Q and A

Suspensions, evaluations and the Absent Teacher Reserve: What a new union boss has on his mind

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Mark Cannizzaro

Mark Cannizzaro thinks New York City principals have a nearly impossible job. Now, it’s up to him to help them get it done.

This September, Cannizzaro will become president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents more than 6,000 school principals, assistant principals and other education administrators.

“Nothing is more challenging than leading a school or being in school leadership,” Cannizzaro told Chalkbeat.

After a decade of leadership, Ernest Logan recently announced his retirement. Cannizzaro, who has served as executive vice president, will take the helm until at least 2018, when the next election will be held.

The union’s relationship with City Hall has been relatively smooth under Mayor Bill de Blasio. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be clashes. The CSA has been outspoken about its concerns over changes to school discipline policies and about the Renewal program, the city’s expensive turnaround strategy for struggling schools.

Principals themselves have also criticized what they see as a loss of autonomy under the current administration — a far cry from when former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chancellor Joel Klein described principals as the CEOs of their schools. For example, the education department recently announced it would place unassigned educators from the Absent Teacher Reserve into schools that have vacancies, even potentially over principals’ objections.

In an interview with Chalkbeat just before taking on his new role, Cannizzaro, a former Staten Island principal, suggested he would take a quieter approach to getting things done.

He also seemed to tone down his predecessor’s criticism of Renewal, saying there have been tangible gains in some schools.

Here’s what else he had to say about principal evaluations, working with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and the bane of school administrators everywhere: mountains of paperwork.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the single most pressing problem facing principals today?

Let me talk about the problem the system faces with our folks right now. It’s a retention and recruitment problem.

The job is virtually, by the numbers, undoable. The amount of things that you have to know and be able to do — from the size of the chancellor’s regulations to standard operating procedure, the manuals, the paperwork, all of the work and the compliance issues — the workload is tremendous. And the seasoned principal finds the shortcuts to get the job done. A new person coming in doesn’t know right away what things they can work around, which becomes overwhelming.

I think between the paperwork and the workload, budgets are always a challenge. Too many people spend their summers fighting for the basic minimum when they should be spending their summers planning curriculum and setting up their schools.

These have been ongoing issues. I was a principal under the prior administration and I had the issues of paperwork and budget concerns then, also.

Under de Blasio, the school system was reorganized in such a way that principals had to answer to superintendents again. What do you think of that change?

I was a proponent of superintendents being brought back into the districts and empowered, mainly because I always felt it was important to have someone who knew my school well to also be the person who was evaluating me, rating me and hopefully providing support to me.

In the former structure, it’s not that I felt that there was a lack of support. I felt the support was OK. But mainly, the evaluation was based on statistics that came out and the person who was evaluating didn’t always have such an intimate relationship to have context around those numbers.

Should student test scores count in principal evaluations?

I think it’s difficult to get around test scores being used at all, but right now they count for about 50 percent of an evaluation, which is way too much. We’re talking about test scores, really, in math and English. … Our school leaders feel that they are responsible for so many things other than just math and English.

What changes under this administration have been the most helpful for principals?

I mean, look, we have an educator, which I think is a huge plus because we’re able to speak to the chancellor. She’s been there. She’s walked in those shoes.

Now, have we had — and I’m not going to share specifics with you — but have we had concerns where we felt that, “Hey, don’t forget us. We’re here leading this system, making this system work”? Of course. But we had those concerns also with the other administration from time to time.

Have there been any other changes under this current administration that were particularly positive or negative for your members?

I think what’s been most helpful is, it’s very, very easy to pick up the phone to have conversations. Carmen has been very open. She comes here often, she comes to our chancellor’s consultations — which is a change. And I think that’s a positive change.

We meet once a month with a team of the chancellor’s representatives. And we just talk about issues. She comes herself to that — almost all of them. She’s here and she is listening.

Some principals have told us that the restructuring of the system has led to more micromanagement on the ground. Is that a fair perception?

I don’t know if micromanagement is the term, but in some areas, our folks feel that their discretion or their ability to make the decisions — it’s not what it should be.

Can you give an example?

The changes in the discipline code. The decision whether to suspend a child shouldn’t be on anyone else’s plate other than the principal of the school. They need to make the decision because they’re closest. They know the effects on the community. They know what’s best for the child, as well as the other children.

When a child’s behavior is unacceptable, we understand that doesn’t mean the child needs to be cast aside. We need to also be mindful of the fact that there is still a child there that now needs to be welcomed back when he or she comes back. So there are a heck of a lot of things that we need to do to make sure that we respond to student behavior more appropriately, but taking the decision away from the principal is a bad thing.

But wasn’t the restriction on K-2 suspensions enacted because suspensions were being overused?

You can’t jump to suspension. Suspension is not the first answer to most things, unless something was so egregious. And there were probably areas and pockets where it maybe was being overused. But in a system this large, those are the areas where you need to address and do a little digging and find out what it is, and what’s the reason and how come this is happening here? And let’s address how come it’s happening here.

You’ve been pretty measured so far in talking about the city’s decision to place educators from the Absent Teacher Reserve into schools. Isn’t this a reversal of the chancellor’s promise not to use forced placement?

If I’ve been measured, it’s because we haven’t seen the implementation yet, and there’s no reason to not be measured until we see the implementation. And we’ve had a very consistent, ongoing and open dialogue with the DOE [Department of Education] on being able to work together to make sure that schools ultimately benefit and no one is harmed here.

Obviously it’s a change in the way they’ve been doing things. But if you go back, there was a time when every excessed person was placed. Then there was this change in policy — which listen, for school leaders, it was great. You didn’t have someone placed in your building.

But then the practical issues came in. The media and the public were saying, “Look at all of this money that is being spent.” So everybody wanted to solve it their own way. But remember the way that this came up was through collective bargaining.

The United Federation of Teachers did the bargaining. But your members are also affected by the change.

Don’t get me wrong, every principal would want their ability to simply pick whomever they want whenever they want. But there’s a reality here and we’re going to work very closely to make sure this is done well.

Your predecessor was pretty outspoken about the rollout of the Renewal program. He once called it a “recipe for disaster.” What do you think about it?

The rollout had some real issues. We’ve since gotten a lot better.

In an effort to improve the Renewal schools, there were so many people going in to evaluate and probably not enough people going in to support one vision. So you had a group come in and say, “OK, let’s do this.” And another group would come in and maybe they hadn’t communicated the way they should have.

[Now] I think there’s just better communication between the school, who’s supporting and who’s evaluating.

The principal is the one at the center of this. The principal is the one who is ultimately responsible. The principal is the one who is being held accountable. The support has to come around what the principal needs.

We recently reported that schools in the program aren’t showing significant gains compared to schools not in the program.

There are some schools making some tremendous gains, and there are schools that need more resources. The other thing is, how old is the Renewal program? Do some research and find out how long it normally takes for school turnaround to show results in the scores.

But the mayor was the one who promised “fast and intense” improvements in these schools.

Everybody is in a rush, and I understand why everybody is in a rush. What it means is, let’s go back to the superintendent relationship. I want to know from the superintendent, who is back in the schools, how does this school look today compared to the way it looked when it started. If there’s improvement, the scores will follow.

How will your leadership be different from Logan’s?

I’m going to build on some of the great things that Ernie has done.

You probably won’t necessarily know about all of my issues unless I feel like I need you to know about my issues. If I can get something done quietly, that’s probably the most effective way to accomplish something.

But I also have a habit of telling the truth. And sometimes people will agree, and sometimes people won’t agree — but I like to engage people in the debate, then.

We have 6,300 or 6,400 active members. Many, many of them go about their jobs every day and do a great job. We don’t hear from them that much and they don’t hear from us as much as they probably should. This is their union. We need to get that mantra out there.

Who Is In Charge

CPS to enforce nine training sessions for local school council members

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Local school council members at a training session on Tuesday

In a classroom at Bogan High School Tuesday, trainer Jose Ortiz quizzed four local school council members on why they have to hold public meetings before approving their school improvement plan, a key document outlining school priorities and direction. The room fell silent.

“Because,” he answered himself, “the worst thing that the local school council could do is not consult the community.”

Ortiz’s training session illustrated the challenges that Chicago Public Schools faces in ensuring that all members of the powerful councils understand their roles and responsibilities.

The district requires those who help govern its 646 schools each attend around 18 hours of in-person training, or nine online modules. But not everyone complies: Ortiz said that last week, around 10 people attended each module he taught, and on Tuesday, only four people sat through his class. Most council members take the training online, but the effectiveness of those modules is questionable, council members said.

In a district whose school board is appointed by the mayor instead of elected by city residents, the councils, as Ortiz pointed out, serve as important channels enabling residents to drive the direction of their children’s education. Normally consisting of 12 members, including the principal, teachers, parents, and community members, the councils hire and evaluate the principal, approve the budget, and help craft two-year school improvement plans for their schools.

Chicago schools have another problem with the councils: 47 percent of schools have failed to field enough candidates to fill seats, which then allows sitting council members to fill the vacancies. That means less electoral control for residents. It’s unclear if the training requirement deters people from seeking council seats.

Nevertheless, district officials said that this year they will enforce the training requirement and will contact members who fail to finish it.

“We are going to start removing people this year, but it will be after contacting them by email, through phone and then giving them an opportunity before we schedule a hearing, and then we will consider removing them,” said Guillermo Montes de Oca, director of the Office of Local School Council Relations.

As Ortiz continued with his training, he asked if members remember approving their school improvement plan in the past school year. The attendees looked at him with puzzled faces.

“Oh yes, I remember now,” said Andrea Sanchez, a council member at Richard J. Daley Elementary Academy. But, she added, “it’s just overwhelming because you’re looking at numbers and pages, especially when you’re not used to seeing it.” Sanchez has been a council member since December, but she had attended only one out of the nine mandatory training modules before Tuesday, because most of the two-hour sessions were held in various locations throughout the city far from her home.

According to the Illinois School Code, council members must finish all modules within six months of taking office, so newly elected members who take office on July 1 have until Dec. 31 to complete the modules. CPS has never removed a council member for not finishing the training, said Guillermo Montes de Oca. However, that’s changing.

This year, CPS has also been encouraging council members to finish the modules by July 31, he said, because “if you’re going to be seated, discussing the budget and everything, you need to be informed.”

Sanchez said she didn’t know know about the six-month deadline until Tuesday. She wishes the nine modules would be held all at once at her school. “The information in the modules should be given to us right away [upon joining the council],” she said.

Montes de Oca said that the Office of Local School Council Relations encourages council members to take the training online. Especially because the office only offers a few modules per month, to meet the July 31 deadline, council members would have to take most of their training online.

But the attendees Tuesday seemed to prefer the in-person trainings . Denishia Perkins, a council member at Shields Middle School for almost two years, said that she had taken all the training modules online, but they “didn’t do much for me.” The online training consists of clicking through slides of bullet-pointed information and then taking a short quiz at the end of each module.

“It’s so possible to get elected and not know about this stuff,” Perkins said. So she decided to attend the in-person training on Tuesday.

Sanchez said of Ortiz’s class, “It felt one-on-one, and he’s really explaining it to you.”

The trainings are not the only impediment to filling local school council seats.

A representative from the parent group Raise Your Hand told the Sun-Times that people may not want to run for a council position because “people are a little frustrated at the weakening of the local school council.” Currently, 50 percent of principals’ evaluations rely on CPS’ data and metrics, when previously the evaluations relied solely on the council members’ judgment.

Sanchez said that the work of councils are just not advertised enough, and many parents like  her already are involved with jobs or other organizations.

“I don’t think the parents know that we’re that important,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know either.”

another path

‘They’re my second family.’ Largest Pathways to Graduation class earn their diplomas

Jasmine Byrd receives an award for excellence after giving a speech to her fellow graduates.

Before last fall, Jasmine Byrd never envisioned herself striding across the stage to receive a diploma at a graduation ceremony.

But then Byrd moved to the Bronx from Utah and entered New York City’s Pathways to Graduation program, which helps 17- to 21-year-olds who didn’t graduate from a traditional high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma by giving them free resources and support.

Just walking into this space and being like, this is what you’ve accomplished and this is what you’ve worked hard for is a great feeling,” said Byrd, who also credits the program with helping her snag a web development internship. “I’ve built my New York experience with this program. They’re my second family, sometimes my first when I needed anything.”

Byrd is one of about 1,700 students to graduate during the 2017-2018 school year from Pathways, the program’s largest graduating class to date, according to officials.  

This year, students from 102 countries and 41 states graduated from Pathways, which is part of District 79, the education department district overseeing programs for older students who have had interrupted schooling.

The program also saw the most students ever participate in its graduation ceremony, a joyful celebration held this year at the Bronx United Palace Theater. According to Robert Evans, a math teacher at one of the program’s five boroughwide sites and emcee of the graduation, about 600 students typically show up to walk the stage. But students can be a part of the ceremony even if they received their passing test results that morning, and this year more than 800 graduates attended.

There were still students coming in last night to take photos and to pick up their sashes and gowns,” said Evans.

The graduation ceremony is unique in part because the program is. Students who have not completed high school attend classes to prepare to take the high school equivalency exam. But the program also prepares students to apply for college, attend vocational school, or enter the workforce by providing help applying for colleges, creating resumes and other coaching.

To make sure that the program is accessible to all students, there’s a main site in every borough and 92 satellite sites, located in community centers and youth homeless shelters like Covenant House. Students who want to work in the medical field, like Genesis Rocio Rodriguez, can take their courses in hospitals. Rodriguez, who graduated in December, is now enrolled in the Borough of Manhattan Community College, and passing the exam meant being one step closer to her dream of becoming a nurse.

When I got my results I was with my classmate, and to be honest I thought I failed because I was so nervous during it. But then I went online, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh I did it!’ My mom started crying and everything.”

Byrd said the program worked for her because of the supportive teachers and extra resources.

“The teachers are relatable,” said Byrd. “They don’t put on an act, they don’t try to separate the person from the teacher. They really reach out, even call you to get you out of bed in the morning.”

Carmine Guirland said the supportive environment of social workers, guidance counselors, and teachers is what attracts him to the work at Bronx NeOn, a site where students who are on probation or who are involved with the court system can prepare for the exam, college, and careers.

When students are on parole they will have really involved [parole officers] who would text me at the beginning of class to check in so that we could work together,” said Guirland. “It’s really about that village thing. The more support systems that are available the more success the students will have.”

Reflecting on his experiences with the graduating class, Guirland’s most treasured memory was when one of his students proposed to his girlfriend in a guidance counseling session. Even though they aren’t together anymore, the moment was a reflection of the relationships that many of the students build during their time at Pathways to Graduation.

“It’s this amazing high moment where this student felt like the most comfortable place for him to propose to his girlfriend and the mother of his child was in our advisory circle,” said Guirland.