revolving door

Three years in, more than half of principals in New York City’s turnaround program have quit or been replaced

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Boys and Girls High School has seen two principals depart since the Renewal program started.

Nearly 60 percent of schools in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature school-improvement program have undergone leadership changes since the program started, according to city data, significantly higher than the 35 percent citywide turnover rate over the same period.

Some of that turnover is intentional: Because de Blasio has opted to revive struggling schools rather than replace them with new ones, a key improvement strategy is to change their leadership. It’s also crucial to have strong leaders running schools in the $383 million “Renewal” program since the job requires coordinating the longer school days, new classroom materials and partnerships with social-service providers that come with it.

But leadership churn can also cause problems. Research suggests it can be especially harmful to low-performing schools, contributing to higher rates of teacher turnover and lower student achievement.

At the same time, the pressure of turning around a low-achieving school on a tight timeline has prompted some principals to leave the system on their own accord, leaving vacancies that can be hard to fill.

“If you think that the leader of a school is not effective then you have to replace them,” said Jason Grissom, a researcher at Vanderbilt University who has studied principal turnover in multiple states. “But then you’ve created a turnover event which can have downsides in the short term. It’s tough for a district.”

Of the 78 current Renewal schools, 45 have seen at least one leadership change — including ten with new principals this fall.

Aimee Horowitz, the superintendent in charge of the Renewal program, said she is not concerned about the rate of leadership turnover, adding that local superintendents weigh their options carefully when replacing principals.

“That’s always a balancing test,” Horowitz said. “We have to think about whether the new principal is more likely to impact change than the principal who is leaving.”

City officials would not say how many Renewal principals were replaced because their superintendents determined they were ineffective compared with the number who retired or quit for other reasons. But regardless of why principals ultimately leave, the education department must convince new leaders to take their place, running schools that are under intense pressure to improve.

At times, the city has resorted to unorthodox staffing arrangements to fill principal vacancies in Renewal schools with leaders they believe will be successful. In one unusual example, the education department coaxed a principal to run Boys and Girls High School, a Renewal school, without giving up his post running a separate higher-performing school — an arrangement that later fell apart.

But as the Renewal program has become more established, Horowitz said, it has been easier to find principals to take on the demanding role partly because word has spread that those schools get extra funding, social services, and support staff.

Several new Renewal principals previously were Renewal program staffers, though Horowitz declined to offer a number.

“We’re past the point of having to convince people to take the position at Renewal schools,” she said. “They’re aware that they’ll be supported.”

Principal Geralda Valcin said she was excited to begin leading a Renewal school, despite the tough task of steering the school back on track. About a year and a half ago, she took over the Coalition School for Social Change in Harlem — which had one of the highest dropout rates in the city — after completing the city’s now-shuttered Leadership Academy training program.

One of the biggest challenges, she said, was raising expectations of teachers and convincing veteran educators who had “been doing the same thing the same way” to adopt new teaching methods.

“I felt like I was stepping into a situation where my predecessor and I had different views,” she said. “You have to take what’s working and figure out the rest.”

Finding effective principals to run the city’s lowest-performing schools has been a persistent challenge.

Under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the education department closed many lower-performing schools, and tried to entice talented leaders — sometimes with offers of salary bumps — to open new small schools where they could start from scratch and hire new teachers.

To create a pipeline of principals, that administration also launched the Leadership Academy, a fast-track training program to funnel leaders from various fields into high-need schools with the promise that they would have lots of freedom in choosing how to run their schools.

Still, the Leadership Academy only ever met a fraction of demand, and officials later stepped back from the practice of offering bonuses, finding that it did not seem to draw more effective leaders.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, the city has ratcheted up the amount of experience required to become a principal, and has eschewed the school closures and new school openings that gave principals a chance to start fresh. Instead, the city has bet on giving existing schools more resources and principals more specific instructions on how to revamp floundering schools.

Marc Sternberg, a former deputy chancellor in the Bloomberg administration who previously ran a struggling school in the Bronx, said it is hard to improve troubled schools if their leaders leave quickly or have limited autonomy.

“We are asking some very courageous people to do an impossible job,” said Sternberg, the director of K-12 education for the Walton Family Foundation. (Walton is one of Chalkbeat’s funders.)

“Throw in principal turnover — where the vision-keeper is rotating,” he added, “and you’ve got the inevitable confusion and slippage that that generates.”

Still, some teachers in Renewal schools said principal transitions have brought positive changes.

At J.H.S. 8 in Queens, also called New Preparatory Middle School, one veteran educator said the school’s former principal was disorganized, sometimes sprang new programs on teachers at the last minute, and at one point used a rotating cast of long-term substitutes instead of hiring new teachers. (The former principal did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

But after assistant principal Katiana Louissaint took the helm this fall, morale started improving, said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous. After a recent round of parent-teacher conferences, teachers stuck around to chat with each other, a rarity under the former principal.

“At the end of the night,” the educator said, “the teachers weren’t running for the door.”

future of SCS

Dorsey Hopson leaving Shelby County Schools, sources say

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson with students at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis celebrating academic progress.

Sources report that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson will resign after five years of leading Shelby County Schools.

Rumors of Hopson’s departure have been flying for months and he said as recently as early October he had no intention of leaving, saying he was “excited about our momentum.” Three sources told Chalkbeat Monday night that they had heard from district administrators that Hopson will make an announcement on Tuesday detailing his transition from the helm.

The Commercial Appeal also reported Monday night that Hopson will likely resign.

Check back with Chalkbeat on Tuesday for updates.

Hopson took charge of Shelby County Schools in 2013 as the first superintendent after the former city district merged with the suburban school system. An attorney, he previously worked as associate general counsel for Atlanta Public Schools and later as general counsel for the Clayton County School System in Georgia. In 2008, he became general counsel of Memphis City Schools.

Hopson has overseen a tumultuous time for the district. In 2013, the city’s school district folded into the county system, a complicated logistical feat that still reverberates today. The following year, six suburban towns split off to create their own districts with about 34,000 students. At the same time, the state-run Achievement School District grew as it took over district schools that had chronic low performance on state tests. Nearly two dozen district schools closed during that time as Hopson and his staff rushed to fill budget deficits left in the wake of all the changes and reductions in student enrollment.

Despite the strenuous circumstances, fewer schools are on the state’s list of lowest-performing schools and the district’s Innovation Zone has boosted test scores at a faster rate than the state’s district. Schools across the state are looking to strategies in Memphis to improve schools — a far cry from six years ago. And recently, Hopson was among nine finalists for a national award recognizing urban district leaders.

In recent years, the Shelby County Schools board has rated Hopson as satisfactory, though not exemplary, and extended his contract last year to 2020 with a $16,000 raise. Next week, the board is scheduled to present its most recent evaluation of his performance as the panel seeks to tweak how it rates the district’s leader.

Hopson was one of two superintendents consulted by Gov.-elect Bill Lee while on the campaign trail, and Hopson publicly expressed his support of the Republican from Williamson County before Lee won the election. Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson told Chalkbeat before the election that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half. Sources did not confirm Hopson’s next steps.

Reporters Laura Faith Kebede and Marta W. Aldrich contributed to this report. 

Super Search

Denver superintendent search nearing end with one local name getting support — and calls for multiple finalists

PHOTO: Denver Post file

As the search for Denver’s next school superintendent approaches a key juncture, support is mounting in some quarters for an internal candidate who many believe is likely a front-runner: Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova.

At the same time, parents and other residents are calling on the board to name more than one finalist next week — preferably, three — and to give the community an opportunity to vet them. The chance for parents to provide feedback is especially important, they said, in a district with a poor reputation for transparency and what one mother called a “paternalistic pattern.”

“If we are only given one finalist, we will feel that the decision has already been made behind closed doors,” said another mother, Angela Tzul, who lives in the far northeast Montbello neighborhood, where tensions with the district are particularly high.

Denver Public Schools is Colorado’s largest school district and one known nationally for cultivating a “portfolio” of different school types, including independently run charter schools, and encouraging families to choose among them. The district serves nearly 93,000 students, the majority of whom are Latino and black and come from low-income families.

This is the first time in 10 years the district has had to choose a new superintendent. Longtime leader Tom Boasberg, who was responsible for many of the reforms, stepped down last month. The school board is expected to name finalists next Monday and make a hire by Dec. 10.

The board has kept mum about how many finalists it is choosing. When member Lisa Flores gave a public update on the search last week, she was careful to say “finalist/finalists.”

She did, however, provide a window into the search by revealing that the board interviewed seven candidates. They included two superintendents, two deputy superintendents, one state superintendent, and two non-traditional candidates, Flores said.

Any national search would likely extend to leaders of urban school districts with similar philosophies and student populations, such as Indianapolis, Atlanta, and San Antonio. Here in Colorado, the administration of two-term Gov. John Hickenlooper is coming to an end in early January, and many top state administrators are likely looking for new jobs.

Cordova has said she’s interested in leading the district. She grew up in a Mexican-American family in Denver, graduated from high school here, returned after college to teach in the district, and worked her way up to principal, administrator, and now deputy superintendent. She served as acting superintendent for six months in 2016 while Boasberg was on sabbatical.

Thirty-five district principals, assistant principals, and program directors wrote a letter to school board members last week, urging them to choose Cordova. The school leaders called her “a hometown and homegrown exemplar” who has made the city proud and who “understands the nuances and complexities of our unique organization.”

“Her presence is calm and warm, yet urgent and motivating,” the letter says. “She understands the political climate of public education and is a fierce advocate for every child in Denver.”

Sheldon Reynolds, principal of the Center for Talent Development at Greenlee, an elementary school in west Denver, was one of the school leaders who signed the letter.

“While we don’t know all the people (in the) running, we just wanted to voice our support for her to take the helm,” he wrote in an email to Chalkbeat.

Throughout August, September, and early October, the school board collected feedback from more than 4,500 people about the characteristics the next superintendent should have. In many ways, Cordova fits the bill. She is a person of color with both teaching and administrative experience, and a deep knowledge about the challenges facing Denver’s public schools.

She also has experience tackling those challenges, including the pervasive and persistent test score gaps between students of color and white students, and between students from low-income families and students from wealthier families.

But her long track record is precisely why some people who are disillusioned with the district don’t want to see her promoted. They see the district’s failure to significantly close those gaps — or to hire more teachers of color, for instance — as her failures, too.

“Susana Cordova, I know you’re in here,” Montbello football coach Gabe Lindsay said at last week’s school board meeting during public comment. “We think you are going to be the next superintendent of DPS, which is concerning because Ms. Cordova does not have a track record of closing achievement gaps. She has the track record that this previous administration has.”

He cited a statistic that while 72 percent of white students were reading and writing on grade level last year, as determined by the state literacy test, just 28 percent of black students were.

If Cordova is selected, Lindsay said she needs to “come to the table with a plan to fix this district’s mindset that it is OK to leave students behind.”

Parents of students who attend charter schools have repeatedly said they’d like the next superintendent to be someone who values school choice — that is, making it easy for students to choose to attend a school that is not their assigned boundary school, such as a charter.

Other parents have railed against charter schools for draining students and money from traditional district-run schools. The teachers union has been critical, too, even trying to negotiate a moratorium on the publicly funded yet privately run schools into its latest contract.

Cordova’s entire teaching and administrative experience has been in district-run schools, but she hasn’t given any indication that she’d get rid of charter schools or the ability for families to use a single application to apply to any district-run or charter school.

“I’ve got kids in the district as well,” Cordova told Chalkbeat in 2016. “Frequently, as I’m talking with friends who are parents or people in the neighborhood, they say, ‘It’s so much harder now. It was so much easier when you just went [to the school down the street].’ But the upsides are so much higher than any of the downsides, particularly when you get into the right fit for your kid.”

The school board is planning opportunities for students, teachers, and parents to meet the finalist or finalists and provide their input, though not many details have been announced besides the dates: Dec. 4 and 5. That’s less than week before the board is set to make its final decision.