How One District Fixed Its Failing Schools

America's Best High Schools: The Top 20 Jetta Productions-Getty Images

A new principal with no experience seems an odd choice to turn around a long-failing school. But that's exactly whom most superintendents around the country end up hiring—largely because no one else applies for what seems like a thankless job. It's no surprise that most don't succeed. The obvious solution, concluded Peter Gorman, the school superintendent in Charlotte, N.C., was to persuade skilled educators to take on these rescue missions. But how could he get the district's most effective principals, already ensconced in successful schools, to agree to transfers to the worst-performing ones? And what about the inevitable howl of protest from the communities they'd have to leave behind?

The answer is an ingenious school-turnaround strategy that is garnering praise from education-reform advocates like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Aspen Institute. It's also giving the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district a serious shot at winning the coveted $2 million Broad Prize for Urban Education later this month.

Since the passage of George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind legislation in 2001, school districts have been under intense pressure to identify and overhaul failing schools. This year the Obama administration raised the stakes by giving states a record $3.5 billion—about seven times the previous amount—to transform the nation's 5,000 worst schools. In addition, winners of the administration's Race to the Top school-reform competition—including North Carolina—need to overhaul their bottom 5 percent to secure their full share of the $4.3 billion in prize money. (North Carolina should get $400 million.)

For years, districts have tried to fix their worst schools by pouring more money into them, hiring self-styled turnaround specialists, or "reconstituting" schools by firing the entire staff and starting over. But the results have been more miss than hit. When Gorman arrived in 2006 to take over Charlotte-Mecklenburg's 176 schools, a state superior-court judge had recently complained that the system was so troubled that four high schools were guilty of "academic genocide."

Gorman decided he needed a new approach. He considered simply transferring his best principals to his most challenging schools, but Yale economics professor Justine Hastings talked him out of it. "She told me that if I forced people to switch jobs, I would see the performance of some dip, while others would find another job." So Gorman decided to try a "pull" strategy—a way to entice principals to view these transfers as a desired challenge. Starting in 2008, with great fanfare, Gorman announced a new annual districtwide competition to identify the most effective principals. Winners of the "Strategic Staffing Initiative" would be chosen based on hard data like the growth in their students' achievement scores rather than how long they'd served or how well their school was regarded.

Before announcing the winners to the TV cameras, however, the persuasive Gorman met privately with the principals and made them an offer he hoped they wouldn't refuse: what he billed as the "opportunity" to turn around one of the district's failing schools. As part of the three-year deal, they'd receive a 10 percent raise and more freedom from district rules. They would also get the chance to pick an eight-person transformation team—each of whom would get a raise, too. The winning principals could also "transfer out" up to five teachers from their new school, including obstructionists, underperformers, and leaders of what principals call "the toxic lunchroom." In exchange, Gorman said, "we expected them to transform the culture of the school to one in which high academic achievement is expected and achieved."

Amazingly, every winner accepted the challenge. "It turns out people appreciate being recognized as being excellent at what they do," Gorman says. "The program sold itself." The results were startling, too. By late spring 2009, a year after the initiative started, student proficiency on the state test had risen in all seven of the original SSI schools, with some school scores rising by more than 20 points, a remarkable achievement. Equally surprising, scores also rose in the second group of SSI schools, which were launched only four months before the tests were administered.

Among the most effective was principal Suzanne Gimenez. After two years at high-poverty Devonshire Elementary, she has boosted the reading score of her Hispanic students by 30 points and her school's math score by 33 points. Her secrets? Posting a chart to track the performance of every student, plus instilling more accountability and discipline. Years of experience had taught her that "children of poverty perform better with a lot of structure," she says. "Many of them don't know where they're going to get dinner or sleep. School needs to be the same for them every day."

The $3 million program is now in its third year and operating in 20 schools; so far, no one has turned down Gorman's "prize." "It's quite amazing," says Ann Clark, the district's chief academic officer. "We now have principals approach us and ask, 'Why wasn't I chosen?' " And the district is getting inquiries about the program from reform-minded superintendents all over the country.

What about the parents and kids these principals left behind? The blowback Gorman feared never happened. Families were supportive when Steve Hall, one of the first winners, moved from one of Charlotte's wealthier schools. "I think they could see that I was excited about this opportunity, that this was where my heart was," says Hall. "I told them that I considered this to be one of the most moral and ethical things I'd ever done in my life." And he soon realized that his students saw it the same way. "Some of them stopped by to wish me luck," he says. "One kid said, 'I'm proud of you.' " To principals like Hall, there is no higher praise.