so far so good

How is Carranza’s big shake-up going over? So far, educators are optimistic.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Chancellor Richard Carranza tours Staten Island's New Dorp High School with Principal Deirdre DeAngelis.

Principals across New York City already complain about being buried in mounds of paperwork, compliance items, and mandates from their superiors.

So at first glance, it may sound like bad news that a system shake-up announced by Chancellor Richard Carranza on Wednesday centers on adding another layer of bureaucracy to the system’s management.

But instead, the chancellor’s plan to add nine executive superintendents is being met with cautious optimism from some principals and school advocates, who say the new structure could provide a clear point person to contact when they need support. It may also streamline communication between management and principals, cutting down on the amount of paperwork principals are required to complete, they say.

“They are making sure that those lines are clear, that the principals knows where they’re going to get their support,” said Mark Cannizzaro, the head of the city’s principal’s union. “When it comes to being burdened with paperwork and bureaucracy, my view is that it should be reducing that.”

At the core of Carranza’s plan is an effort to bring together two entities that have been operating separately for several years: superintendents and Field Support Centers. The superintendents are tasked with overseeing principals and shaping instruction, while the support centers provide logistical help to schools in areas like teacher training or budgeting.

The problem for some principals, however, has been that it is not always clear who is charge or where to turn for assistance. For instance, while principals are supposed to work with superintendents to improve instruction, the resources to do that are governed by the support centers — requiring two autonomous entities to work together.

“You really feel as if you’re dealing with two sets of divorced parents,” said Ari Hoogenboom, principal of Abraham Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. They want you “to succeed,” he says, “but their notions of what will make you successful and happy are different.”  

Hoogenboom said putting the two entities under the single umbrella of an executive superintendent may help stem some of the confusion. (He likened the role to that of a marriage counselor.)

Edgar Rodriguez, principal of the Academy for Careers in Television and Film, said that he is also encouraged by the streamlined structure. “I will say for myself and for many of my colleagues, one of the main challenges has been a clear delineation of responsibility between those two entities,” he said.

Under the old system, he said, he would often get two sets of compliance items from the Field Support Centers and the superintendent. He remembers thinking, “I just answered this question for so-and-so, how is that this information hasn’t gotten to the right place?”

The city’s current system was crafted by former Chancellor Carmen Fariña, who wanted to give more power to superintendents, who could be her “eyes and ears,” in her words. Her systemic shifts came after the previous mayor, Michael Bloomberg, sought to give principal’s maximal autonomy.

While some critics complained about Bloomberg’s governance, which they said lacked support for struggling principals, others thought Fariña’s management style took too much power away from principals on the frontlines and bordered on micromanagement. In an account of one early meeting, two principals complained that their newly-empowered superintendents had ushered them into a meeting with “random speakers” including Miss New York, who spoke with them about “baton twirling.”

Carranza’s system may be seen as doubling down on Fariña’s approach, by giving power to another set of higher-level superintendents, who will make at least $190,000 each, costing the city an additional $2 million in central-office costs. But Cannizzaro says the structural change is not necessarily a sign of a larger philosophical shift.

“I don’t see this structure as dictating, one way or another, what the philosophy is going to be,” Cannizzaro said. He noted that while the plan looks good on paper, it will be crucial to see how it is implemented over the coming months.

The reorganization also left some leaders of private groups that manage smaller networks of public schools — such as Urban Assembly and New Visions — encouraged.

Former Chancellor Fariña wanted to shrink the role of those networks, which were favored by Mayor Bloomberg and were designed to allow groups of schools to share ideas and best practices. In the past, networks were supervised by an overlapping patchwork of superintendents. Carranza’s reorganization, by contrast, creates a new superintendent position to oversee just those networks.

“We feel embraced by this structure,” said Kristin Kearns-Jordan, CEO of the Urban Assembly network, which manages 21 New York City public schools. “It signals good support for our work.”

Josh Starr, a former schools superintendent in Connecticut and Maryland who is currently the CEO of PDK International, an association for educators, said it is not unusual for new district leaders to make big structural changes when they take office to put their own imprint on schools.

But imposing a new supervision structure on a massive system of 1,800 schools won’t come without challenges. Starr said Carranza will need to publicly communicate a concrete theory about how the new executive superintendents will improve student learning, and how this work will be evaluated.

“Rich is going to have to be very, very clear about what that work looks like and what his expectations are and what support [school supervisors] are going to get,” Starr said. Otherwise, “Do you just create layers of bureaucracy?”

Another challenge will be finding sufficient talent to fill the new superintendent positions, given the many scores of schools serving thousands of students — and uncertainty about whether the roles will last beyond the remainder of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s three years in office.

Still, Starr is optimistic. “Rich is known out there as one of the good guys and he has a strong network and a lot of people want to work for him.”

leader change

Memphis leader of Teach for America stepping down this spring

PHOTO: Teach for America Memphis
From left: Athena Palmer, executive director of Teach for America Memphis, Ayo Akinmoladun and Barbara Rosser Hyde.

The leader of Memphis’ largest alternative teacher training program is stepping down at the end of the school year after nine years at the helm.

Athena Palmer was in the first cohort of 48 Teach for America recruits to Memphis in 2006 and took over as executive director in 2010. Over the next six months, Palmer will hand over the program to Nafeesha Mitchell, a 2009 member of Teach for America in Charlotte who worked her way up to assistant principal before returning to lead the national organization’s chapter there.

In an email to colleagues Thursday, Palmer said she doesn’t know yet where she’ll go next.

“Someone really smart once told me that knowing when to leave is just as hard as knowing when to stay committed,” she said. “As our current strategic plan comes to an end and with our region in an incredible place from which to innovate in the sector, it became clear to me that this was a great time to embrace the feeling I have for my next adventure.”

PHOTO: Teach for America
Athena Palmer

The competitive national program places mostly recent college graduates in schools that districts have a hard time staffing. Teach for America has welcomed about 1,200 teachers over the past 12 years in Memphis with a commitment to stay in the classroom for two years. This year, 263 teachers are in 108 traditional and charter schools, including the state’s Achievement School District. That’s fewer than in previous years, keeping in line with national trends.

The program has consistently received high marks from the Tennessee Department of Education in its annual teacher preparation report card, and has enjoyed wide support from local and national philanthropies. Teacher unions have been wary of the program’s influence because the teachers have little training before going into classrooms that can be difficult to manage.

About 500 alumni of the program are still in Memphis, according to recent numbers from the organization, including 100 school administrators, 300 teachers, and five in charter network or district leadership roles. Among them is Brad Leon, a member of the top cabinet for Shelby County Schools who was the first regional director for Teach for America in Memphis.

PHOTO: Teach for America
Nafeesha Mitchell

Under Palmer’s leadership, the teachers recruited have more closely matched the students they serve in race and economic background. This year, 42 percent of recruits were teachers of color, and 42 percent came from low-income families. In the organization’s first year in Memphis there were three teachers of color, or 6 percent. By comparison, about 93 percent of Shelby County Schools were composed of students of color that year and 59 percent lived in poverty.

Mitchell, who will take over in June, is a vice president on the national organization’s leadership and engagement team. She starts as deputy director immediately and will be in Memphis full time in January, according to a statement.

“Memphis is regarded around the country as one of the model Teach For America chapters,” she said. “Athena and her team have built something incredible here, and I’m thrilled to be able to expand on her work and push all of us even harder to reach our goal of true and lasting equity for all children in this great city.”

In the lead

The winners of Tuesday’s Detroit school board election include one incumbent and one new arrival

School board candidates Corletta Vaughn (L) and Deborah Hunter-Harvill, the incumbent, are in the lead with 87 percent of Detroit precincts reporting.

An incumbent Detroit school board member has retained her seat and will continue to help guide the state’s largest school district for another four years.

Deborah Hunter-Harvill, a former suburban school superintendent, will be joined on the board by Corletta J. Vaughn, the pastor of the Go Tell It Ministry Worldwide church in Detroit. The two were the top vote-getters among eight candidates seeking to fill two seats on the seven-member board.

Though the Detroit school board election was near the bottom of a full midterm election ballot, the vote comes at a crucial time for the 50,000-student district. Superintendent Nikolai Vitti will need the board’s support as he continues to overhaul the district’s curriculum and address serious challenges including the $500 million repair bill the district is facing as it tries to bring its aging buildings up to modern standards. 

With so many candidates vying for two seats on the board, name recognition was crucial. That gave Hunter-Harvill, the only incumbent in the race, a key advantage. She and Shannon Smith, a financial analyst, also outraised their opponents by thousands of dollars and spent their campaign coffers to buy billboards, yard signs, and mailers.

With 100 percent of Detroit precincts reporting early Wednesday morning, Hunter-Harville was the clear winner with 22.6 percent of the vote. Vaughn was second with 18.8 percent of the vote. Reverend David Murray and Smith were not far behind with 18.0 percent and 17.9 percent respectively. They were followed by Britney Sharp (13.6 percent), Terrell George (14.7 percent), and Natalya Henderson (12 percent).

Deborah Elaine Lemmons, a sister of current board member LaMar Lemmons, had 12.9 percent of the vote even though she let it be known that she had dropped out of the race a few weeks ago, citing health reasons. Candidate M. Murray was in last place with 5.7 percent of the vote.

At the polls, voters said they wanted to ensure that children in Detroit had the same opportunities as those in the suburbs.

“Access to education is the biggest thing,” said Jesus Hernandez, a 30-year-old resident of Southwest Detroit.

To learn more about the winning candidates, read their answers below to six questions about how they plan to guide the city district over their four-year terms: