Leader Blues

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

TOP STORY >> District is closer to hiring new chief

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

The Pulaski County Special School District board meeting last night was canceled because of the weather, but the board won’t gather to discuss the candidates for the superintendent’s position until at least Friday, and no action is expected to be taken then, according to Deborah Roush, PCSSD spokesman.

Interim superintendent Rob McGill and Vashti Washington, associate superintendent of the Charleston County School District in South Carolina, met with board members, teacher representatives, principals, the press and the public last week, concluding formal visits by the four finalists in the search for a permanent PCSSD superintendent.

MCGILL’S FAMILIAR

“I’ve set the stage for academic improvements with classroom walkthroughs and audits and collecting data to make decisions based on individual student’s needs,” said McGill, 42.

He has worked his way up from elementary school teacher beginning in 1993 to principal of Pine Forest Elementary from 2005-2009. From there, he was selected as acting superintendent of the district last March, replacing James Sharpe, who was forced out by the board.

“There are a lot of things I’ve tackled head-on, and I want to continue,” he said. “Me being local and familiar with the district for 17 years, I have an idea of issues and challenges and positive things we do in the district.”

“I can continue making decisions based on knowledge we currently have. In the last few months, we’ve started the Star Academy, helping students catch up to their peers,” he said.

“We put a lot of effort into upkeep and maintenance of older facilities, painting, upgrading HVAC systems and bathrooms. We had a summer school program at Jacksonville Elementary School and increased after-school care.”

JACKSONVILLE SEPARATION

“We’ve dealt with several big issues like the Jacksonville separation,” McGill continued. “I have an understanding how it affects desegregations plans. We’re trying to move to unitary status.”

The district converted to online purchasing, cleaned up coding and has gone to the state reporting system for finance, he said.

The district has a pilot Web-based program for processing student data.

He said he’d like to bring the district into more long-range planning for facilities, bus purchase, and crises management — looking ahead and making contingency plans.

He said that union or no union, it’s important that the district treat the teachers in a fair and consistent manner.

“My stance is the board directed that we no longer recognize the union and when four board members say to go in one direction, that’s the direction I’m pointed in,” McGill said.

Consistency and fairness are also important for student discipline. the interim superintendent said.

“They have to understand the rules and consequences and abide by them,” McGill said.

WASHINGTON’S CALLING

Calling her work as an educator “a spiritual calling and a great honor,” Washington came for her interview armed with a three-ring binder full of her research on PCSSD and the Little Rock area.

“Twenty-one years ago, Pulaski County was on of the most productive districts in the state,” she said. “I’d like to help lead the district back to that,” she said.

Washington, 56, said there were a lot of similarities between PCSSD and the Charleston County School District.

“Pulaski County is where we were, regarding academic, discipline and facilities problems,” she said.

Nearly all elementary schools in her district were not meeting annual school improvement goals when she took over. Last year, all but one were.

She said the biggest problem for most districts was the lack of communication. “I’m a collaborative person,” she said, “fair, firm and a good listener.”

“Unions come about because we aren’t listening to each other,” she said.

When I came on (at Charleston) we were suspending at least 50 percent of our students. One of the issues that we needed to face, we needed to get a behavior modification management model. It took a year and a half to train the teachers.”

SUSPENSIONS PLUNGED

In her area of responsibility, which is the district’s elementary schools, suspensions fell from about 50 percent to about 1 percent to two percent, Washington said.

“Elementary school students are easier to get on board,” she said. But through student council, the high school students eventually bought into the program by setting their own reward goals, like increasing the amount of time they could use an iPod or being allowed a once-a-month dance.

“It’s unbelievable how we were able to decrease the number of expulsions and suspensions in our schools. Teachers have to buy into it. They have to be consistent and we have to provide the resources,” she said.

Her district eliminated less necessary positions, replacing them with behavior specialists, kept up with the day-to-day data.

“You could figure out who are the teachers who are having the most problem…. and those are the teachers we pull out and do some one-to-one. And then some, we just say, ‘this is not for you,’” Washington said.

“We had a lot of racial tension,” she said but by being fair in discipline, making sure children know what to expect, the district over came much of that. “Set high expectations,” she said.

Washington said she helped lead an ambitious building program.