leadership lessons

In the district with the most ‘Renewal’ schools, a leader sets out to fix them

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
District 9 Superintendent Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario (center) with two of her former assistant principals who are now her deputies: Director of School Renewal Jasmin Varela (left) and Principal Leadership Facilitator Claudy Makelele.

One of New York City’s toughest jobs belongs to Leticia Rodriguez-Rosario.

As superintendent of District 9 in the southwest Bronx, she oversees an area with more students than the city of Buffalo, which sits within the country’s poorest congressional district.

A fifth of those students have disabilities, about a quarter are still learning English, and their state test scores rank among the city’s lowest. And when the education department rounded up 94 of the city’s most troubled schools last year to participate in a high-profile improvement program, eight fell within Rodriguez-Rosario’s purview — the most of any superintendent.

But rather than despair, the Bronx native and former District 9 principal says she celebrated the news. The new “Renewal” program meant extra resources and attention for those schools, while a recent school-system restructuring meant more authority for her as superintendent to set those schools on a different path.

“This was an opportunity,” said Rodriguez-Rosario, who is responsible for the district’s 51 elementary and middle schools, “an opening of doors for our work.”

The former principal of P.S./I.S. 218, a dual-language school where classes are taught in both English and Spanish, Rodriguez-Rosario was one of several superintendents whom Chancellor Carmen Fariña installed last year in an effort to fill those positions with seasoned educators. Rodriguez-Rosario sustained her educator’s instincts in her new role: She moved the district office into an elementary school building, and hired two of her former assistant principals as deputies.

Fariña had instructed her district chiefs to form relationships with local parents and to earn their subordinates’ trust. Rodriguez-Rosario quickly set out to do both.

Superintendent Rodriguez-Rosario led District 9 teachers in a cheer during a mentor-training session in March.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Rodriguez-Rosario led District 9 teachers in a cheer during a mentor-training session in March.

In her first week on the job, she met with members of a parent-advocacy group that has spent the past 20 years agitating for improvements to District 9’s schools through a series of rallies, public forums, and detailed reports. Later, she gathered together the district’s principals and urged them to participate in the parent group’s latest initiative, a program to train successful teachers how to mentor less-experienced colleagues. An organizer with the group, the New Settlement Parent Action Committee, said the superintendent has been remarkably accessible, sometimes sending the organizer text messages late into the night.

That is a departure from some past superintendents who viewed the group more as an adversary than a partner, said group member Angel Martinez.

“I have to say, it’s a weird feeling: She is more at the table than I have ever seen from our district office before,” said Martinez, whose daughter attends the district’s P.S. 294. “We were always so used to having a fight instead of a conversation.”

Rodriguez-Rosario also began regularly visiting schools, meeting with everyone from principals and teachers to custodians and the staffers who handle parent concerns, she said. In those encounters, her style is more coach than commander. At one of the mentor-training sessions this spring, she led a huddle of teachers in a cheer: “Go District 9!”

“She’s really described us as a team,” said Principal Edgar Lin of the Renewal school J.H.S. 22, “with her being a part of that team, and we as a team winning or losing together.”

Another aim of hers and Fariña is to get educators to trade ideas and troubleshoot problems together.

She paired each principal with colleagues from two other schools and had them meet occasionally, in a scaled-down version of the chancellor’s signature Learning Partners program. During one session, she asked the trios to brainstorm ways to “brand” their schools by offering robust art or science programs or classes related to particular careers — one solution she sees to the challenge of retaining students in a low-performing district where an estimated 4,300 students applied for just over 800 charter school seats last year.

“That’s what charter schools go on: They have these themes and people buy into them,” Rodriguez-Rosario said. “So we’re learning, we’re getting smarter.”

A whiteboard in Rodriguez-Rosario's office with plans for an intricate monitoring protocol for Renewal schools this year.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A whiteboard in Rodriguez-Rosario’s office with plans for an intricate monitoring protocol for Renewal schools this year.

She also ordered the eight Renewal principals to gather twice a month to discuss common challenges and sent them to visit higher-performing schools in the district. When the schools had to craft state-mandated improvement plans this year, she hosted a joint planning session with teams from each school, her district staff, and city and state education officials — a far cry from the process at many schools, where principals write the bulk of those plans alone in their offices.

Now that each Renewal school has an improvement plan, Rodriguez-Rosario said the second year of the three-year program be focused on bringing them to life.

To make sure that happens, she has devised an intricate monitoring system. Her staff will periodically review each school’s plan with the principal, tour the school to see how it’s being enacted, then come up with a handful of recommendations. Four weeks later, the team will return to check whether the school acted on that feedback. If the school is falling short, Rodriguez-Rosario said the relationships she has developed with her principals will allow for frank conversations.

“I’m at the point now where I can say to a principal, ‘You’ve been saying that twice now, stop talking, and I want to see that,’” she said.

So far, she said the Renewal principals have met her expectations. But if they start to stumble, she said she will talk to them about whether they are up to grueling task of turning around a troubled school.

“They understand that there is an urgency, that this is non-negotiable.” she said. “And they understand that if they can’t cut the work, then that conversation will be had.”

Jasmin Varela, a former principal who began her leadership career as an assistant principal under Rodriguez-Rosario, now works for her former boss again as District 9’s Renewal school supervisor. (Because the district has so many of those schools, the city is bringing in another person next month to share her duties.) Varela said that if her team’s tactics can help rehabilitate those schools, then they could ripple out and spur similar changes in other schools.

“Then it spreads beyond Renewal,” she said. “It’s going to reform the entire district.”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.