Who Is In Charge

R2T tip: Focus on leadership, struggling schools

States that present the strongest proposals on improving teachers and leaders and on struggling schools will have the best chance to win federal Race to the Top grants, Tim Daly of the New Teacher Project told Colorado educators Friday.

The federal stimulus law, of which R2T is a part, sets four areas of emphasis for use of federal funds. Known as the four assurances, they are: Standards and assessments, data systems to support instructions, great teachers and leaders, and turning around struggling schools.

The project has done extensive analysis of R2T criteria and of how individual states might stack up.

Daly spoke Friday in Denver to the Great Teachers and Leaders Committee, one of four volunteer panels that are helping develop Colorado’s application for R2T.

“I think the states that will win will win on” the strength of their leadership and struggling schools proposals, Daly said. He said state proposals on standards and assessments and data systems are likely to be more similar.

For instance, on standards and assessments, Daly said, “I think Colorado is in great shape … but it’s unlikely to be a differentiator.” Again, on data, he said, “I think you all are doing great work, but … it won’t be determinative.”

Colorado education officials are scheduled to adopt new content standards at the end of this year and new statewide assessments at the end of 2010. Both are part of the Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids reform program adopted in 2008.

State officials have long been optimistic about their R2T chances, partly because of the CAP4K reforms. But, they have acknowledged that the state may be less competitive in the area of great teachers and leaders.

Daly noted that state law allows only two ratings in teacher evaluations – satisfactory and unsatisfactory. He noted that the proposed R2T requirements call for states to have – or be working toward – finer differentiations of teacher and principal effectiveness in advancing student achievement.

“I wouldn’t submit an application that has only [two] teacher ratings in it,” Daly said.

On the issue of turning struggling schools around, Daly said he feels the Department of Education may look more favorably on plans that call for reconstituting, turning over to outside management or closing failing schools, rather than plans that propose “transforming” schools with existing staff largely intact. DOE’s “feeling is that [transformation] hasn’t been working.”

Daly praised the four-committee process Colorado has been using to develop the R2T application, noting that one of the requirements is wide support for the proposal by a state’s leaders and education community. “This sort of meeting isn’t happening in a lot of states,” he said, calling the Colorado process “a huge advantage.”

All four committees met this week. Committee proposals are expected to be refined at meetings next month (see schedule).

Committee proposals will be refined into the state’s application by consultants including the School of Public Affairs at CU-Denver, Augenblick, Palaich and Associates and the Third Mile Group. Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien is coordinating the state’s R2T bid (more info here), and the Department of Education is overseeing other education stimulus programs and grants.

The DOE issued preliminary guidance for the R2T program in late July, which was open to public comment until Aug. 28. Daly said the agency has received more than 1,500 comments. In Colorado’s response, Gov. Bill Ritter and O’Brien raised questions about the lack of information about how preschool and higher education might fit into state reform efforts, about the extent to which R2T will require states to adopt common content standards, about the extent to which the state can oversee school district spending of R2T funds and about the transparency of the R2T bid evaluation process.

The National Governors’ Association also raised several concerns about DOE’s R2T guidance (see letter). Several of those concerns involve constitutional and legal questions about the relationship between states and the federal government and between states and local education agencies such as school districts. The letter was sent over Ritter’s signature as chair of the NGA’s education committee.

DOE is expected to release its revised guidance this fall, perhaps as early as Oct. 1. Daly said Friday it’s hard to speculate about what, if anything, might change in the document.

New Teacher Project R2T analysis

Do your homework in the EdNews archives

tie breaker

Sheridan school board discussion heats up as date is set for final vote on new superintendent

Sheridan board member Juanita Camacho was sworn in on April 10, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Sheridan School District)

With a new board member who can cast a tie-breaking vote, the school board of the tiny Sheridan district is set to pick its first new superintendent in 10 years.

Finding a replacement for Michael Clough has been a contentious process, with community members pushing for an outside candidate who might be more responsive to their concerns and bring faster change and with veteran board members favoring a candidate who already works in the district.

At a meeting two weeks ago, Clough shouted at the community and the president of the teachers union. The president, who is also a district teacher, had been standing with community members who rose to express support for the outside candidate, a Denver Public Schools administrator named Antonio Esquibel. Clough and the board president called the display “totally disrespectful.”

On Tuesday, the meeting started in a small room where a staff member stood at the door and turned away members of the public, including a reporter who went in anyway. But there was still shouting, this time between board members frustrated with the process and each other.

One issue in dispute: the role of the newly seated board member.

The Sheridan board is divided between two veteran board members, Bernadette Saleh and Sally Daigle, who want to see the district continue on the path Clough set, and two new members, Daniel Stange and Karla Najera, who are allied with the parents and advocates who want to see a new direction.

The fifth seat had been vacant for more than 10 years before Juanita Camacho put in her application earlier this year. Initially board members wanted to wait to seat her until after they chose a new superintendent, but when it seemed like they were headed for deadlock, she was sworn in.

Tuesday, Saleh, the board’s president, argued that Camacho was not seated to help select a new superintendent, while Stange argued that it did appear that way.

Camacho said she did not think about the superintendent search when she initially applied, and she almost considered backing out of the role when she knew she would be a tie-breaker.

“I’m going to make that deciding vote,” Camacho said. “It’s not going to be an easy thing for me.”

Camacho will have one more week to review the qualifications of the three finalists for the position before the board vote at 5 p.m. on May 1.

Part of the division in the community and on the board centers on the perception of the district’s progress. Many community members and teachers say they want drastic changes to improve the district, while others have said they want to continue the district’s current momentum.

Sheridan, a district serving about 1,400 students just southwest of Denver, has improved enough on state ratings to get off the state’s watchlist for chronic low-performance and avoid state sanctions. But by many measures, including graduation rates, the district is still considered low performing.

“You don’t know what we’ve been through,” Daigle told Stange, who she accused of bad-mouthing the district. “We came out of the turnaround long before we were ever expected to.”

Several teachers and parents have spoken to the board during public comment at multiple meetings, asking them to “listen to the community.” Most of them support Esquibel, the only one of three finalists who is from outside the district.

Saleh and Daigle also argued that if other board members wanted a candidate who was from outside the district, they should have voiced that opinion before they collectively narrowed the candidates to the three finalists announced in March.

While many community members and board member Stange prefer Esquibel, they have said that the other two candidates aren’t bad choices to lead the district, and none of the board members disputed that they agreed on the three as finalists.

MERGE AHEAD

Wadleigh middle school is safe — for now — after Harlem community rallied to stop its closure

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
A Wadleigh graduate addresses the crowd at a rally outside the school. Students, parents and community leaders spoke against the city's plans to close the Harlem performing arts school.

Supporters scored a partial victory in their fight to keep the middle school alive at Wadleigh Secondary, a politically connected and historically important performing and visual arts school in Harlem.

Marking one of Richard Carranza’s first major moves as chancellor, the education department on Monday pulled its proposal to cut Wadleigh’s middle school grades — just days before the Panel for Educational Policy was scheduled to vote on the school’s fate. But the department also announced that it will begin laying the groundwork to combine Wadleigh with another district middle school in the building.

The school, which was saved from closure once before after a public outcry, will continue to serve students in grades six through 12 for the next school year.

“After listening to extensive feedback from Wadleigh families and community members, the chancellor is withdrawing the proposal to truncate the middle school grades at Wadleigh Secondary School,” the education department confirmed in an email.

The fight for the school, which is part of the city’s high-profile Renewal turnaround program, is likely not over. Saying the middle school’s academic performance is “not acceptable,” the education department announced it will begin a planning process to combine Wadleigh with Frederick Douglass Academy II. For school communities, such mergers can feel just like a closure, with one school often retaining its name, keeping the same leadership, and preserving its unique approach to teaching.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” said Gigs Taylor-Stephenson, president of the Wadleigh PTA. “The whole idea was to maintain our identity as an arts school with an strong academic component. It doesn’t seem like that’s the case, and we’ve argued time and time again that we don’t want to be a separate middle and high school.”

Education department spokesman Michael Aciman stressed that the plan to combine the schools is still in the early phases and said “the community will help shape and decide what the proposal looks like.”

The decision marks Carranza’s first foray in the controversial school closure process since becoming chancellor earlier this month. Kim Watkins, president of the Community Education Council in District 3, which includes Wadleigh, said the chancellor met with parent leaders and elected officials to hear their pleas to save the middle school.

“Something wasn’t right, and it was very reassuring to our council and to the community in Harlem that our chancellor took an interest,” Watkins said. “His fresh eyes, in conjunction with the hard work of community leaders, led us to the update we’re hearing today.”

Monday’s about-face marked at least the second time supporters beat back a proposal to shut down the middle school at Wadleigh, which has long struggled academically but enjoys a remarkable constituency. When it was targeted for closure in 2011, the famed philosopher Cornel West was among those who rallied to keep it open — and so did Mayor Bill de Blasio, who at the time served as the city’s public advocate. A new principal was installed but Wadleigh landed on the city’s list of struggling schools just two years later, and officials drew up an “action plan” to help turn things around.

After de Blasio was elected, Wadleigh became a part of the city’s latest improvement efforts: the Renewal program, which infuses schools with added resources and tacks on extra time to the school day. Still, the school has continued to struggle. In December, the education department recommended shutting down the middle school, citing low enrollment and three years without a single student scoring “proficient” on state math exams.

The latest battle to keep Wadleigh alive drew support from the NAACP, the local Community Education Council, elected officials including a state senator and the city comptroller, along with countless parents, students, alumni and school staff. Many argued the school still hasn’t received the help it needed to boost test scores. City data shows Wadleigh enrolls students who are usually the toughest to serve: Many enter middle school already lagging behind their peers, almost all come from economically needy families, and a disproportionate number have special needs.

“How about you just help us and keep this school together,” one student asked at a rally on Friday outside Wadleigh. “I don’t want this school to close down.”

This time around, the education department says it will appoint an assistant principal to focus on the middle school grades in both Wadleigh and Frederick Douglass. Starting next school year, the middle school grades will begin working together on math instruction and share arts resources, and staffers will train together, according to the education department.

Planning for combining both schools will start this year, with the merger set to take effect for the 2019-20 school year.

The announcement could deepen a clash between city officials and the popular but controversial Success Academy charter network, which also runs a school in the same building. Just last month, Success founder Eva Moskowitz stood outside the school and said the city has ignored Success’s requests for more room there. The network has filed a complaint asking state education officials to intervene.

A spokesman for Success declined to comment Monday, but the network’s leaders have said the charter school enrolls one-third of the students in the building, with only a quarter of the space.