Success in Charlotte leads to Arundel post

Selection: After turning around a troubled district, educator Eric J. Smith is close to becoming the county school system's next superintendent.

April 26, 2002|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At Highland Elementary, an inner-city school once so hopeless that the state sent in a management team, dozens of uniformed fifth-graders are in the cafeteria, digging into Cherry Garcia ice cream.

They had perfect attendance last month, and Ben & Jerry sent a reward. Down the hall, fourth-graders are exploring the threats facing sea turtles in a "focus lesson" proved to boost their test scores.

And one wing over, 4-year-olds are stretching out on their superhero blankets. Soon, their "reading buddies" from the first and second grade will join them for story time as part of Bright Beginnings, a program for low-income youngsters that has become a model for school districts statewide.

"People thought these kids had such problems that they could never be successful," says Eric J. Smith, superintendent of the school district that includes Charlotte. "We proved them wrong."

Highland Elementary is one of the Charlotte schools that have seen rising test scores and renewed hope under Smith's six-year tenure as head of the 109,000-student Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system. His record for results has won him national acclaim -- and, now, an offer to become superintendent of Anne Arundel County's public schools.

Smith, an avid sailor who is more familiar with Maryland's waterways than its highways, has not signed a contract with the Anne Arundel school board. But both sides say the deal is nearly done and expect Smith to assume command of the school system July 1.

"Nothing has been brought to closure yet," Smith, 52, said at a news conference here yesterday, "but given the nature of the conversation at this point, it is a place I would like to serve as superintendent."

Many people here, from those at the wealthiest suburban schools to the poorest ones in the city, say Smith has transformed Charlotte schools for the better. But others criticize him for his relentless focus on test scores and say his top-down management style ties the hands of classroom teachers.

They note that the teacher turnover rate was 22 percent last year -- higher than many big systems and above Anne Arundel's 12 percent turnover rate.

But the Anne Arundel school board wants Smith for its top job, so much so that it has offered him a salary and benefits package worth $300,000. The base salary, at $197,000, is about $50,000 more than the board paid its last superintendent.

Board members say they're impressed with Smith's ability to improve the prospects for poor students while also strengthening programs for gifted students. Educators in Charlotte describe him as a visionary and a motivator with the fire and the conviction of the best Southern preachers.

"He truly believes that all children can excel, and he's really worked hard at getting that across to everybody," says Jenell Bovis, principal of Highland Elementary School, whose 36 Bright Beginnings children are among 3,000 in the program countywide.

During Smith's tenure, he's managed to reduce the number of low-performing elementary and middle schools from 22 to 0, as rated by the state. At the same time, more students are taking and passing advanced placement exams -- about double the number from five years ago.

"The focus on academic achievement has been to raise all ships," Smith said yesterday while touring Myers Park High School, where the average SAT score exceeds the national average by about 100 points. "We haven't done it at the expense of anybody. We're not denying services to gifted students to promote the remedial. All deserve a good education."

Smith's unyielding emphasis on test scores -- his refrain is "Let's look at the data" -- has paid off. But some say it has come at the expense of teacher morale and fine arts and electives.

As part of budget cuts for next school year, Smith eliminated fifth-grade band and foreign language courses in some magnet elementary schools. One student at Myers Park High said yesterday that he was worried about losing some of his favorite classes, such as photography.

"I like going to my electives. Those courses have helped me a lot," says Chris Keane, 18, a Myers Park senior. "The emphasis is so much on test scores, but you need to find money for music and the arts, too."

The issue has particular resonance in Anne Arundel County, where parents protested a plan last year that doubled the time middle school pupils spent on reading lessons -- to 100 minutes daily -- while cutting the time they spent in electives.

In Charlotte, middle school pupils spend up to 90 minutes daily on language arts, and the subject accounts for two hours and 40 minutes of the elementary school day. For some of that time, teachers across the system are told exactly what they should be doing with their pupils.

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