By Penney Sanders
I cannot remember a time when both Fayette and Jefferson County School Districts had superintendent openings at the same time. It portends a unique opportunity for Kentucky.
Let’s start with Louisville/JCPS. Could the situation have become more ludicrous - and more importantly, is it salvageable????
A bit of history. When Dr. Berman was hired 4 years ago, he was the “last man” standing candidate. The other two finalists dropped out and rather than reopen the search, for whatever reason, the JCPS Board chose to hire Berman.
Furthermore, Berman came from a small district in New England. He had no experience with the immense infrastructure that constitutes JCPS and was a novice at Kentucky hardball school politics. He was behind before he began. (So, how/ why did the headhunters put him on the list for Louisville??)
In a part of organizational analysis called, succession theory, Berman was an outside-outsider. Furthermore, his predecessor (Daeschner) had been in the position for 14 years. Succession theory and common sense indicate that Berman was not destined to stay long in the position: too many accumulated problems and too many people in place who could not be removed or motivated to change.
Couple the bussing morass with the announcement that JCPS had 12 high schools on the state’s lowest performing list (6 per yr. for 2 years =12), it should come as no surprise that Berman’s contract was not renewed. Based on the performance of the schools and the lack of overall progress in the district, the Board took appropriate action to not renew.
Urban superintendents have a short life-span under the best of circumstances. In this case, the circumstances were full of conflict. Berman had been selected by default and his Board flipped on him. It was a bad fit that only got worse. The only logical outcome was don’t renew and move on - It is happening all over the country.
Therefore, I do not understand why there has been such weeping and wailing from the Courier Journal about Berman’s departure. A 5-2 vote to not renew is compelling. Even if the Board had changed its vote in public, in private, Berman would have lacked the support and confidence of the Board. That, as we all know, is a killer for a superintendent.
Now, the Board has an opportunity to get it right. They must conduct a search that will yield them a strong group of candidates. Additionally, they should not rush to hire someone. In fact, an interim superintendent may be a good idea for the district at this time.
An interim, no doubt someone from within, could, with the full support of the Board, do much of the necessary program and personnel adjustments - i.e. clean house and continue instituting the changes necessary to get the poor performing high schools back on track.
This is a strategy that is often employed in the private sector-the transitional person does the dirty work and the new person arrives with the opportunity to install his/her personnel and programs. The messy stuff is over and done with.
Regardless, the JCPS Board must be committed to improved schools for ALL students. This continued whining that because students are poor or from disengaged families simply cannot be allowed to continue as the excuses for poor school performance. There are too many urban districts in this country that are demonstrating positive student achievement to allow JCPS to continue this category of caterwauling.
Finally, the Board must realize that it is the assessment of student performance which is the basis for the way we judge schools in Kentucky and in the US. The presentations at the recent League of Women Voters Forum that sought to deemphasize assessment were at best disingenuous if not delusional.
Kentucky was first on board to adopt the Common Core Standards and will, I assume, quickly adopt the assessments that will accompany those standards. The result will be higher standards and much more rigorous measurements/assessments. Competition will be more intense and the stakes for Kentucky students will be higher. JCPS must be ready.
This is a critical juncture in the history of JCPS. With 12 high schools on the state’s low performing list and concerns about student performance overall, the Board must select and SUPPORT a strong, instructionally-focused candidate who has a history of turning schools around and who will be committed to the tough work of transforming low performing, low expectation schools into schools of excellence based on successful student outcomes. Think: Michelle Rhee or Arne Duncan.
The Board must share with the candidates the problems the district faces. NOTHING can be sugar-coated; all the uglies out in the open. A new superintendent must understand the issues related to the failure to intervene in low performing schools until they were hemorrhaging, the frustration with bussing and the need to adopt a “no more excuses” approach to instruction.
It will be a difficult position but there are men and women in schools and districts throughout the country who could lead a JCPS turnaround. The trick will be to identify them; these types of “in the trenches” leaders are not often in the stable of the hired headhunters. The Board may have to do some serious searching on their own. In fact, to do less and not hire the best, subjects the Louisville community to more failing schools. That is not an option.