Meet Earnest Winston, CMS Superintendent

By Susan Shackelford

Sidebars: How Winston Got to Charlotte, Fast Facts on CMS, CMS Resources for Realtors®

The first thing Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) Superintendent Earnest Winston did at a Hot Topic session with the Canopy Realtor® Association was to acknowledge a lot of people — ones he knew, or knew of, in the audience; two Realtors® he’d worked with to buy homes and Realtors® in general for their volunteerism in the community.

CMS Superintendent for about four months, Winston was demonstrating a key part of his leadership style — building relationships. It’s one that helped him get the job and is an especially timely skill for CMS.

Earnest Winston, CMS Superintendent

At the Dec. 10 Hot Topic at the new Canopy Realtor® Association headquarters, he spoke conversationally to more than 100 Realtors® and others, fielding questions along the way and at the end. He appeared to be a leader comfortable with interacting and sharing information.  Download Winston’s presentation from the event.

CMS needs a relationship builder in the wake of having had four superintendents in the last seven years, two of whom were from outside CMS, dismissed after 2-3 years and for reasons not clear at time of departure.

Education a Second Career

A Chicago native, Winston is a homegrown Charlotte educator. He entered the teaching profession as a second career in 2004, teaching English and journalism at Vance High. He had been a journalist first, making his last stop at The Charlotte Observer as a news reporter. He has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Ohio Wesleyan University.

In CMS, he worked his way up to chief of staff for two superintendents and was chief community relations and engagement officer when named superintendent in August. He is 45.

“I will tell you all, being new in this role, I don’t have all the answers,” he said, “but I understand the importance and value of surrounding yourself with great people. I love to sit around the table with people smarter than I am; that doesn’t intimidate me. I tell people all the time that I may not be the smartest one in the room, but there will be few that outwork me.”

The fifth of six children, he grew up around hard work. “My parents were always working,” he said. “They had the main job, and they had the side job.” His mother, a fingerprint technician for the Chicago police department as a civilian, also worked at a Blockbuster video store. His father worked at U.S. Steel Corp. and was an independent truck driver.

Other attributes of his leadership style, Winston said, are being forward focused, “not afraid of the hard stuff and (believing) all decisions start and end with students at the center. Some of my decisions will make adults upset,” he noted, “but I have to lay my head on the pillow at night and sleep. I have to know I did right by every student.”

Doing right by all students connects four points he made about his beliefs. They are:

  • All children can learn and deserve the best education possible.
  • All children learn differently.
  • We are all connected.
  • We are in the business of preparing students to live out their full potential.

There is work to do in CMS, he said.

“I know not all students have the resources and support that they need,” he told the group. “Frankly, I want to see all students succeed and give them the tools to be successful, but I’m aware we have to do more for students who come to school with less. That is my definition of equity — that we give all children what they need to be successful.”

Association/Canopy MLS President Brenda Hayden and Earnest Winston

Seeking Highly Effective Teachers

Ensuring all children succeed starts with a highly effective teacher in each classroom, he said in a separate interview for this story. “This is the most important thing we can do as a school district,” he said. “We have prioritized this, and we have made a significant amount of progress, but we have room for growth.”

In his talk, he highlighted a message he shares with new teachers. “I tell them, ‘If you don’t believe all children can learn and learn at high levels, then maybe this isn’t the profession for you. If you don’t believe it, I will help you find another position.”

Pausing, he added, “HR (human resources) will cringe at this because of the teacher shortage, but I want the best and the brightest in front of our students in the classroom.”

Highly effective classroom teachers is the first of four keys to raising the level of low-performing schools, he said in the interview. “We also have to make sure standards are aligned with instruction; that there is a great leader in every building because great teachers want to work for a great principal; and that parents are engaged.”

When he spoke to the Mecklenburg PTA Council’s annual training at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, Winston challenged the parent leaders to engage all families at their schools.

“Not all families have felt welcome at a PTA or PTSA,” he said. “We have to remove the barriers — location, time of meeting, child care, whether we provide food and other barriers.”

Rise in Industry Certifications

A particular concern to many Realtors® is whether the schools are providing enough education for trade positions such as plumbers, electricians and building inspectors. Local builders and renovators have a job shortage in many trades. Addressing this in both in his talk and interview, Winston said CMS is on an upward trajectory with Career and Technical Education (CTE).

For the first time CMS was ranked third among North Carolina’s 100 counties for the number of industry certifications it awarded in a school year — 8,594 to 5,758 students in 2018-19. “It was the first time we have been ranked in the Top 10,” he told the Realtors®. CMS currently offers 25 CTE pathways and 48 certifications, including in construction trades, advanced manufacturing and software development.

CMS keeps its ear to the ground on what’s needed in the marketplace by consulting with Charlotte Works and the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance.

In some parts of Mecklenburg, especially south Charlotte, schools are overcrowded. Winston said that while the 2017 bond issue for construction, renovation and expansion of schools was a record bond for the county, $922 million, it is less than half of what CMS identified at the time that is needed to handle growth, about $2 billion.

The first projects from the $922 million bond will be completed in 2020 and the rest by 2024 Winston noted. A new high school on the agenda in south Charlotte has received a lot of publicity, especially a proposed site near Olde Providence Elementary School. Winston said in the interview that the CMS staff is doing due diligence on various options, at the direction of the school board.

“We don’t have a definitive target date (for the recommendation) — we want to get it right — but we know there’s a sense of urgency,” he said.