Pondering performance

His job on the line, Jeffco superintendent says he’s been given no hint of problems

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Dan McMinimee at a meeting with Jeffco parents, teachers, and community members after being named finalist for the Jeffco superintendent job.

Controversy surrounded Dan McMinimee’s summer 2014 hiring as superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools, the state’s second largest school district.

Some worried he was inexperienced, that he would be paid too much and that he would bring many of the conservative, market-based reforms of the Douglas County school district, where he previously worked.

Yet while working under two completely different school boards in less than three years — one that hired him and one that took over after a heated recall campaign — McMinimee has focused on his district work and gotten things done, various people agree.

That may not be enough to save his job.

The Jeffco school board is scheduled to vote Thursday night on launching a search for a new superintendent, in effect telling McMinimee he will no longer be needed after his contract expires at the end of June.

The school board’s discussion about McMinimee — which included two closed-door meetings — didn’t start over concerns with McMinimee’s performance, said Ron Mitchell, chairman of the school board. He declined to say what did prompt the talks.

“I think there are a lot of things Dan McMinimee has done for Jeffco schools and has done well,” Mitchell said. “The politics of Jeffco have been challenging. I honestly believe that Dan worked hard to serve the current board.”

That’s what’s puzzling, McMinimee told Chalkbeat Wednesday afternoon.

“There’s been no indication that there was a problem,” McMinimee said. “There’s been a big change in the climate since I arrived. I thought we were moving forward.”

In his time as superintendent, McMinimee has helped Jeffco create a new strategic vision, increased the number of college classes high school students take and moved the district to a student-based budget system that gave principals more control over how to spend money in their schools. His team has reformed the way teachers get paid — twice — and helped negotiate a longer contract for teachers.

The district’s teachers union — which vehemently opposed the the board members who hired McMinimee — did not respond to a request for a comment about McMinimee’s work or potential departure.

It’s not uncommon for districts to change superintendents often — or for newly elected school boards to want their own person in the job.

Most superintendents tend to stay in their roles for about three years, and in some years as many of 25 percent of Colorado’s school districts are searching for new superintendents, said Mark DeVoti, assistant executive director for the Colorado Association of School Boards. School board turnover is one of many factors that plays into that, he said.

Leonor Lucero, a mother of two Jeffco students, said she’s disappointed the board is considering breaking ties with McMinimee.

“Dan has worked well with both boards,” said Lucero, who opposed the recall of conservative school board members who hired McMinimee. “He’s not controversial. He’s working with them not against them.”

She said she wishes the board would keep McMinimee to give the district some stability needed after district setbacks including when voters in November turned down the school district’s two ballot measures asking for tax increases.

“The school district has gone through a lot,” Lucero said. “We’ve had a recall, a whole new school board starting from scratch, the failing of the 3A and 3B ballot measures… and there’s a new election coming up. I think they should just let Jeffco settle.”

The board finalized an evaluation in September used to determine if McMinimee was eligible for up to $40,000 in bonuses tied to district goals. The board found McMinimee helped the district reach more than half of the goals, including raising scores on state tests and on the ACT test, and creating school accountability teams at every district school.

McMinimee received the lowest scores of partially effective on three out of the 12 goals including one related to creating a new charter school application process, and for mixed results increasing the number of third-graders meeting or exceeding expectations in reading. Based on the review, McMinimee received $20,000 in performance pay.

Yet the board was not entirely pleased with McMinimee’s a draft of his suggested goals late last year, asking for more goals that can be tied data, and suggesting some goals sounded more like job expectations and not additional goals for bonuses.

 

One of McMinimee’s bigger reforms in Jeffco involved turning two high schools into seventh through 12th grade schools in a reconfiguration of two boundary areas on the eastern side of the district where a larger number of students are low-income and English language learners.

Joel Newton, executive director of the Edgewater Collective, which is working with schools that have been affected by those changes, also said he’s happy with McMinimee’s work.

“I have been very impressed by his leadership skills in our area specifically and in our efforts,” Newton said. “He’s been very focused on student achievement and building bridges. He’s been very visible in our area.”

McMinimee’s contract will expire June 30 unless the board notifies him of an extension by March 31.

Asked if he expects to serve the remainder of his contract, McMinimee said it’s up to the board for now.

“It’s a hard position to be in when you’re no longer focused on the future,” McMinimee said. “When a CEO is removed from a major company or a head coach is removed from a team, they don’t stay around for spring practice or for the next six months.”

The work in the months ahead includes budgeting, including finding ways to raise teacher salaries for negotiation discussions and making cuts after the loss of the school tax measures, hiring of principals and district staff as well as adjusting programs for next year.

The challenge in Jeffco has also been trying to bridge a community that was divided by a divisive recall election. But it’s a large geographic area with too many people who may never completely agree on the district’s philosophy, McMinimee said.

“For me if we could all get to the point of focusing on student achievement and opportunity, that would be the goal,” McMinimee said. “I still think we’re a ways from that, and I’m not sure that one person is responsible for that.”

This story has been updated to include updated data provided by Mark DeVoti about the average time superintendents stay in their role.

Movers and shakers

Success Academy COO leaving for another charter network

PHOTO: Monica Disare
Success Academy hosts its annual "Slam the Exam" rally at the Barclays Center.

A top official at New York City’s largest charter network is leaving for another network, Success Academy officials confirmed Monday.

Kris Cheung, the chief operating officer at Success Academy, is headed to Texas for an operations job at KIPP. Rob Price, Success’s chief financial officer, is also leaving his post. The moves were first reported by Gothamist.

“As Success scales to 100 schools, we have hired several new leaders this past year — general counsel, chief of technology and head of leadership and human resources,” Success spokeswoman Ann Powell said. “While Kris Cheung, who has spent seven years with Success, is leaving to work in Texas for another charter network, Rob Price will continue as a consultant.”

Cheung was promoted to oversee operations in the shake-up that followed a 2015 school-supply fiasco required network staff to work nights and weekend days sorting boxes and furniture on Long Island.

The moves leave the network, which has ambitions to grow to 100 schools, with key positions to fill. Dan Loeb, Success’s board chair, also stepped down recently (and was replaced by Steven Galbraith); founder Eva Moskowitz lost another key ally in Emily Kim, the network’s former top lawyer, in 2017.

The city’s 46 Success Academy schools are known for their high test scores, strict discipline, Moskowitz’s fights with Mayor Bill de Blasio, and controversies around pushing out students and a much-publicized video showing a teacher ripping student work.

KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini said Cheung’s precise role is still being decided. That network’s well-known co-founder, Mike Feinberg, was fired in February after a sexual misconduct investigation.

One year in

A year after Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, a look back at his application shows what’s changed

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti interviewed for the job on March 30, 2017.

Next week will mark a full year since Superintendent Nikolai Vitti arrived in Detroit, taking on one of the most daunting jobs in American education.

As leader of the state’s largest district, he faced a long list of challenges: hundreds of vacant teaching positions, deteriorating buildings, dismal test scores, a total lack of systems for finances and hiring — the legacy, Vitti says, of the state-appointed emergency managers who ran the district for years before his arrival.

One year later, it remains to be seen whether Vitti will be able deliver the hopeful turnaround he promised in his 27-page application. It’s far too soon to look for real signs of progress — like higher test scores — because major changes to schools like a new curriculum won’t be implemented until next school year. But enrollment is up slightly, budgets have been balanced, and teacher salaries are on the rise.

Below, we return to his application — his blueprint for the district — to mark the things that have happened, the plans that have been made, and the work still left to do.

Click on the highlighted text to compare Vitti’s words with his actions and read our coverage of his first year in the district.


Candidate File for Nikolai Vitti

DETROIT PUBLIC SCHOOLS

COMMUNITY DISTRICT

Superintendent Search

2017-18

Please accept this letter as my official application to serve as the superintendent of Detroit Public Schools Community District (DPSCD), I am applying for this extraordinary challenge and opportunity because of my deep and unwavering belief in urban public education and my love for my home city of Detroit. The city’s voters have demanded and received an elected School Board, The School Board’s success will rest upon its decision to select the right leader who has the vision, track record, experience, commitment, strength, and perseverance for the job. I believe that I am that leader who is ready to collaboratively own the success of DPSCD’s future with the Board,

I offer the Board a child-centric and seemingly outside, objective perspective of how we can build the district into the best urban school district in the nation, while simultaneously doing that work with the empathy and sensitivities of a Detroiter. Growing up in Metro Detroit, my family and I have directly experienced the challenges of immigration, single motherhood, teenage pregnancy, unemployment, alcoholism, and foreclosures. My immediate and extended family represents the spirit and diversity of Detroit as we are a collection of ethnic Whites, African-Americans, Latinos, Whites, and Arab-Americans. From delivering the Detroit Free Press at 5 a.m. or parking cars on Michigan Avenue for the Tigers’ game to supplement our family’s income, to my grandmother working for Ford as an hourly cashier or my grandparents and father working in the factory at the River Rouge plant, to my mother earning her GED after dropping out of high school as a teenage mother and working to this day as a hairdresser, to my father eventually graduating from Wayne State University or my family running a pizzeria, Detroit is in my blood and I am eager to return home and serve the city.

An unbridled passion and drive to catch up to my peers, along with the work ethic and pride of my family, led me to focus my college experience exclusively on reading, studying, and writing to better understand myself and the world. Despite struggling through my K-12 experience due to undiagnosed dyslexia and a family home structure that did not always feel comfortable advocating for academic excellence, I quickly realized that my college education was a vehicle to my own self-actualization and empowerment. It was there where I also reunited with my father. However, empowerment did not mean more for myself, it meant building my capacity and confidence to empower others. After considering law, medicine, and even film, I decided that the greatest vehicle for social justice and transformation, at scale, was public education. I began that work as a teacher and eventually as a superintendent to assume greater responsibility and ownership for the learning environments that all of our children deserve.

Traditional public education is at a perceived crisis, whether that crisis is truly legitimate or exaggerated for political and ideological reasons, we must conduct our work with greater strategy, efficiency, and transparency in order to produce stronger outcomes. I offer the Board and community an expansive track record of success with transforming some of the most challenged learning environments at the classroom, school, district, and state levels that mirror those in Detroit. This work has occurred as a practitioner in the Bronx, Miami, in several urban communities in Florida, and most recently in Jacksonville, FL. I have only served in traditional public schools because of my deep belief that this is where our work is most important. The only way our nation can meet its professed ethos of equal opportunity is to ensure a strong public education system is ever present. Detroit can only restore its greatness with a strong public school system.

My initial contract in Jacksonville was from November, 2012 to June, 2016. It was renewed early on a 7-0 School Board vote for a three year extension. I am in the first year of that three year extension. I admit that our work in Jacksonville is incomplete but at the same time I can confidently state that I will leave the district in a better place than I assumed it four years ago. This is evidenced through historic achievement levels and improvement in graduation rates, the National Assessment in Educational Progress (NAEP), district grade, and post-secondary readiness among several other indicators.

Four years ago Duval County was seven percentage points from the state average, today it is nearly one percentage point away with an improvement of over Ti percentage points. Today our African-American graduation rate leads all large urban school districts in Florida, our achievement gap between White and African-American students is the narrowest in reading, math, and Algebra among the largest districts in Florida and one of the narrowest among the largest districts in the nation according to NAEP. We have increased post-secondary college readiness in reading by 11 percentage points from 73% to 84%, and a 17 percentage points in math from 55% to 72%. African-American post-secondary readiness for reading has improved from 67% to 81%, and in mathematics from 39% to 66% over the past four years. We have been a “B” district for consecutive years for the first time in years. The performance of nearly all groups of students have improved in the vast majority state assessments after the second year of new standards, and performance is due to improve again this year based on mid-year internal assessments.

I would leave Duval County with an infrastructure that has been solidified in the areas of technology, blended learning, budget alignment to a Strategic Plan, art and music programming, data systems, curriculum selection and adoption for the new standards, school programming with an emphasis on STEM, accelerated courses, and Career Academies, leadership development at the school and district level, alternative and over-age schools, schools avoiding state sanction, redesign of low enrolled and struggling schools, and the concentration of stronger leaders and teachers in struggling schools.

I apply for this position knowing that I am returning home and that the School Board and community need leadership sustainability. I have been asked to apply to several superintendent positions, charter networks, and private companies over the years; Jacksonville was the only district in which I applied for my first superintendency and I am now only applying for this opportunity. I fully embrace and would only request a long-term commitment with the School Board to begin the problem solving process to improve the school district.

The School Board is seeking a leader with the capacity, confidence, and experience to work with the State and local communities to turnaround lower performing schools. I have demonstrated this ability as a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, chief academic officer, state administrator, and superintendent in several large urban school districts throughout the country. As a cabinet member who served three National Superintendents of the Year and as an essential member of a district team that won the Broad Prize in Educational Excellence while being highlighted for turnaround work by the USDOE and FLDOE, I will be able to provide the State of Michigan with the assurance that we can be trusted to improve student achievement and ensure financial transparency. We will regain the right to govern our school district independently.

I envision a school district where all students are college ready or well prepared for high level employment. This will occur because our students will learn to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, and leaders. We will support and develop our current and future leaders and teachers, and support them with the right tools, curriculum and data systems, and wraparound services to address our students’ socioemotional challenges. Our students will experience the expansion and exposure of an arts education while gaining a greater appreciation for their culture and community. We will expand business partnerships for internships, while building the capacity of our parents and respecting their voice. Our students will be safe and learn through their mistakes by ensuring a progressive discipline model. We will restore the confidence of parents and their children who will return from charter and private schools.

The resurgence of Detroit is underway. As a School Board and superintendent team we will accelerate that progress and ensure its success.

Read Vitti’s full application, including his resume and references, in the document below.