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    Shelby County Schools merger leaders hear of success in N.C.

    By Zack McMillin - The Commercial Appeal -

    When the former superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools told a Shelby County Schools merger forum Monday night that success in substantially lifting performance across a diverse, often-divided county required "backbreaking" work, he gave one example that hit close to home.

    When Peter Gorman persuaded one of Mecklenburg County's most effective principals to leave a low-poverty high-performing school and take a team into a poorer, lower-performing school, he came home to a wife none too happy it was their daughter's principal making the move.

    "My wife said, 'Are you nuts? How could you let this person move?'" Gorman recalled. "I said, 'Trust me. The person coming in here is going to do great work.' My wife doesn't even think about that former principal any more."

    Gorman was one of four key leaders from Charlotte-Mecklenburg at Christian Brothers University for a forum with both the Transition Planning Commission and the unified school board.

    Current CMS board chairman Eric Davis also related his family's investment in a vision that was described several times as a "can-do spirit" that emphasized what one panelist called an economically savvy philosophy of helping their own children by insisting other children perform well in school.

    CMS received the 2011 Broad Price for Urban Education for its nation-leading advances in lifting student growth among all student groups, but particularly for gains among traditional minorities and economically disadvantaged students.

    Davis, a U.S. Military Academy graduate who works in banking, said that although his family lives in one of the wealthier areas of the county, his daughter's school receives much lower per-pupil spending than schools in higher-poverty areas.

    "We're proud to say this is a commitment in Mecklenburg County," said Davis. "My daughter goes to a school with 41 students in her language arts class -- it's packed -- and it's the right thing to do because my child's future depends on the quality of education your child gets."

    Monday night's forum was funded by the Hyde Family Foundations, which has committed to helping the transition commission and school board with what commission chairman Barbara Prescott termed "learning opportunities."

    Barbara Hyde moderated the forum, and pointed out at the beginning that CMS' characteristics -- size, poverty, demographics -- are similar to what could be seen here after Memphis City Schools merges with Shelby County Schools in time for the 2013-14 school year.

    CMS also operates in a place with separate city and county governments, and with six smaller municipalities very concerned about schools in their areas.

    CMS leaders described how five subdistricts (it was seven before recent budget cuts) help those smaller towns feel as if they can exert some accountability on schools in their area.

    However, CMS differs in many other respects. Its systems merged in 1960, before desegregation. And the CMS desegregation was much less divisive than in Memphis and other places in the South.

    Unified board member Joe Clayton, a 57-year education veteran who left public education during desegregation to run a private school, hinted at some of those differences when seeking advice on dealing with the "fear" he senses in the suburbs over the merger.

    "The fear that is out there ... is just what you mentioned, that when this is all over and the dust settles, that the principals and the assistant principals will be moved from my school to an inner-city school," Clayton said.

    Davis' response: "Part of it is winners want to be on winning teams and winning teams play the toughest opponents. So it became a point of pride in our town not only to send our most effective principals to the most challenged schools but we are going to grow another (leader) in our school."

    -- Zack McMillin: (901) 529-2564