Whither CMS? A conversation with Superintendent Earnest Winston

After two-plus years leading the nation's 17th largest school district, Winston, a former reporter, has developed some strong opinions about what it takes to educate our children.

It’s been a challenging year for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools Superintendent Earnest Winston. Aside from the challenges associated with leading the nation’s 17th-largest school district in the midst of global pandemic, he also has come under withering criticism.

Dozens of CMS schools, mainly in poor, Black neighborhoods, had abysmal end-of-year testing results in 2020. (CMS is charged with educating about 147,000 students in 180 schools. It employs more than 9,000 teachers and has a $1.6 billion annual operating budget.)

In May of this year, George Dunlap, who leads the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners, publicly questioned Winston’s qualifications and fitness for the job.

And then there’s the problem of violence and guns that find their way onto CMS campuses.

On Monday, Winston met with me at West Charlotte High School for what turned out to be a 30-minute interview. During that time, we talked about a range of CMS-related topics, including those above.

Q. When someone as important as you offers to meet with me, he must have something he wants to talk about. What’s on your mind? (It was a running joke between Winston and me. In the early 2000s, he and I were journalists together at The Charlotte Observer.)

( Laughter) I’m thinking about the test scores that came out, the end-of-year test scores. We spend a lot of time talking about test scores. But I also believe that test scores shouldn’t be the proxy for whether kids are being successful or not. And to that end, I think about all that our kids and our staff members, what they have experienced over the past 18 months. Our kids have experienced a tremendous amount of resiliency. Think about the perseverance that they’ve had to experience, working part-time jobs and having to learn in a hybrid or remote environment. And so I want to make sure that we acknowledge those challenges and how we can’t just look at test scores alone.

Q. You say test scores should not be the proxy for measuring the district’s success. What should be the proxy?

Well, ultimately, our goal is to produce students who can be successful outside of an educational environment and experience success in life. And so in order to do that, learning obviously has to take place. And that’s ultimately why we’re all here, to educate kids. But I also know that as part of that educational process, students and adults have to experience hardships, and how you bounce back, how you are resilient and how you overcome, I think there’s something to be said about that as well. And so I think you have to look at all of those factors if a kid is supporting his or her family. And that’s not to say that education is not important. It’s just to say that there are some more pressing needs right now because I’m talking about survival.

Q. And by “pressing needs,” are you talking about the pandemic and its effects?

Absolutely.

Q. Do you think that message will play well with parents and taxpayers and people in the community, saying that end-of-grade scores shouldn’t be the proxy?

Well, so I think there are other variables that we have to consider when we talk about our kids being successful. And so I’m very clear that there’s a sense of urgency that exists, and the amount of unfinished learning that our kids have experienced, I am acutely aware of the need to address that and the need to get results. And so when I think about that, I think about what do our kids need? We spent the first quarter of this school year assessing our kids — their mental health, their social-emotional needs as well as their academic needs. And so we understand where our kids are. But what I also understand is that we have made a significant investment, particularly in out-of-school time for tutorial services.

Q. Are you talking about the federal Covid-relief dollars that will be going to tutoring?

Yes. The $50 million. And we opened an RFP (Request for Proposal) process and said we’re going to invest $50 million in out-of-school time — before school, after school, on the weekends, during the summer — to make sure that we’re extending the learning for students. Time is a commodity, and we only have so much of it. And so it’s important that we’re able to extend that learning outside of school hours. And that’s what that commitment is designed to do.

Q. And that $50 million commitment is over how many years?

That will take us through September of 2024.

Q. Have you already started spending that money?

We have not started spending the $50 million yet. The RFP process closes at the end of this week. And so we expect in the second semester to begin spending down on those initiatives as part of the $50 million commitment.

Q. What does success look like for that tutoring initiative? Is there a number of students you want to reach? And beyond that, what does success look like after you reach these students?

What ultimately success will look like is, we’re meeting the basic needs of our students. And so we spent the first quarter assessing where they are academically and socially-emotionally. And so success looks like making sure that we have a response to meet kids where they are. And I say where they are because not all kids are at the same place. We can’t take a cookie cutter approach to this work.

Q. So there are no test scores, goals, or anything like that tied to this money. Are there no measurable goals tied to this?

We do have goals. And I think if you look at the RFP, you can talk more specifically about how we’re going to measure this work over a period of time. But we will be measuring the work over time. Now, this work will not be done in isolation. It’s done in conjunction with building the capacity of teachers, making sure that we provide more professional development to teachers and that we’re doing other things. So it’s not done in isolation. And we believe that doing all of those things and doing it well will have an impact on student outcomes ultimately.

Q. You’ve talked about teachers. You’ve talked about-out-school time for tutoring. What other things are being done to address student performance?

One of the most significant things that we’re doing right now is focusing on systems. We talk a lot about student outcomes. But what I know is that student outcomes won’t change until adult behavior changes. And so my team and I have made a commitment to shifting the mindsets of adults. And the reason why that’s important is because we know that in order to disrupt systems and structures that produce inequitable outcomes for students, we need to first start with what is it that you believe and that work is important, because it helps guide all the other things that take place during the interaction between adults and kids. And so we spent the past two-plus years disrupting systems and disrupting structures that don’t produce equitable outcomes for all kids.

Q. What systems and structures are you talking about?

I’m talking about the systems that are in place. The educational system today was not designed with equity in mind. And so, we have to reinvent what that looks like, so that all kids are able to benefit and thrive in this educational environment.

Q. Be specific with me. When you’re talking about changing the mindsets of adults, who specifically are you talking about? What are you talking about doing there?

Let me give you a specific example. When I talk about changing the mindsets of adults, those adults, those of us who have the privilege every day to educate kids. And so obviously, the classroom teacher, administrators, support staff and any staff member, any adult in this district who interacts with a student.

Q. And so you are talking about changing structures within CMS, not out in the greater community?

I’m talking specifically about structures within the system. And a perfect example of that is, how do we schedule classes? What students have access to the most effective teachers? Historically, it has been a plumb assignment, or considered a plumb assignment, for a teacher to have all high-flying students. And so that’s what we need to disrupt to make sure that the kids who have the greatest challenges, that we’re providing them with access to great teaching.

Q. We know that people don’t like change. So how is that idea going over with CMS teachers?

Well, change certainly does not come without its challenges. And I think about the past 18 months and what that change has looked like, and it caused us to have to be fluid. The change has disrupted how we normally do things. And so we had to pivot and develop a new model on how we deliver services, and obviously the most visible part of that is teaching kids in a remote environment and teaching kids in a hybrid environment. So that took some time for our educators to get used to. And I will tell you, just the resiliency that they showed in making that adjustment was incredible. Teachers and our educators and support staff deserve a lot of grace, because no one went to school to learn how to teach in this type of environment.

Q. I want to be sure that I don’t use up all my time on this one question, but when you talk about getting the best teachers away from the high-flying students and into schools that most need quality teachers — how is that going?

I want to make sure when I talk about equity of education, I want to make sure that all kids in our district have access to great teaching. Now, part of that could look like adjusting and shifting (teacher) assignments.

Q. But that hasn’t happened yet.

That has not happened. And I think we have to do more to help incentivize teachers to do that. But we also have another tool at our disposal, and that’s making sure that we’re building the capacity of our teachers to be able to provide a high-quality education for every child.

Q. Is this a conversation you’re having with teachers and administrators?

Well, it’s part of the overall strategy that we have as a district, and we have not specifically mandated that teachers move from one school to another.

Q. But are you having the broader conversation with them about the need for change?

Well, I’ll tell you; it’s a part of the conversation that I’ve had anecdotally with teachers. It’s part of the conversation that I’ve had with board members and making sure that we provide more effective teachers for all of our students, but especially for kids who need them the most.

Q. CMS had quite a few schools that had very low test scores. Some, I think, were in the teens in terms of pass rates. How is that excusable?

It’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable. And what I would say to anybody is that we cannot detach what takes place outside in our community from what kids learn inside of their classrooms. I think there’s a direct correlation. So every day, every day we open our doors and the community comes in to our schools, and kids bring their experiences with them, whatever those experiences are. And that lands inside of the schoolhouse. And that has a direct impact on how kids learn inside of our classrooms. And so I say that to say that certainly there is enough work to go around to help educate kids. And so as a school system, we have a responsibility to do that, but I believe that it is not our responsibility alone to help educate kids. We need our community. We need our parents to be engaged in this process as well.

Q. Do you think people outside of CMS understand that?

I try to do my best to ensure that people understand that this is a process that involves all of us and that one entity alone should not have the sole responsibility for educating our community’s children.

Q. You’ve been superintendent for how long?

Two-plus years. Since August of 2019.

Q. Do you think you’ve been evaluated fairly, judged fairly, for those two-plus years?

Well, I’ll tell you this. One of the things that I know to be true is that life isn’t always fair. And so I can’t spend time focusing on things that may be out of my control. I’ve got to stay on task and not get distracted. And so where I choose to spend my energy and my time is making sure that we’re providing everything our students and our staff need to be successful, that’s where I choose to put my energy and my time. And I can’t worry about what people may think or say about me.

Q. What grade would you give yourself?

What grade would I give myself? Certainly, I think it’s an incomplete at this particular point. And I stay incomplete because we have a lot of work that needs to be done. It’s not fair for me to grade myself. The Board of Education ultimately is responsible for giving me a grade. But I would not feel comfortable giving myself a grade knowing that we have many students that need support and need help. Until every single student has what he or she needs, then I will let someone else do that evaluation.

Q. One of the criticisms I’ve heard is that the superintendent doesn’t meet enough with the community. How would you respond to that?

What I will tell you is that I have taken any meetings someone has asked me to have. And so I have met with anybody who has made a request to meet with me. My staff has done the same. We meet with members of the community all the time, whether it be members of the parents or grassroots community members, whether it be corporate leaders or philanthropic leaders or nonprofit leaders. We’re constantly meeting with members of the community. Our doors are open. Our doors are always open. And so I think that’s important to understand.

Q. Violence in schools. Guns in schools. I don’t know the number off the top of my head, but how many guns have been found in CMS schools so far this year?

We’ve had a dozen guns that have been found on our campuses this school year. Some of those have been inside the building; some have been outside of the building on the campus.

Q. Are our schools safe?

Our schools are safe. Our schools are safe. And what I would say in addition to that is — and I’ll make this point again — what happens out there in the community, you cannot detach that from what happens inside of our buildings, inside of our classrooms. So when people ask, how can they help?, my response is, you can help by setting an expectation that when students walk inside of our buildings, that they do so with the mind frame of being educated and allowing the teaching and learning process to take place. And so the expectation should be that a weapon should never come onto campus, because as far as I and my team know, no gun has ever been manufactured inside of a school building. And so that’s why this is on us as a community. We all own this. It’s not on Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools alone to own this. And so we’ve got a responsibility, and we’ve got to set the expectation that there’s zero tolerance for weapons to find their way onto our campus.

Q. After a deadly drive-by shooting earlier this year, CMPD indicated that the shooting might have been related to an ongoing feud between students at certain schools. Were you ever able to confirm that?

Here’s what I know — here’s what I know the facts show — of the three arrests that have taken place involving that shooting that left a three-year-old child dead, none of those individuals who were arrested was a CMS student. And so I think making that linkage was unfair. And it was a conversation that I had with the police chief… And certainly as the investigation moves forward, if any of our students are found to be responsible in any way, shape or form, then they need to be held accountable as the others who’ve been arrested have been held accountable.

Q. Almost done. Let’s talk about masks. As Covid-19 numbers decline, even some mask proponents are starting to talk on a national level about finding an exit strategy for masks in schools. Is that something CMS is discussing?

We are; we are discussing that. And in fact, at our last board meeting, staff brought forward a set of criteria that the board can use as part of its deliberations every month to determine whether or not we remain universally masked or if we make masking optional or do something else. And so that was part of the thinking, that that set of criteria will help the board determine what to do next in terms of masking. What I know as a fact is that masking has helped keep kids in school. I think about some of my peers in other school districts across North Carolina or across the country where they do not have a mandatory masking policy, and the number of quarantines that they’ve had to experience, both from students and staff. And when you have that type of disruptive learning, it makes it more challenging to educate kids.

Q. Do you think you were prepared for this job?

Absolutely. I believe I am uniquely prepared for this job. And I understand that I have been a part of this system for 17 years, but I think that uniquely prepares me to understand sort of the intricacies of what’s here in Charlotte-Mackenburg schools, but also because I did not pattern my career or shape my career to become an educator. I’m a journalist by trade. And so I believe I bring a unique perspective to this work. And so whereas I come in and I say, ‘Well, why are we doing things this way?’ Someone may say, ‘Well, we’ve done it that way because that’s how we’ve always done it.’ And so I think my perspective allows me to question some things that may be status quo and that others, perhaps who have grown up in the system, who’ve grown up in education, perhaps may not question. And so I believe that I’m uniquely qualified for this work.

Q. How should the community judge your effectiveness?

Ultimately, I want to be judged by how we’re improving outcomes for students. I think that is the ultimate judgment that must occur. If students are not doing well, and if they’re not making progress, then I ultimately have to be accountable. If we don’t have the systems and structures in place in order for kids to do well, then I’m ultimately accountable for that.

Q. What question didn’t I ask that you wish I had asked?

We talked about the out-of-school tutoring time. But I also understand that our kids need help in other ways. And specifically, I think about when people say, ‘How can we help? I think about putting out a call for more substitute teachers so that when teachers are sick or we just have a vacancy, making sure that we have an adult in front of every child. How can we help? We can help by encouraging more people in our community to sign up as tutors so that we can provide the support to students inside the classroom, because that, along with the out-of-school tutoring services, that will ultimately help impact the results that our kids get. So there are a number of different ways that I believe the community can help us. But chief among them is making sure that we set an expectation that we value education. At one point education was on a pedestal, and I believe that it is no longer the case. And so when we start valuing educators, when we start valuing the work that teachers do every day, I believe that people outside of this profession, those who may want to enter education, will see it as a viable option when we start paying teachers more, when we start treating teachers with the dignity and the respect that I believe they deserve, and that takes all of us. That takes all of us to do this work well.

Q. Thank you, sir.

Thank you.

Glenn Burkins
Glenn is founder and publisher of Qcitymetro.com. He's worked at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and Charlotte Observer.

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  1. I’m disappointed you didn’t ask about the mishandling of sexual assault cases at Myers Park and Olympic and now Hawthorne (which was reported after this interview). Our school administrators are teaching young women not to trust them, that school administrators will not protect those who speak up, and in fact it is dangerous to speak up. That is shameful and harmful.

  2. I really appreciate Glenn’s reporting, and I value his perspective on all matters but especially on CMS.. I hope to hear him more frequently on Charlotte Talks.

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