Behind the Numbers

Garinger and E.E. Waddell high schools share the problems common to many Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools that draw from largely disadvantaged populations. Well over half of the students at each school eat free or reduced-price lunches. Two out of ten struggle with the English language—double the district average. Just 3 percent classify as “gifted,” a quarter of the norm.

We reviewed test scores, studied reports, and analyzed surveys from several Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t tell the whole story. So we took that data and selected seven schools. Then we dug a little deeper to show the challenges facing local educators.

Garinger and E.E. Waddell high schools share the problems common to many Charlotte-Mecklenburg high schools that draw from largely disadvantaged populations. Well over half of the students at each school eat free or reduced-price lunches. Two out of ten struggle with the English language—double the district average. Just 3 percent classify as “gifted,” a quarter of the norm.

Both schools rank at the bottom of the pack in yearly test scores, and dropout rates are the highest in the district. Teacher turnover is up. Under the new assignment rules, which allow families who can transport their children to enroll them at schools of their choice, Garinger and Waddell have seen an exodus of some of their brightest.

Within the past year, the district has sought remedy with two vastly different tactics.

At Waddell, Principal Stan Frazier took over in November to exact an overhaul. Judging from early results, his extremely involved approach—Frazier takes students to lunch and even addresses them each morning on a closed-circuit television about “establishing a new E.E. Waddell”—is paying off. This after past administrators had been intimidated at a school where gangs have a well-known presence.

Frazier calls it character education: saying kind words, shaking hands, and making students “feel good about themselves.”

“Schools are like islands,” Frazier says. “Each administrator brings their own style. I’m a people person, a troubleshooter. It’s a challenge to work at a place where I see these inner-city kids with troubles the rest of society doesn’t have a clue about.”

Students entering Waddell come from a range of backgrounds, often having grown up in different countries or cultures, or in difficult situations. Frazier recalls a student who complained of having three different fathers, all of whom hated him.

“We say ‘pass this test,’ but we don’t know what they’ve gone through the night before,” Frazier says.

That’s why he says his door is always open, and he hopes a culture based on individual attention and positive reinforcement will prevail at Waddell, from teachers to students and into the community.

A look at the student survey conducted across the district in January, just two months after Frazier arrived, shows a changing morale. Sixty-four percent say they want to stay at Waddell, a 16 percent increase from the previous year and 10 percent more than the district average. More than half say adults at school treat them with respect, compared with about one-third in the past.

In 2005-2006, less than 20 percent of Waddell students said their principal listened to them and knew what was going on in class. Those numbers have skyrocketed to 86 and 52 percent, respectively, both approaching double the district averages.

Frazier received Charlotte’s Principal of the Year honor in June for the second straight year. He won the award at Merry Oaks Elementary last year.

Garinger, meanwhile, has begun initiating strategies to better serve a changing demographic it has struggled to address. Principal Jo Ella Ferrell says her staff wasn’t prepared for an influx of Spanish-speaking students, and, as a result, communication with students and families suffered. Garinger was the only high school in the district classified as “low-performing” in the 2005-2006 state growth and performance report.

This past year, Garinger opened a new school for ninth-graders and will add three more next year as part of a “small schools” program funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Garinger and Waddell will also begin receiving grant money to distribute bonuses and salary supplements to lure and retain top teachers. Students will choose schools based on areas of study, and teaching will revolve around project-based learning with a focus on building relationships.

Ferrell says she welcomes future collaboration with five other principals, who will head the small schools, though she cautions that the program is “not a panacea.” An executive summary of the district budget proposal written in March warns, “While the early indications are promising, it remains to be seen if smaller school environments will boost student achievement.”

Garinger has instituted an accelerated program to encourage strong students to stay, allowing them to take summer classes at Queens University with the option of graduating early or receiving college credit.

Finding room for improvement

At North Mecklenburg High, the problem in the classroom isn’t necessarily with performance. The school’s test scores are about where they should be considering the school has low poverty rates and no dearth of exceptional students. But North Meck placed third in the district in criminal acts per student in the 2005-06 report released in November.

Possession of a controlled substance was reported forty-three times, of alcohol sixteen. There were three assaults on school personnel and eleven weapons possession violations.

“It is what it is,” Principal Joey Burch says of the numbers. Burch is quick to point out that his school is diligent about enforcement and reporting, which may certainly be true. But the largest school in the district clearly has an issue with overcrowding.

There are just six books to every student, compared with fourteen throughout the district. The computer-to-student ratio is also low. With an enrollment that approached 3,140 this past year, sixty-nine mobile classrooms were in use. This means more area to supervise, and more opportunity to sneak away from watchful eyes.

“It’s a big challenge for many, many reasons,” Burch says. “Large crowds affect a lot of things—clean facilities, more people in a confined space. It’s just the nature of the beast.”

That beast has terrorized the local real estate market. An overcrowded high school with high crime problems has been a big turnoff to families interested in moving to the area, according to local broker Bill Balatow. He says families moving across county lines in search of better high schools has “been a trend for some time.”

“You can sell the same house in Iredell for $100,000 more,” Balatow says.

Balatow says population growth has not been addressed in school funding, and he has advocated for the bond proposal that budgets for new schools. North Meck is set to lose 600 students this fall when nearby Mallard Creek High School opens.

Coulwood Middle in Northwest Charlotte needs those bonds to pass. At more than 1,200 students spread out over thirty mobile units, it has done a lot to keep kids safe, receiving a 100 on the most recent safe-schools audit, which evaluates the policies a school has in place to ensure student safety. Despite those high-ranking efforts, Coulwood approached the top of the list in November’s crime report. Principal Robert Folk cites the school’s being overcrowded as the main reason for the distinction between the two reports.

“You’ve got kids on top of each other,” Folk says, noting that this results in more situations where students become upset with each other while heightening the effects of every incident. The student survey—given to seventh-graders, who attend class in Coulwood’s oldest and most crammed building—shows poor numbers across the board, with responses about school facilities and fights standing out.

Making things worse, a new weighted staffing model implemented last school year saw Coulwood lose six positions, with three more losses planned for the fall. Class sizes increased from an average of eighteen students to twenty-four, eliminating Folk’s best pitch for teacher recruitment and retention.

Sara Christiansen taught at Coulwood for eleven years, the last seven in a mobile classroom. Her low-achievement classes averaged fewer than twenty students before jumping to twenty-nine last year, which she calls “a crime.”

“Even with two teachers in the room, it was impossible to address every student’s needs,” Christiansen says. “Underachieving students need lots of personal, one-on-one attention. I was physically unable to give every student what they needed because there were too many of them packed into one class. As a teacher, it takes a lot out of you. As a student, it is really frustrating.”

Christiansen will teach at West Mecklenburg High this year but says crowded classrooms did not drive her from Coulwood (she says she left because the district gives incentives to experienced teachers who move to a challenged high school).

Testing numbers made slight gains at Coulwood this year, and Folk says crime and suspension numbers have gone down. But the school still needs improvement in both areas.

“I’m not trying to hide anything out here,” Folk says. “What I want people to understand is we’re working hard, and we’re going to overcome, but we need support to do that.”

Eastway Middle has taken a number of steps to help students conform and get along, no small task for a school where students speak thirteen different languages. Some are first-generation immigrants who at twelve or thirteen have never learned to stand in line, eat in a cafeteria, or hold a pencil. Eastway reported the highest percentage of criminal acts of all schools in the district in 2005-06, when just 51 percent of its students were at grade level.

“Eastway is a middle school probably like no other,” says principal Nancy Barkemeyer, who has been educating since 1972 and three years ago answered a calling to turn things around here.

She’s working at it. Barkemeyer has instituted everything from school uniforms to a program called “citizen school” to truancy court to help the cause.

Eastway relies heavily on Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in needy schools for one to two years. The young teachers are open minded and driven but must train on the job, notes TFA coordinator Erin Miller.

The presence of teacher mentor Tony Smith is invaluable in this regard. All faculty members must adapt to the needs of Eastway’s diverse population, and Smith helps them develop “whatever needs to be done to have each child be successful.

“I work with teachers on how they teach, not what they teach,” he says.

Smith’s salary is paid by the Christ Episcopal Church on Providence Road. Eastway is the only school in the district with a full-time mentor.


Test scores are only half the battle for a school out to contend with Charlotte’s private sector in attracting students. The end-of-grade test scores at Jay M. Robinson Middle rank among the best in the district, but it’s beyond the classroom where the school really stands out.

Take the recent Science Olympiad competition. Robinson won the state battle before taking second in the nation behind a private school that had collaborated with Princeton professors on weekends.

“We weren’t even competing in our own league,” says Principal Tracey Harrill. Her middle school is one of just fifty-five in the nation deemed a “School to Watch” by the National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. Harrill credits teachers who “don’t just dust off last year’s lesson plan” with keeping Robinson ahead of the curve.

“I really believe in authentic education,” says Janice Ward, coach of the Olympiad team. “When children put their own mark on what they’re doing, it creates ownership of the learning process.”

Ward, who was named Classroom Science Teacher of the Year by the National Science Teachers Association in 2006, says the staff at Robinson isn’t afraid to take risks. Two years ago, she jumped out of the curriculum and had her sixth-grade science class create their own eco-chambers (models of a working ecosystem). “The kids loved it,” she says. “And the amount of science we covered went beyond the CMS pacing guide.” Two years later, fish still live in the chambers.

No news is good news

Maybe it’s time to focus again on all the good things happening at Myers Park High. Allegations of forcing out under-performing students were never proven, and there’s a new principal in town. Test scores are always among the best in the district.

Myers Park does have a substantial percentage of gifted students, and those who strive to succeed are rewarded. It offers the most college-level courses in the state, and students raked in more than $7 million in scholarships last school year.

The list of programs designed for all abilities and demographics is exhaustive, and administrators from Principal Tom Spivey and assistant principal Carlos Grant to football coach Jim Ruark seem genuinely dedicated to making sure nobody falls through the cracks.

“We have a slogan: ‘There’s a place for you at the Park,’ ” Spivey says. “And we mean that. We have to meet the needs of all the kids.”

Efforts range from tutoring struggling athletes to extended-day courses and giving out supplies to those in need. One clear result is that 327 students recovered a failing grade last year. Grant has also spearheaded a program to hold open houses for target communities once a quarter.

Mike Giglio is a freelance writer who embraces serious and not-so-serious topics. Elsewhere in this issue, he writes about the gallery crawl in NoDa and ping-pong at Thomas Street Tavern.