From student assignment challenges to support for new teachers, incoming Charlotte-Mecklenburg Superintendent Clayton Wilcox tackled an array of big topics in a public Q&A session sponsored by MeckEd on Tuesday.
Wilcox will start making the transition from his current job as superintendent of Washington County Schools in Maryland next month, and officially becomes CMS superintendent on July 1. MeckEd, a nonprofit education and advocacy group, invited Wilcox to Charlotte’s Goodwill campus to speak with President Ross Danis and field questions from an audience of about 70.
[READ MORE: Clayton Wilcox’s career includes commitment and controversy]
One of the biggest challenges Wilcox will walk into is the ongoing work to revamp the CMS student assignment plan. The district is trying to break up concentrations of disadvantaged students while protecting successful schools and giving more families academic options. Wilcox said Tuesday he didn’t have details on such issues as the new opt-out provision for students in low-performing schools, but said he believes the board is on the right track by trying to strengthen community schools while offering choices.
“That begins to be a voluntary way for families to begin to diversify schools along economic lines,” he said. “I think if you force change on people they vote with their feet.”
Wilcox said new teachers need “an ongoing ladder of support” that includes, in his current district, mentoring and peer support. That’s one of the first things he’ll discuss with the board this summer, he said.
He also said teachers need “deep cultural understanding” of the schools they serve, and lauded CMS for starting a program of cultural proficiency training for educators: “We have to stay the course.”
Educator and activist Jess Miller read from a 2005 news article that she said depicted Wilcox, in a previous job, as saying black students’ behavior accounted for higher levels of suspension. She said that in CMS, black students are “almost 10 times as likely” as white students to be suspended and asked how Wilcox would address that.
“I have always been a strong advocate for racial minorities,” said Wilcox. He said he believes a school district bears some of the responsibility for disproportionate suspensions if it’s not engaging and educating students. But in Mariobet the south St. Petersburg schools the article referred to, he said, behavior problems were serious, with black families demanding safer schools. That can’t be overlooked either, he said.
Wilcox said he’s eager to talk with Matthews Mayor Jim Taylor, who has created a task force to discuss splitting from CMS.
“I think that if we show communities the kind of schools that we can create, they’re going to want to stay with us,” he said. He said that despite the appeal of a small, self-contained district, they get expensive if you have to duplicate administrative staff, transportation and other “operational efficiencies” that a large district brings.
Wilcox said during his interviews the CMS board talked to him about the need to improve communication with employees, families and the public. He noted that once he was hired, Charlotteans connected with him on social media. “I was getting information faster on Facebook than I was from the system I was going to lead,” he said.
“We’ve got to do a better job,” he said, adding that he’s probably more engaged on social media than most previous CMS leaders (he’s @clayton.m.wilcox on Facebook and @claytwilcox1 on Twitter).
Wilcox said he enjoys competing with charter and private schools, saying it will push CMS to excel.
“I think we live in a free market environment. I think we can put them out of business,” he said, drawing laughter. “I mean that in the nicest of ways,” he added.
Wilcox and his wife, Julie, say they’re about to sign a lease on an uptown apartment. It may not be their long-term living arrangement, they said, but they’re looking forward to being able to explore the city on foot, with the Government Center only a few blocks away.
Video of the 55-minute session is posted at the MeckEd Facebook page, @MeckEd.org.
Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms
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