Quitting school: Turnover rises for urban superintendents

AP News
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Posted: Oct 31, 2016 3:44 PM
Quitting school: Turnover rises for urban superintendents

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — As the architect of school reform in New Haven, Superintendent Garth Harries appeared to be making progress. Test scores were up, dropout rates were down and a new teacher evaluation system became a national model.

But after only slightly more than three years, and clashes with members of the city's Board of Education, Harries is stepping down Monday.

He lasted about as long as the average for superintendents in urban American school districts, a turnover rate that has been on the rise. While the churn reflects growing strains on leaders in the largest and neediest school systems, it also adds to the challenges by disrupting improvement plans that are measured over years, not months.

Harries, 44, had the support of the mayor and the teachers union, but the Yale University alumnus with experience at the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. and New York City schools said differences with the board drove him to leave New Haven.

"This is difficult, hard work, just in the educational sense," Harries said. "Obviously the public and political nature of it creates a whole other set of pressures and challenges. I'm looking forward to decompressing."

The job has grown more challenging as urban superintendents, once tasked primarily with keeping schools free of violence, focus more on preparing all students for the modern economy. That has meant addressing the effects of concentrated poverty on students' ability to learn while overseeing budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars and, in the form of busing, some cities' largest transportation system.

"It's a major, crushing responsibility for many people, and they increasingly run afoul of politics," said James Harvey, director of the National Superintendents Roundtable, a professional development organization.

A 2014 survey by the Council of the Great City Schools found the average superintendent in cities with populations over 250,000 lasts 3.2 years, down from 3.6 years in 2010. The turnover rate was 2.8 years in 2003. Superintendents last about roughly twice as long in rural and suburban districts.

In Connecticut alone, Harries outlasted superintendents in the two other biggest cities — Hartford and Bridgeport, where his counterparts also announced unexpected departures this fall.

The resignation letter from Bridgeport's Fran Rabinowitz cited one school board member's "negative crusade" to undermine her work. In Hartford, which has had a dozen superintendents in the past 25 years, Beth Schiavino-Narvaez is leaving for a job with the Defense Department.

Baltimore's superintendent, Gregory Thornton, was ousted this spring after two years. He was wrestling with a $100 million shortfall in the $1.2 billion budget and a need to close buildings because of declining enrollment.

He said that it's important to have a good match with overseers, and that he knew a year in he was not a good fit, but that another key to successful change is patience.

"You can't just drop the seeds in the ground and hope the crops come up tomorrow," he said.

Now in his 15th year overseeing Long Beach, California, schools, Christopher Steinhauser is a rare urban superintendent with staying power, a feat he credits to harmony with his board. He said the time has allowed him to experiment with programs on a pilot basis.

"I have been blessed over my 14 years. I have a board that, even though they're elected geographically, they always focus on the good on the system," he said.

In New Haven, Harries was promoted from assistant superintendent around the time the school board, whose members had all been appointed by the mayor, changed to include some elected members. Mayor Toni Harp said that introduced people who did not agree with some of the system's goals and made it difficult for Harries to do his job.

Harries said he helped more students succeed by emphasizing engagement of staff, focusing on developmental needs, and attending to students and communities that most need support. While most of his ideas had broad support, some questioned his approach.

One school board member, Alicia Caraballo, who worked in the district for 26 years, said there were problems with communication and criticized a proposal, abandoned after two years of controversy, to divide up the student body of Hillhouse High School, the city's oldest.

David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, said Harries was a strong partner but was seen by some as an outsider despite attending college in New Haven.

"One issue was he was an Ivy Leaguer. He was a Yalie, and there always has been town-gown tension," Cicarella said. "Those are all things that were at his doorstep. That was incredibly unfair."

Harries earned an annual salary of $200,797, close to the average of $242,000 for urban superintendents in the 2014 survey.

Urban superintendents do not do the job for the money, said Henry Duvall, a spokesman for the Council of the Great City Schools. And the ones that have time to get traction, he said, are the ones who can see their ideas to completion.

"The longer a superintendent stays," he said, "the greater the chances for reforms to work."