Super Search: Pueblo Edition

Pueblo City Schools superintendent finalists meet public

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
The Pueblo City Schools Board of Education met April 22. The board is looking for a new superintendent to begin July 1. Maggie Lopez, the district's current leader is retiring after a 37-year career, four of which were in Pueblo.

PUEBLO — Three finalists are vying to lead the struggling school district here and tonight the city’s school board is publicly interviewing them.

The three finalists, who want to lead the 23-school district will answer questions from a moderator from the Colorado School Boards Assocation, which has organized the search. While community members in attendance won’t be able to interact with the candidate’s directly, they were encouraged to submit questions in advance.

The three finalists are Brush School District Superintendent Michelle L. Johnstone, Pueblo Central High School principal Lynn Seifert, and Lee County, Florida, school district Executive Director for School Development Constance A. Jones.

One of the three will replace outgoing Superintendent Maggie Lopez, who is retiring at the end of June. Lopez has led the Pueblo school district for four years. She announced her retirement — after a 37-year career in education — earlier this year.

The new superintendent will begin July 1 — the same day Pueblo enters its fourth year on the state’s accountability watch list. It is the largest of 11 districts entering either year four or five on the state’s accountability clock.

Since 2010, the state has linked its accreditation of districts to an annual review of student performance on state standardized tests and post-secondary preparedness. Districts that receive either a “turnaround” or “priority improvement” rating on the district performance framework have five years to improve or lose accreditation.

Pueblo is accredited as a “priority improvement” district.

If Pueblo students do not show enough progress on this spring’s round of standardized tests, the new superintendent will have only a precious few months to accelerate student achievement to beat the state’s accountability clock.

Below are Chalkbeat reporter Nicholas Garcia’s live and unedited updates from the forum:

Analysis: Reporter’s takeaways from the superintendent forum

10:50 a.m., Wednesday: The Pueblo City Schools Board of Education is expected to hire a new superintendent May 13. By the end of an open forum with its three finalists Tuesday night, a clearer picture of what kind of leader the board wants (instructional-based, teacher friendly, cautious, collaborator) came into focus, based on broad similarities among the candidates and their answers.

Here are three takeaways from the forum:

1. Three shades of a superintendent — While each finalist has her own unique background and resume, they seemed to posses more similar qualities — or at least philosophies of how to improve student outcomes — than dissimilar. Based on their answers during the public forum, there was no clear outlier nor a candidate that truly distinguished herself as a clear front runner.

Whether it was discussing strategies to turnaround schools, balancing the budget, negotiating with teachers contracts, or the state’s new standards, the candidates largely agreed with one another. And they said so several times throughout the night. Only the most nuanced listener could — in the moment — identify specific strategies or themes that might separate one from other. The city’s school board will need to spend some time really reviewing the candidates’ answers carefully to choose its leader.

2. The people of Pueblo have serious questions and clear priorities— While it was hard to determine what particular practices or policies separated the candidates, there was no doubt about what was on the minds of Puebloans based on the questions — and there were no softballs. Even the moderator, John Merriman of the Colorado School Boards Association, took a moment to reflect on the quality of the questions, which he said were some of the most rigorous he’s seen during his many years of coordinating superintendent searches. From the first questions on improving Pueblo’s chronically low-performing schools to the last on succession plans, audience questions were pointed and covered a lot of controversial ground. Whichever finalist is selected, they’ll have a full plate on July 1.

3. But there are no new answers — Despite the fact that two of the three finalists hail from outside Pueblo’s city limits, none of the candidates proposed any new or showstopping strategies to turnaround Pueblo’s schools. Is it fair to play it safe while interviewing for a job? Sure. But an increasing body of research shows what struggling schools and districts need more than anything is a leader willing to take risks and buck the status quo. The willingness to be a game changer wasn’t apparent in any of the candidates. They stuck to familiar turns of phrase and education jargon district officials here (and elsewhere, to be fair) have been using to describe their turnaround efforts. One veteran teacher, upon leaving the forum, summed it up this way: “meh.”

Live Blog

8:07 p.m. The forum is ending. CASB executive John Merrimam says the Pueblo City Schools board has a hard job to pick just one superintendent. Here are some of the closing thoughts from the candidates.

Seifert: “I have the hometown advantage,” she jokes. She says being a finalist is humbling and looks forward to continuing to work with Pueblo students and parents.

Jones: “I want to serve as superintendent at a school district where everyone believes all students can achieve.” She believes Pueblo can be one of the highest performing districts in the state and nation.

Johnstone: Thirteen years ago, when the city had one of the most recognized programs in the state, she called district leaders to learn what they were doing to help kids. Since then, she said, she’s had an eye on the district and has wanted to be here. “You have great schools.”

8:02 p.m. All three candidates are asked the following question: should districts have a leadership succession plan in order to promote within?

Seifert: She had a succession plan when she was a superintendent back east. However, it’s important for leaders to be ready for their job, and if they aren’t, new blood needs to be brought in to help fill gaps.

Johnstone: Teacher- leaders are the next big thing. She also wholeheartedly promoting teachers to building leaders.

Jones: It’s extremely important to not leave a system vulnerable by only having one person knowing how everything works. However, bringing fresh eyes to a system can be beneficial.

7:57 p.m. All three candidates are asked to share their history with working with charter schools and how they’d support them in Pueblo.

Jones: In Florida, her district has about 25 charter schools. Making sure those charter schools were in compliance with state policies was part of her job description. She says if she’s named Pueblo’s next superintendent, she’d comply with all of Colorado’s laws regarding charter school funding. Working collaboratively with charter schools is a good thing, she says. However, she has some reservations about “privatizing” education.

Seifert: She has beef with a local online charter school, the Goal Academy. But, she will stand up for any quality school that can do something a district run school can’t fulfill. That’s rarely the case, she says.

Johnstone: She says parents should investigate charters very thoroughly.

7:50 p.m. Seifert is answering a similar questions about professional development.

At her high school, she shares videos of teachers doing good things in their classrooms most Fridays. “We’ve had a lot of positive results from teachers teaching other teachers,” she said.

7:47 p.m. Jones is now answering a question about her feelings on professional learning communities, a practice most Pueblo schools are using, and whether she would want the district to use it systemwide.

Jones says it’s a very important strategy. As a school system, she says, it’s important to define the expectations and decide what the community wants to achieve. Those communities can’t just be a staff meeting about how the copy machine never works, she says. “Teaching can be an isolating experience,” she said. But a learning community can change that.

7:41 p.m. Johnstone is asked about some of her favorite professional development practices.

She says development needs to be targeted and tailored to the needs of teachers. It’s not a specific program, she says, but being able to know what your teachers need.

7:40 p.m. Seifert is answering this question: How do you balance cultural diversity with the need for all students to achieve?

The new teacher evaluation models ask teachers to get to know their students better. This is a good thing, she says. I think we do a good job, informally. And the new evaluation tools is formalizing the process. Understanding your students’ backgrounds is now an official best-practice, she says.

Additionally, parents need to understand their students can’t learn if they’re not in class. Poor student attendance is actually a burden on our local economy she says.

7:39 p.m. How would you enlist the community for help, Jones is asked. She says she’d like to host open forum with the community.

7:37 p.m. This question is just for Johnstone: how will you increase parent involvement?

The Brush School district has implemented a 360-degree feedback program, Johnstone says. Her parents are regularly surveyed and survey results are shared with the school board. “It was slow at first,” she admits.

7:33 p.m. Will you be willing to set up alternative schools for students who don’t fit into traditional classrooms? All three finalists are answering this question.

Seifert: The transitional classroom may not be accessible to all students. She says setting up alternative schools is always a good thing, so long as the options are student-driven and not for the benefit of the adults.

Johnstone: “When kids are struggling, I want to know first and foremost why are those students struggling,” she says. School leaders need to find out what will work best for students and then hold them accountable. Parents, teachers and administrators need to work together as a team for the students.

Jones: Schools should always try to find more options for students. In Florida, she’s helped expand tech and career studies. It’s provided the kinds of hooks needed to engage students (and has the added benefit of being a deterrent). I would be very open to see what we can be able to do to help every student be successful, she says. Students should also be held to a code of conduct.

7:24 p.m. Describe your relationship with teachers unions. All three candidates are answering this question.

Jones: Her Florida school district and its union work through a consensus process, she said. The challenge is to honor the process, she said, especially during lean years. The important thing is to end up with a contract that both sides can “live with and support.” In 10 years she’s been on the district’s bargaining team there has always been a fully ratified contract.

Seifert: She was a union president. She says there is likely to always be friction because there are a lot of needs and limited money.

Johnstone: She says she appreciates her union. They have a meet-and-confirm process. “There is nothing you can’t bring up,” she says. She meets monthly with her union leaders and uses the time to bounce ideas off them. Negotiated contracts are a good thing, she says.

7:18 p.m. The next few questions all three candidates are answering: discuss your plans to reside in Pueblo and how long would you like to stay?

The two out-of-towners (Johnstone and Jones) say they look forward to living in Pueblo and would stay for quiet a while.

“I don’t have any plans for retirement,” Jones said.

Seifert, who currently leads a local high school, echoes Jones. “I would never live anywhere else.”

7:16 p.m. There’s a lack of nurses and counselors to address mental health needs of students, goes the next question for Seifert. What can we do about it?

Seifert says as a superintendent she increased the number of nurses at her schools. In our economy today, she says, parents are working two or three jobs. And that means they might not have time to take their children to the doctor. Providing health care to students is a benefit the district should provide.

7:13 p.m. The next question for Jones: Should the district invest more in technology to improve outcomes and cut expenses?

Jones said her school district has invested in technology and two benefits have been concurrent enrollment opportunities for students and web-based professional development for school leaders. However, there is tremendous value for professional development in the flesh-and-blood.

7:10 p.m. The next question for Johnstone: what steps would you take to expand post-secondary options for students who are not college bound?

Johnstone has worked with students who have been suspended or expelled in Morgan County. She found an early intervention grant for at-risk students. It provides classroom time and the ability to complete career and tech course at a local community college.

This year will be the second year her district has participated in it.

7:06 p.m. Seifert gets a similar question.

She says neither the Common Core standards nor the new PARCC tests have not been proven effective. But she doesn’t think the state has a lot of choice in the matter because of the federal dollars tied to some of the testing requirements tied to the No Child Left Behind law.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” she said. “I wish we didn’t have to use our children in this process.”

7:04 p.m. Jones gets the Common Core question. On a scale of 1 to 10, how beneficial are they?

She says a 7. Standards are a good thing, “I believe they are important to guide us and serve as a road map,” she says.

Common Core asks student to apply knowledge, she says.

But there are aspects of “things” that have been attached to the Common Core that gives her pause. And she’s a supporter of local control. That’s why she can’t give the standards a higher score.

7:02 p.m. Is the data yielded from standardized tests worth the loss of instructional time?

Johnstone explains the reason why we test: accountability and to drive instruction. But, she says, the amount of testing has gotten out of hand. She’s suggested to the state’s education commissioner that he state should only test every three years.

7 p.m. The next budget question is to Seifert: How would you hold the district accountable for each and every expenditure?

Seifert says she learned how to budget as a principal. Her expertise grew as a superintendent in Tennessee. She’s asked her school leaders to write out priorities. “What can’t you live without?” she asked.

Budgets are tricky, she continues, you have to protect the needs of the student while allowing your employees to provide for their own families.

More recently, at her current high school, she had to decide between a counselor or a new teacher. She choose the new teacher while her administrative team picked up the slack of the counselor.

“We’ve seen some nice results from that,” she said. “We’ve gotten to know the students better.”

6:53 p.m. Some believe the district is top heavy, the next question to Jones begins. Does that have something to do with our budget crisis?

Jones says central staff is important to a district, to lend support to schools. But schools need to come first, she says. The No. 1 priority needs to be a properly staffed school with highly qualified teachers, who are compensated well and have the resources they need.

6:46 p.m. This question to Johnstone: how do you plan to balance the needs of students and teachers while the district is facing a multi-million dollar deficit?

She says budget cuts in Colorado’s schools are nothing new. At the Brush School District, which she currently leads, they’ve implemented a zero-based budgeting system. That means they build a budget from zero each year, rather than cut or add dollars each year.

The one goal through-and-through, she says, is boosting student achievement. And when forming a district’s budget you have to align your priorities with that outcome in mind.

6:46 p.m. Question to Seifert: what would you do to improve Pueblo’s accreditation status?

Seifert says, it’s the central administration’s job not to beat up teachers, but work with them in the trenches. She wants to use research-based practices in the classroom. She says central administrators need to be closer to the classroom. “The district office is better served going to the school,” rather than the school going to the district head quarters, she says.

She says there are good things happening in Pueblo schools and the “turnaround” labels are like the gum stuck to the bottom of the city’s metaphorical shoe.

6:44 pm. The second question is for Jones. It’s about her history of working in low-performing schools.

She says Florida, where she’s from has a similar, accreditation process. She says it’s incredibly important to understand the “rules” to be defined as high performing. “I’m happy to say, what we’ve always done is target resources and professional development based on needs … to help the students,” she said.

Jones said her district has now been rated an “A” for the last three years.

6:40 p.m. First question is about Pueblo’s accreditation status. It goes to Johnstone.

Johnstone says shifting demographics and leadership turnover played big parts in Pueblo’s accreditation status. She says if she gets the job, she’d increase data-driven instruction and focus on best practices that are working. She said the district’s writing scores are all over the place and that needs to be changed.

6:31 p.m. The forum is starting. Each superintendent finalist will have three minutes to answer each question. The candidates are now introducing themselves.

6:24 p.m. The room is beginning to fill up. About 30 folks. John Merriam of the Colorado Association of School Boards, the contracted search firm, will be lobbing the questions at the candidates. According to the Merriam, 94 questions were submitted. The city’s board members are seated in the audience with the rest of the public. Audience members are being asked to fill out a form identifying strengths and concerns for each candidate.

6:01 p.m. The Pueblo City Schools board room is nearly empty. That makes one man’s sign that reads “air condition all schools & classrooms!” that much bigger. A tech is making final adjustments on the live stream that is available here.

who's next?

What you should know about seven people who could be the next New York City schools chancellor

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Carmen FariƱa's retirement.

Nearly a month after Carmen Fariña announced that this school year would be her last as New York City’s chancellor, New Yorkers are no closer to knowing who will succeed her.

As city emissaries reach out to possible replacements around the country and City Hall vets people inside the Department of Education, speculation has mounted quickly. Will Mayor Bill de Blasio go with a trusted insider? Or will he try to attract a celebrated outsider who could drum up some excitement about his education agenda?

What’s clear is that de Blasio has committed to picking an educator for the slot, ruling out some officials who have played a leading role in his biggest education initiatives so far. Low pay, an established education agenda, and de Blasio’s reputation for being a micromanager may make it tough to recruit a high-profile outsider. Still, the job remains among the most prestigious education posts in the country.

Everyone who pays attention to education in the city has ideas about who might be under consideration.

After talking to more than a dozen people who keep a close eye on the education department and City Hall, some of them from within, we’ve sorted through the rumors and political jockeying to handicap several contenders.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Miami-Dade County Public Schools
Alberto Carvalho

Alberto Carvalho

Who he is: Carvalho is the widely admired leader of Miami’s school system, where he has spent his entire career. Under his leadership, the district’s finances and academic performance improved. He has an inspiring life story, too: He became an educator after first coming to the United States from Portugal as an undocumented immigrant.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Politically savvy, skilled in engaging with the media, and prolific on Twitter, Carvalho would certainly fill the mayor’s requirement of being able to sell an education agenda. During his tenure, he helped convince county voters to approve a $1 billion bond for school infrastructure and technology upgrades.

Why you might not: Things are going well for Carvalho in Miami, where his contract runs until 2020 — and he’s balked at high-profile opportunities in the past. Like other outsiders, he’s already far outearning the city chancellor’s salary: He makes roughly $345,000 in Miami now, compared to nearly $235,000 for Fariña in New York.

What he says: “My commitment to Miami is so strong and I have demonstrated it in the face of political opportunities,” he told Chalkbeat. “It’s really hard for me to imagine a set of circumstances that would lead to a different decision on my part.”

Kathleen Cashin

Kathleen Cashin

Who she is: Cashin is currently a member of New York’s Board of Regents, where she helps set education policy for the entire state. Before that, she spent more than three decades as a New York City educator — first as a teacher and principal before working her way up to be a regional superintendent.

Why you might see her at Tweed: De Blasio has signaled he’s looking for someone like Fariña, and Cashin fits that mold. She believes, as Fariña does, that principals must be veteran educators who earn their autonomy (she resisted Bloomberg’s efforts to hire principals who were not experienced educators). Crucially, she has shown results boosting student achievement in high-poverty areas of the city, a problem de Blasio has struggled to solve.

Why you might not: Cashin recently turned 70, she is not a person of color, and is not likely to bring lots of new ideas to the table.

What she says: Did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

What a supporter says: “She had the toughest district in the entire city and she handled her district not only with focus,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa, but also “elegance and professionalism beyond belief. I have so much respect for Dr. Cashin.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Rudy Crew

Rudy Crew

Who he is: Crew is the president of Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, part of the city’s public university system. He previously served as New York City’s schools chief for four years in the late 1990s under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, spent another four running the Miami-Dade county school district, and did a brief (and controversial) stint as an education official in Oregon.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Crew is a black man, which makes him a standout among the education department’s top ranks. He knows the political landscape and has continued to take an interest in the city’s schools through his work at Medgar Evers, where he created a program that provides training to local public-school teachers and early-college classes for students. Crew also seems to share de Blasio’s belief that high-quality instruction should take priority over school integration, and as chancellor, he set up a turnaround program for struggling schools that has clear parallels with the mayor’s Renewal initiative.

Why you might not: While Crew has had some success boosting student achievement, he also has a record of political clashes. He left Miami after the school board’s chair said they had developed “irreconcilable differences” and Oregon amid controversy about his commitment to the job.

What he says: Crew declined to be interviewed, but a spokeswoman said he “has not been contacted about the job.”

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
MaryEllen Elia

MaryEllen Elia

Who she is: Currently the head of New York’s state education department, Elia previously led one of the nation’s 10 largest school districts, Hillsborough County in Florida. There, she gained a reputation for working closely with the local teachers union on policy issues that unions often oppose. She was named Florida’s 2015 superintendent of the year before being ousted by the school board shortly afterward, in a move that garnered some local and national criticism.

Why you might see her at Tweed: While Elia is considered a long shot, it could make sense for de Blasio to give her a look. She’s a good match for de Blasio’s overall orientation: She’s progressive-minded — see the state’s new initiative to help districts integrate their schools — but also believes that schools should be held accountable for helping students learn. Elia has spent nearly three years running the state education department without making enemies. She also hasn’t set out to make a big splash in her leadership, which could be appealing for a mayor whose agenda is already in place.

Why you might not: She appears comfortable in her role in Albany, where she’s helping the state adapt to the new federal education law, and reconsider its approach to teacher evaluations, graduation requirements, and more. Also, she has no experience working in New York City.

What she says: “Commissioner Elia has had no discussions about this,” said State Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis. “She loves her job as State Education Commissioner and remains committed to fostering equity in education for all children across New York State.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Dorita Gibson

Dorita Gibson

Who she is: Gibson is the education department’s second in command as Fariña’s senior deputy chancellor. She has served at virtually every level of leadership within the New York City school system, rising from teacher to assistant principal, principal, and high-level superintendent. She’s helped lead big changes in the way the education department supports schools, and is partly responsible for overseeing the mayor’s signature “Renewal” program for struggling schools.

Why you might see her at Tweed: She’s already there, an advantage at a moment when some outsiders seem unenthusiastic about taking over the school system. Gibson is one of Fariña’s top deputies who leads initiatives that are core to the city’s education agenda. She’s also a longtime educator, which de Blasio has said is a requirement, and the department’s top-ranking deputy of color.

Why you might not: Despite being Fariña’s number two, Gibson has kept a low profile, and rarely appears in the press. Her absence raises questions about her interest or likelihood of assuming the top position.

What she says: Declined to comment.

What people are saying: Gibson “seems to be a natural successor,” writes David Bloomfield, a professor of education, law, and public policy at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “The only problem is that, like other central Department of Education officials, she doesn’t seem to have the support of the mayor or chancellor.”

PHOTO: Via LinkedIn
Cheryl Watson-Harris

Cheryl Watson-Harris

Who she is: Watson-Harris is the education department’s senior executive director of field support, who is responsible for helping manage centers that support schools on instructional and operational issues. She started her career as a New York City teacher before working as a principal and superintendent in Boston for nearly two decades. She assumed her current role in 2015.

Why you might see her at Tweed: Watson-Harris rose quickly from running just one of the large school-support centers to overseeing all seven. Multiple sources said she was perceived as being groomed for a higher-ranking position at the education education department. And on her Twitter feed, where she acts as a public booster for the school system, she notes that she’s the parent of a student in the city’s public schools.

Why you might not: She would have to leapfrog a number of more senior officials who have years of experience at higher rungs of education department leadership, including Gibson. Insiders question whether she’s ready to make that jump.

What she says: Declined to comment.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Phil Weinberg

Phil Weinberg

Who he is: Weinberg is one of Fariña’s six deputy chancellors. He began his career teaching at Brooklyn’s High School of Telecommunication Arts and Technology — and wound up staying for 27 years before rising to principal in 2001. In 2014, Fariña plucked him from that post to head up a resurrected “teaching and learning” division that had been dormant for years.

Why you might see him at Tweed: Weinberg is widely respected among educators and has avoided major blowback during his four years leading teaching and learning at the department. The things he’s passionate about — including strong teaching, coherent curriculum, and collaboration among educators — are close to Fariña’s heart, which would matter if she plays a strong role in choosing her successor.

Why you might not: His efforts have been peripheral to the initiatives the de Blasio administration cares about most, such as prekindergarten and community schools. He seems to prefer an internal role to a public-facing one. And he’s a white man — hardly the top demographic choice for the leader of a district where more than 70 percent of students are black or Hispanic.

What he says: Did not respond to a message seeking comment.

That’s the short list, but many other names have also surfaced.

Josh Starr, a former New York City official who now works at PDK International, and Pedro Noguera, a professor at UCLA, would make good fits for de Blasio’s progressive platform, but both have said they are not in the running.

Other names that have been floated as potential contenders include Lillian Lowery, a former district superintendent and top education official in Maryland and Delaware (now a vice president at Ed Trust); Angelica Infante-Green, a fast-rising deputy commissioner in New York’s state education department who is reportedly in the running for Mass. state education commissioner; and Betty Rosa, a former superintendent in the Bronx and chancellor of New York’s Board of Regents.

There’s also a cadre of educators who have left New York City for other school systems and might be interested in returning, including Andres Alonso, currently an education professor at Harvard, and Jaime Aquino, who helps lead New Leaders for New Schools, a non-profit organization that focuses on training principals.

Philissa Cramer and Christina Veiga contributed reporting.

Story booth

With no art teacher, students at this Detroit school say their talents go unnurtured


When the eighth-grade students at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side talk about things their school needs, they point to a classmate named Casey.

“He’s a great artist,” one student said. “He can look at a picture and draw it in like five minutes and it will look exactly the same.”

If Casey attended school in the suburbs, his friends believe, he and other talented students would have an art class where they could nurture their skills.

“They don’t have the time to put in the work with their talent because we don’t have those extra-curricular activities,” another classmate said.

The students at the K-8 school have no art, music or gym teachers — a common problem in a district where resources are thin and where a teacher shortage has made it difficult for schools like this one to find teachers for many subjects, including the arts.

While the Detroit district has committed to expanding arts programs next year, it would need to find enough teachers to fill those positions.

“People out there think we’re not smart and they always criticize us about what we do,” Casey said. “We can always show them how smart we are,” he said, but that requires “getting the type of programming that we’re supposed to.”

Chalkbeat spoke with students at the school as part of a “story booth” series that invites students, teachers and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools.

Watch the full video of the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X students below and please tell us if you know someone who would like their story featured in a future story booth.