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NCLB Outrages

Principals told to fix schools fast, or quit

Leaders of low-scoring high schools hear no-excuses message, but what on earth does it mean? Notice that the Judge spoke in tough terms but took no questions at the end of his talk. Maybe they should can the judge if he doesn't eliminate crime.

By Ann Doss Helms

CHAPEL HILL - Judge Howard Manning Jr. hit principals of low-scoring high schools with a blunt, face-to-face message Friday: If you can't fix your school fast, you should resign.

"It's not about you. It's about these children," Manning told a group of principals, including leaders of high schools he has threatened to close. "You're killing them off. You're killing off their opportunity for a decent job and a decent life. You're violating their constitutional rights every day you run the ship the way you do."

Manning, a Wake County Superior Court judge, presides over the long-running Leandro case involving state education spending and students' constitutional right to a "sound basic education."

He spoke at a principal training session at the UNC Center for School Leadership Development. Principals of 17 persistently low-scoring high schools, including Garinger, Waddell, West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, are taking part in a yearlong program designed to help them improve academics and manage staff and money better. They joined other principals for Manning's talk.

Manning spoke for about 40 minutes and took no questions or comments. Afterward he held brief hallway chats with several in the audience, including new Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Peter Gorman and West Charlotte Principal John Modest.

Gorman, who has been on the job a month, said Manning's harsh words didn't surprise him. He had read letters in which Manning talked about "academic genocide" and "sorry schools."

"There's a way around it: Get off the (low-performing) list," Gorman said afterward. "I'm going to get us off the list."

When Modest introduced himself, Manning recognized him as a former principal of a high-scoring Raleigh high school. Modest left that job last summer to take on CMS's lowest-scoring high school. Preliminary results show West Charlotte had a pass rate of about 40 percent on 2006 state exams.

"We're going to turn it around," Modest told Manning.

"I have complete confidence that you'll do it," Manning replied.

But Manning offered few encouraging words when he spoke to the group. Instead, he aired frustration with educators who make excuses for failing to teach.

Teachers who expect little of poor and minority students "should be tarred and feathered," he said. Principals who won't get rid of such teachers are "a cork in the bottle."

Big cities have no excuse for weak leadership: "If you've got a superintendent that's sitting back in the central office scratching his head and a political school board, shame on you."

And middle school principals set up high schools for failure when they "don't have the guts" to hold back and help students who can't read or do basic math, he said.

Manning recently threatened to close persistently low-performing high schools, and Gov. Mike Easley has ordered major changes. On Aug. 18, Manning will hear from state turnaround teams about plans for those schools.

"I'm deadly serious. This cannot go on," Manning told the principals. "When I talk about change and the governor talks about change, we're not going to nibble on the edges of these high schools."

Manning didn't talk about whether or when he might order high schools closed. Gorman said afterward he didn't think it was appropriate to ask, because CMS is involved in the still-unresolved Leandro case.

Manning offered principals some tips, saying all districts with struggling schools should offer AVID, a national program that tries to get disadvantaged elementary and middle school students on the college track, and "freshman academies" for ninth-graders who need work on basic skills. CMS does both.

The judge said high-quality teachers, effective principals and adequate classroom resources are the keys to a turnaround. Just as he can use test scores to single out weak schools, he said, principals can use them to pinpoint ineffective teachers.

Principals who aren't willing to replace those teachers "need to hand in your resignation this afternoon," he said.

Gorman, Modest and Waddell Principal Edward Ellis Jr. all said they agree with Manning's basic message: There's no excuse for letting kids fail. CMS high schools must improve quickly and dramatically.

"He hit the nail right on the head," said Ellis, who has been principal at Waddell for 2 1/2 years. "My job is to find the most competent people I can and remove all restrictions and barriers to them."

— Ann Doss Helms
Charlotte Observer


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