Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Perspective on the Superintendent--Part Three

Yes, reform is hard as hell. Nikolai Vitti was hired to be a transformative leader. While rapid change pushed hard by new leadership is discomforting, disorienting, and hard on employees, the superintendent moved quickly to implement new ideas, rapidly discarding anything that didn't produce results in a short period of time.

He took the blame for the disruption, but he was doing what he was hired to do: Disrupt the system in an effort to reform the school system and bring swift results.

It didn't happen. There were higher school grades, but not all schools improved to the level of the goals set. After the first year, many of the persons he hired from outside the system began to leave: Fred Heid, Daniela Simic among them (Chief of Schools, Chief of Academic Services).

Rather than bringing new people on board, the superintendent promoted existing leaders, among them Addison Davis and Mason Davis. At this time, the culture disruption dissipated.

In some ways, that was not a bad thing. The attitude changed from one of rapidly replacing anyone who didn't produce immediately to one of bringing needed support to existing administrators and other school personnel if results were not increasing. The churning of appointments slowed. A more steady operating style ensued.

At this time, about three years ago, the Jacksonville Public Education Fund took a visible role as an adjunct organization that worked to promote and support public education in the city, both traditional schools and charter schools.

Vitti received confidence and tangible support for the school system from wealthy businesspeople and philanthropists. One of the most visible programs was the Quality Education for All initiative that paid 30 to 50 % supplements to teachers with high Value Added scores to transfer to the lowest-graded schools in the city, basically identified as the Raines, Ribault, and Jackson high schools and their feeder patterns.

Many teachers took the transfers. Others passed, such as myself, because, while the District demanded a three-year commitment to remain at one of these schools, it did not offer a three-year guarantee of the salary supplement. That was contingent upon producing test scores that would translate into a high Value Added rating as compared to the rest of the city.

Or maybe only the targeted schools. That controversy erupted when teachers were told they did not qualify for the bonus, a wound made additionally raw by the few teachers that were initially told they would receive a partial payment but then informed that a mistake had been made and they would get nothing.

Although the District quickly corrected their mistake, it left bad feelings in the ranks of teachers.

Here another feature of the culture comes into focus: lack of communication. As time goes on, teachers seem to hear less and less from the superintendent. Although he makes an effort with administrators, his vision for the district is no longer reaching teachers. Many feel disconnected with his leadership and therefore not valued. Even the superintendent himself admitted recently that he had had an attitude that teachers were easily replaceable like widgets in a machine, but now realizes they are not. It is not known whether he only means the teacher shortage or whether he is beginning to understand the institutional expertise that veteran teachers have.

We can only surmise, but one of his current interests is teacher leadership and what that looks like. It was the topic for the latest JPEF roundtable. Here I must confess that I missed the wrap-up session to hear the superintendent address the group. It was my intention to go, but I had students come for after-school tutoring and their need won out. By the time I was finished with them and returned a parent phone call, it was too late to attend.

Here I align with the superintendent. While he maintains a high level of self-focus, he does genuinely care about the students and their learning needs. He may be abrasive at times, but he sincerely believes that the decisions he makes and the goals he sets are done by maximizing the impact ofnstudent learning and welfare.

Proof is the bus shooting incident two years ago. When he was notified, the superintendent immediately gathered staff, principals, snacks, and water and went to the site.