LORAIN — Charter schools aren’t a definite for Lorain Schools, but candidates looking to become the new head of the district aren’t ruling them out either.
At a meeting with the community Tuesday night, the finalists for the position that would essentially have final say over almost all district matters, including turning “failing” buildings into charter schools after two years, had similar ideas — charters have their place, but that’s not necessarily in Lorain.
James Henderson, who serves as the chief executive officer of educational consulting firm Impeccable Resources and is the former assistant superintendent for academic supports for the St. Louis school district, said he has experience with charter schools from his time in Houston.
“During my time with the Houston Independent School District, which is the largest in the state of Texas, practically half the schools in the district were charters,” he said. “They were some of the first in the state. But charter schools have their place, and this might not be it. There are creative learning solutions that come about in charter schools and we can find a way to implement those on the public level as well, but really it’s about what’s best for students.”
David Hardy, who is the deputy superintendent for academics for St. Louis Schools, said he previously worked as a principal at a charter school in New York and there were things he learned there that “can be practiced in public schools in a real way,” but ultimately it’s about what’s best for students.
“I don’t think that charter schools are necessarily the answer here, but I don’t think there’s just one answer to fix the problems in Lorain either,” he said.
The Lorain district is seeking a CEO after failing test scores and poor state report card grades caused it to be classified by the state as under academic distress in 2013.
State House Bill 70, passed in 2015, states that if a district is in academic distress and under the supervision of an academic distress commission for four years, the old commission will be disbanded and a new one will be appointed to hire a CEO to take over.
Lloyd Martin, who works as the president and CEO of Universal School Solutions in Orange Park, Fla., and previously served as the superintendent at the Academy for Urban Scholars and the Mansfield, Ohio, school district, said he’s not willing to close the door on charter schools.
“If we as a district can improve and do better, charter schools won’t be any competition for us,” he said. “But it’s about what’s best for the kids, and I’m not willing to push aside something that could meets students’ needs in a valuable way.”
Vilicia Cade, who is the senior director of secondary curriculum and professional development for Christina Schools in Wilmington, Del., said she’s not hardlined on charter schools one way or the other.
“I think the first step at this point is really to engage the district and then to go from there,” she said.
Eric Thomas, who is the chief support officer at the University of Virginia Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, declined to comment until his interview with the commission is completed today. The other four finalists were interviewed Tuesday.
Jim Hager, president of Chicago-based Atlantic Research Partners who selected the finalists from a pool of 37 that included current Superintendent Jeff Graham, said the candidates’ opinions on charter schools didn’t hold any weight in their selection.
“We didn’t look to see if people were pro or con charter schools,” he said. “Some of the candidates had experience with them and some didn’t, but it wasn’t a significant influence.”
Hager said the finalists were determined by a series of factors, including the stipulations in House Bill 70 as well as an “emerging leadership profile” that was put together after community focus groups.
“We asked for a resume and their previous work experiences, but the most important piece was what they had done as far as transformative moves were concerned,” he said. “What had they done to improve the lives of students where they had worked and were currently working?”
Henderson said he thinks his past successes in Texas and Missouri are what set him apart for the position.
“From what I can tell, there’s a need here to improve performance, and I think I have that skill set,” he said. “What I have done in the past in Houston and at the Normandy school district I worked at in Missouri can lend itself to the need here.”
Martin echoed Henderson, noting “the work is a challenge,” but he wants to see what he can do in his home state of Ohio.
Cade said what drew her to Lorain was its potential for opportunity and her knowledge of helping to restructure a district is one of her greatest strengths.
Hardy said he wants to aid a community that he thinks is engaged in the process.
“I see a lot of pride and commitment here,” he said. “You come to urban school districts and people just want to talk a good game, but here there are people who want to stand up and be involved.”
Mark Jones, 57, of Lorain and an alumnus of the district along with his wife and two children, said he wishes the community, especially parents, would become even more engaged in the process.
“There would good qualities in each of the candidates, but I think it really needs to start with parents getting involved and the community helping out the parents who can’t,” he said. “I think that’s where we’ve been lacking.”
Commission Chairman Tony Richardson said he was pleased with the turnout at the community event Tuesday night and he thought the energy “was bright and positive.”
School board member Bill Sturgill, who attended the meeting with board members Mark Ballard and Tony Dimacchia, said while he was hoping Graham would be a finalist he was surprised with the slate that was presented.
“They all look like quality candidates, and I look forward to working with them,” he said.
City Councilwoman Pam Carter, D-3rd Ward, said she’s “hoping for the best outcome” and is “trying to have and encourage a positive outlook.”
“I just have a feeling we’re going to need all hands — and feet — on deck for this,” she said.
Richardson has said he wants to have a CEO selected by the end of the week, but House Bill 70, the legislation that was passed in 2015 that stipulates how districts placed under academic distress will be taken over by a CEO, affords the commission until July 25 to select a new head for the district.
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