Like a chameleon, Dr. Curtis Carroll adapted many times in his 36 years as an educator. He worked as a teacher and administrator in his native Flint, Mich., and taught middle school social studies in Evanston, Ill. In his 28 years with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, he held several of the district's highest-profile jobs. Now, as the principal of Vance High, he will soon walk the halls for the last time.
"The one constant in public education is change," Dr. Carroll said. "I have no complaints. I have been able to do the things I've wanted to do, and I've worked with my team to make every interaction count."
To understand where it all started, you must take a step back.
Dr. Carroll's years at Flint Northern High had two defining moments — he realized he wanted to become an educator and he met the girl who would become his wife.
"Watching my principal Marvin Pryor's leadership motivated me. He attended every extracurricular activity. He always encouraged everyone to be their best. His motto was, 'Excellence is no accident. Vikings don't take second,'" he said. "One day, I walked over to him and told him I was going to take his job."
As the youngest of five children, Dr. Carroll was not afraid to speak his mind and he was a bit mischievous.
"I was a good student, but when I got in a group, I couldn't stop talking. It got me in trouble a time or two," he said. "I learned very quickly that working with my team was smarter than working as an individual. That lesson has benefited me greatly in all areas of my life."
During his time at Michigan State University, he saw many of his values represented in the school community.
"In 1978, Michigan State was ahead of the times. Every dorm had a minority aid to help students get acclimated to college life. Many minority students had never had a relative attend college before," he said. "I grew up in an environment where equity was important, and the work I've done over the years has focused on improving diversity, equity and inclusion."
Dr. Carroll started in CMS in 1993, working as an assistant principal at West Mecklenburg High and McClintock Middle. In 1997, he became principal at McClintock, then moved to Harding University High as principal in 1999. He accepted a director's position with Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., in 2006. However, he returned to CMS in 2007 as an area superintendent overseeing 11 low-performing schools in the Achievement Zone. The zone was designed to accelerate the school district's efforts to improve academic outcomes for the students who attended schools within the zone.
In that capacity, he worked with the Parthenon Group, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Harvard University to increase achievement. During his tenure, proficiency rates on state tests rose 22 percent at West Charlotte, 24 percent at West Meck and 28 percent at Wilson Middle. He also increased the number of schools meeting federal Adequate Yearly Progress targets.
"Working with the Parthenon Group was a break from the norm. They helped me build a business plan and the Achievement Zone ran like a business. We had on-site data analysis to closely monitor schools' progress," he said. "I also had a great team of people who believed in the work so all I had to do was keep it on the rails."
In 2010, there was a zone realignment and Dr. Carroll was named principal of Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology. Four years later, he became the learning community superintendent for the West Learning Community. The common denominator in every transition he has made is his belief that there are no bad students, every student is gifted, and students' voices are powerful and should be heard.
Vance High seniors Jazmine Derouillere and Jaime Halton describe him as inspirational, caring, funny and generous. Jazmine transferred to the school last year. She said Dr. Carroll is someone who takes the time to know every student, whether they are a straight-A student or a student who's been sent to his office. She said his goal isn't to congratulate or punish students, but rather to elevate them and give hope to everyone. Jaime applied to Tulane University and later found out Dr. Carroll had written a letter of recommendation for him.
"I've known Dr. Carroll since elementary school because he was the principal at Berry when my sister went there and now he is my principal. He makes us feel like we matter," said Allison Taylor, a junior. "He also supports every sport and activity at the school. He's a great one and the next person will have some big shoes to fill."
Vance teacher Michael McGean said Dr. Carroll's leadership has taught him to value his students' voices and helped revitalize the school's Executive Class Council, the governing student body. Less than a dozen students were participating; this year, they have 55 11th- and 12th-graders actively involved.
"When you change the culture, you change the student and staff expectations," said Dr. Carroll. "Students don't need people to feel sorry for them, they need to be given opportunities. I throw them into the deep end but provide a safety net. I'd rather see them struggle through a challenging course than have an idle mind."
A personal change led to his decision to retire this February. Tonya Carroll, his wife of 32 years, lost her fight against breast cancer in June 2019. They'd received her diagnosis 12 years ago. As soon as they left the doctor's office, they made a plan to eat right, exercise and be spiritually sound and emotionally stable so she could get healthy. She was in remission for eight years until her relapse.
"I met Tonya in 1977 and when I first saw her, I told her I was going to marry her," he said. "We were both athletes, but she was better than me. I played basketball and she ran track. She competed in the 1984 Olympic trials in L.A. and finished top six in hurdles. She was brilliant and motivated, too. When I was the principal at Harding, she owned the Medicine Shoppe Pharmacy on West Boulevard. Tonya always loved helping others."
Dr. Carroll said family, friends, current and former colleagues and students have shown him and his family so much love during this time. Now, he plans to rest and relax.
"I've worked for many superintendents and have learned from each of them," he said. "I feel good about our current superintendent. He respects everyone and will lead the district to the next phase. It's the best way to end my career, leaving it in good hands."