about talking about the truth. But we found if you lay out the challenge and speak honestly about it, parents and the community generally come along with you."
Fran Silverman, email@example.com, is a freelance writer based in Norwalk, Conn.