With nearly four decades of experience in education, Curtis Carroll has long emphasized academic excellence and student connections.
Carroll said the key to achieving academic success is forming strong relationships with students. The task requires less punishment and more empathy, Carrol said.
His proactive leadership style has led him to prominent roles within Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, where he focused on schools in underprivileged areas with frequently low test scores.
“Nobody could touch me when it came to putting Black kids in college,” the 63-year-old Flint, Mich. native told QCity Metro.
A move down south
Carroll began his teaching career in Flint City School District and then in Evanston, Ill., in the 1980s.
In 1993, Carroll and his wife moved to Charlotte from Michigan, where he joined Charlotte-Meckelenburg Schools as the assistant principal at McClintock Middle School.
He became principal at Harding High School, leading the school from 1999 to 2006 when it was a magnet school. Made up of mostly Black students, the school was recognized for academic success and college-career readiness.
In 2006, Carroll left for a one-year stint with Duval County Public Schools in Florida, then returned to CMS the following year as an area superintendent. Carroll was over the Achievement Zone, a non-geographic-based cluster of 10 low-performing schools in the district.
With the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a partner, Carroll helped raise state test proficiency rates at West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg high schools as well as Wilson Middle.
In 2010, Superintendent Peter Gorman named Carroll the principal of Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology in west Charlotte.
Harding was restructured to take in neighborhood students from several low-income neighborhoods in 2011, the year Gorman left CMS. In 2014, Superintendent Heath Morrison named Carroll area superintendent, where he would oversee nine high-poverty schools in the Harding zone.
He became the principal of Vance High School in 2018 after the sudden retirement of Kit Rea.
Though Carroll retired in 2020, he remains heavily involved in education. He is currently a professor at UNC Charlotte, where he teaches principalship and educational leadership.
He also coaches principals and assistant principals and is a consultant with CMS.
In a Q&A with QCity Metro, Carroll reflected on his time as an educator and his thoughts on the current state of the district.
Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve been praised for building relationships with students. How were you able to foster those connections?
It starts with empowering them. Everybody in the school is a leader, from the faculty to the students. It’s important for principals and teachers to give their students the voice to express their concerns and feelings. Kids who’ve had some issues see gaps [in the school system], and they’ll tell you the real about what’s going on.
I told my teachers to make sure they tell their students that they love them. Students need to know that you care even when it comes to addressing behavioral issues.
There are ongoing debates within the district about how behavior should be addressed. What is your advice to fix the issue?
When we teach better, behavior will change. The best thing to do to improve student behavior is to challenge them academically. Our kids are different now. It starts with changing the way we teach. As a teacher, you can’t come in using 20th-century teaching techniques on a 21st-century learner. There is a gap.
When kids do wrong, we ask the wrong questions. We shouldn’t be asking, “What’s wrong with you.” What we should be asking is, “What happened to you?”
That’s peeling back the onions. By asking this, we identify the underlying issue of what they may be dealing with at home.
You made a positive impact as principals at multiple schools in the district. What is your advice to principals in CMS?
You are the leader 5% of the time. If it’s over 5%, something needs to be fixed. Quite frequently, if you have an organization where you want it, you are either following behind your staff or you are walking alongside them. People don’t want supervisors.
As a leader, you need to be in the work as well. You need to know the standard course of study yourself. You should be walking in tandem with the people you lead, and very infrequently should you be directing them.
That starts with acknowledging the strengths of your staff.
Looking back at your career, what is your proudest moment as an educator?
My proudest moment was when I was a principal at Harding High and did away with regular classes. The whole school took advanced classes.
The parents didn’t care about test scores. They just wanted their kids to go to college.
And I am proud to say we accomplished that goal by sending so many minority children to go to Harvard, Yale, North Carolina A&T, North Carolina Central and other schools.
What is the biggest challenge CMS faces today?
Teacher shortage is the number one issue. There is a teacher shortage like I’ve never seen before. Everybody works extremely hard to solve this issue, but they’re not there. We are graduating fewer and fewer people going into the traditional education pipeline.
How can the district adapt to the shortage?
You have to make sure you at least have great teachers in every classroom.
You work closely with Superintendent Crystal Hill in a consulting role. What advice have you given her in her new role?
I tell her to stay the course, and she will be fine.
To have a Black female superintendent is amazing to me. [The community and school system] have to give her support because she can’t do it by herself.
Expectations for Hill must be realistic. Dr. Hill could still miss the mark with all the combined challenges of the school system and extraneous variables she has no control over.
Can you say more about those challenges?
One glaring example is the lack of teachers. Dr. Hill can’t control the teaching shortage, which impacts learning. Teachers are paid less and asked to do much more.
CMS has some really sharp faculty and staff members, but everyone has to be able to adapt in order for the district to move forward.
My advice to the district is to be comfortable with discomfort.
Because the way we are doing business now is different than in the past. We have to do things differently.