It's a bird. It's a plane...It's a superintencipal!

For educators who wear many hats, which hat to evaluate?

When Kendra Ewing, superintendent of Agate School District, had to submit a list of her official titles to her local school board, the tally ran to 18 items.

“Principal. Special education teacher,” the list reads. “Pitch-in janitor.”

Ewing is one of 35 superintendents in the state who also serve as their district’s principal, often along with many other roles. (For a full list of her responsibilities, see here).

But under the state’s evaluation system, which rolled out this year, Ewing is only required to receive feedback on one: superintendent. For the rest of her jobs, she has to seek feedback through back channels, often without any additional funds.

The struggles of district leaders like Ewing with the state’s new educator evaluation system have highlighted the heavy burden the system puts on small rural districts. But they have also proved the flexibility of a system that may not have been designed with such districts in mind and have raised the profile of leaders in multiple roles, who received little attention in the past.

“We have tried to reduce ambiguity”

The struggle for superintendents who serve in multiple roles is to balance both what measures they must be evaluated on under state statute with what they can be evaluated on, given limited resources in their district.

Because they are the highest-ranking administrators (and often the only administrators), there is no one in the school with the authority to evaluate them, leaving only the local school board. But few school boards have the educational expertise to provide feedback on their work as a principal.

“There are specific responsibilities that a superintendent has to a school board,” said Toby King, who directs the Colorado Department of Education’s Educator Effectiveness unit. King works with the nearly 20 percent of the state’s superintendents who serve in more than one administrative role, so-called “superintencipals.” “Those are the things that make sense [to be evaluated on].”

In response to confusion from districts, King’s department released guidance earlier this year for any educator serving in multiple roles to help districts stay within the law. The document, which is available here, states that all educators should be evaluated on their highest role, no matter what other roles they play.

“If I’m supermarket general manager, you are sometimes going to work in produce,” said King. “But you are always going to be evaluated as a general manager.”

The department’s guidance is an attempt to clarify a system many rural districts have criticized for the time requirements and confusion it has placed on already overloaded rural administrators.

“We have tried to reduce ambiguity,” said King.

Despite the confusion over how to evaluate “superintencipals,” state officials and rural advocates say the system has proved more flexible for superintendent-principals than many imagined.

“There are things in the law that don’t even pertain to how rurals work,” said Tina Goar, the Colorado Department of Education’s rural advisor. “[But] there’s a lot of flexibility on how you set things up in your district while staying within the law.”

No correct answer

While that flexibility has streamlined the process somewhat for “superintencipals,” it has also left them to their own devices when they want feedback on the rest of what they do. And the solutions they have come to vary widely, from having no formal system to hiring outside evaluators.

Some have sought feedback from teachers and other district staff. In Crowley County School District in southeastern Colorado, the superintendent gave the state’s principal evaluation rubric to his staff and asked them to fill it out.

Ewing said her board gives her feedback based on all of her roles but she has also hired a consultant to spend one day a month in her district, giving her feedback on her performance.

Superintendent Kendra Ewing puts kindergartner Peyton Golliher down for a nap in her office.
Superintendent Kendra Ewing puts kindergartner Peyton Golliher down for a nap in her office.

“What she’s paid to do is be honest with me,” said Ewing. “That’s my way to say in my own conscience I’m doing a good job.”

According to King, that variation may not be a bad thing, but instead a sign that the system is working.

“Comparability has to be from one classroom to the next before we can have it from one school to the next, one district to the next,” said King. “Plus every district has its own context.”

But does that mean no good answer?

But for some, that flexibility just means there is no clear solution. Bruce Hankins, the superintendent in Dolores County School District Re-2J in southwestern Colorado, said that so far he has not found a solution that satisfies him.

Of getting evaluated by his teachers or his assistant principal, Hankins said, “it would be like you evaluating your boss,” an uncomfortable situation that doesn’t lend itself to honest feedback.

And the time requirements have proved a challenge.

“In the dual role, there is just so much,” he said. “I can’t spend two weeks doing this evaluation,” in addition to evaluating his teachers.

It’s a complaint many in the rural community have raised and King acknowledges that it’s an issue for many small rural districts. He and others anticipate that the time demands will lessen as people adjust to the new system, but the burden remains heavy for districts where there are few administrators.

In fact, the rollout of the evaluation system has prompted some districts to rethink their school structure.

In La Veta School District, Bree Lessar, the superintendent, asked her school board to hire an assistant principal to take over some of the teacher evaluations.

“With full implementation of [the new teacher evaluation law], I told my board I was unable to numerically do all the evaluations with fidelity,” said Lessar. The assistant principal now does the evaluations for 10 of the district’s 21 teachers.

Others have simply dodged the state-mandated evaluation system entirely. Kit Carson School District, on the eastern plains, applied for and received exemption from the state system, under Colorado’s 2008 innovation law, which grants schools and districts autonomy from some mandates.

“The previous superintendent foresaw the time it was going to take to do evaluations,” said Brenda Smith, Kit Carson’s superintendent. Kit Carson teachers are evaluated less frequently that teachers state-wide, although Smith uses the state rubric.

Smith says she would not be able to fulfill all of her duties if her district did not have innovation status.

“I feel bad for my colleagues who have to evaluate everybody everywhere,” she said.

Long term solutions

Still, even with Kit Carson’s unique flexibility, the system hasn’t been popular with teachers or administrators, who feel the state hasn’t provided enough resources to put the system into practice.

“The reason it’s been a sour note for the district is it goes back to unfunded mandate,” said Smith.

It’s an argument many in the Colorado Department of Education are sympathetic to. And the evaluations for the state’s 35 “superintencipals” have been a proving ground for how state officials can support districts overwhelmed by the pace of reform.

Goar, who is a former superintendent-principal herself, meets with all 35 dual-role administrators on a regular basis to identify the unique issues and find solutions. The responses of that group have helped inform the state’s guidance for rural evaluators.

“In some ways, Katy [Anthes, executive director of the Educator Effectiveness department] and Toby [King] have a real good handle on how do we differentiate things for our rurals,” said Goar. “It’s a unit that’s really thought about that.”

In fact, she said, dual role administrators are getting more attention that they have in the past.

“No one has ever thought about what to with these guys who are in a dual role,” said Goar. She hopes having more rural input will mean more focus on issues unique to rural areas, like the “superintencipals.”

“Right now support is just at the beginning and I hope there’s more,” said Goar.

Newcomers

This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”