A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Sunday, September 28, 2008

No kidding.

Here's news: it's hard to keep superintendents in urban settings.


The story:
St. Louis is looking for its eighth school superintendent since 2003. Kansas City is on its 25th superintendent in 39 years.

Despite good salaries and plenty of perks, a recent study found that the average urban superintendent nationwide stays on the job only about three years — which educators say isn't enough time to enact meaningful, long-lasting reform.

"Would you buy Coca-Cola if they changed CEOs every year?" asked Diana Bourisaw, who left as St. Louis superintendent in July after two years in the top job. "The answer is no. I wouldn't."

On Friday, Kelvin Adams signed a three-year contract with the St. Louis district worth $225,000 annually plus bonus incentives, a day after his hiring was approved by a state-appointed board that oversees the district.

Adams figures he can buck the trend of superintendent turnover.

"I am absolutely focused on one thing — student achievement," Adams said.

Academic accountability is the new national mantra in public education, and low-performing districts are placing high salaries and higher demands on their superintendents — who find themselves caught between factions of publicly elected school boards, teachers' unions and parent groups.

"I consider that to be the toughest job in America," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.

The school board in Kansas City has gained a reputation for micromanaging the district and end-running its own superintendent even as test scores languish year after year.

One school board member abruptly quit this past week, and in a resignation letter scolded her colleagues for not doing enough to address the district's accreditation problems and their "continued demonstrations of micromanagement and defensive posturing."

"This is clearly not a board that is interested in reforming its practices to achieve strong educational outcomes for our students," said board member Ingrid Burnett, "and I can no longer justify my involvement to myself or to my constituents."

Even superintendents with strong track records aren't safe. Rudy Crew, honored by his peers for improving schools in Florida's Miami-Dade County, was effectively fired by his board this month when the remainder of his contract was bought out.

Critics said he mismanaged the budget and didn't build ties with communities. He was there four years.

The 2006 study by the Council of the Great City Schools, a coalition of some of the nation's largest urban public school systems, reported an average salary of $208,000 among the nearly 60 urban districts it examined. More than half of those superintendents got a car or mileage allowance, more than one-third got financial bonuses, and 2 percent received a housing allowance.

Yet it's not unheard of for a big-city opening to draw only a few dozen candidates — a testament, experts say, to the job's professional and political demands. Thirty-five people applied for the St. Louis job.

"With all the challenges they're facing, they're looking for somebody who can walk on water," said Stan Paz, a former superintendent in Tucson, Ariz., and El Paso, Texas, and now vice president of McGraw-Hill Education's urban advisory resource team.

Atlanta went through five superintendents in 10 years before Barbara Hall arrived in 1999, said school board member Katy Pattillo. She feels the district has made significant academic progress since Hall's arrival.

Pattillo said the Atlanta school board attended "governance training" to better define the roles of people involved in education and improve communication. Atlanta also worked to get community and business support for the district of 50,000 students and its leadership. Hall now boasts of academic gains every year since 2000.

In St. Louis, Adams — a first-time superintendent arriving from New Orleans, where he was chief of staff of the Recovery School District — takes over a district that hasn't been as fortunate.

Urban flight to the suburbs has plagued St. Louis since the 1950s. The population, more than 850,000 in 1950, is now about 350,000 — a loss of tax base that one superintendent after another has struggled to overcome.

The situation got so bad that last year that the Missouri Board of Education stripped the district of accreditation, saying it came up short academically and financially.

A three-member board was appointed last year to oversee the district. But the locally elected school board remains in place and its members are vocal, though largely powerless, and often second-guess the state panel's moves.

Bourisaw was hired in 2006 by the elected board. When the state-appointed board took over, members decided that with the new oversight the job should be advertised. Bourisaw was encouraged to reapply but declined.

Bourisaw said urban districts often face issues like poverty, immigration, frequently moving or homeless students and safety concerns that extend beyond education.

"I don't believe the quality of children's education should be determined by the ZIP code they live in," she said.

"School boards like to hire someone to come in and rescue the district, and one person can't do that."

After a decade in St. Louis, Lori and Eric Peterson and their children are moving to the suburbs because they feel the school district has let them down.

Already this school year, fourth-grader Isabella has once arrived home an hour late because the fill-in bus driver didn't know the route. Third-grader Zain is worried his grade may still be split into smaller groups, potentially taking him away from classmates he began the school year with.

Lori Peterson said she has complained, but to no avail.

"Do we stay and try to prove a point that we're 'city' people?'" she asked. "Or do we leave because that's in the best interest of our children?"

Let me answer that last question for you, Mrs. Peterson: You run like hell. And by the way, the second you change your residence from a city zip code, your car insurance will drop like a moose in the sights of Sarah Palin.

Let's remember that St. Louis is a school district which has had a board president whose children attended a nearby school district in a tonier part of the metro area and another board member who claimed that someone had spiked her soda pop with cocaine and who tried to place hexes on those she considered her enemy. My hand on my heart. You can't make stuff like that up. And this new oversight board appointed by the governor of Missouri consists of people with very little first hand knowledge of public schools. Not surprisingly, the head of the special board is a housing developer who sent his kids to parochial and Catholic schools and who lives waaaaay out in the 'burbs.

Kansas City schools were infamous for building gigantic marble entryways and Olympic-sized indoor pools yet still being unable to stem white flight or to draw suburban kids to their magnet schools. Omaha schools famously tried to redistrict along racial lines. Tulsa Public Schools just fired a superintendent who was an authoritarian jerk out of touch with the needs of the people who lived in the district, which encompassed both urban pockets of poverty and suburban upper-middle class Beemer- drivers.

In my opinion, most superintendents (and most principals) need to focus on instructional needs first, last, and always. They need to work in partnership with, not in opposition to, the people in the trenches doing the teaching and the learning. They should have a minimum of ten years' teaching experience, and five years as a head principal under their belts.

But, hey, what do I know? I've just spent nearly forty years of my life in school in some fashion.

Jeez, now I'm depressed.



At 10/3/08, 2:55 PM, Blogger Mrs. C said...



I live close enough to Kansas City to see it from my window. My husband works there, too, and when we moved out this way we knew that that was the one school district that NO WAY we were sending our children into.

I wouldn't have a problem with electing a board member who said, "You know what? The schools here are so crummy, I wouldn't send my kid there. But I'm going to change things so that I will in 2010" or whatever. Just be honest. I'm sure teachers get just as sick (um, if not more!) of stupid platitudes from school boards about "quality public education" as parents.

Do you ever feel like shouting "OXYMORON!" when you hear the phrase "quality public education?" I do. Though I do like my older sons' teachers very much. Don't ask about the administrators, though. I wanted my visit to be friendly! :]

I'm browsing your blog today and you have some interesting posts!


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