Fresh faces

Ken Wagner, top state ed deputy, a finalist for Rhode Island ed chief job

Yvvonne Burrell and Sir Martin look at scholarship information in the Future Center during a school day at Manual High School on Tuesday, May 10, 2011. The Future Center provides the students a place to receive information about financial aid, scholarships and colleges. The graduating seniors at the school are all required to apply and be accepted to some form of post high school educational facility. AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Ken Wagner, a former school psychologist and principal who has ascended the ranks of the State Education Department in recent years, is a final candidate to become Rhode Island’s next state education commissioner, sources say.

Wagner has effectively helmed the department alongside acting Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin over the first half of 2015 after John King’s departure last year. Wagner would be the latest in a string of state education officials to leave over the last year, which has been marked by tumult over education policies and the end of the state’s Race to the Top funding, as well as the choice of new Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who started Monday.

Wagner, who did not respond to a request for comment, joined the department as its data director in 2009 and was soon promoted to assistant commissioner by then-Commissioner David Steiner, according to his LinkedIn page. His oversight quickly expanded to include assessments, curriculum, and education technology before being promoted to senior deputy commissioner in January after King stepped down.

Though Wagner wasn’t the acting commissioner, he became the face of the department in recent months, moderating the high-profile summit that brought researchers to Albany to discuss changes to teacher evaluations. Some within the department saw Wagner as the top internal candidate to replace King.

“Ken has credentials to be in any number of jobs so I’m not overly surprised,” said Regent Roger Tilles, when told of Wagner’s candidacy. “I’m disappointed. I think he’s done a good job.”

The transition would leave Elia with more room to choose her top leaders. But it also highlights a challenge for the state education department: how to hold onto personnel and institutional knowledge as it loses money and influence in the post-Race to the Top era.

In 2010, New York was awarded nearly $700 million through the federal Race to the Top program, which spurred states to overhaul education policies. That money was used to help districts implement new teacher evaluation systems and the Common Core learning standards and to devise new state tests, among other changes.

That federal funding effectively ran out last month. Among Elia’s most immediate decisions will be which programs should continue at the department, which last year had 45 Race to the Top-funded staff positions. The privately funded Regents Research Fund, which employed temporary staff members as consultants on the Race to the Top initiatives, has also been dismantled.

Other officials who have left or are planning to leave include Bill Clark, who left the state’s charter school office last month to become executive director of the education organization School Turnaround; assistant commissioner Julia Rafal-Baer, who announced her plans to leave at last month’s Board of Regents meeting; and Ken Slentz and Cosimo Tangorra, Jr., both deputy commissioners who have left in the past year.

“In every transition there are shifts in staffing, and I would expect this administration will not be different,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said. “It’s just logical.”

Tisch declined to comment on Wagner’s job prospects.

“One of the great things about working together with people is that when they leave you is that they get promoted, so I wouldn’t be unhappy if that was the case,” Tisch said when asked about the Rhode Island education chief position. “He deserves every good thing that is coming to him.”

The Ocean State has just 300 public schools, but it has played host to some high-profile education debates, especially after the 2010 mass firing and re-hiring of teachers in Central Falls. Its last education commissioner, Deborah Gist, introduced new teacher evaluations and changed the state’s school funding formula. Gist’s contract officially ended on July 1, although she announced her departure in the winter and is now leading Tulsa, Oklahoma’s school system.

The Rhode Island appointment is controlled by the governor, although a board of education has to formally sign off. The board, called the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, is next scheduled to meet on July 13. A spokeswoman for Gov. Gina Raimondo office did not respond to requests for comment.

Raimondo won last year’s Democratic primary and the general election without the backing of the state teachers union, which remained upset about pension cuts she spearheaded as Rhode Island’s treasurer. One of her first moves as governor was to name Stefan Pryor, a founder of the Achievement First network of charter schools and the former Connecticut education commissioner, to lead the state’s economic development efforts.

Wagner was not the only leader with New York credentials considered for the Rhode Island job. Jean-Claude Brizard, a former deputy chancellor at the city’s education department and the former head of Chicago and Rochester’s schools, said in an email that he had interviewed earlier this year but was “no longer in the mix.”

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”

 

Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”

 

Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”

 

Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”

 

Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”

 

Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.