Fresh faces

Ken Wagner, top state ed deputy, a finalist for Rhode Island ed chief job

Yvvonne Burrell and Sir Martin look at scholarship information in the Future Center during a school day at Manual High School on Tuesday, May 10, 2011. The Future Center provides the students a place to receive information about financial aid, scholarships and colleges. The graduating seniors at the school are all required to apply and be accepted to some form of post high school educational facility. AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Ken Wagner, a former school psychologist and principal who has ascended the ranks of the State Education Department in recent years, is a final candidate to become Rhode Island’s next state education commissioner, sources say.

Wagner has effectively helmed the department alongside acting Commissioner Elizabeth Berlin over the first half of 2015 after John King’s departure last year. Wagner would be the latest in a string of state education officials to leave over the last year, which has been marked by tumult over education policies and the end of the state’s Race to the Top funding, as well as the choice of new Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, who started Monday.

Wagner, who did not respond to a request for comment, joined the department as its data director in 2009 and was soon promoted to assistant commissioner by then-Commissioner David Steiner, according to his LinkedIn page. His oversight quickly expanded to include assessments, curriculum, and education technology before being promoted to senior deputy commissioner in January after King stepped down.

Though Wagner wasn’t the acting commissioner, he became the face of the department in recent months, moderating the high-profile summit that brought researchers to Albany to discuss changes to teacher evaluations. Some within the department saw Wagner as the top internal candidate to replace King.

“Ken has credentials to be in any number of jobs so I’m not overly surprised,” said Regent Roger Tilles, when told of Wagner’s candidacy. “I’m disappointed. I think he’s done a good job.”

The transition would leave Elia with more room to choose her top leaders. But it also highlights a challenge for the state education department: how to hold onto personnel and institutional knowledge as it loses money and influence in the post-Race to the Top era.

In 2010, New York was awarded nearly $700 million through the federal Race to the Top program, which spurred states to overhaul education policies. That money was used to help districts implement new teacher evaluation systems and the Common Core learning standards and to devise new state tests, among other changes.

That federal funding effectively ran out last month. Among Elia’s most immediate decisions will be which programs should continue at the department, which last year had 45 Race to the Top-funded staff positions. The privately funded Regents Research Fund, which employed temporary staff members as consultants on the Race to the Top initiatives, has also been dismantled.

Other officials who have left or are planning to leave include Bill Clark, who left the state’s charter school office last month to become executive director of the education organization School Turnaround; assistant commissioner Julia Rafal-Baer, who announced her plans to leave at last month’s Board of Regents meeting; and Ken Slentz and Cosimo Tangorra, Jr., both deputy commissioners who have left in the past year.

“In every transition there are shifts in staffing, and I would expect this administration will not be different,” Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said. “It’s just logical.”

Tisch declined to comment on Wagner’s job prospects.

“One of the great things about working together with people is that when they leave you is that they get promoted, so I wouldn’t be unhappy if that was the case,” Tisch said when asked about the Rhode Island education chief position. “He deserves every good thing that is coming to him.”

The Ocean State has just 300 public schools, but it has played host to some high-profile education debates, especially after the 2010 mass firing and re-hiring of teachers in Central Falls. Its last education commissioner, Deborah Gist, introduced new teacher evaluations and changed the state’s school funding formula. Gist’s contract officially ended on July 1, although she announced her departure in the winter and is now leading Tulsa, Oklahoma’s school system.

The Rhode Island appointment is controlled by the governor, although a board of education has to formally sign off. The board, called the Council on Elementary and Secondary Education, is next scheduled to meet on July 13. A spokeswoman for Gov. Gina Raimondo office did not respond to requests for comment.

Raimondo won last year’s Democratic primary and the general election without the backing of the state teachers union, which remained upset about pension cuts she spearheaded as Rhode Island’s treasurer. One of her first moves as governor was to name Stefan Pryor, a founder of the Achievement First network of charter schools and the former Connecticut education commissioner, to lead the state’s economic development efforts.

Wagner was not the only leader with New York credentials considered for the Rhode Island job. Jean-Claude Brizard, a former deputy chancellor at the city’s education department and the former head of Chicago and Rochester’s schools, said in an email that he had interviewed earlier this year but was “no longer in the mix.”

father knows best

How a brush with death convinced one dad to get his diploma, with a boost from the Fatherhood Academy

PHOTO: Courtesy of Steven Robles
Steven Robles with his family

Steven Robles thought he might not live to see his daughter’s birth.

In May 2016, the 20-year-old was in the hospital after being shot during what he described as an argument in his neighborhood.

A year later, Robles just graduated from City University of New York’s Fatherhood Academy. He passed his high school equivalency exam and is happily celebrating his daughter Avare’s 8-month birthday.

“That conflict is what got me into the program, and what happened to me before she was born motivated me to stay in the program,” Robles said. “It motivated me to manage to pass my GED.”

Robles grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn and attended Franklin K. Lane High School. Though he liked his teachers, Robles said other students at the school were not “mature enough,” and the disorderly school environment made it hard for him to concentrate.

A quiet student, Robles said teachers would often overlook his presence in the classroom. Between that and friction with other classmates, Robles lost interest in school.

“My parents didn’t try to help me, either,” Robles said. “Nobody really tried to help me with that school, so I just stopped going.”

It was a whole different experience for him once he arrived at the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College, a program run by CUNY for unemployed and underemployed fathers ages 18 through 28. The Academy, now partnering with the New York City Housing Authority at its LaGuardia location, was launched in 2012 and also has programs at Hostos and Kingsborough Community Colleges.

“I have interviewed many of the men who come into the program and I often ask the question, ‘What brought you here?'” said Raheem Brooks, program manager of the Fatherhood Academy at LaGuardia Community College. “Mostly every young man says, ‘I’m here because I want to create a better life for my child than I had.’ So, I think the main theme of the program is that we help promote intergenerational change.”

At the LaGuardia branch, 30 students attend classes three times a week over the course of 16 weeks. Subjects include mathematics, social studies, and writing for students seeking to get their high school equivalency diplomas. Students also attend workshops run by counselors who guide them in professional development and parenting.

Robles found out about the program after seeing a flier for it in his social worker’s office at Graham Windham, a family support services organization. Curious to see what the Academy offered, he called to find out more and officially enrolled after passing a test to prove he could read above seventh-grade level.

“Before the Academy, I was not really into school at all,” Robles said. “But when I got there, it just changed my life. In this program, I didn’t know anybody there, there were no distractions. It made me more focused, and I just really wanted to get my GED and education.”

What helped Robles the most was getting to learn from the other fathers in the class, who were going through similar experiences as him.

“Little things I didn’t know, I learned from them because they were also fathers,” Robles said. “I just liked the way they were teaching us.”

In fact, he liked the Academy so much, he doesn’t plan to leave. He is applying to study criminal justice at LaGuardia Community College and to become a mentor for the Academy next year.

Currently, Robles lives with his grandparents, his daughter and the mother of his child. Getting a place for his family is next on his to-do list, he said.

“Avare always has a smile on her face and always puts a smile on my face,” Robles said. “She motivates me to get up and do what I have to do. Anything I could do for her, I will.”

Though school did not play a huge role in his life growing up, that is not what Robles wants for his daughter. He said after participating in the Academy, he wants to make sure Avare stays motivated and in school.

“I hear a lot from people about how they think they can’t do it,” Robles said. “I almost lost my life before my daughter was born and that motivated me. If I could do it, you could do it.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community.