Q&A with Dr. Crystal Hill

Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

In May of 2023, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools named Dr. Crystal Hill as the new superintendent of schools — the first Black woman to hold the position — 141 years after the school district, known then as Charlotte City Schools, started. Hill, who has worked in education for 25 years in North Carolina — from elementary school teacher in Guilford County to other positions, including Chief of Staff and Interim Superintendent of CMS — responded to our questions regarding her life and exciting new role as leader of the massive system of 181 schools.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Dee Dixon: Congratulations, Dr. Hill, on becoming the first Black woman superintendent of CMS! What has been the biggest obstacle you’ve overcome on your path to becoming the superintendent?

Crystal Hill: The biggest obstacle I am continuing to overcome is being mentally tough. The role of the superintendent is intense and requires mental acuity and toughness. I am faced with multiple decisions and challenges daily. I’ve learned how to compartmentalize and focus in the moment while managing the million other things that are occurring at the same time. I’ve [hired] … cabinet members who can support me in effectively leading our district.

DD: Please describe what kind of person you were growing up. Did anyone in particular have a profound influence on your life?

CH: I was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I lived with my mom and grandparents until I was seven when my mom remarried. My parents divorced when I was two years old after the accidental drowning death of my older sister Felicia — I was only 6 months old at the time. While my parents divorced, I was extremely close with my dad and his wife, and my mom and her husband. My grandfather was an educator and taught me to read. I traveled with my grandparents every summer and during the school year they took me to school. … The legacy of educators in my family and the opportunity to take a child development pathway at my high school influenced me to become a teacher.

I was blessed to have a loving family, but the most influential people in my life are my mom and best friend, Cynthia. My mother is a pillar of strength, beauty and poise. She taught me that leaders run to problems, not away from them. My mom also taught me that in every situation, even living through the nightmare of losing a child, God is always with me, and He will never leave or forsake me. … I am the superintendent of the 17th largest school district in the country today because of my mom’s daily encouragement and belief in me.

DD: What do you consider the foremost challenge facing CMS currently?

CH: Our most critical challenge is overcoming instability in leadership. As you know, I am the third superintendent in the last 15 months and the seventh superintendent in the last 12 years. This instability has led to inconsistent processes, procedures and systems to ensure we are efficient and effective in meeting our goals and associated metrics. Eventually, this shows up in how our students are performing. The performance gaps that we have experienced are not because our teachers and staff are not working hard, it is because of instability of leadership which takes the entire organization offtrack and focus. We have worked over the last several months to resurrect solid practices and destroy ineffective practices. … We have worked extremely closely with the Charlotte Executive Leadership Council to support us with this work. We now have systems and a cadence for continuous improvement.

DD: We hear a lot about keeping our children safe at schools. How is this being addressed in CMS and do you foresee any changes in this area going forward.

CH: My predecessors, Mr. [Earnest] Winston and Mr. [Hugh] Hattabaugh, began procuring and installing [weapons detection] scanners at our K-8, middle and high schools. The number of weapons on our campuses has drastically reduced due to their efforts. We are now in the process of adding additional scanners to accelerate the amount of time it takes for students to get through the process and get to class so learning can begin. We have also enhanced our security cameras and building access points. … We are consistently evaluating and re-evaluating to improve safety.

DD: There has been quite a bit of coverage in the news about teachers leaving the profession. Is this true at CMS? If so, give us your perspective on how this might be rectified?

CH: Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is like any other district across the country. We are experiencing a teacher retention and recruitment crisis. … Teachers have a skill set that is transferable and other industries are taking advantage of that.

On a local, state and national level, teachers are not getting the respect, accolades and compensation they deserve. I am proud that in Mecklenburg County, our school board … has been intentional about their support for our teachers. They approved my recommended budget which targeted compensation for teachers and other staff. … Housing is expensive, and teachers cannot afford to live in Mecklenburg County. We need our business community to lean in on this issue and work to support affordable housing.

DD: CMS often gets a lot of “bad rap” from the media. Please share one or two of the biggest successes of CMS our readers need to know about.

CH: I want your readers to know that our enrollment in CMS is increasing, not decreasing. We have made tremendous slides in rebounding from the Covid academic slide. CMS is the only district in the state that offers Cambridge, a rigorous course of study preparing students to be college and career ready, at multiple schools.

DD: Please talk a bit about the importance of parental involvement in elementary and secondary education?

CH: I believe parents are their child’s first and best advocates. … The most important thing we need all parents to do is commit to having their child in school, on time every single day. School attendance is a predictor of school success. We also need parents to support their child by making sure they get plenty of sleep and are prepared to learn. … we need parents to prioritize supporting their child with completing assignments, and we need parents to speak positively and encourage their child to work hard and have fun every day.

DD: What is your vision for CMS in the next five or 10 years?

CH: My vision is for every student to graduate from CMS with entrepreneurial skills and be enlisted, enrolled or employed. The current achievement and opportunity gap between our student groups will be eliminated. We will be a beacon of excellence in North Carolina and across the nation, charting a pathway of endless possibilities (students and employees) through a connected ecosystem of families, community and organizations.