Freedom and Flexibility

Strategic Plan Initiative

CMS encourages more innovation by giving principals greater freedom
Strategic Plan Initiative puts more power in hands of principals

Focused on improving classroom instruction and student learning, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is giving principals more say in managing their schools. The change will allow principals to tailor education and school management to meet the needs of each school’s students.

“The principal at each school knows that school best,” CMS Superintendent Peter C. Gorman said. “Placing the decision-making closer to the classroom and holding principals accountable for results is the best way to increase our student achievement.”

Part of the district’s commitment to decentralization, it represents a major shift for CMS, which has tightly managed instruction for several years, especially at elementary schools.

As part of the plan, all CMS principals will be able to choose whether to use the district-sponsored behavior management system or another approach.

“Everyone still has to meet the same standard,” said Dr. Gorman. “The code of conduct remains the same. What principals can change is how they make sure students know, understand and meet those standards.”

Principals of FOCUS elementary schools will get additional freedom to manage class sizes to meet student needs in grades K-3, and will no longer be locked into a rigid 16-1 student-teacher ratio.

Another 48 principals will get more freedom and flexibility in managing teaching and learning at their schools.

For example, a principal with freedom and flexibility may choose to group some classes by gender or use teacher-developed tests to see how students are learning rather than district assessments.

At a high school, a principal may change the district-mandated course sequence if students seem to need more or less time learning a particular concept or subject. Other principals may use the freedom to opt out of district-sponsored professional development offerings, planning school-based workshops designed to meet the unique needs of their teachers or students instead.

All schools will continue to follow the state-mandated curriculum, school board policies and laws. Principals with freedom and flexibility also must adhere to the state’s testing program; all elementary schools must use the district’s reading program, Imagine It (formerly Open Court).

The 48 principals chosen for the first phase of the new program were selected based on principal experience and students’ academic growth during the last two years, when that data was available.

Principals had to have more than two years of experience and their students had to demonstrate more than one year’s worth of learning on state tests. The final selections were made by Dr. Gorman.

The 48 principals lead schools that include 26 elementary, 10 middle and 12 high schools; 15 lead FOCUS or high poverty schools. Principals in every learning community were selected.

“We wanted to start with objective criteria and principals who have a proven track record of success in driving student achievement forward,” said Dr. Gorman. “There are great principals included in this group of 48; there are great principals who aren’t included in this group.”

The move toward greater freedom and flexibility follows a decision made by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education two years ago as part of its Theory of Action, a plan to reform and decentralize the district and give schools greater decision-making authority.

This process began earlier this school year, when the district decentralized into seven learning communities. Six are defined by geographic areas. A seventh, the Achievement Zone, focuses on giving struggling schools the support and resources they need to succeed. Each learning community is led by an area superintendent; each school’s principal reports to an area superintendent.

Placing more decision-making power with principals will not require additional funding, at least during year one, CMS said. Instead, principals will have more freedom in using the money and resources they have now.

“We will learn a lot from watching how these 48 principals manage their schools with increased authority to make decisions,” Dr. Gorman said. “We’ll use that knowledge to shape how we gradually extend broader authority to every principal in CMS.”