At a recent panel on school leadership, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed told a roomful of business leaders that the troubled city school system must make “path breaking” progress.
“As your mayor, I’m prepared to go as far as you all are prepared to go to save these kids,” he promised the audience at last month’s Education Leadership for the 21st Century event.
Apparently, that includes going across the street — from City Hall to the Atlanta Public Schools offices.
Reed announced a few days ago that he is considering seeking special power to appoint school board members in an effort to stabilize a system reeling from a cheating scandal, a feuding Board of Education and increasingly irate parents.
Is a reconstituted school board the lifeline that will pull Atlanta to solid ground? Or will the system’s restoration depend on the next person hired to lead Atlanta, one of several metro systems in search of a new superintendent. DeKalb, Cobb, and Fulton are also looking.
Those questions were explored by the panel on education leadership, which was part of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation Speaker Series.
Among the panelists was Andres Alonso, the CEO of Baltimore schools who is credited with remarkable improvements to the district but who prefers in public to muse about all that remains to be done.
Alonso works under a school board appointed by both the Maryland governor and the Baltimore mayor. Hired in 2007, the Cuban born and Harvard educated Alonso was the seventh Baltimore CEO in 10 years.
(The average tenure of superintendents in large urban school districts today is 3.6 years, according to the Council of Great City Schools seventh survey.)
Alonso noted that the same Baltimore school board that cycled through so many CEOs in a decade works well with him and was recognized last year as a board of excellence.
“That’s why conversations about what is the best governance structure are so senseless,” he said. “It’s about the people and the political courage; it is not about the governance structure in itself.”
Alonso disagreed with the insistence that all school leaders be cut from the same mold, citing all the hand wringing over whether magazine publisher Cathleen Black, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s choice to lead New York City schools, had the credentials for the job.
“This is not about whether you think she has the background for the challenges but whether you think she has the leadership ability to take the school system in the direction where you think the school system should go,” he said.
“Ninety percent of this job is about guts — trying to do things that haven’t been tried before,” he said.
In the most provocative statement of the evening, Alonso said, “School systems have exactly the outcomes that they want…if it’s working in a certain way, that’s exactly the way it is meant to be.”
Panelist Gerard Robinson, a former Georgia Charter Schools Commission member and now Virginia secretary of education, voiced a similar theme, saying that it’s politics that typically undermines school improvement.
“The school reform problem isn’t a knowledge problem. We know what it takes to work with schools — APS is an example — that are predominantly minority or have a lot of students that quality for free-and-reduced-priced lunch,” he said. “This isn’t an academic gap problem. This is a political crap problem. And until you deal with the political crap problem, which is identifying the right person for the right time, you won’t solve the achievement gap problem.”
“You are not looking for a superstar or an heroic lone figure,” said panelist Mark Musick, president emeritus of the Southern Regional Education Board. “You are looking for someone who can recruit and build a team. “
Musick warned that urban districts hiring new superintendents must accept that the chances of failure are great and that long-term superintendents and harmonious school boards, as is the case in Gwinnett County, voted this year’s best urban school system by the Broad Foundation, are rare.
“Alvin Wilbanks in an anomaly. You don’t see that happen too often,” he said.
Musick compared mayoral control of schools, which is what Mayor Reed seeks, to declaring “martial law. It’s for when you are in the ditch and you can’t get out by normal means. I don’t see it as a long-term strategy.”
But Alonso said school boards appointed by mayors offer benefits. “There is no way I could have closed 26 schools in four years if I had people elected in those districts. I like mayoral control — if you have the right mayor.”
–By Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog