Juanita Middleton has worked in some of Charleston County’s lowest-achieving schools, so her latest job will be a new kind of challenge.
By the numbers
Chas. Charter School for Math and Science
Location: 1002 King St. (downtown in the former Rivers Middle School building)
Enrollment: 429 students
Poverty: 58 percent of students
Diversity: 40.7 percent black, 55.3 percent white
2013 letter grade: 98.5 A
Source: 2012 state report card, 2013 federal ratings
She is the new interim principal of Charleston Charter School for Math and Science, which has solid test scores and received an “A” in the recent federal ratings.
“These are bright children, and I have to work as hard as I worked before,” she said. “Just because you come into a school where kids are on grade level or above doesn’t mean you’re going to sit back and take it easy. You have better get it together just as much as you did before.”
The charter school on King Street isn’t without problems, and one of its biggest issues has been a lack of consistent, quality leadership. Middleton will be the school’s fifth leader since it opened five years ago.
Principals have left for varying reasons, and Middleton’s predecessor, Michael Stagliano, was fired in June by the school’s governing board. The school’s administration failed to ensure that 14 teachers’ evaluations were completed on time, and that resulted in those educators receiving an “incomplete.”
Peter Smyth, the charter school’s first principal, said Middleton will face two challenges — bringing stability to the administration and allowing the school to live up to its mission of being a leader in math and science.
“This school has great talent on its staff,” he said. “What they need as much as anything is an enabler, one who can empower the talent and passion already there. This school was never intended to be a traditional school. So the leadership is not traditional, and lies with the entire staff.”
The charter school’s governing board hired Middleton for one year, and it plans to begin a search for a permanent principal in January. School board member and parent Hope Carter said the board recognized when it began looking for a principal in June that many high-quality principals already were committed to jobs for the upcoming school year. The board wanted to do a thorough search to ensure that it got the most qualified leader for the future, and that’s why Middleton will be a one-year interim.
“We were in a time crunch and we needed someone quickly,” she said. “This is her forte. She’s gone into schools, gotten support and turned them around. She’s been in very difficult (situations), so we thought she’d be a good fit.”
The board told Middleton she could apply for the permanent job but isn’t guaranteed to get it.
In response to whether she was interested in that position, Middleton said “we’ll see.” The board wanted someone to make a five-year commitment, and she said, “I’m not a five-year person” but would stay as long as the school needed her.
“In the meantime, I’m ready to roll,” she said.
No stranger to controversy
Middleton will be the school’s first black principal, which is significant given the criticism that the school has faced. Some groups, such as the Charleston NAACP, have feared that the school would lack diversity and limit access to minority students. The school has time and time again pointed to its racially diverse student enrollment, supporters and board members.
Dot Scott, president of the Charleston NAACP, saw it as a positive that the school hired Middleton, and she said it’s a sign that the school is moving in the right direction in some areas.
“I’ve got an awful lot of confidence in her,” she said. “It’s good to know that she’s being offered that kind of opportunity to work in the school system.”
Middleton’s most recent school-based job was principal at North Charleston High, and the community was furious when officials decided to move her from there. Middleton took over the school in the fall of 2009 when it was reconstituted.
Some black community leaders opposed Middleton being moved from the school after just two years. The superintendent recommended Bob Grimm, former principal of C.E. Williams Middle, as her replacement, and this will be his third year at the school.
Middleton’s most recent job as interim director of Early Head Start was eliminated at the end of 2012, so she said she has been home for the past year. She said she’s been making fancy pillows, but that wasn’t enough for her.
“I’m not happy being home all day when there are so many needs out there,” she said.
Middleton technically retired in 2006 after 40 years in education. She spent the bulk of her career leading rural St. James-Santee Elementary and Lincoln High schools. She left both in better shape than when she found them, and she earned a reputation as someone who could make schools successful.
Before going to North Charleston High, she also spent three years at Burke High as a principal coach.
The year ahead
In some ways, charter school principals are more like superintendents than traditional public school principals. They oversee academics, but they have more responsibilities related to school policies, budgets and operations.
Middleton called it a “sharp move” for the board to hire Larry DiCenzo as a consultant. DiCenzo retired this summer as principal of Orange Grove Elementary Charter in West Ashley, and he’s a leader in the local and state charter school community.
DiCenzo said he didn’t retire to begin working again as principal, but he was willing to help the downtown charter school. He oversaw the search for the principal and a new assistant principal, Todd Laventure, and he said he will make monthly visits to the school.
He had been acting as the school’s interim principal until Aug. 5, when Middleton started, and he promised to be available whenever needed so that the school isn’t overwhelmed with its charter duties. For Middleton, DiCenzo’s presence was a positive.
“I’m not feeling my way, I have someone who is showing me,” Middleton said. “That has been a wonderful resource.”
DiCenzo said Middleton has strong experience, understands the role of an interim leader and has good connections to local people and organizations.
“The school has the foundation, and that foundation is really a tribute to staff and faculty,” he said. “They are the heart and blood. We’ve had some turnover, but we’ve hired some great people. The piece that has been missing is the leadership.”
Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or (843) 937-5546.