New Leadership

New leader at Memphis state-run school ‘best candidate’ despite domestic assault conviction

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Westside Middle students will start the next school year under the new leadership of Rodney Peterson and Frayser Community Schools.

Seven years after a domestic assault charge took Rodney Peterson out of the running to lead a Memphis middle school, he is set to become the principal of that same school this fall as it enters a new chapter run by a charter network in Tennessee’s state-run turnaround district.

Peterson officially takes the helm of Westside Achievement Middle School next year, according to leaders of Frayser Community Schools, which will take over operations of the school.

Bobby White, the CEO and founder of the charter organization, introduced Peterson on Thursday during a meeting of the Frayser Exchange Club.

“(Peterson) is the best candidate we had available to lead and operate this school,” White told Chalkbeat. “He has been in this city for six years now in different capacity and leadership roles, and is highly recommended.”

White said that a panel of eight Frayser community members selected Peterson as principal over three other finalists. White added that they had discussed Peterson’s past and determined he was ready to take lead as principal. 

PHOTO: Frayser Community Schools
Bobby White introduced Rodney Peterson during a meeting of the Frayser Exchange Club.

“He has had three leadership positions in the last six years since he left Boston,” White said. “No one has surfaced or talked about any of those things. This needed to be something [Peterson and community members] talked about. After their conversations, we were confident that this wasn’t something that would impact the role of leading this school.”

Peterson was offered the Westside job in 2012 but he withdrew his candidacy after the charges became public.

In 2011, Peterson was arrested and charged in Boston for assaulting his then-wife, Dee Griffin, a former Memphis news anchor. Peterson was then a school leader under Boston Schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson, a former Memphis City Schools superintendent. He resigned in 2012 from his Boston leadership position and served a one-year probation.

Johnson was criticized for not disciplining Peterson following the assault and later apologized. According to the Boston Globe, Johnson wrote a letter to the judge who sentenced Peterson, describing him as “among our most outstanding school leaders.” She gave him a reference when he first applied for principal of Westside in 2012. Johnson later launched an investigation into whether Peterson abused sick time policy while in Boston and revamped how the district handled criminal background checks.

I’ve dealt with the situation and moved on from it, and to respect everyone involved, that’s all that I’d like to say about it,” Peterson told Chalkbeat. “My biggest priority now is ensuring all of the families that I serve trust that I am committed to their child’s education and success. I’m excited to return back to Westside.”

He said he returned to Memphis to run his own business after leaving Boston. Peterson later was a dean at Westside Middle before becoming assistant principal at Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, a charter school. He was most recently an assistant principal at the high school run by Frayser Community Schools.

Now, Peterson will take the helm at Westside as the school is once again in transition. The school has been run since 2012 directly by the Achievement School District, but will be operated by Frayser Community Schools beginning next school year. After the handoff, the school will remain under the oversight of the state-run district.

Bobby White, chief of external affairs for the turnaround district (no relation to Bobby White of Frayser Community Schools), said he was aware of the appointment and attended the Thursday meeting.

Sara Gast, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, could not confirm if district officials were aware of Peterson’s past charge. Charter operators are now required to notify the ASD if any employees had flags on their background checks after discovering last year that a Memphis interim principal at a different charter school had a federal felony conviction.

“Charter schools have discretion in who they hire, but we would expect that Achievement School District leadership would be involved if the charter operator was promoting an educator who had something of interest on a prior background check,” Gast said. “In this case, since this individual is a current school leader, we are checking with Frayser Community Schools to determine what process occurred.”

Frayser Community Schools was founded in 2014 by White, a former Memphis principal who started with one high school: Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School. Last fall, the homegrown charter network took control of Humes Middle School when Gestalt Community Schools, another Memphis-based network, exited the state-run district.

Since Westside was taken over by the state in 2013, the school has struggled with lagging enrollment, low test scores, and high teacher and principal turnover. Enrollment has fallen by half since 2012, and the school lost 18 percent of students just this school year.

The state-run district is looking to Frayser Community Schools to turn around the school in terms of safety, enrollment, and academics. White — who was the principal of Westside nine years ago — said he believed Peterson was right for the job.

“The community is 100 percent behind this decision,” White said. “I believe he can lead the school back to the prominence we once experienced.”

Peterson said he has built “extensive relationships” while at MLK Prep and is looking forward to bringing his experience to Westside.

“I am so thankful and excited to be able to continue to serve the kids and families in the community from which I grew up,” he said. “I have built some great relationships with many students and their families in the community, and I look forward to continuing that as we strive to help all the students of Westside Middle School achieve success.”

Decision makers

5 things to know about Austan Goolsbee, the high-powered new addition to Chicago’s school board

PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
In 2013, Austan Goolsbee testified before the Congressional Joint Economic Committee on Capitol Hill about the nation's economic recovery

Chicago’s school board is once again complete after outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a University of Chicago economist to fill a long-vacant seat.

Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, will round out the seven-member, mayor-appointed board that sets education policy in the city.

Here are five things to know about Goolsbee:

  1. Like Emanuel, he served in the Obama White House. Goolsbee was as a close adviser to President Barack Obama, eventually becoming chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. The Chicago Teachers Union see this tie as a liability. “Mr. Goolsbee comes into a board responsible for students and their schools being starved of resources for the last eight years by the man who appointed him,” the union said in a statement. “Those same neighborhoods continue to struggle from the consequences of a foreclosure crisis that the administration he served in Washington failed to address.”
  2. He has weighed in on education before. A prolific opinion writer, he has written favorably about the economic arguments for universal prekindergarten, a priority for the outgoing mayor, saying that expanding early childhood education is a bargain over the long term. In a 2015 survey of economists’ positions on public issues, Goolsbee expressed optimism about “value-added” measures that try to isolate the impact of individual teachers on student test scores — though he qualified the approach as having “lots of noise and unobservables.” Expressing uncertainty about vouchers, Goolsbee said he fears that letting parents use public funds to pay for private school tuition could harm public schools, which have fixed costs cannot easily be reduced when students leave them. (A tax-credit version of vouchers launched in Illinois last year but now faces an uncertain future under a new Democratic governor.)
  3. He’ll bring a focus on fiscal policy to a board that oversees a big and uncertain budget. A close economic adviser to President Obama and prolific commenter on matters of economic policy in the national media, he’s joining a board that oversees $8 billion in outstanding debt. Chicago has credited the passage of an equitable funding bill, in 2017, for helping stabilize its finances. But the district’s economic future is uncertain, especially as families continue to leave the city.
  4. His personal public school experience is limited. He attended an elite private high school in the suburbs of Boston where he grew up, and his children attended the University of Chicago’s Lab School both before and after the family’s time in Washington, D.C., he has said in interviews.
  5. He’s got a following, and a sense of humor. For proof, check out his Twitter feed, which has 80,000 followers, and his October appearance on the popular NPR quiz show “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” Plus, his official University of Chicago profile lists a special interest in improv comedy. That sets him apart from the rest of the school board members, who tend to keep a low public profile.  

How long Goolsbee serves could depend on what happens after Emanuel leaves office in early 2019. Chicago’s mayor has controlled the city school board since 1995, but Emanuel’s decision not to seek a third term has heightened debate about whether the city’s schools have benefitted.

In 2011 and 2015, voters backed non-binding resolutions that would make the board democratically elected. Now, two of the leading candidates in the mayor’s race, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and state comptroller Susana Mendoza, have said they’d support an elected school board — reducing their own power over education if they become mayor.

How soon a change could happen is unclear, but state lawmakers who would have to sign off on such a change have an ally in Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker, who has said he supports the call for an elected school board.

The issue was a point of debate at a Chalkbeat Chicago event this week at Malcolm X College. At the event, titled “Education for All? Chicago’s Next Mayor and the Future of Public Schools,” some panelists voiced concern that elections would be dominated by well-organized factions, such as the teachers union, that would have the ability to outspend other candidates.

Super Search

The pressing question at Denver’s final forum: How will Susana Cordova tackle inequity?

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Susana Cordova poses for a portrait in December 2018.

The challenges that Susana Cordova will face if she’s hired next week as superintendent of the Denver school district were laid bare at a public forum Tuesday night.

Standing in a high school cafeteria with a microphone in her hand, the deputy superintendent and sole finalist for the top job faced tough questions about why struggling schools have high numbers of inexperienced teachers, whether she would commit to removing all police officers from schools, and what she would do about what one student called the “charter-ization” of Denver Public Schools — that is, the district’s practice of replacing low-performing district-run schools, sometimes with charter schools.

The most heated and emotional exchanges, however, were about inequities: Why is the district not serving black, Latino, and Native American students as well as white students? Why do test score gaps exist between students from poor families and those from wealthier ones?

Onecia Garcia, a senior at East High School, the city’s largest school and one of its most diverse, told Cordova there is a noticeable gap at East between the kids whose parents have money to pay for tutors and SAT prep courses, and the kids whose parents don’t.

“I want to know what your plan is to get that gap in order,” Garcia said.

In response to Garcia’s question and others like it, Cordova acknowledged that institutional racism exists in Denver Public Schools and has contributed to those gaps. She said the district needs to do a better job informing families about opportunities such as free SAT help and concurrent enrollment classes that allow students to earn college credit while in high school.

Cordova, who grew up in Denver and climbed the district ranks from teacher to her current position of deputy superintendent, talked about making it mandatory for all teachers to undergo training on bias and being culturally responsive, instead of allowing some to opt out.

Cordova said one of her top priorities would be to take the myriad and disparate efforts the district has started over the years to address specific inequities and combine them into one comprehensive plan. She called it “an equity plan that is for all kids, but that also has the specifics for African-American kids, for Latino kids, for low-income kids.”

“It is important that we’re not introducing too many things that you can’t keep a focus,” she said. “I think that’s a valid criticism of the work that we’ve done: We’ve introduced too many things that have made it hard to understand what is the progress that we’re trying to get at.”

But after the forum, Garcia said she didn’t feel Cordova had fully answered the questions. Other students who attended said they felt the same way.

“She wasn’t willing to commit to anything,” said Jonathan Bateman, a freshman at George Washington High School, where the forum was held.

“She answered questions like a politician,” said Carlye Raabe, also a freshman at George Washington.

Cordova emphasized that if she’s hired as superintendent, she’ll approach the job differently than her predecessor, Tom Boasberg, who stepped down in October after nearly 10 years of leading Denver Public Schools. Boasberg was often criticized for not listening to the community.

“I believe deeply in the power of relationships,” Cordova said. “I think it’s really important that we’re not just listening to people who think like I think or who sound like I sound, but who have different experiences, because Denver is an incredibly diverse place.”

The school board is expected to vote Monday on whether to appoint Cordova to the top job.