Who Is In Charge

Education groups with opposing views welcome incoming Commissioner Elia

The longtime educator known for placing a strong emphasis on student test scores who became New York’s new education chief Tuesday received a warm welcome from groups that typically take opposing sides in education debates, though critics of standardized tests called her appointment a mistake.

MaryEllen Elia, the former superintendent of a Tampa-area school district who taught in schools in Florida and New York, drew praise Tuesday from teachers unions for her collaborative approach. At the same time, groups that endorse teacher ratings that factor in student test scores and often clash with the teachers unions also applauded her appointment, with one calling her “an inspired choice.”

But steadfast critics of such “high-stakes” testing noted that Elia oversaw a $100 million grant in her Hillsborough County, Florida school district that involved tougher teacher evaluations, and pointed to news reports saying the district had told the grantmakers that they planned to fire the bottom 5 percent of teachers each year. Those critics predicted that if Elia continues to use test scores to rate teachers and make other important decisions about schools, the record number of parents who boycotted the state tests last month will only grow next year.

“If MaryEllen Elia is state commissioner, will she raise the stakes on testing?” influential education historian and high-stakes testing critic Diane Ravitch wrote on her blog. “If so, don’t be surprised if 400,000 students refuse the tests next year.”

Here are some of the reactions to Elia’s appointment Tuesday as commissioner of the New York State Education Department:

From Mayor Bill de Blasio:

On behalf of 1.1 million New York City public school children and their families, I congratulate and welcome our new State Education Commissioner, MaryEllen Elia. As an educator and a leader, she has proven herself ready for the task at hand, and we look forward to working together on vital reforms to transform our schools and lift up students in every neighborhood across the city.

From New York State United Teachers president Karen Magee:

It is vitally important for an education commissioner to respect teachers, to trust those working in public education and to listen — truly listen — to those in the field doing the hard work of teaching the state’s students, particularly those who have special needs, are still learning English or live in poverty. This is a challenging time for public education and its educators and there is a lot of hard work ahead. We are encouraged that Commissioner Elia is an educator with decades of experience as both a teacher in New York’s public schools and a superintendent in public education, and that she has strong academic credentials from our State University system.

We look forward to a collaborative, productive relationship with Commissioner Elia as we tackle, among other issues, how to end the over-reliance on standardized testing and to ensure that New York has a fair and meaningful evaluation system that focuses on professional development and helping teachers to improve. On top of this, we invite Commissioner Elia to join us in fighting for the equitable funding that our public schools need, especially those serving our most vulnerable student populations.

From Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the national union:

MaryEllen understands that you can only reclaim public education by giving educators the support they need to do their jobs well. As superintendent in Hillsborough County, Fla., she took to heart the adage ‘Do it with us, not to us.’ As everyone knows, our union is opposed to high-stakes testing and value-added model, but even when MaryEllen applied it as required under Florida law, she made collaboration her mantra. And as a result, even when the going got tough in Florida, she was able to work with multiple stakeholders to do what was best for Hillsborough students.

From Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, New York City’s teachers union:

Our folks down in Florida who have worked with her have said she was extremely open to making sure teachers felt respected and that their voice was always part of any debates. We hope to have a great relationship with her as we move forward.

From New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña:

I congratulate Chancellor Tisch and the Board of Regents on the appointment of MaryEllen Elia as State Education Commissioner. Commissioner Elia began her career as a classroom teacher and, throughout her many years as an educator and a Wallace superintendent, she has exhibited tremendous leadership with a record of results, particularly in meeting the unique needs of English Language Learners. She is a remarkable educator and I am confident that her work will facilitate improved educational opportunities for children across New York City and New York State. I look forward to working with her on behalf of all our City’s children and families.

From High Achievement New York, a coalition of groups that advocates for the Common Core standards:

MaryEllen Elia is an inspired choice by the Board of Regents – bringing together both decades of education experience, including as a teacher in New York, and a dedication to preparing students for the challenges of the 21st Century. Elia, a Buffalo native, has demonstrated a strong commitment to Common Core standards. We urge her to continue that commitment here in New York where the standards are taking root in improved test scores, higher high school graduation rates and better teaching and learning in the classroom.  We look forward to working closely together with Elia in the years to come and bringing us closer to our common goal – great schools that prepare all our children for success, no matter where they come from.

From Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance For Quality Education, an advocacy group aligned with the New York state and city teachers unions:

The Alliance for Quality Education (AQE) would like to congratulate the newly appointed New York State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. One thing is clear, for any Commissioner to succeed in New York State they will need to listen to parents and treat them as partners in public education. No skill will be more important for Commissioner Elia than the ability to work with parents. Collaboration with parents is vital to improving struggling schools, promoting educational equity, addressing the over emphasis on high-stakes testing, and increasing charter school accountability. She comes from a large and diverse school district that contains urban, suburban and rural schools we hope this experience will equip here to support the many and diverse needs of New York’s 2.7 million students. We look forward to working with Commissioner Elia and we welcome her back to New York State.

From Jenny Sedlis, executive director of StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that supports teacher evaluations tied to student test scores:

The Board of Regents made a strong choice in selecting MaryEllen Elia as New York State’s next Education Commissioner. She is a nationally recognized leader in education, who has a record of accomplishment in helping boost the achievement for low-income children. As a former educator herself, she knows firsthand what it takes for schools to succeed. We believe MaryEllen Elia will lead the way to give all of New York’s students the schools they deserve.

From Diane Ravitch’s blog

So, New York, once a bastion of liberalism, is getting a state commissioner who supports value-added testing and school choice, like John King. This aligns with Governor Cuomo’s agenda of “breaking up the public school monopoly” and using test scores to evaluate teachers.

The biggest news in the state in the past year was the historic success of the Opt Out movement. Last year, 60,000 students refused the state tests. This year, nearly 200,000 did. If MaryEllen Elia is state commissioner, will she raise the stakes on testing? If so, don’t be surprised if 400,000 students refuse the tests next year.

From Jeremiah Kittredge, CEO of Families for Excellent Schools:

MaryEllen Elia’s exceptional record in Florida makes her a strong candidate to lead New York out of its failing schools crisis.

With over 50,000 children in Hillsborough County learning outside the district school system, Commissioner Elia has shown that she values the role of high-quality charter schools and parent choice.

From James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center: 

The charter sector is looking forward to building a strong working relationship with incoming Commissioner Elia. I’m confident that she will treat all public schools equally as a matter of policy and ensure that the voices of lower income parents demanding more and better public school options are heard loud and clear.

From Evan Stone, co-founder of Educators 4 Excellence, a group that advocates for teacher involvement in policy decisions:

We congratulate Ms. Elia and are excited to work with her to continue to improve New York State’s education system. We’re hopeful that, if she is confirmed by the entire Board of Regents, Ms. Elia will prioritize teacher voice. Her work with Hillsborough County’s teachers’ union gives us confidence that she will do just that.

We are encouraged by the appointment of someone who has a record of working collaboratively with teachers to implement shifts on critical issues like evaluation and Common Core. On the critical issue of teacher evaluation, our members support delaying the implementation of the new system so that lawmakers can take extra time to devise a meaningful set of measures that can serve as a tool for professional growth. We hope the new Commissioner will take the lead in pushing for an evaluation system that is fair, rigorous, and focuses on helping teachers improve.

How I Lead

This Memphis principal says supporting teachers and parents helped pull her school out of the bottom 10 percent

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Principal Yolanda Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years, and was previously the academic dean.

Here, in a series we call “How I Lead,” we feature principals and assistant principals who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Principal Yolanda Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

It takes a lot of walking to manage two schools. Dandridge has led Georgian Hills Achievement Elementary for the last two years and was previously the academic dean. She temporarily took over Frayser Achievement Elementary when the schools had to share space this year because of maintenance issues at Georgian Hill’s original building.

“I am constantly on the move,” Dandridge said. “How else can you keep up with elementary students?”

Both schools are part of the Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools but has struggled to accomplish the task.

This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent. In 2016, before Dandridge took charge, Georgian Hills was in the worst 2 percent of schools.

Dandridge was honored by the achievement district for her work.

“She is a real standout among our principals of someone who understands what it takes to turn things around,” said interim achievement district leader Kathleen Airhart.

Dandridge talked to Chalkbeat about how she gets to know her students, her efforts to motivate teachers, and why school buildings are important.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

What was your first education job and what sparked your interest in the field?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Dandridge walks almost 14,000 steps a day — double the national average.

I tell my teachers to always stay focused on the “why” behind their careers. For me, my “why” was the fact that my little brother got all the way through elementary school without learning to read. He wasn’t able to read until the fifth grade. He came from a family of educators, and he still slipped through the cracks. If that could happen to him, it could happen to so many kids.

I started teaching in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, and I taught in that state for more than a decade. I came to Memphis as a teacher, I was asked later to consider taking on the principal role at Georgian Hills. I said, “You want me to do what?” Now, I’m grateful for all those years in the classroom and as an academic dean to prepare me for this role.

How do you get to know students even though you don’t have your own classroom?

Any chance to get into the classroom, I will. If a substitute teacher doesn’t come, which does happen sometimes, I will teach the students in that classroom for a day. I love getting to know students by helping out in the classroom.

I am also constantly walking the hallways of both schools. That’s how I start the morning — I greet students and their parents by name when they walk into the school. I walk students to their classrooms. I’m constantly monitoring the hallways.

When a new student registers for classes, the first thing the office staff knows to do is call me down so I can meet them.

How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?

I really prefer to always consider the experiences that a child may have had prior to entering our building.  When you approach discipline with a keen awareness of the types of situations a child might have or experience, it really makes you a better educator.  And you understand that the best thing for us to do is to ensure that students know and understand that we have their best interests in mind. When children connect with you and other teachers in this way, discipline is less challenging.

What is an effort you’ve spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of?

I’m very proud of what we’ve done at Georgian Hills and now at Frayser to really focus on our teachers.

Every Wednesday after school, we’ll have a period of professional development. I try to be attentive to what my teachers tell me they want to learn more about. There is a lot of coordination on lesson plans in particular. Teachers work together on their lesson planning, and I also will personally give feedback on a teahers’ lesson plans. My biggest, driving question is “What do my teachers need most?” They don’t need to be spending hours everyday lesson planning when they can collaborate. We can help there.

Tell us about a time that a teacher evaluation didn’t go as expected — for better or for worse?

Evaluating teachers has always provided me with the opportunity to hear and see the creativity and passion that our teachers bring to the classroom.  My thought on evaluations is to take the anxiety out of it and ensure that teachers are comfortable and understand that the overall process is about improving their skills and enhancing the tools in their toolbox.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
This year, Georgian Hills not only left the bottom 5 percent but moved out of the bottom 10 percent of schools in Tennessee.

When I was early in my teaching career in Mississippi, I had a student with a single mom. Her mom was an amazing support system for me and my classroom. She was always wanting to volunteer at the school. But she struggled to provide basic needs for her daughter — she was struggling to get a job. But she was trying so hard. There’s a stigma of parents, especially in low-income communities, not participating or caring about their child’s education. This mom was giving her all, and it changed my view of parental support. The school needed to find ways to also support her.

And so as a principal, I’m always thinking about how I can support my parents and invite them into the school. So that they feel welcome and wanted, and also so they are encouraged in their own role in their child’s education. We hold math and science nights, where parents learn how to do math games or science experiments at home with their kids. We provide them with materials and knowledge so that they can provide enrichment in their own home.

What issue in the education policy realm is having a big impact on your school right now? How are you addressing it?

We, like many schools in Memphis, don’t have the facilities we need for our students. Georgian Hills had to vacate our school building due to an issue with the roof. That created a hard environment for this school year — moving to a new building where we share space, and then me taking on that school as its school leader when the principal left. Honestly, I thought this year could break me as a school leader. But it didn’t, and it didn’t break our school either. We had a culture in place where our teachers felt supported among the chaos of the start of the year. After a year of repairs, we’re planning on moving back to our original building this fall.

But the issue here is that we don’t have the school buildings we need. Schools should be palaces in a community.

What’s the best advice you’ve received?

You have to mobilize people’s efforts to “win.” The first secret to this is to love your people. They are here for a purpose and you have to help them understand the higher purpose that they are here to serve.  You have to have the right people in place, be responsible for developing them, and have the courage to let them go when student’s needs aren’t being met. Finally, transparency rules.

oversight

Aurora school board to consider one-year charter contract for school with conflict of interest

PHOTO: Andrea Chu

Aurora’s school board is set to decide Tuesday whether to renew the charter of a well-rated school that long has served children with special needs — but that also has become caught up in questions over conflicts of interest and opaque finances.

Aurora district administrators, concerned about operations of Vanguard Classical School, are recommending just a one-year charter extension rather than the usual five-year contract.

District staff members told the school board earlier this year that they were unsure about the school’s relationship with Ability Connection Colorado, the nonprofit that started the school and provides services through a $350,000 agreement. Not only does that contract lack specifics, but also the nonprofit’s CEO, Judy Ham, serves as the president of the charter school’s board and has signed agreements between the two organizations on behalf of Vanguard.

“You can see the clear conflict of interest concern that arose for us,” Lamont Browne, the district’s director of autonomous schools, told the school board in February.

The charter school board president disputes the findings of the conflicts of interest, but said the school is going to comply with all of the contract’s conditions anyway.

Vanguard, which first opened in 2007, was created to serve students with special needs in an inclusive model, meaning, as much as possible those students are blended into regular classrooms. Currently, the charter operates two campuses. One, near Lowry, enrolls about 500 K-8 students, and the second, a K-12 campus on the east side of the city, enrolls about 745 students. More than half of the students at each campus qualify for free or reduced price lunches, a measure of poverty.

In reviewing Vanguard, the district found it has a higher percentage of students who perform well on some state tests than the district does. The school also has a good rating from annual state reviews.

But the unclear relationship between the school and its founding nonprofit have raised doubts.

Although the relationship and service agreements the school has with the nonprofit aren’t new, Aurora’s concerns came up during an interview step that was added to the charter renewal process this year. Last time Vanguard went through a review from the district, five years ago, the district’s office of autonomous schools that now oversees charter schools did not exist. Staff describe previous reviews as compliance checklists.

Ham told district reviewers in that new step during the review process, that she never recused herself from board votes involving her employer.

But Ham now says that she misspoke, and meant that she has never recused herself officially because she just doesn’t vote on matters involving Ability Connection Colorado.

“It felt like (it was) a loaded question” Ham said. “But I don’t recuse myself because I don’t ever vote. It’s almost like a foregone conclusion.”

Browne also told the board he was concerned with the lack of detail about the $350,000 service agreement.

“Considering the amount that that contract was for, we were very concerned about the lack of detail regarding those services,” Browne said. He also pointed to school staff’s “lack of clarity with regard to what they were paying for and what they were receiving.”

Ham said the charter school has rewritten and added more detail to the agreements about what Ability Connection Colorado does for the school, which she said includes payroll services, human resources, building management, and risk assessments for students. The school’s west campus also shares a building with the nonprofit.

“We are on-call 24-7,” Ham said. “We wanted to provide everything so that the school could focus on being able to do the most important thing which is educating the children, knowing that inclusive education is hard to do.”

But what the functions of the nonprofit are aren’t clear, according to Aurora administrators.

“The school should not be wondering what services they are or are not receiving from the company,” said Mackenzie Stauffer, Aurora’s charter school coordinator.

Administrators recommend a renewed contract include stipulations such as governance training for the school’s board, meant to address conflicts of interest.

Ben Lindquist, president of the Colorado League of Charter Schools, said that there are laws that could apply to give charter school authorizers like Aurora authority over conflict-of-interest issues.

“It should be within the purview of an authorizer to inquire into conflicts of interest if it perceives they are there,” Lindquist said. “But there’s not just one way to remedy that.”

Among the contract’s conditions, the district will also ask that Vanguard’s board be more transparent about recording board votes on significant decisions. Initially, district staff also said they considered asking Vanguard to remove the current board and replace all members, but officials said they ran into some problems with what they were allowed to ask the school to do.

“There’s a very interesting place we are in where we are the authorizer — we don’t run the school and we want to maintain that delineation,” Browne said. “However if we feel like there is something that could be a potential challenge for the school, we feel like it’s our duty to do what we can to suggest or recommend those changes.”