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Top Urban Educator Continues Push for Success

Eric J. Smith, superintendent of schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina, was named the top urban educator in October. He earned the award for improving student achievement in the 103,000-pupil school system. A solid foundation in basic skills and rigorous secondary courses are some of the ingredients in Smith's recipe for success.

When Eric J. Smith became the superintendent of schools in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, in North Carolina, in 1996, he envisioned a primary grade program emphasizing basic skills and a secondary curriculum that would demand more from students.

Four years later, those visions have become reality.

Smith's efforts at raising student achievement in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district have been so successful that in October, he received the Richard R. Green Award, which is presented by the Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) to the country's top urban educator. CGCS is a coalition of the nation's largest urban school districts.

CGCS and ServiceMaster Corporation sponsor the annual award in memory of Richard Green, a superintendent for the New York City and Minneapolis schools. Green died in 1989.

Award recipients receive $10,000 for a college scholarship for students in their school systems. Smith was one of six nominees for the award this year; a five-member panel, including representatives from ServiceMaster and CGCS, selects the winner.

The award was not only an honor for him but also for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system and community, Smith told Education World. The Green Award emphasizes the need for continuing efforts to improve urban school systems, he said.

"The success of this country depends on the success of urban school systems," Smith told Education World. "We need to continue the demand for excellence but also insist on adequate support -- both financial and political."


Arthur Griffin, chairman of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, nominated Smith for the award. Griffin said he has been impressed not only with the improvement in student achievement guided by Smith's leadership but also by his ability to remain focused on classroom issues despite outside pressures.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg was the first school system in the United States to use court- ordered busing to desegregate its schools in 1969. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1971 upheld the practice.

Although the federal district court in Charlotte ruled in the parents' favor, the school system appealed to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, according to Griffin. A three-judge panel in the Court of Appeals overturned the federal district court decision earlier this month.

"Dr. Smith was able to stay focused on the classroom rather than the courtroom," said Griffin. "Because of that, we were able to continue progress. ... I'm pleased with the progress the district has made, particularly under contentious circumstances. [We hope] we will continue to make the same kind of progress in the future."


Smith said he takes the most pride in academic achievement gains over the past four years. "There has been a strong response to the school reform effort. Students are pursuing more-demanding work. Those who were not successful are more successful now," he said.

According to statistics from CGCS, since 1995-1996, the number of third-grade students scoring at or above grade level in reading increased 18 percent. The number of students system-wide who take advanced placement or international baccalaureate courses increased from 1,300 in 1991-1992 to 3,300 in 1999-2000, Smith said. Students can receive college credit for such courses if they score high enough on standardized tests.

African American students also made rapid gains enrolling in AP and IB courses, from 77 students in 1991-1992 to 1,000 in 1999-2000.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg also became one of the first school systems in the country to award advanced placement high school diplomas. Last spring, 70 Charlotte-Mecklenburg graduates earned the diplomas, which are sanctioned by the National College Board. To earn an AP diploma, a student must take a minimum of five AP exams, four of them in core subject areas, and score a three or higher on the tests. AP exams are scored on a scale of one to five.


Emphasizing strong foundations in reading, writing, and mathematics skills through the primary grades and offering more-rigorous courses at the middle and high school levels were key elements to the improvements, Smith said.

At the same time, support systems were developed so the secondary students could meet the higher expectations, he said.

Smith also tried to equalize the allocation of staff and supplies district-wide. "The number-one issue that held the system back has been the lack of equitable and uniform distribution of supplies, resources, and staff," he said.

To correct that, Smith explained, he has been focusing on distributing resources more equitably. "We've established standards for all schools in terms of materials." The school system has increased the amount of money it spends per pupil and offers incentives to experienced teachers to encourage them to teach in schools with lower-performing students.


To maintain and continue progress, Smith now is in the process of formulating district goals through 2005. The district plans to open a high school focusing on technology in the fall of 2001.

Enrollment in the system continues to grow rapidly. Charlotte-Mecklenburg has about 103,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade this year and has been adding between 2,500 and 3,000 students a year for the past few years, according to Griffin.

One idea under consideration for help in funding improvements and equipment purchases would allow schools to form partnerships with corporations that would support particular programs. That corporate support could result in part of a building being named after a company, Smith noted.

"We are looking for corporations that might have legitimate ties to the curriculum and could provide long-term support," Smith said. The Board of Education has yet to vote on the policy.


Smith said he is aware of the shortage of superintendent candidates nationwide, but he has no second thoughts about his career choice.

"Being a superintendent and in education is one of the most satisfying jobs you can find," according to Smith. "I get satisfaction from helping students and teachers feel successful. Unfortunately, this [position] is not being pursued by as many people as we need in this country."

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