Can Earnest Winston restore the community’s trust in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ leadership?

Can Earnest Winston restore the community’s trust in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ leadership?
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A little white house stands alone on a big old plantation way down in Canton, Mississippi. It’s a single story, with three front windows and a front porch surrounded by fields. Nobody’s lived there for decades. The metal roof bows, and half the paint’s chipped away so that the little white house is actually a little white and a little faded gray.

A few years ago on his birthday, Earnest Winston went to Mississippi to visit a great-aunt he hadn’t seen in years. She took him on a driving tour and, without warning, stopped in front of that little white and faded-gray house and started a story.

“That’s where your grandmother was born,” she said.

Earnest’s grandmother had eight siblings, all children of black sharecroppers. Their dad raised animals and grew vegetables, and their mom was a housewife who picked cotton.

She had her wedding on that front porch. Then she and her husband had two girls of their own. Around 1952, they made a decision that millions of black families in the Jim Crow South made in the 1900s — they left. Mississippi was a traumatizing place for black children then; the state had the highest rate of lynchings per capita in the country.

Earnest’s grandmother packed food for a few days and boarded a train with her two girls, pointed toward Chicago.

The oldest of the girls, Johnnie, was just 4. Johnnie grew up and married a man who happened to be from Mississippi, too. He’d moved to Chicago after the Army. Now he worked in the steel mill, and Johnnie worked as a fingerprint technician with the Chicago Police Department, and that’s how they fed their six children.

The fifth of those six was a boy. They named him after his father, Earnest.

Earnest Winston house

Earnest Winston’s grandmother’s former home in Canton, Mississippi.

We start there, staring at that weathered house 600 miles away from here, because when Earnest Winston became the superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools last summer, some people in Charlotte were surprised.

They couldn’t believe he didn’t have a master’s degree in administration, didn’t have experience as a superintendent of a smaller district. He started his career as a newspaper journalist, of all things, then became a teacher, then chief of staff, and now he oversees 148,000 children in the 17th-largest school district in the country? They couldn’t believe the events that led to the decision, the four crazy weeks in July when the school board fired superintendent Clayton Wilcox with no explanation. They couldn’t believe the board didn’t do a nationwide search for a replacement.

But we start there, staring at that weathered house, because Earnest Winston didn’t come out of nowhere to become superintendent. He came from there.

The house, to him, represents the beginning of the story that ended up here — a superintendent who grew up with working-class parents who grew up poor. And if one issue occupies Charlotte’s attention these days, it’s upward mobility, or moving families from one economic class to another. A landmark study led by renowned Harvard researcher Raj Chetty in 2014 ranked the city 50th out of 50 major U.S. cities when it comes to lifting children out of poverty over the course of their lifetimes.

Maybe Winston didn’t take the typical path to superintendent, but maybe that says more about the typical path than it says about him.

“It’s a constant reminder,” he says, holding out a picture of the house. “They did so much, yet they did not have a lot of resources. They had love. They had each other. That was enough.”

Then he lists the expectations that have been passed down in his family for generations, which happen to be the same expectations he wants to set for everyone in the district — students and teachers and administrators.

“Be kind. Work hard. Do your best. Respect others. Appreciate others’ differences.”

Earnest Winston

Earnest Winston in the hallway at Mallard Creek Elementary with principal Shalinda Williams.

The job of CMS superintendent requires more than ideals, of course. It’s undoubtedly one of the most difficult jobs in the city, in the state, maybe the South.

If you put the 148,000 students and 18,000 employees together, they could fill the Spectrum Center nearly eight times. Within that population are a range of challenges. About 4,000 students experience homelessness or housing instability during the course of a school year. More than 20,000 are immigrant children who need help learning English. CMS is the most segregated school system in the state, with 40 percent of black students attending high-poverty schools, compared to 6 percent of white students.

Just this week, parents in one part of the city are publicly protesting the suspension of their children’s first-grade teacher at Selwyn Elementary. In other parts, low-income parents are scrambling to find a school for their children after their voucher-funded private school suddenly shuttered over the holidays.

On top of that, some recent school boards and superintendents haven’t done him many favors.

The Charlotte Observer unraveled several of Wilcox’s transgressions in a series of stories this past fall. Among them, he reportedly ordered district employees to spend nearly $2 million on literacy software in 2018, despite objections from principals and administrators who said it cost too much. Then in March 2019, Wilcox reportedly contacted the founder of the software company about becoming its CEO — while still in public office as superintendent. If shady deals weren’t enough, the Observer found evidence of several complaints against Wilcox for racist and sexist remarks.

It’s a lot for anyone to step into.

In five months on the job, Winston has wheeled from place to place to fill staff, visit schools, and hire principals at critical high schools West Charlotte and Butler. Meanwhile, he’s also a father to two girls — one a sixth-grader at Piedmont Open Middle, the other a third-grader at Irwin Academic Center.

I’ve known Winston for several years, but after I contacted his staff in early October about writing this profile, his schedule was so slammed that it took two months to accommodate the lengthy interviews I requested.

So, one of my first questions was simply, How are you doing?

“People keep saying that,” he said, laughing. “You know, they’ll ask, ‘Are you taking care of yourself? Are you eating? Are you healthy? And I tell them, that home-work-life balance, I’m not there yet. That’s a journey. But I know there are kids today who are relying on me and our entire team at CMS to give them every shot at success.”

Then he made sure to point out that he’d driven his girls to school that morning. 

Earnest Winston

Superintendent Earnest Winston (right) talks with Highland Creek Elementary principal Ernie Saxton.

On a December Wednesday, Winston pulls down the driveway of Highland Creek Elementary School. The principal, Ernie Saxton, is waiting outside and waving his arms to show him where to park.

“I hate when they roll out the red carpet,” Winston says to me.

“Oh, come on, part of you must love it,” I say.

What follows is the sternest look I’ve received from him in the handful of years I’ve known him.

“No, I’m serious,” he says, his quick smile gone straight. “I just want to see them in their natural environment.”

For years, Winston could walk into any Charlotte school and be the nice guy everybody loved. He became chief of staff in 2012, then chief engagement officer in 2017, jobs that put him in position to be the friendly problem solver. Teachers didn’t fear him; they called him when they had trouble. Principals didn’t arrange their whole days around his visits. Parents didn’t hesitate to email.

Over the course of just a few weeks last summer, he went from that life to one where he carries around a daily meeting lineup.

The board fired Wilcox without explanation in July and promoted Winston to interim superintendent. Then in early August the board gave him the job full-time.

Suddenly the most-liked man in the school system heard hate. People questioned his experience. Former county commissioner Jim Puckett, a longtime critic of CMS, posted on Facebook, “The boat is sinking (and) we must take evasive action followed by the crew rushing the bridge throwing the captain overboard and promoting the Cruise director.”

Overtly racist letters also came.

“Do you really think you deserve to be superintendent of schools?” one online form letter from a 72-year-old Huntersville man read. “Can you honestly say you are not a racist bigot?”

The man wrote more.

“Just remember Winston, karma is a ‘one-eyed bitch,’ and I hope she comes for you in the very near future.”

And one more line, in all caps.

“ONE LAST THING: N***** N***** N*****.”

Police questioned the man but didn’t charge him with harassment or communicating threats.

Winston didn’t tell his girls about it, either. But on the night of his swearing in, a board member brought it up in public. His daughters and wife, Denise, were in the crowd.

That night his youngest asked Denise, “Is Daddy going to be OK?”

Earnest Winston

Earnest Winston in Mallard Creek Teacher of the Year Arlene Vogt-Green’s class.

Winston was a boy when his parents moved from Chicago’s South Side to the North Side. (For those wondering, yes, he’s a Cubs fan, and has a sticker on his car’s back window.)

In the third grade at Wicker Park Elementary he played basketball after school most days with a friend named Corey. They usually asked their teacher, a 6-foot-3 man named Mr. Morgan, to play with them. They’d tease him that he was too worried about messing up his suits.

But one day after school, Mr. Morgan walked out onto the concrete basketball court, took off his trench coat, and challenged them to a game to 21. He beat them, two against one, pretty easily.

“What he was doing was building a relationship with us,” Winston says. Over the past few months, Winston has spent some time trying to locate Mr. Morgan to thank him. He’s encouraged the teachers in CMS to do the same with their favorite teachers from childhood.

After graduating from Lincoln Park High school, Winston followed his brother to Ohio Wesleyan.

There, he took an introduction to reporting class with Dr. Paul Kostyu, a tough, old-school journalist who’d later become a Pulitzer finalist.

Kostyu was hard on all of his students, including Winston. To this day, Winston says Kostyu was his most critical editor. But Winston won him over with his work.

“What he had that other students who don’t succeed have is intense curiosity,” Kostyu says. “He’s the type of person who wants to get information and mull it over, then make a decision. We teach our students to be fair, to hear as many sides as possible.”

Jean Vintinner remembers when Winston left The Charlotte Observer and arrived at Vance High School as a first-year English teacher in the mid-2000s. She taught 12th grade reading in the department. Now she’s a professor at UNC Charlotte in the College of Education, working with future teachers.

“He just had an amazing level of respect for anybody he was talking to,” she says. “Even as a teacher, he was never one to get frustrated with students and lash out. He was like, ‘No, I’m going to talk to these kids as young adults. I’m going to respect them. And I’m going to tell them what I expect.’ And they responded to that.”

That seems simple. But underneath it is a basic human equation, between leaders and the people who work for them: trust plus expectations equals results.

Of those three, the word that came up the most in my conversations for this story was trust.

In recent years, teachers throughout the state have seen their curriculums become more standardized. Winston says that part of the reason for that is an equity issue, to ensure kids at one school receive the same education as kids in another school. But some teachers say they’d like a little more freedom.

“It sometimes feels like there’s not much faith in our abilities,” says Justin Parmenter, who teaches 7th grade English at Waddell Language Academy. “Teachers, they know their students need to be taught. Every population is different. I’d like to see a degree of trust.”

Still, Parmenter says, having a former teacher in the job makes him hopeful.

“Those of us who’ve been in the district a few years and see this revolving door at the top,” he says. “We’ve been burned a few times, but having someone who’s already demonstrated a commitment to the school district, for me it makes me a little more optimistic that we’ll have some stability.”

Says Vintinner, Winston’s former coworker at Vance: “It’s nice to know somebody that you trust their judgment. Even if I don’t agree with every decision they’ll make, I trust that they know the whole picture.”

Kostyu continued as Winston’s mentor after college. He attended his wedding; they send Christmas cards each year. Throughout Winston’s career, whenever he took a new job, he’d call Kostyu for advice. Except for this job. Kostyu found out like most everybody else, through a news report.

“I was pretty confident and pretty sure about this move,” Winston says.

I asked Kostyu several different ways if he could list even a few of Winston’s flaws.

“I don’t remember any kind of complaint about Earnest to be honest with you,” Kostyu said. “I don’t have any doubt, whatsoever, that he will succeed.”

Earnest Winston

Earnest Winston talks to teachers at Highland Creek Elementary after a school day in December.

Already, though, Winston has sharp critics. Here’s one example:

Around Thanksgiving, a group of Selwyn Elementary parents received a letter from the school’s principal saying first-grade teacher Lecia Shockley would not return. The news stunned most of them. Shockley was the 2014 CMS Teacher of the Year.

In the weeks leading up to Shockley’s dismissal, someone filed a formal complaint with CMS police on behalf of a 6-year-old in the class. The complaint said that between September and November, Shockley “aggressively grabbed the Victim” several times, according to the report.

Police investigated and labeled the claims “unfounded,” the report says.

Still, Shockley remains suspended with pay.

At least one other student who had issues with Shockley happens to be the son of Charlotte City Councilman Tariq Bokhari.

Bokhari didn’t file the complaint, but he and his wife, Krista, did report Shockley to Selwyn’s principal. They said in a statement Wednesday that their son was “coming home and reporting things that were happening to him that ANY parent would have found to be unacceptable.” 

The other parents spent December contacting CMS, asking for Shockley’s return. When that confirmation didn’t come, on December 18 they contacted several local media outlets, including the Agenda.

“We keep getting stonewalled,” parent Jay Hagerman told me that day. “Why can’t she get back to the classroom? We’re not getting anywhere. And the parents want her back.”

Judy Henion, president of the Classroom Teachers Association of North Carolina, which advocates for teachers, told me, “I would love to have someone ask Earnest Winston what is going on. Why has Earnest Winston not stepped up?”

I did ask Winston on Tuesday. He said he couldn’t talk specifically about the Selwyn incident because it’s a personnel matter. He said CMS human resources is investigating it.

“I wish there was more that I could say. I get it when parents reach out and want to know more about the matter because I’m a parent myself and I would have the same questions,” he said. “But I will say that the investigation is moving forward and hopefully in the near future we can have some resolution.

“I’m worried about making sure we get it right versus expediency. I know it might be frustrating for some people. And I wish it would move faster. But I’ve got an obligation to make sure we’re looking at this through every lens possible to get the best outcome possible for students.”

A few hours after we spoke, several parents attended Tuesday’s county commissioners meeting to ask the board to seek answers from the school system. I relayed Winston’s answer to them.

“Our first inclination was to respect and trust the process,” said Sumter Cox, a father of one of the Selwyn students. “But whatever process that was quickly spun out of control based on the information that we were getting. And that trust was eroded.”

Meanwhile, as some of those Selwyn parents wondered whether they would keep their kids in CMS, parents from Legacy Preparatory School were trying to get back into the system after their kids were left without a school at all.

Legacy was once Charlotte Learning Academy, a charter school. But last year, the state board of education gave it a failing score and voted not to renew its charter. An investor came along this summer and offered to keep it open as a private school with a new name. Most of the students at the school were on publicly funded, income-based vouchers. And the school provided transportation for most of them. 

Last Friday, just three days before students were scheduled to return after the holidays, the school notified parents that the private funding fell through, and that they wouldn’t reopen.

That left 145 students looking for a new school, with no warning, to start the new year. And many of them turned back to CMS.

Earnest Winston

As a Girl Scouts’ project last year, Earnest Winston’s daughter Morgan (right) and her friend Maya McClain (left) led an effort to install a bench outside of the old Harding High School in honor of civil rights icon Dorothy Counts-Scoggins.

CMS has long been a thermometer for the health of public schools in the U.S. In September 1957, a 15-year-old black girl named Dorothy Counts put on a checkered dress her grandmother made and walked toward the previously all-white Harding High School, where she’d been assigned.

She was greeted by a mob of white students and parents who spit on her, threw rocks at her, and yelled in her ear. A photograph of her walk appeared on the front page of the New York Times the following morning.

Counts is now 77 years old and still lives near Johnson C. Smith. She’s been a mentor to many, including Winston, who calls her “aunt Dot.” Last year, Winston’s daughter Morgan was a fifth-grader at Irwin Avenue Elementary, in the same building that was Harding in 1957. As a Girl Scouts’ project, she helped raise funds to purchase and dedicate a permanent bench to Dorothy, near the front steps.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, CMS was at the center of a Supreme Court case that changed schools in the country for several decades. The case that became Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education began in 1964 when Darius Swann, a 6-year-old black boy, was denied admission to Seversville Elementary. The lawsuits that followed led the high court to rule in favor of bussing as a means to desegregate.

Over the next 20 years, CMS would be held up as a model for successful integration.

But in the late 1990s, a father named William Capacchione argued that his daughter was shut out of a magnet program because she wasn’t black. His complaint resulted in a federal district judge ordering CMS to stop using race in student assignments.

Today, CMS is the most segregated system in North Carolina. Fifty-five percent of the student body would have to change schools to achieve integration again, and there’s little to no momentum to make that happen.

In recent years, CMS has been the target of the surge in charter schools that’s taking hold nationwide. Four suburban towns supported legislation recently that allows them to create their own charters — schools that use public funds but essentially operate as private schools — within town limits. Opinions of charter schools are typically soaked in political rhetoric, but their influence is certainly a threat to large systems like CMS, even if their results are equally inconsistent

While those outside forces worked against CMS, the system had six superintendents in the 2010s alone. Two, Wilcox and Heath Morrison, were forced out amid controversy.

Put all of it together, and Winston is in an important job at an important time. He says he’s here for it.

“This for me is not a steppingstone to a higher paying job,” he says. “This is the only home that our girls know. We’re in it for the long haul. I say that because I realize that this work, it’s not about me.”

Earnest Winston

Earnest Winston talks to Highland Creek Elementary’s 5th grade student council president Mocellie (Moe) Bitting, Jr.

Lorine Watt stops mopping to holler at Winston as he walks into the cafeteria at Mallard Creek Elementary.

“Don’t walk over here,” Watt shouts. “I don’t want you getting hurt. Not under my name. No way.”

It’s just after lunch and Watt has everything about cleaned up. That familiar smell of a freshly bleached school floor tickles high in the nostrils. Watt was a bus driver for 10 years before becoming a custodian. She’s worked for the system almost 18 years.

“I’ve been here all this time,” she tells Winston, “and I’ve never shaken a superintendent’s hand.”

Winston has company on this tour, of course, including principal Shalinda Williams and dean of students Melissia Artis.

They walk Winston through the halls and into the classrooms. Each time, instruction stops and Winston, the only person in the room wearing a suit, says, “Just keep doing what you’re doing. I don’t want to interrupt.”

By then, though, in an elementary school, there’s no going back. All the kids’ eyes are fixed on him.

In one classroom, a girl looks up and asks, “Are you the mayor of Charlotte?”

The man who became superintendent over the summer laughs and says, “Don’t speak that into existence.”

He takes off his jacket in Kristen Selves’s first-grade class.

The kids are sitting on carpet. Winston grabs a chair in front of them and picks up a Peanuts book titled “Be Kind. Be Brave. Be You.”

He reads every word of it to them and talks to them for a few minutes. He tells them that he has two daughters, too, in the third and sixth grades. “But really I have over 148,000 kids,” he says, and the whole room goes, Whaaaaat???

Then he settles in to relay a lesson he learned a long time ago.

“I tell my girls all the time that it’s important to be a good student,” he says. “But that’s not enough. We tell them also that you have to be a good human being, a good person. And part of being a good person is what?”

He points at the first sentence in the book title.

“Kind!” several kids say.

“That’s right. How much does it cost to be kind?”

A little boy raises his hand and Winston calls on him.

“Now?” the boy asks, as if kindness is subject to inflation.

Winston smiles. “Right now, today.”

The boy makes a circle with his hand.

Winston nods. “Zero.”  

He points to the next sentence on the book cover and tells them to be brave. Then he admits, to a bunch of first graders, what he rarely does.

“When I was asked to become superintendent of your school district, was there some fear?” he says. He nods to say yes, there was. “So then I asked myself two questions: Do you think you can do the job? And then do I have what’s called the fire in the belly? And I answered those two questions. Did I answer both of those questions yes or no?”

“Yes!” the kids say.

“Yes,” Winston says, “because I’m here, right?”

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