Who Is In Charge

Losing top principals presents a challenge for IPS

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Deciding to leave School 90 was tough for Mark Pugh, the principal who for the last seven years led a stunning turnaround that made the it one of the best-scoring high poverty schools in Indiana.

But he started looking for another job after receiving an odd reward for the success he’s had at the school: a deep pay cut.

The Indianapolis Public School board last summer ordered salary reductions — it cost Pugh $14,000 — for 11 elementary school principals. Less than a year later, School 90 will have to figure out how to keep its streak of success going without him.

“It’s bittersweet for me to be leaving,” he said. “It’s kind of like sending your kid off to college. I hope whoever comes in next will value the school as much as I valued it and value the staff as much as I valued them.”

With Pugh’s departure, Indianapolis Public Schools will now have to find new leadership for School 90, a school with better test scores than any other elementary school that draws students mostly from a high-poverty neighborhood. The school was too small to have an assistant principal and there is no obivious successor.

And at it’s best scoring middle school the story went much the same way.

Harshman Middle School, a math and science magnet, earlier this spring lost its principal and a vice principal that many expected would some day take over leading the school.

At a time when Superintendent Lewis Ferebee has begun creating a new hiring process with a goal of choosing strong principals, the departure of three well-regarded school leaders isn’t making his job any easier.

Pay freezes and tight budgets have been prompting top IPS employees at all levels to look elsewhere for several years.

“There is no question there is a problem with retaining all talent in the district,” board member Caitlin Hannon said.

But in Pugh’s case, the pay cut, a 15 percent reduction in his salary from $94,000 to $80,000, went well beyond the district’s widespread problem of not keeping up with inflation.

“The reduction in pay definitely prompted me to look at it a little more seriously,” he said.

When Pugh took over at School 90, its state rating was a D and a little over half the students passed ISTEP.

It now has been rated an A for five consecutive years, including twice being honored by the Indiana Department of Education for ranking among the state’s best schools for test score growth, the only school to make the list more than once in that period.

Also known as Ernie Pyle Elementary School, School 90 serves 360 students in K to 6. It was given a magnet theme two years ago but basically remains a neighborhood school, serving mostly children who live nearby on the Northwest side. It follows the Paideia curriculum, based on a Greek-inspired classical education, as its magnet program.

The student body is nearly all high poverty — 95 percent qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. It has a huge number of students learning English as a second language at 28 percent. Special education enrollment also exceeds the districtwide average.

Those are tough challenges, but Pugh’s approach as principal focused on enforcing tough, consistent discipline and building an elite teaching team. The result: four straight years of ISTEP gains.

With 84 percent passing last year, School 90 trailed only the Sidener Gifted Academy and the Center for Inquiry at School 84, two of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, as the best scoring schools in IPS. The highest scoring non-magnet school serving a neighborhood last year was School 39, which was 20 points behind School 90 with a passing rate of 64 percent.

How did that track record earn Pugh a $14,000 pay cut? In part, the board’s decision was based on faulty information.

Believing IPS was facing a $30 million deficit, interim Superintendent Peggy Hinckley discovered an oddity in principal pay while searching for cost savings in the district’s budget. Most elementary school principals were on 10-month contracts. But Hinckley found 11 who were paid for 12 months.

Her research showed there had apparently been a mistake. Most of those who saw pay cuts had formerly worked in high schools on 12-month contracts that were mistakenly not adjusted when they changed jobs, Hinckley said at the time. While acknowledging it created an awkward and financially painful situation for those affected, Hinckley recommended adjusting Pugh and the others to 10 months, because it would help the district save money and standardize the work year for elementary school principals.

After Ferebee took over in September, IPS soon found its financial situation was much different than everyone thought.

In March Ferbee made a stunning announcement: the reported deficit didn’t exist, he said. IPS actually had a small surplus last year. The district had been systematically overestimating its expenses, Ferebee said.

That revelation has prompted widespread rethinking of pay issues.

Teachers, many of whom have not had a raise in five years, are clamoring for a pay hike as negotiations on a new contract begin in August with the district’s teachers union. The school board has also had discussions about taking the opportunity to completely rethink how teachers, principals and others are compensated. The board could start that process even before labor talks begin.

“We’ve never budgeted well and we haven’t budgeted our values,” Hannon said. “If we want to build a system where talent is the No. 1 thing we’re interested in, I think we are close to beginning that.”

One change Ferebee has already made was to boost pay for principals willing to take an assignment at one of 11 “priority” schools, or the most troubled buildings with flat or declining test scores. He said he hopes to restore the pay cuts that affected Pugh, but fixing priority schools came first.

“I’m really trying to turn the tide on things that occurred before I got here,” Ferebee said. “The way those reductions were made, we cannot just reverse all of those at one point in time.”

For Pugh, the pay cut put on the table for his family a long running idea of moving to Ohio, where they have relatives. Later this month, he expects to be named principal of a suburban elementary school there. He informed School 90 staff on Thursday that he would not be returning.

“I feel very privileged,” he said. “I have a great deal of pride in Ernie Pyle. I feel confident I’ve made an impact on kids’ lives.”

Will the next school leader be able to continue the momentum? That challenge is also facing Harshman.

As principal, Bob Guffin led a turnaround at Harshman with similar results as School 90 but on a quicker timetable. Harshman was rated an F in 2010 with just 33 percent of its students passing ISTEP. Two years later, it was rated a B after a 27-point jump in its passing rate.

Last year, with 73 percent passing ISTEP, it was the district’s top-scoring middle school by far, even when compared to middle school students who attend the district’s highly regarded magnet high schools, some of which serve grades 6 to 12. Broad Ripple High School’s middle school students ranked second on ISTEP but the school’s passing rate was more than 15 points behind at 56 percent.

Guffin left for another attractive job: he is now the executive director for the Indiana State Board of Education. Likewise, his assistant principal, Dana Altemeyer, took a job as communications coordinator for Lawrence Township schools.

A new principal selection process he’s begun to put in place will help assure all schools have good principals, Ferebee said. His approach includes school staff, parents and other stakeholders in the decision about who should lead a school.

At School 90, the top rate teachers Pugh assembled will help pick as its next leader the right person who can build on his success, Ferebee said.

“Those teachers are going to continue to do the work,” he said, “and help us select the right leader to be sure we don’t miss a beat.”

choosing leaders

Meet one possible successor to departing Denver superintendent Tom Boasberg

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As Denver officials wrestle with how to pick a replacement for longtime superintendent Tom Boasberg, one insider stands out as a likely candidate.

Susana Cordova, the district’s deputy superintendent, already held her boss’s job once before, when Boasberg took an extended leave in 2016. She has a long history with the district, including as a student, graduating from Abraham Lincoln High School, and as a bilingual teacher starting her career more than 20 years ago.

When she was selected to sit in for Boasberg for six months, board members at the time cited her hard work and the many good relationships they saw she had with people. This time around, several community members are saying they want a leader who will listen to teachers and the community.

Cordova, 52, told Chalkbeat she’s waiting to see what the board decides about the selection process, but said she wants to be ready, when they are, to talk about her interest in the position.

“DPS has played an incredibly important role in every aspect of my life. I’m very committed to making sure that we continue to make progress as an organization,” Cordova said. “I believe I have both the passion and the track record to help move us forward.”

During her career, she has held positions as a teacher, principal, and first became an administrator, starting in 2002, as the district’s literacy director.

Just before taking on the role of acting superintendent in 2016, Cordova talked to Chalkbeat about how her education, at a time of desegregation, shaped her experience and about her long path to connecting with her culture.

“I didn’t grow up bilingual. I learned Spanish after I graduated from college,” Cordova, said at the time. “I grew up at a point in time where I found it more difficult to embrace my Latino culture, academically. There were, I would say, probably some negative messages around what it meant to be Latino at that point of time.”

She said she went through introspection during her senior year of college and realized that many students in her neighborhood bought into the negative messages and had not been successful.

“I didn’t want our schools to be places like that,” she said.

In her time as acting superintendent, she oversaw teacher contract negotiations and preparations for asking voters for a bond that they ultimately approved that fall. Cordova’s deputy superintendent position was created for her after Boasberg returned.

But it’s much of Cordova’s work with students of color that has earned her national recognition.

In December, Education Week, an education publication, named her a “Leader to Learn From,” pointing to her role in the district’s work on equity, specifically with English language learners, and in her advocacy to protect students under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Cordova was also named a Latino Educator Champion of Change by President Barack Obama in 2014. Locally, in 2016, the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute inducted Cordova into its hall of fame.

The Denver school board met Tuesday morning, and again on Wednesday to discuss the superintendent position.

Take a look back at a Q & A Chalkbeat did with Cordova in 2016, and one in 2014.

saying goodbye

Here’s how the local and national education communities are responding to Boasberg’s exit

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg addresses teachers at an early literacy training session.

As the news of Tom Boasberg’s departure ricocheted through the local and national education community, critics and champions of the Denver schools superintendent sounded off.

Here’s a roundup of comments from teachers, parents, school board members past and present, elected officials, and some of Boasberg’s colleagues.

Alicia Ventura, teacher

“I am shocked! I understand his decision as I have one (child) grown and out of the house and one in middle school. Time with our children is short and precious! I will always remember how fun and open-minded Tom was. He would do anything for children and truly lived the students first vision! We will miss you!”

Michael Hancock, Denver mayor and Denver Public Schools graduate

“I am saddened that DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg will be stepping down but full of gratitude for his close partnership with the city on behalf of Denver’s kids and families. As a DPS graduate and a DPS parent, I know firsthand that Tom has led DPS with integrity and commitment. His focus on success for all kids has greatly improved our schools and provided better opportunities for all students to live their dreams.

“We have much work still to do in DPS, but we have an incredible foundation for moving forward and we are committed to continuing in partnership with the next DPS leader.”

Corey Kern, deputy executive director, Denver Classroom Teachers Association

“We were a little surprised by it ourselves. For us, we obviously wish Tom the best. The big focus for us is making sure the selection process for the next superintendent is something that is fair and transparent and open to the public; that it’s not a political appointment but talking to all stakeholders about who is the best person for the job for the students in Denver.”

Anne Rowe, president, Denver school board

“He has given … 10 years to this district as superintendent, and it is an enormous role, and he has given everything he has. … My reaction was, ‘I understand,’ gratitude, a little surprised but not shocked, certainly, and understand all the good reasons why he has made this decision.

“With change, there is always some uncertainty, and yet I look at the people here and their dedication to the kids in DPS and I have full confidence in these folks to continue driving forward while the board takes on the responsibility to select the next superintendent. We won’t miss a beat, and we have a lot of work to do for kids.”

Jeannie Kaplan, former school board member critical of the district’s direction

“I was very surprised. … I wish Tom well. I still do believe that working together is the way to get things done. I’m sorry we weren’t able to do that.

“My one hope would be that one of the primary criteria for the next leader of the district would be a belief in listening to the community – not just making the checkmark, but really listening to what communities want.”

John Hickenlooper, Colorado governor and former Denver mayor

“Tom Boasberg has invested a significant part of his life into transforming Denver Public Schools into one of the fastest-improving school districts in America. As a DPS parent, former mayor, and now governor, I am deeply grateful for the progress made under Tom’s leadership. I applaud Tom and Team DPS for driving the innovations that are creating a brighter future for tens of thousands of young people in every corner of the city.”

U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, who preceded Boasberg as Denver superintendent from 2005 to 2009 and has known him since childhood

“As a DPS parent, I thank him for his commitment, his compassion, and his extraordinary tenure. As Tom always says himself, we have a long way to go, but his transformational leadership has resulted in extraordinary progress over the past 10 years. Our student achievement has substantially increased, the number of teachers and other school personnel serving our children has grown tremendously, and the school choices available to children and their families have never been greater.”

Bennet also penned an op-ed in The Denver Post with this headline:

Ariel Taylor Smith, former Denver Public Schools teacher and co-founder of Transform Education Now, a nonprofit that focuses on improving schools through parent advocacy

“I was a teacher during Tom’s first half of his tenure at DPS and was amazed at how often he would walk the halls of North High School during our turnaround. Tom has dedicated 10 years to this work and for that I am grateful. I also believe that we have a long way to go to getting where we need to be. I believe that we are ready for new leadership who operates with the sense of urgency that we need to see in our city. There are 35,000 students who are attending ‘red’ and ‘orange’ (low-rated) schools in our city right now. One out of every three third-graders is reading on grade level. We need a new leader with a clear vision for the future and an evident sense of urgency to ensure that all our kids are receiving the education that they deserve.”

Brandon Pryor, parent and member Our Voice Our Schools, a group critical of the district

“You have a number of people he works with that are reformers. They think he’s leaving an awesome legacy and he did a lot to change and meet needs of the reformist community. You ask them and I’m sure his legacy will be great. But if you come to my community and ask some black folks what Tom Boasberg’s legacy will be, they’ll tell you something totally different.

“I think he has time with this last three months in office to follow through with some of the promises he’s made us (such as upgrades to the Montbello campus) to improve his situation.”

Jules Kelty, Denver parent

“He personally responded to an email that I sent him about my school. I appreciated that.”

Van Schoales, CEO of the pro-reform advocacy group A Plus Colorado

“On the one hand, I’m not surprised. And on the other hand, I’m surprised.

“I’m not surprised because he’s had a track record of pretty remarkable service for a decade, which is amazing. Nobody else has done that. The district has improved pretty dramatically. He deserves a great deal of credit for that. …The surprise is that we’ve all become so used to him being the superintendent, it’s just a little weird (to think of him leaving).”

Lisa Escárcega, executive director, Colorado Association of School Executives

“Tom’s longstanding commitment and service to DPS have made a significant impact on the district. He is strongly focused on ensuring student equity, and the district has seen improvement in several areas over the last 10 years under his superintendency. Tom is a strong and innovative leader, and I know he will be missed by the DPS community and his colleagues.”

John King, former U.S. Secretary of Education

“Under Tom Boasberg’s leadership for the past decade, Denver Public Schools has made remarkable academic progress and has become one of the most innovative school districts in the country. Tom has brought tremendous urgency and a deep commitment to closing both opportunity and achievement gaps for students of color and those from low-income backgrounds. For many school districts throughout the country, Denver’s innovative and collaborative approaches serve as a valuable model.”

Katy Anthes, state education commissioner

“I’ve appreciated working with Tom over the years and know that his personal commitment to students is incredibly strong. I thank Tom for his service to the students of DPS and Colorado.”

Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, a national group of district and state superintendents 

“Tom Boasberg is an extraordinary leader who has dedicated his life to expanding opportunities for all of Denver’s children. During his tenure, the district has made remarkable gains on virtually every measure of progress. Denver Public Schools is a national model for innovation, district-charter collaboration, and teacher and school leader support. Every decision Tom has made over the course of his career has been focused on helping students succeed. No one is more respected by their peers. As a member of the Chiefs for Change board and in countless other ways Tom has supported education leaders across the nation. He leaves not just an impressive legacy but an organization of talented people committed to equity and excellence.”

David Osborne, author of the book “Reinventing America’s Schools,” which included chapters on Denver’s efforts

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