Dealing with discipline

Former Newark schools chief Cami Anderson’s new mission: getting schools to rethink student discipline

PHOTO: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
Cami Anderson when she was superintendent of schools in Newark, New Jersey.

After a rocky tenure as superintendent of the Newark Public Schools, Cami Anderson is now working with charter networks and school districts to reform school discipline, she told Chalkbeat.

Called the Discipline Revolution Project, Anderson’s new initiative aims to help schools reduce suspensions and move away from exclusionary discipline practices.

“There’s an increasing awareness in the reform community, charter and district, that our punitive approach to discipline is very costly to some kids, but there’s not enough talk about what we’re moving towards,” she said in an interview at the New Schools Venture Fund summit. “There’s too much talk about what we’re moving away from.”

Anderson is the former Newark schools superintendent who was appointed in 2011 just as the district received a highly publicized $100 million gift from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Her work in Newark, especially a plan to close a number of the district’s schools, made her a lightning rod for controversy until she resigned under pressure in 2015.

Her new focus on school discipline comes as charter schools have faced pressure to reduce their suspension rates, particularly so-called “no excuses” charters, which often produce high test scores and use a strict disciplinary approach.

Anderson sees an opportunity to get schools to change their practices and wants to ensure discussion translates into action.

“It seems like a conversation is happening … and it’s an important opportunity,” she said. “I want to make sure it’s filled with content. My big fear is that it will stay as a philosophical [one].”

Anderson convened a group of leaders last week from charter networks and school districts, including from Denver Public Schools, Tennessee’s state-run Achievement School District and charter networks such as Uncommon Schools and Summit Public Schools.

Specifically, Anderson is hoping to offer tools for leaders interested in improving discipline practices, help schools use discipline data more effectively, and facilitate discussions among school and district leaders.

Charter schools, like traditional public schools, are dramatically more likely to suspend black students and students with disabilities. Advocates argue that exclusionary discipline hurts students and feeds a “school-to-prison” pipeline. This has caused a number of school districts and some charter school leaders to vow to reduce suspensions and emphasize alternatives like restorative justice.

Others within the charter movement have pushed back, including Success Academy’s Eva Moskowitz.

“Lax discipline won’t strike a blow for civil rights,” Moskowitz wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “Instead it will perpetuate the real civil-rights violation — the woeful failure to educate the vast majority of the city’s minority children and prepare them for life’s challenges.”

Anderson says she’s not saying suspensions should be eliminated altogether, but that schools should put a greater emphasis on preventing student misbehavior in the first place. She also argues that suspensions are simply an ineffective way to address misbehavior.

“Students have to be accountable for their behavior. They just need to be accountable in a way that that they’re going to learn from it,” Anderson said. “Putting them out is almost never the way for that to happen.”

Indeed, there is little evidence that exclusionary discipline has its intended impact, though there is also limited rigorous research on the efficacy of alternatives.

After leaving Newark, Anderson started her own education consulting firm and has worked with charter schools on improving their services for students with disabilities. Anderson said she doesn’t know yet whether her school-discipline initiative will grow into a standalone organization. Last week’s convening, essentially the project’s launch, was funded by the New Schools Venture Fund and the Walton Foundation. (Walton is also a supporter of Chalkbeat.)

“Part of it is going to be responding to what people say they got out of it and what they want moving forward,” she said.

searching for leaders

How an Aurora high school in an “innovation zone” took a new approach to hiring a principal

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Lamont Browne listens to immigrant parents share their stories about Aurora Public Schools at a forum in June hosted by Rise Colorado.

When Aurora West College Preparatory Academy student Daniela Varela was helping vet principal candidates over the summer, she was impressed with how Taisiya “Taya” Tselolikhina emphasized the importance of building relationships with students.

On Tuesday, she saw that translate to action, as Tselolikhina introduced herself to students in the cafeteria or helped newcomers figure out their lockers and student ID numbers.

“It’s only the second day of school,” said Varela, a 16-year-old junior. “But she’s really getting involved with all the kids.”

Varela was more than an interested onlooker. She was part of a group of more than two-dozen people who helped pick Tselolikhina in a process made possible by new flexibility Aurora West and four other Aurora schools have as part of the district’s “innovation zone.” The status gives each school more autonomy from district rules and processes, including for hiring.

Although it’s common for students, parents and community members to play a role in selecting a school leader, the extent of this group’s involvement — outlining what candidates must do and questions they must answer during the process — is unusual.

By involving more people, Aurora school district officials hope to instill more confidence in the choice. It’s one way officials can use the flexibility that comes with innovation status to attempt to lift student achievement.

Aurora West, a sixth through 12th grade school with about 1,200 students, adopted a plan for school improvement under innovation status that included plans to change curriculum to better align the middle and high school, improve the development of English language learning, and plans to add social and emotional supports, among other changes.

Although the innovation zone started more than a year ago, a process for replacing a principal hadn’t been created until now, with the model developed for Aurora West.

It was on the last day of the 2016-17 school year that school staff learned they would need a new principal, with the departure of Brian Duwe.

Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, met with school staff and asked how they wanted to be involved, and what characteristics they wanted in a leader.

Feedback from staff and students was used to design questions and vet applications. School staff asked Browne’s office to review all applications and then introduce them to just a few good candidates to put through a series of interviews.

Then almost two dozen volunteers — including students, parents, teachers from each content and every grade level, staff and administrators — spent several hours over the summer working through the process and interviews.

“It was an honor to be included,” said Kandi Cantley, the school bookkeeper who said she had never been a part of a hiring process before. “I loved how the kids were involved, and their parents, and that it wasn’t just a sit-down interview. There were very different aspects to it.”

The process first included separate group interviews with students and parents, administrators, and with teachers. Candidates also had to lead a teacher training session and look at school data — about attendance, behavior or academics — and talk to a group of the committee about how the data should be analyzed and used to plan changes for the school.

But after observing candidates in those various roles, committee members met to talk and decided they wanted to know more. So they talked to district officials about adding another step.

“We met as a committee and we talked about what more information did we want to learn about the candidate that we were interested in,” said Jessica Rodriguez, an assistant principal who was part of the committee. “Together we typed up some questions as well as provided data that we wanted to hear her analyze and talk about.”

In the added step the committee designed, Tselolikhina had to do a mock session coaching a teacher. Browne gave her feedback and the committee members watched how she used it to adjust her coaching. Browne said he always looks for leaders who can use feedback to improve, but was glad that the group developed this way of seeing it in action.

“That’s what I appreciated,” said Tushar Rae, dean of instruction. “You got to see a candidate in several different realms.”

In the end, the committee members didn’t hold a vote, but provided Browne feedback for each of the candidates.

“The beauty of the process is that there were different steps that different people got to see,” Browne said. “At the end of the day I got to hear all the perspectives and take all that into account. Certainly I had a perspective of my own. Fortunately it matched what everyone else suggested.”

Tselolikhina, who had never been a principal before, said she applied for the job to be closer to where policy changes are applied. She previously was the manager of the professional learning center for Denver Public Schools, which plans teacher and staff training.

“The chance to have direct influence over students who deserve better access to equity is such an opportunity,” Tselolikhina said. “Here our actions and the dedication that this team puts in directly influences the lives of students every day.”

Tselolikhina said she used to live in the neighborhood, just eight minutes away from the school. She has goals of improving teacher instruction through data and through better planning, and decreasing student suspensions and expulsions by improving student relationships.

“I believe in her,” said Rodriguez, the assistant principal on the committee.

Team Dorsey

Inner circle: Here’s who Superintendent Hopson leans on to lead Memphis schools

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks at a back-to-school press conference for Shelby County Schools for the 2017-18 school year.

Dorsey Hopson has been at the helm of Tennessee’s largest district for four years, but his cabinet has been a bit of a revolving door since the historic merger of city and county schools.

Only three members of his 11-person leadership team have been with Hopson since the Memphis attorney was named superintendent of Shelby County Schools in 2013.

As the 2017-18 school year begins, here are the lieutenants that Hopson has recruited to help him lead schools in one of the most challenging education landscapes in America.

Brian Stockton, chief of staff

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Brian Stockton

Salary: $157,500
Duties: Oversees superintendent initiatives, supervises other chiefs and their departments, connects school-level staff to central office decision-making, cultivates relationships with local governing bodies, handles day-to-day emergencies.
His story: The Memphis native returned home last year after 25 years away, including a stint as a leadership analyst for a government contractor in Washington, D.C. There, he was in charge of stemming attrition, boosting morale and developing leaders. Stockton is a 1990 graduate of Central High School. (Read our Q&A with him when he joined Hopson’s team.)

Gerald Darling, chief of student services

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Gerald Darling

Salary: $163,200
Duties: Leads security teams and prevention programs around truancy, gang involvement, violence and out-of-school suspensions, as well as sports, medical and emergency services for schools.
His story: Darling was chief of police for Miami-Dade Schools from 2004 to 2008, when former Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash hired him to lead the district’s security division, a new cabinet post at the time.

 

Sharon Griffin, chief of schools

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Sharon Griffin

Salary: $165,000
Duties: Supervises and supports principals and oversee teacher coaching, leadership development, virtual schools and the Innovation Zone school turnaround program.
Her story: Griffin was promoted to her new job in January after five years as regional superintendent of the iZone, one of the district’s most successful programs. Before that, she led a turnaround effort as principal of Airways Middle School. A Memphis native, Griffin is a graduate of LeMoyne-Owen College and received her doctorate at the University of Memphis. She was named Tennessee’s 2015 supervisor of the year.

Lin Johnson, chief of finance

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Lin Johnson

Salary: $155,000
Duties: Crafts and maintains the district’s budget, monitors spending, looks for new sources of revenue, and allocates money to the district’s nearly 200 schools.
His story: Johnson was hired in 2015 after serving as director of special initiatives for the Tennessee Department of Education and director of finance and operations for the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board.

 

Brad Leon, chief of strategy and performance management

PHOTO: SCS
Brad Leon

Salary: $157,500
Duties: Oversees charter schools, school accountability and testing, planning and research.
His story: Leon started out with Teach For America as a middle school teacher at a New Orleans charter school, where he was voted Teacher of the Year in 2002. He went on to become a regional vice president at Teach For America and the first regional executive director of TFA in Memphis from 2006 to 2010. He joined Hopson’s cabinet in 2013 to lead the district’s innovation department.

 

Rodney Moore, chief general counsel

Rodney Moore

Salary: $192,270
Duties: Oversees legal matters, including the district’s funding lawsuit against the state.
His story: Moore joined the district in 2016. He previously was a partner in Atlanta with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, which the district hired in 2015 to explore litigation against the state over funding. He is a former president of the National Bar Association and has served on the National School Board Association’s Council of School Lawyers.

Leon Pattman, chief of internal audit

PHOTO: SCS
Leon Pattman

Salary: $143,820
Duties: Evaluates processes, monitors operations, leads risk management strategies.
His story: Pattman came to Shelby County Schools in 2015 from the City of Memphis, where he was the chief audit executive. He has held roles in finance, compliance, auditing and information management with the U.S. Treasury and U.S. Air Force.

 

Beth Phalen, chief of business operations

PHOTO: SCS
Beth Phalen

Salary: $176,000
Duties: Oversees facilities planning and maintenance, nutrition services, district purchases and contracts, transportation and risk management.
Her story: The most recent hire to Hopson’s cabinet, Phalen previously was executive vice president of strategy and operations for ISS Facility Services and vice president of business operations at Memphis-based ServiceMaster.

 

 

Natalia Powers, chief of communications & community engagement

PHOTO: SCS
Natalia Powers

Salary: $139,230
Duties: Oversees internal and external communications, media relations, digital and print publications, social media, television and radio broadcasting services, and community outreach.
Her story: Powers was hired in 2016 after climbing the ranks in the school district of Palm Beach, Fla., from translator and interpreter, teacher for English language learners, program coordinator, and head of communications and community engagement.

 

Trinette Small, chief of human resources

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Trinette Small

Salary: $141,500
Duties: Handles recruiting and retaining employees as well as salaries and benefits.
Her story: Small has held this job since the creation of Shelby County Schools following the merger of city and county schools in 2013.

 

 

John Williams, chief information officer

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
John Williams

Salary: $158,100
Duties: Provides data systems for administrators and classroom technology for students and teachers.
His story: Williams was hired in 2015 after serving in the same role with Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. He has held technology and telecommunications positions with Atlanta Public Schools and Orange County Schools in Orlando, Fla.

 

 

Editor’s note: Salary information is based on a list of full-time positions with Shelby County Schools as of April 2017. District officials did not confirm those numbers after multiple requests.