Movers and shakers

Four charter organizations in Tennessee’s state-run district under new leadership this school year

PHOTO: (Photo: Jim Weber/The Commercial Appeal)
Memphis Scholars sixth graders line up to return to home room at the end of the day in April 2017. This school year, the charter organization is one of four in the state-run district with a new top leader.

Four of the 12 charter school organizations in Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which is focused on turning around low-performing schools, are under a new top leader this academic year.

Here are the new leaders working within the state-run district, though some have worked previously within their respective organizations:

  • Dwayne Tucker was officially named LEAD’s top executive this year. He was previously chairman of the LEAD board, which chose him as interim CEO in August 2017. He replaces Chris Reynolds, who was forced to resign due to differences with the board and given a hefty severance package. LEAD runs two turnaround schools in Nashville, the district’s only schools outside of Memphis.
  • Nickalous Manning has since June served as the leader of the Memphis-based Aspire Public Schools. He is a longtime Memphis educator and worked previously with the charter network, which runs three elementary schools and one middle school in Memphis. He is Aspire Memphis’ second leader following Alison Leslie, who left earlier this year for a job at an education consulting firm.
  • James Dennis is the interim executive director for Memphis Scholars. He replaced founding director Nick Patterson, who is now at the Arkansas Academy for Educational Equity. Memphis Scholars is a charter operator that runs three schools in the state district.
  • Sharon Griffin, the district’s top leader, brought on new central office leaders over the summer: Tonye Smith McBride and Alethea Henry, formerly with Shelby County Schools, and Lisa Settle and Bobby White, who were previously with the state district. The four of them are in charge of directing academics and operating three schools the district runs directly, called the Achievement Schools, as well as overall management of the district. Previously, Verna Ruffin was in charge of the direct-run schools’ academics. She is now a schools superintendent in Waterbury, Connecticut.

The Achievement School District has battled high teacher and leader turnover since it began as Tennessee’s foremost school turnaround initiative in 2012. Recent departures of district veterans, such as  Leslie and Patterson, are significant. But the turnover is not uncommon, as retention rates for educators are lower in tough turnaround settings.

“Leadership culture and data drives school turnaround,” Griffin told Chalkbeat. “We know our people and schools don’t just get better on their own, they need to be fully supported. That’s why it will be so important that we as a district have strong leaders in place, and the resources to support those leaders in place.”

LEAD’s Tucker, whose background is in business, not education, said he has a good track record when it comes to recognizing and fostering great leaders. Tucker has focused on building up strong principals at LEAD’s two turnaround schools.

“When we had our leadership change in August, the board was concerned that we were not developing high-performing schools across the network,” Tucker said. “When you get the right school director, and that school director has a vision for what success looks like, everything gets dramatically easier to achieve.”

New leader

Susana Cordova named Denver superintendent, rising from student to teacher to top boss

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post
Susana Cordova, right.

Nearly 30 years after she began her career in Denver as a bilingual teacher, Susana Cordova was selected Monday as superintendent of the 92,000-student school district.

The Denver school board voted unanimously to appoint Cordova, who has served as the district’s deputy superintendent for the past two years. She will take over the top job in January.

“I’m incredibly humbled and gratified by the support from the board,” Cordova said after the vote.

While critics have said Cordova shoulders some of the blame for persistent problems in the district, including big test score gaps between students of color and white students, board members praised her for her knowledge of Denver, her experience as an educator, and her ability to, as board member Barbara O’Brien said, “talk to people on the other side of the aisle.”

Since being named a finalist for the job, “Susana was faced with a lot of controversy and she didn’t avoid the controversy, but she leaned into it,” board member Happy Haynes said.

“We all knew Susana as a deep listener,” Haynes said. “But to watch her in the community sessions, listening to each person regardless of what their concern was and whether they agreed with her or not — she listened deeply. And that’s an extraordinary attribute for a leader.”

Cordova, 52, has spent her entire career in Denver Public Schools. She has been a teacher and principal in district-run schools, and a district administrator overseeing them. A big part of her job in recent years has been helping struggling district-run schools improve.

Drew Schutz is principal at Valverde Elementary, one of the schools that got extra funding and help. Schutz said Cordova provided guidance in tangible ways, visiting Valverde several times and brainstorming strategies that could boost student learning there.

One action that stands out to him, he said, was when Cordova pitched in when he was trying to recruit parents to help with redesigning the low-performing school.

“She was out here one day — a sweltering hot day in the middle of the summer — and she was going door to door with me in the community,” Schutz said. “That was a point where I realized she was truly invested in soliciting community voice.”

Cordova is different from her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, in several ways that community members have said are important. Cordova is Latina, and she will lead a district where 55 percent of students are Hispanic. She is also a lifelong educator and a lifelong Denver resident. Cordova graduated from Denver Public Schools, and she sent her own children to schools in the district. Her son graduated and her daughter is a senior in high school.

Cordova has talked about how the education she received from the Denver Public Schools changed her life, but how some of her classmates and family members — students of color who grew up in working-class neighborhoods — faced a different outcome.

“I feel like what happened to me was more good fortune than it was a design,” Cordova said at a public forum about her candidacy last week. “My belief is we must be working intentionally to be creating equity by design and not by chance.”

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Susana Cordova, fourth from right, poses with the seven members of the Denver school board after they voted to appoint her superintendent.

After Monday’s vote, Cordova said she couldn’t help but think back to herself in elementary school — and how much it would have meant to 8-year-old her to know she’d one day lead the school district.

“I don’t know that I could have imagined this,” Cordova said. She added that she’s excited “to make sure the 8- and 9-year-olds sitting in our classrooms today have all the access and opportunities I had.”

The appointment of Cordova as superintendent was expected, as she was the sole finalist for the position. That put her in the hot seat, with some parents and teachers questioning whether the search, which cost the district more than $160,000, was a sham.

Board members said they intended to name multiple finalists but two candidates dropped out. Cordova has repeatedly said she would have preferred to have competition for the job so the community could be sure she was selected on her merits.

Five of the seven school board members were enthusiastic in their comments Monday about Cordova leading the district. Two others — Jennifer Bacon and Carrie Olson — were more measured. Both acknowledged community concerns. Bacon paused before casting her “aye” vote.

One of the main criticisms of Cordova is that, because of her role as a senior district official, she is partly to blame for the district’s failure to serve students of color and those from low-income families as well as it serves white students and those from wealthier families. White students regularly outperform students of color on state standardized tests.

Cordova has acknowledged those gaps and said closing them would a top priority. At last week’s forum, Cordova talked about how she believes training on bias and culturally responsive teaching should be mandatory for all teachers instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova’s husband’s job has also caused some to question if she should lead the district. Her husband, Eric Duran, is a banker who helps charter schools get financing for construction projects. Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run, and they are controversial because some people see them as siphoning money and students from district-run schools.

Duran’s firm, D.A. Davidson, has said it wouldn’t do business with Denver Public Schools or any of Denver’s 60 charter schools if Cordova were appointed superintendent.

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.