Q&A

11 things former state superintendent Glenda Ritz wants you to know as she leaves office

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos

Glenda Ritz began as Indiana’s schools chief four years ago, buoyed by the success of an unexpected win.

But at her Statehouse office on Friday afternoon — her last day — it was quiet.

Although her administration was marred by political battles with Gov. Mike Pence and Republican lawmakers, as well as snafus with state tests and the distribution of Title I funding, Ritz was consistently held up as a champion for teachers and public schools.

Ritz rose to power in 2012 after an upset over then-superintendent Tony Bennett. Her campaign garnered the support of a number of educators as well as strong backing from the state’s teachers unions. While she has remained popular in many education circles since then, her loss in November to Yorktown superintendent Jennifer McCormick came as a surprise to teachers, policymakers and community members throughout Indiana.

On Friday, she sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about her time in office and her hopes for Indiana education in the future.

(This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.)

What are your plans now that you’re leaving office?

I think you can expect me to still be in the public education space. I don’t think I want to put that out there at this time.

I probably will be spending my time really figuring out what it is I’m going to do. I’m not a person who sits around. I can’t sit around doing nothing.

 

Do you think you’ll stay in politics in some way?

Even before I was superintendent, I was very involved here at the statehouse. So the public should expect me to stay involved as a public school advocate, because that’s important to me. I don’t think I will venture to say what my political aspirations will be, if any, because I didn’t get involved in this job because of politics. I’m an educator. I care about education policy and students.

What is a specific moment that stands out to you at a school or with a teacher, student or parent?

The most fun welcome that I received was a rural school. Their entire band met me at the front door and played for me as I walked in. And I’ve gotten the red-carpet treatment at some schools — they really rolled out a red carpet!

I visited some schools where a (state) superintendent had never showed up.

You were relatively unknown statewide before you ran for office. What do you think made you such a popular figure to begin with?

I think they saw my passion for public education. I wasn’t unknown here (at the statehouse). Out the field, through my teachers association, I was known for that work. But I think people saw passion for public education, and they had a belief in their public school teachers.

So when (teachers) went and said to people they knew in their communities, “This is who we want to be superintendent,” they said, “OK, I’ll go and vote for her.” Even across party lines.

What sides of you as an educator or a leader do you think people didn’t get a chance to see?

Many couldn’t see past the politics of who I was to really engage in the conversations about education systems and how we need to put certain things in place to be sure we’re serving kids. And that was new for me because I’ve always been in an education space where I was highly regarded because of my intellect and my ability to problem solve and my ability to put things in place.

When I grade kids on a project, I don’t grade on the end product. I grade on the process along the way, and that’s what they get credit for. I don’t think people got to see that (from me). They wanted to just see the outcome, and they didn’t want the outcome necessarily to be positive. I don’t think people got to see all the work that the (Department of Education) did. They just wanted to put the political spin on it all the time.

What do you want to say that you haven’t been able to say before?

I don’t think we left things on the table. I don’t feel like I left anything unsaid.

Probably what you’ll hear me talk about more going forward, especially with the national scene, will be vouchers and school choice. I implemented that school choice through the department. I was implementing something I don’t believe in. (But the department carried it out) it with fidelity and with transparency.

Let the facts speak for themselves. I did not really engage in the conversation in the statehouse regarding school choice and vouchers. But you’ll see me in that space now.

Do you think the changes you’ve made at the Indiana Department of Education will be lasting ones? Why?

Yes. What I think I’ve done is change the expectation of schools. Schools now expect to be supported by the Department of Education — not just monitored, but supported. And even if the new superintendent changes the model in which she provides support, I feel the field and the schools will expect it of her.

I spent a great deal of time and found money to supply online reading for every family in the state of Indiana. We’ve had access to these online books for four years now. So hopefully that will continue.

What do you worry most about when you look at Indiana education going forward?

It’s individual students having access to the resources that they should, no matter where they live. And that it’s all about meeting their needs. But it’s individual students getting what they need that worries me. And that the adults who create the systems don’t really get down to that. Systems seem to be created for adults rather than children.

What do you think the biggest problem facing Indiana education is?

Politics. That’s pretty succinct. Politics. The General Assembly is gearing up to make this position appointed. I’m an educator, but (education) is the most important driver of your economy. Having a viable citizenry who are going to be able to go right into the workforce.

Not having continuity in your educational programming, or it being driven from a political point, will not be in the best interest of students. When superintendents are appointed by a political body, they are there for a political will, and they can be dismissed. They are beholden to no one. When you’re appointed position you don’t have any allegiance to anyone, and you can just leave or be told to leave.

I strongly feel that this position should always be elected. Education is one of those things that people should care most about and and should want to vote (for). If I had my druthers it would be an elected position and it would be nonpartisan.

Do you have any advice for state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick?

I don’t know that I will leave her with advice. I wanted to have a very smooth transition, which was not afforded to me. I wanted to make sure that the operation of the schools was going to continue very smoothly when I left.

She’s a highly capable superintendent. She’s highly intelligent, so I hope that her focus is going to be on service to our schools and our students, and not the politics.

Do you have any regrets?

I wouldn’t call anything a regret. I would say sometimes you wish you’d taken this decision path, rather than this decision path, but no matter what decision path you take, it leads you to another one.

I don’t deal in what did happen, I deal in where are we going. And you’ll probably see that in anything that I do, that I’m always moving forward.

now hiring

With a new school year underway, hundreds of teaching positions remain unfilled in New York City

PHOTO: Jaclyn Zubrzycki

Hundreds of schools are missing teachers and support staff two weeks into the school year, with many of the openings in high-poverty districts and struggling schools that are typically the hardest to staff, according to postings on a city database in mid-September.

There were almost 1,700 job postings as of Sept. 19, according to data obtained by Chalkbeat. The listings offer a snapshot of the jobs advertised that day — not an official tally of the total citywide staff openings.

Still, they indicate a critical need for special-education teachers and paraprofessionals, teaching assistants who tend to work with young students and those with disabilities. Many of the unfilled positions were in low-income districts in the Bronx and Brooklyn, and dozens were in schools in the city’s Renewal program for low-performing schools.

The vacancies were posted in the city’s Excessed Staff Selection System, which lists jobs available to teachers in the Absent Teacher Reserve — a pool of teachers who lack permanent positions because they face disciplinary or legal issues, or their schools were closed or downsized. The listings hint at where teachers in the ATR pool may land this year, since the city recently announced it will place such teachers in schools that still have vacancies after Oct. 15.

Education department officials said the data “doesn’t provide accurate or precise information on school vacancies.” In particular, they said there could be a lag in updating the postings, or that schools could post positions that are expected to become available but are currently filled.

In addition, schools may list the same job more than once in order to advertise the position to teachers with different certifications, officials said. For example, a posting for a computer science teacher could also appear as openings for math and science teachers.

Still, the postings suggest where the need for teachers may be greatest — and where ATR teachers could likely end up.

Four out of the five districts with the most postings were in the Bronx. They include Districts 7 and 9 in the South Bronx, along with Districts 10 and 12. District 19 in Brooklyn, which includes East New York, also had dozens of listings.

In District 7, where more than 90 percent of students are poor, there were 60 postings for teachers in subjects ranging from Spanish to physical education and music. That includes 26 listings for paraprofessionals, who are often mandated by students’ special-education plans.

Overall, there were more than 600 listings for paraprofessionals, about half of which were needed to work with students who have disabilities. Almost 400 of the postings were for special-education teachers, who are often in short supply.

Devon Eisenberg knows these staffing challenges well. She is co-principal of The Young Women’s Leadership School of the Bronx in District 9. Despite boasting a staff-retention rate of about 90 percent, the school started the year short one teacher. To plug the hole, Eisenberg relied on substitutes and other teachers to cover the class. She was able to find a permanent hire this week, though the pool of qualified candidates was slim.

“This is definitely not fair for our students as they are not receiving consistent and coherent instruction,” she wrote in an email. “It is also stressful for the teachers covering these holes.”

Starting the school year with a substitute teacher can become a barrier to learning. Research has shown that staff turnover leads to lower test scores, even for students who weren’t in the class that lost its teacher.

Turnover tends to be highest in struggling schools, which often serve the neediest students.

Schools in the Renewal program — which includes 78 low-performing schools — posted about 70 openings, according to the data analyzed by Chalkbeat. The greatest shortage was for special-education teachers, for which there were 16 postings. That was followed by math teachers, with nine openings.

At M.S. 391 The Angelo Patri Middle School, a Renewal school in the Bronx, there were two postings for math teachers. Last year, only 8 percent of students passed state math exams at the school, which has a new principal.

Carmen Marrero teaches special education at M.S. 391 and has worked in other Bronx schools that struggle with staffing.

“We tend to deal with a lot of behavior challenges,” she said, referring to schools in the Bronx. “I guess that keeps some of the aspiring teachers or some of the teachers who are already in the field away from this side of town.”

This year, the openings come with an additional consequence: Schools with vacancies could be prime candidates to receive teachers in the ATR.

Though officials say they will work closely with principals, the department could place teachers even over the objections of school leaders. Some principals have threatened to game the hiring system by simply not posting openings in order to avoid having a teacher from the ATR placed at their school.

Meanwhile, some teachers in the pool dread being assigned to schools whose openings could signal poor leadership or a tough work environment.

Teachers who are in the ATR will not be placed in positions outside of their license areas, which may limit how many of the openings the education department can fill after mid-October.

Critics say the policy will place the least effective teachers in the neediest schools. Education department figures show that only 74 percent of ATR teachers were rated effective, highly effective or satisfactory in 2015-16 — compared to 93 percent of all city teachers.

Education department officials said the city has worked with schools to fill their vacancies well before the start of the school year.

Maria Herrera, principal of Renaissance High School for Musical Theater in the Bronx, said she tries to have all her hires in place by June. That way, she can involve future teachers in end-of-the-year activities that help build a sense of community, and provide training over the summer.

This year, she was able to start school fully staffed. The education department allowed schools to fill positions earlier this year and held numerous job fairs, she said.

“I feel really supported,” she said.

Changes

Denver East High principal Andy Mendelsberg out after investigation into cheerleading scandal

PHOTO: John Leyba / The Denver Post
Denver's East High School.

The principal of Denver’s East High School has retired after an investigation into how school district officials handled complaints about the actions of the school’s cheerleading coach found principal Andy Mendelsberg “did not take the necessary steps to ensure that the physical and emotional health and safety of the students on the cheer team was fully protected,” according to a letter from Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

Former East principal John Youngquist will return to Denver to lead the school, Boasberg announced Friday. Youngquist served for the past four years as a top official in Aurora Public Schools.

East is the most-requested high school in Denver Public Schools. The 2,500-student school is known for its comprehensive academic program, as well as its breadth of sports and extracurricular activities.

Mendelsberg had been on leave since August, when 9News first aired videos that showed East cheerleaders being forced into the splits position while teammates held their arms and legs and former coach Ozell Williams pushed them down.

The parents of at least one cheerleader who was injured by the practice emailed a video to the East High athletic director in mid-June asking “what the administration is going to do about my daughter’s injury and how it happened,” according to emails provided to 9News.

After the 9News story broke two months later, Williams was fired.

Mendelsberg’s exit coincides with the conclusion of an independent investigation by an outside law firm commissioned by DPS. The district on Friday released a report detailing the firm’s findings.

According to Boasberg’s letter, the investigation found that “over multiple months, in response to multiple concerns of a serious nature,” Mendelsberg and East athletic director Lisa Porter failed to keep the students on the cheer team safe.

Specifically, the letter says Mendelsberg and Porter did not “sufficiently address, share or report allegations of abuse and the contents of the videos;” failed to provide the necessary level of oversight for the cheer coach, “especially as concerns mounted;” and failed to take corrective action, including firing Williams.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, Boasberg said that in addition to what was captured on video, concerns about Williams included that he instructed athletes not to tell anyone what happened at practice and required them to friend him on social media “with the express purpose of him monitoring their social media presence.”

Boasberg said that “raises deeper concerns about what was going on here.”

Mendelsberg, Porter, assistant cheer coach Mariah Cladis and district deputy general counsel Michael Hickman were put on leave while the investigation was ongoing. The Denver police also launched an investigation.

Porter resigned her position earlier this week, Boasberg said.

Hickman received corrective action but is being reinstated after the investigation revealed he didn’t know the full extent of what happened, Boasberg said.

Cladis, who was not at practice during the splits incident and whose position was volunteer, is welcome to remain the assistant cheer coach, he said.

Mendelsberg had been principal since 2011. But he’d worked at East much longer as a teacher, softball coach, dean of students, athletic director and assistant principal, according to a story in the Spotlight alumni newsletter published in 2012.

Youngquist preceded Mendelsberg, having served as principal of East from 2007 to 2011. He left the school to take a districtwide position leading the recruitment and development of DPS principals. In 2013, Aurora Public Schools Superintendent Rico Munn hired him to be that district’s chief academic officer, a job he’s held until now.

Regarding his decision to return to East, Youngquist said, “My heart has drawn me toward supporting this learning community now and well into the future.”

As a parent and school leader, he said he understands the trust that parents put in schools. “I’m committed to strengthening that bond and partnership with our young people, our parents and with our great East staff,” he said.

Munn has already appointed an interim chief academic officer: Andre Wright, who currently serves as a P-20 learning community director. In a statement Friday, Munn said he “will evaluate the role and expectations of the (chief academic officer) position prior to developing a profile for that position moving forward.”

“We thank John Youngquist for his four years of service … and wish him all the best in his next chapter,” Munn said.

Chalkbeat reporter Yesenia Robles contributed information to this report.