This is your first full year as superintendent, correct? How has it been going?
Actually, it’s a challenge. Of course, it’s a big district and it’s the capital of Michigan so there’s a lot of — what I would say — expectations for a successful transition into my superintendence. So I think it’s been going pretty well. The board has extended my contract and people seem to be feeling pretty good about our reconfiguration. Of course we hit some bumps in the road on that, but that’s to be expected when you’re moving an entire district into a new way of thinking, and mostly parents have been pretty happy. We have a few discipline issues that we need to still get ahold of but I think it’s been going pretty well. It’s just the greatest job in the world as an educator to be able to have this kind of impact on teaching and learning.
What are some of the highlights of this fall?
One of the major highlights is — I came in March with three goals. I consider them highlights because the goals were accomplished. The first goal was to balance the budget and make transparent the process of the budget and the amount in the budget and where the money was and end the school year with a margin in our fund equity. That was goal number one, so it was accomplished and I think that’s a major highlight so everybody knew how much money we had, how much money we didn’t have, and we could move on from there. There seemed to be a little bit of mystery before about where the money was and how much money we had. The second goal was to provide this reconfiguration plan for the district. We needed to close some schools and consolidate and save some money in doing that. We had some schools like Otto middle school that was at about 45 percent capacity and so we couldn’t operate a building that large with only 5 percent of it being occupied so we needed to close some of our schools. So the reconfiguration plan, instead of looking at it from a bricks and mortar perspective, like close this building, move these chairs, you know — that kind of thing. We really looked at it from an instructional vision, a long-term vision viewpoint. So in reconfiguring — and looked at the research — our reconfiguration was based on the research about what grade levels learn best together and so we reconfigured the entire district into 12 pre-K through third-grade schools so that they would have a laser-like focus on learning to read so that at the end of the third grade, students at that schools take the Michigan Education Assessment program test and we would have a really much better idea on what we needed to do in those particular schools because that’s where the third-graders are. We converted five of our schools into four-six centers with a focus on reading to learn so four, five and six all take the MEAP and so we have a better idea of what’s going on in those grade levels by having those five schools focus on those grade levels. And teachers, you know, when you’re a teacher, you kind of decide the age group you prefer to be with and when I was a teacher I really liked sixth grade and seventh grade. I really liked the older kids, so I taught in the upper grades. There are a lot of teachers who prefer the lower grades so the way we’ve divided it is to give teachers more options to teach to their passion of grade level. And then of course we converted the high schools into seven through 12. Based on the research, that’s pretty clear about where you lose kids — in the ninth grade when they make that transition from the middle school that hasn’t been as successful as I think people hoped middle schools would be across the nation. So we want to get them early into the seventh grade into the high school. We want to get them early in options for rigorous curriculum, options for extra-curricular, get to know the teachers that are in that school and be part of that school community at an earlier age in order to stave off the dropout rate at ninth and tenth grade. So that was goal number two, and we’ve transitioned pretty successfully — a few glitches, but pretty successfully into that. And goal number three was to make sure that all the staff knew where they were going to be teaching before the end of the school year. In prior years, they didn’t know where they would be placed until well into the summer, and last year, the year before this year, they didn’t even know until Labor Day, the first day of school. So that’s just not the right way for teachers to be planning for their grade level the following year. So by the end of the school year in June, June 8, I think, teachers by and large, 95-96 percent of them, knew where they were going to be teaching the following year. So those were the three goals and I think the three highlights. I might add another highlight that I inherited approximately 200 grievances between the teachers and instructional assistance union and administrator’s union against the administration and we cleared the deck and we started the school year with no grievances. If you want to change the culture of the school you have to sit down and work out your differences, and it was really important for us to start our school year with a clean slate and moving on into the future.
What are you looking to accomplish or improve throughout this year, since you’ve already checked off those goals?
The budget continues to be a challenge as it is for all of my colleagues and in districts around the state. We have actually three major challenges I think and two of them are sort of tied together. Number one is achievement. We have to raise our achievement levels. There’s no question about it. We have kids who can learn, we have teachers who can teach, and there’s no reason why our achievement levels are the way they are. That’s a major focus and will be an improvement that we need to focus on in the district. To that end, we have initiated a couple of efforts in partnership with the University of North Carolina. One of them is called iCollaborate, and that’s for all of our classrooms pre-K through six where we have people going in — observers, researchers, data collectors — going into all of our classrooms, 230-plus classrooms, to do classrooms observations about the instructional process. These are not evaluations of teachers, they’re observations of what happens to kids when they’re in classrooms. We aggregate those individual classroom teacher data, individual classrooms data, into grade level and school level and district level feedback so that we get a better understanding of what kind of professional development we need to provide for our schools, what kinds of conversations we need to have in schools about the instructional process, the delivery of content. So this is a major initiative and so far it’s going great and we’re very thrilled about that. That is the undergirding for improving our achievement in the long-term pre-K through six. We also are focused on things like discipline and we want to reduce our rate of suspensions because every time you have high suspension rate, you have high drop out rate. I mean, if kids aren’t in school, how can we expect them to learn? So we’ve initiated at the three high schools and the two large schools that have fourth through sixth grade, Pattengill and Gardner, we’ve initiated behavior prevention program and we’ve installed behavior prevention staff to work with kids that have high-risk behaviors. This is different form counseling. This is sort of like mentoring, or a role model. We know that the number one element of keeping kids in school is to have a positive adult role model and so we are working with Michigan State University and staff in the College of Outreach and Engagement there as well as internal to our district to work with these at-risk behaviors to reduce suspension rate and to increase student engagement. We also at the high school level are working with two instructional support specialist positions that will work with new teachers and teachers in general who want more information about how to increase student engagement and instructional effectiveness. So achievement, discipline and the third one I would say is sort of changing the culture of the district into a more collaborative, caring culture that’s focused on excellence. You know, that’s a big ship to turn around in the middle of the ocean, but we have a community that’s very invested in what happens in the Lansing School District, so developing these partnerships and community outreach is another major goal this year.
The MME scores in spring 2012 were the worst in five years. In both math and science, the school district had the highest percentage of students not meet expectations since 2007. Now that you’ve taken over as superintendent, do you have any specific plans to change that and improve testing scores?
I individually as superintendent will not be implementing anything in the classroom. That’s up to the classroom teacher and that’s up to the principal. I think we have to have a heightened awareness of the fact that this is not acceptable. I mean, I can look at a school like Sexton — and I’ll probably be vilified for saying this — but Sexton won the state basketball championship. That’s wonderful — for those kids of which there may be 20 at a maximum. But that didn’t help anything with the science score, which I think is 9 percent. That’s just not acceptable. So while we may focus celebrations on certain things, what we ought to be celebrating is increased student achievement. So, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the research called the Hawthorne Effect where, if you focus on something, you automatically increase its importance. So, I’m saying to the building principals — and all three of our high schools, by the way, are priority schools. They’ve been identified by the state as a priority school meaning they’re in the lowest 5 percent in achievement around the state. So they all know this is do or die. They have to increase student achievement. There’ no reason for it not to happen. There’s no real reason why kids cannot perform well on these exams. We have great teachers in this district. We have kids who can learn. So I’m telling the building principals — my whole team is — this must not continue. We must increase student achievement. All of the staff in the three high schools are focused on increasing student achievement, and while I’m not sure the test scores will in this spring, will demonstrate this increased focus because of course they took the test this fall, so we won’t be able to see the needle move as much as we would want to but in the following years the needle has to move. And people know that there is a high level of accountability in this system for principals and teachers to — I mean, teacher evaluations next year are going to be, 25 percent of their evaluation is going to be based on student achievement. So if that doesn’t push the needle on needing to increase student achievement, I’m not sure what people can do. But increased responsibility, increased looking to the building leadership to be the instructional leaders that they have been put there to be, and increasing student engagement, keeping kids in school, providing after-school tutorials. We have a place called the Woodcreek Achievement Center we just implemented this year, and it’s a combination credit recovery program and foundations program so students can go to Woodcreek Achievement Center to recover credits that they may have lost. Younger students who may have missed some of the foundations before they get into seventh and eighth grade can also go there to support basic learning. So we’re implementing a jump-start program in the summer to get kids ready for the school year, we’re implementing after the school year is done programs in the summer. This year we’ll be implementing a virtual summer school program. So we are committed to increasing student achievement, increasing graduation rate and getting kids ready for post-secondary engagement. The focus is on that. Everyone knows that’s what our focus is. So I think communicating the message to everyone that says ‘This is what the focus is in the district.’ We can’t say well this school is better than that school because we have a 50-percent mobility so the kids are going to all the schools. It’s not like this neighborhood’s better than that neighborhood. Fifty percent of our kids move all year long so we got the same group of kids in all of our schools so there’s no reason for us to have those achievement scores. I guess what I want to say when I say there’s no reason is that for years we say, well, you know the kids are poor oh they come from single-parent households, oh they come for poor neighborhoods, blah, blah, blah. That’s crazy. That’s crazy talk. That puts all the responsibility on the student and no responsibility on us as educators so I just continue to say there’s no feasible reason why we have the scores that we have. Stop the blame. Stop the blaming get down to work. Figure it out.
Back to your plan to consolidate the middle schools and high schools, you said that there have been a few bumps in the road. Can you just explain that a little bit?
Well, two big bumps in the road were — and by the way, none of the bumps had to do with teachers no getting this plan. They all embraced it. Well, 99.9 percent of everybody embraced this plan right from the beginning. Teachers really understood what we were trying to do, so this was not one of the bumps in the road. The two bumps in the road I think I would identify is I think, one, our transportation system didn’t have the capacity to run the routes that we needed to run on a daily basis in order to comply with the reconfiguration plan. So we have about 70 buses that run daily. So when you have a wide range of combination of transportation route like kids who go to the IB program at Eastern but live on the south side of town, there has to be a transportation route to get them to the IB program at Eastern because we have schools of choice. So I think we didn’t anticipate accurately enough the complexity of the transportation issue. So we’ve had buses coming in late, we have routes that haven’t been covered very effectively. We’ve had some overcrowding on the buses because we just didn’t anticipate — we’re transporting about 2,000 more kids this year than we did last year. So one of the glitches has been transportation and that’s something that we continue to try to resolve, even as of today. The other bump in the road was, honest to God, we did not anticipate that Eastern High School would end up with 660 seventh and eighth graders. We anticipated from our boundary map, we anticipated that Eastern High School would end up with about 400 seventh and eighth graders but because of schools of choice and kids being able to choose the school that they wanted to go to, we ended up with a lot more kids at Eastern than we anticipated. We have some pretty packed rooms over at Eastern and really nowhere to grow. So what we have at Eastern is what we have and we’re not going to be able to grow anymore. So that was another bump in the road was that we didn’t anticipate that every single inch at Eastern was going to be occupied. When you have about 240 extra kids, that’s about 10 extra classrooms — eight to 10 extra classrooms that you need, so we have tried to reconfigure our classrooms and work a little bit differently at Eastern. But it’s packed. They have about almost 1,800 kids at Eastern and the full capacity of Eastern — that’s like using the gym and the football room and everything — is about 1,900 so you can see we just don’t have any room to move around. On the other hand, Sexton is under capacity so we have less than 1,000 kids at Sexton so what ended up happening is the unanticipated is that more kids ended up at Eastern than we anticipated and less kids ended up at Sexton than we anticipated. So those were the two major glitches. Other than that, we have not had reconfiguration problems.
So would you say that it’s been a success, in terms of your goals for it?
I would say. I would say that in terms of the logistics and the implementation — of course, you know, furniture moves and I mean we moved almost 100 classrooms over the summer, so you know, there are a few social studies maps that we need to get into classrooms. I mean, there are little tiny things that we still need to move and it will not be a success until I see the needle on achievement go up. I mean, that is the reason for the reconfiguration is to make sure that the 12 schools that are pre-K-three are focused on getting those kids ready to read and take the assessment test which requires higher levels of reading. So until we see the needle move, I won’t say that it’s a success. But from an implementation-logistics perspective I think it was very successful. The whole district got moved, so very successful.
And you’re looking to do the same thing with Everett next year, correct?
Well, actually, the next school year, ’13-’14, is one of the years when we aren’t moving into the seven through 12 at Everett. That’s for ’14-’15. Next year is supposed to be a sort of analysis year, so we implemented this year, let’s take next year to figure out where the glitches were, how do we spend the year figuring out how to resolve those problems, we may have to do a little bit of movement of boundaries again because we can’t absorb that many kids in Eastern again. We have Pattengill with over 650 kids. If all the sixth graders chose to go to Eastern it would be problematic so we have to work on that. But next year is an analysis year not an Everett turns to seven through 12. I will tell you, though, that there are a lot of people who are pushing for Everett to move to the seven through 12 next year. A lot of people are saying, hey why aren’t we doing this next year? Well I thought maybe we’d just spend a few months figuring out how it worked.
Does the district have a lot of room to accommodate students’ school of choice for students who are coming from outside the district from other school districts?
Yeah, the district does have room to accommodate anyone who wants to come in from outside the district. We don’t have that many out-of-district requests, which is unfortunate because nobody has the variety of program offerings that we have in this area. I mean, we have Chinese language immersion, we have Spanish language immersion, IB, STEM, performing arts, Montessori, law and government. Who else has all of these curricular offerings? We’re planning on opening a second Chinese language immersion at Cumberland Elementary School. We have a Chinese teacher over there now who’s working sort of part time on Chinese classes, so where else do you get this kind of variety? But people are not running to enroll in Lansing, which is unfortunate because they’re missing out on a great opportunity to be here. I think once our achievement scores go up and once there is this perception — there’s a misperception that discipline is a huge issue — but once that is mitigated I think more people will want to be in Lansing.
Are you doing anything specific to attract students right now from other districts?
Nope, what we’re doing specifically is focusing on being successful with what we have. It’s sort of like the field of dreams, you know? If you build it they will come.
What is being done to increase student retention?
We are very concerned about our graduation rate and we’re very concerned about the spiral drop-off between ninth, 10th, 11th and 12th grade so our major initiative of course is the Woodcreek Achievement Center where kids can go into a virtual environment and do credit recovery in order to increase their possibility of graduation. We have after school programs that we can help students with their achievement. All the things that I’ve mentioned I think increase retention. If you have positive adult role models, if you have people who care about you, if you have a culture in your school that says this is a place that will hug you and love you in spite of yourself, you know, as long as we have that in front of us, who doesn’t want to go to a place where they know they’re welcomed and people care about them? I mean all kids want to be cared about and sometimes they manifest that desire to be cared about in not so positive ways so we have to figure out ways to say, this tantrum really means you really want someone to care about you. So how do we change the culture in our schools to be a caring, collaborative environment, and how do we change our instruction to make sure everyone is successful and that we have a culture of excellence. So those are the big challenges for us in the district, and it’s been a long time. I used to teach in the district, I used to be an administrator in the district, I was in the district for 27 years before I left and went to work at the Department of Education for a number of years as the director of the Office of School Improvement, which was in charge of NCLB and AYP and Title I and Reading First and all of the programs that had to do with the 760 districts in the state. And for the last several years, what I’ve observed in Lansing is that there’s gradually less and less of a focus on creating this culture of care and collaborating and excellence so it’s a big challenge for us and the board is well aware. We work great together — me and the board. It’s a great relationship and so I think you can expect good things from us in the future.