The AJC ran profiles this weekend of the Fulton and Cobb school chiefs. The two men are part of the wave of new school chiefs who arrived in metro Atlanta over the last three years.
Here are excerpts from both AJC profiles:
First, from the profile of Cobb’s Michael Hinojosa, who came from Dallas where he was credited with many improvements.
Going into his second year, Hinojosa, 55, said he has few regrets. “I wanted to build trust and confidence, but we still have to move quickly, ” he said. “I hate waiting. But I want to take a punch and for it to have staying power.”
Hinojosa has received national recognition for his six-year stint in Dallas for raising at-risk students’ test scores and turning around several schools. During his tour of the district, Hinojosa learned of Cobb’s strengths: Its parents are heavily involved. It has four of the highest performing high schools in the state.
And he learned of its struggles: The school board was fractured over a school calendar dispute, and there’s a widening achievement gap between white students and students of color. “This district has tremendous talent at every level of the organization, ” Hinojosa said. “But good is the enemy of great. I’m pushing hard for great.”
He soon restructured his administration and set up an advisory committee of high-performing principals and another of local business leaders. He radically changed the principal-selection process so parents have more say.
“He’s a very good listener and follows up with you, ” said Kiddada Grey, a parent of two children in the district. “He’s earning the respect all over the district.”
He decided to scrap the strategic plan and set up academic teams to advise struggling schools, which has shown early results. But he took heat when he proposed that the district join the Teach for America program.
“We have qualified teachers, ” said board member Alison Bartlett. “Why would you want to bring in an unqualified teacher” when some teaching jobs are being eliminated?
It’s a proposal Hinojosa says he now regrets, but, “If I could do it over again, I would work harder on building broad-based support for Teach For America because I believe it’s a great program that could help our school district.”
Hinojosa does not shy from innovation in classrooms. This year, students are allowed to bring cellphones and laptops into the classroom at a few middle schools. At a handful of others, students will do their homework in class and watch videos of teachers’ lectures at home, flipping the traditional classroom model.
Hinojosa’s biggest challenge came in April when, with the board’s consent, he closed a $10 million budget deficit by eliminating 350 teaching positions, giving teachers three furlough days and delaying pay raises for several staff members. “We’re at the tipping point on how we use our resources, ” Hinojosa said. Some of the cuts, such as increased class sizes, riled board members and county residents.
And from the profile of Fulton’s Robert Avossa, 40, who came to Fulton from the well regarded Charlotte-Mecklenburg system in North Carolina:
The demographics of Charlotte-Mecklenburg and Fulton are almost identical. Both systems have 33 percent white students, just over 40 percent black and Hispanic populations in the low to middle teens.
Peter Gorman, who was Charlotte superintendent when Avossa worked there, said he expects great things from his former right-hand man. “He’s one of the rising stars in American education, ” Gorman said. “He’s incredibly bright and has a bias for action, but he doesn’t jump blindly into anything. At the same time he doesn’t put up with lack of performance.”
Avossa said Fulton’s designation by the state this spring as a charter system will give him and the board the flexibility to improve the district, school by school and student by student.
In Charlotte, Gorman and Avossa were criticized for a regimen of 52 tests they put in place to measure performance, as well as a pay-for-performance plan that financially rewarded the best teachers. When Avossa toured Fulton before taking the job last year, he told parents he would not subject the district to that scheme, which he said was “very aggressive” and “too fast-paced.”
Still, raising the bar and then clearing it is all Avossa has known from childhood, when his father, a blue-collar auto worker in Naples, Italy, moved the family to the United States because he thought Italian public schools were inadequate. Nobody in the family spoke English, least of all Avossa, who was 3 years old. He still didn’t speak English when he entered the first grade and didn’t read to level until third grade. But he never doubted he’d finish school and go to college, because that’s all he ever heard at home.
Avossa’s time in Fulton has seen him make enemies, especially for his handling of Fulton Science Academy’s application for a 10-year extension of its charter, which Avossa and the board of education rejected after an audit found what they thought were irregularities in the school’s financing.
Avossa has a three-year contract. Assuming he survives in a district where superintendents have changed frequently, he has a five-year goal to get the districtwide graduation rate to 90 percent — a stiff challenge given some schools are in the high 30s and low 40s. “I won’t be happy until I’ve moved the bar, ” he said.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog