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RCSD superintendent finalists get their public platform

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The four finalists for Rochester schools superintendent put themselves on public display over the weekend. There were no surprises, no stand-out performance that made one candidate seem an obvious choice, but the school board's forums let anyone who was interested see the finalists in person. And the finalists' presentations, coupled with their resumes, provide a sense of their differences, in experience as well as in personality.

The events, held at the Freddie Thomas Learning Center on Scio Street on Saturday and Sunday afternoon, were organized as two separate, concurrent forums each day, one for parents and students, the other for district staff and members of the community. Each candidate spent about an hour and 15 minutes at each forum, giving a brief personal statement and then answering questions, some submitted in advance, some submitted by people at the events. The district live-streamed all of the forums on the district website, rcsdk12.org/suptsearch.

Attendance was sparse both days, something four critics of the selection process have been citing. Howard Eagle, Clifford Florence, Andria Bryant, and school board member Judith Davis – all of whom are running for school board this year – say that holding the forums on Saturday and Sunday was disrespectful to families who attend religious services on those days. And they say that the process should have included community members from the beginning.

All four of the finalists that the school board has chosen are African-American males with backgrounds similar to those of many of Rochester's students. All credited their parents for stressing the importance of education. Much of what they said at the forums was predictable, general, and uncontroversial, designed to show that they had done their homework, knew something about the Rochester school district, and had ideas on how to meet its challenges.

All four have spent much of their career in districts similar to Rochester's. All have management experience in urban districts. All four talked about success: their own, and that of the schools they've worked with.

All talked about the need to collaborate and to build bridges, solving problems by including parents, teachers, administrators, and the community. Most talked about "community schools" and the importance of wrap-around services such as health care for students and their families. All talked about the importance of addressing the problems cited in Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino's report.

All four also talked about the importance of stability, and said that if they are selected, they'll stay in Rochester for years.

Actions speak louder than words, of course. All four have moved up the career ladder in public education, two or three years at a time. So the school board needs to do a lot of tire kicking and fact checking.

All four finalists also talked about the importance of collaborating. That's a challenge the next superintendent is likely to face immediately – with his own school board, which is frequently, publicly, divided. The report by Distinguished Educator Jaime Aquino cited the board's divisiveness, and it may continue next year, when the school board may get new members.

At the beginning of the Saturday forums, school board candidates Howard Eagle, Andrea Bryant, and Clifford Florence interrupted the finalists' presentations, protesting the current school board's process for selecting a new superintendent.

School board member Judith Davis, the fourth member of the Eagle-Bryant-Florence slate, was in the room but didn't participate in the protest. On Sunday, however, Davis issued a press release noting that the forums were poorly attended – proof, she said, that the school board needs to "reset" its search process, start over, and ensure that the community is included.

Davis said she would not cooperate further in the search process.

In addition to dealing with a sometimes fractious school board, the next superintendent will also need to collaborate with a mayor and many community leaders who have grown impatient with the district's progress. That'll be a tall order, but presumably something each of them has faced before.

School board member Willa Powell said on Tuesday that the board intends to meet in executive session before the end of next week, to narrow down the candidates to a finalist. They won't name that selection, however, until contract negotiations are completed, which can take weeks.

Powell said the board does think it can select a superintendent from among the four finalists. Board members don't expect to have to go into the candidate pool again, she said, and they feel confident they'll be able to hire someone by June.

Terry Dade

Terry Dade grew up in the Washington, DC, area, raised by his father and grandmother. He's currently assistant superintendent of Fairfax County, Virginia, public schools – a district with 37,000 students – where he's responsible for coaching and evaluating principals and implementing school improvement plans.

Terry Dade - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Terry Dade

Earlier in his career, he was a principal in the DC school district, where he worked under its controversial chancellor, Michelle Rhee. In his presentation, Dade said that the experience was important to him and that he appreciated some of her positions on education. She didn't accept complacency, he said.

Dade said he's impressed by Rochester's excellent pre-kindergarten program, but he said he was struck by the low reading proficiency levels of the district's second graders. Addressing that would be a priority, he said, because students who can't read by third grade are at greater risk of falling behind academically when they reach the upper grades.

He said he would insist on a common, district-wide curriculum because Rochester students change schools often. That puts them at risk of falling behind.

"Culture," he said, trumps "strategy." Plans are important, but the culture of a school has to be positive and inspiring. Leaders need to model what they hope to see in teachers, parents, and students.

Dade's education: Master's degree in elementary education, University of Virginia, and master's in school administration, Trinity University. He's completing a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies at Virginia Tech.

His professional experience: Albemarle County Public Schools elementary teacher, 1999-2001; general faculty member, University of Virginia, 2001-2004; elementary school teacher, Alexandria, Virginia, 2004-2006; elementary charter school teacher, Washington, DC, 2006-2007; assistant principal, Washington DC elementary school, 2007-2008; principal of three different DC-area schools, 2008-2010, 2010-2013, and 2013-2014; executive principal for school improvement, Fairfax County school district, 2014-2015; and assistant superintendent, Fairfax County school district, 2015-present.

Devon Horton - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Devon Horton

Devon Horton

A Chicago native, Devon Horton said he and his three siblings were raised by a "no excuses" single mother. During his career, he has worked in three school districts with high poverty rates: Chicago, a district with 400,000 students at the time; East St. Louis, Illinois, 6,000 students; and Jefferson County, Kentucky, 100,000 students.

Horton's professional experience has been mostly with low-performing schools that needed intervention, and he said he was drawn to pushing students who have virtually given up academically.

Increasing graduation rates requires a multi-step approach, he said, starting with an assessment of where every seventh-grade student is academically, as well as helping them identify their interests.

He said he would create a program for students to visit as many colleges as possible so they begin to develop a sense of what that experience would be like. Ultimately, he said, every student needs a plan that gives them a goal and charts the path for getting to it. Whether it's college, job training, or the military, students – especially students from poor families – need to know they have options. As chief of schools in Jefferson County, Kentucky, he said, he has pushed for more career pathways for students who may not want to go to college.

He said he's concerned about the emotional well-being of teachers and said there's a tendency to think teachers should be miracle workers, able to fix all kinds of problems.

Horton's education: Master's degree in educational leadership from Chicago State University, doctorate in educational leadership, Chicago State University.

His professional experience: In Chicago, elementary school teacher, 2000-2005; elementary school assistant principal and teacher, 2005-2010; high school principal, 2011-2014. In East St. Louis, deputy superintendent, 2014-2018; In Jefferson County, Kentucky, chief of schools, 2018 to present.

Sito Narcisse - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Sito Narcisse

Sito Narcisse

The son of Haitian immigrants, Narcisse was born in New York City, and like many children in immigrant families, he said, he was an English language learner. He speaks Spanish, Creole, and French in addition to English. In his career in education, he has worked in seven different school districts, in Tennessee, Boston, Pittsburgh, and Maryland.

In his presentation, he referred several times to his professional experience working with African American boys. It's important to monitor African American boys' progress, starting in elementary school, he said. And schools serving many Africa American boys should have a small student-counselor ratio, but that's been a challenge in Nashville, he said, because of the cost.

Narcisse talked about providing "the right structures to support principals" and said the Metro Nashville school district has "principal supervisors" who work closely with principals. He mentioned having students talk with principals about their feelings about school and school climate, and he suggested creating an advisory committee of students that would meet with the superintendent monthly.

To support students from non-English-speaking families, he suggested creating a family night for them, and reaching out to church groups and non-profit groups for help. "Not every community connects with schools in the same way," he said, and many families need help navigating their school system.

To increase the number of certified bilingual teachers and African-American teachers, he suggested working with universities and investing in the district's paraprofessionals to get more people certified to teach.

Narcisse's education: Master's degree in education from Vanderbilt University; doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Pittsburgh.

His professional experience: Teacher, Williamson County, Tennessee, 2002-2005; assistant high school principal in Pittsburgh, 2007-2008; founding principal of Pittsburgh University Preparatory School, 2008-2009; high school principal, Boston Public Schools, 2009-2012; director of school support and improvement, Montgomery County Public Schools, Rockville, Maryland, 2012-2013; acting chief school improvement officer, Montgomery County Public Schools, 2013; associate superintendent, Prince George's County Public Schools, Maryland, 2013-2016; chief of schools (second in command), Metro Nashville Public Schools, 2016-present.

Eric Thomas

Born in Savannah, Georgia, Thomas grew up in public housing in Cincinnati, raised by a single mother. He has spent much of his professional career in public schools in Cincinnati, a predominantly black district with 35,000 students.

Eric Thomas - PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • PHOTO BY JOSH SAUNDERS
  • Eric Thomas

In his presentation, he made a point of including unions when he talked about collaboration. And he said the way to hold teachers accountable is to invest in teacher development.

He emphasized the importance of addressing "non-academic barriers": focusing on the health and welfare of both students and staff.

As a principal in Cincinnati, he started MORE – "Men, Organized, Respectful, Educated" – a program that focuses on academics and character development of at-risk male students.

Asked how he would help the district interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, he said the district has to ensure that children are able to read and have a strong vocabulary in first and second grade rather than waiting until students are in high school to intervene. "By then it's too late," he said.

And he talked about attracting students to the district. "My vision is to bring another 5000 back," he said. "We've got another 5000 students who ought to be attending Rochester public schools."

Thomas's education: master's degree in educational administration, University of Cincinnati; doctorate in educational leadership, Concordia University of Chicago.

His professional history: In Cincinnati, social studies teacher 1994-1998; district coordinator of a public schools program for overage 8th graders 1998-2002; school principal, 2004-2009; coach for principals in turnaround schools, 2008-2010; chief innovation officer, Cincinnati school district, 2010-2012.

Also in Ohio: alternative high school administrator, Middletown, Ohio, 2002-2004; part-time consultant working with team on low-performing school districts, Ohio Department of Education, 2014-2017.

Other positions: Chief support officer for a turn-around program at the University of Virginia's Darden/Curry Partnership for Leaders in Education, partnering with low-performing Virginia schools, 2012-2017. Chief turnaround officer, Georgia State Board of Education, 2017 to present.