scott miller

Erin Burns | West Charlotte High School

scott miller
Erin Burns | West Charlotte High School

Story: Shawn Bowers Buxton | Photos: Paige Winn

Erin Burns recalls working at West Charlotte High School before its Opportunity Culture program was in place, and the experience she describes is unfortunately a common scene for new teachers: very little support and mentorship. She left after her first year to teach somewhere else. Now, three years after Burns’ return to West Charlotte, the environment is completely different, thanks to the novel Opportunity Culture program that creates a positive morale for faculty and students alike. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools was one of the first districts in the nation to pilot the program, with West Charlotte being the only high school to model the plan; it’s now in 17 school districts nationwide.

All of this is possible through a private-public partnership aimed at turning around schools in Charlotte’s West Corridor. Opportunity Culture—a Project L.I.F.T. initiative started by an organization called Public Impact—exists “to expand the reach of effective teachers to more teachers and students.” Burns is not only an effective teacher, but excellent. She circulates through the classrooms every day, adjusting her plan based on what her teachers need. Sometimes that’s co-teaching, other times it’s observing to offer advice on classroom management or pedagogy and teaching strategies. She has also pulled out students who are struggling with a particular concept for one-on-one instruction or are being disruptive. This allows the classroom teacher to move onto the next step or unit without having to stop to manage classroom behavior.  She also cultivates community partnerships. Burns takes care of all these details, and performs any other numbers of other tasks, all in service of her team of teachers and students.

The end result is manifold. Teachers can focus on their primary objective – to deliver quality instruction and develop meaningful relationships with their pupils. Prior to the Opportunity Culture, teachers would call out sick because they were tired, exhausted and lacked motivation. Those calls have gone down in number since the program was implemented. Teachers aren’t tasked with having to write lesson plans on their own, make copies, manage classroom behavior and the myriad of other non-teaching related responsibilities that eat away at a teacher’s time and, more importantly, energy. “Teachers are invested; I think they have more emotional and mental strength to support students since they don’t have to worry about the other stuff,” Burns says. “I try to minimize the outside distractions so that they [the teachers] can focus on the classroom.”

Teachers aren’t the only ones benefitting from this program, which has been in place now for three years at West Charlotte. Student test scores have risen, a testament to Opportunity Culture’s effectiveness. Another positive outcome is the development of community collaborations. “It has allowed me to form partnerships in our community for our students, too,” Burns explains. She has partnered with the likes of UNCC and Toyota Green Initiative, and the school has revitalized a greenhouse on campus.

All of this creates a culture of mentorship and unity. Every teacher is on the same page. Burns can step into any classroom to help, because everyone is teaching the same lessons and activities. This fosters a sense trust and aligns the team into what Burns playfully calls “a well-oiled machine.” This harmony yields great dividends for all involved.

A few weeks ago, one of Burns’ teachers came up with a creative idea. The Science Department hosted a ring ceremony for its students. Each pupil wrote vows to their education and toasted with sparkling soda as a stand-in for champagne. The ceremony was even documented with pictures. For the students, this was a highlight they won’t likely forget, helping to root their social and emotional wellbeing. For some students, this is just the push they need to commit to their studies. The program has hosted pep rallies with local radio stations, too, all in an effort to create a culture that promotes learning as a cool thing, which is a message students sorely need. That’s something we can all toast to.