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Hartford Courant: Paul Vallas Finds A Hard Road In Bridgeport

Courant

Paul Vallas Finds A Hard Road In Bridgeport

Opinions On The Schools Chief Are Divided, And It’s Too Soon To Tell If His Changes Are Working In The District

By KATHLEEN MEGAN, kmegan@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

3:06 PM EDT, March 24, 2013

BRIDGEPORT —

To hear some tell it, Paul Vallas is the savior of Bridgeport schools, a visionary working to turn around one of the state’s lowest-performing districts.

Others contend that the schools superintendent is an arrogant reformer, making too much change too quickly, with an agenda to turn education into a profit center.

Vallas, 59, a superstar in the world of education reform, arrived 15 months ago after turning around school districts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, and said he expected it to take him about a year to do the same in Bridgeport.

But this ailing Connecticut city — although a fraction of the size of the districts where he has worked — has proved to be a challenge in ways he hadn’t expected.

While tapped by state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor as a good candidate to help Bridgeport and welcomed with open arms by Bridgeport Mayor William Finch, Vallas has faced vociferous critics, several of whom are on the city’s board of education.

Recently, however, he agreed to stay as long as three more years, but even that contract is the subject of contention. His supporters see it as perfectly legal, while detractors call it illegal because Vallas is not certified in Connecticut to be a superintendent — although he said he intends to get that certification.

His critics see Vallas and his close association with charter schools in previous cities and private consulting businesses as evidence of an interest in privatizing much of public education.

“I’ll stay until I feel we have reached the point where we can safely say these reforms have been institutionalized,” said Vallas, who annual salary is $234,000.

“We just don’t want people to wait us out, which there is a tendency to do,” he said.

It’s too soon to say whether Vallas’ reforms have raised standardized test scores — considered by many the ultimate measure of the success of education reform.

But it’s clear that he has brought about a tidal wave of change, from closing a budget gap of about $18 million to overhauling the system’s curriculum to developing plans to restructure high schools into smaller academies.

Dysfunctional District

Bridgeport schools are among the lowest-performing in the state. While statewide about half of high school students perform at “goal” or grade level on the state’s standardized tests, in Bridgeport only 12.6 percent of students do so.

The city has also been plagued by financial problems. Students went without new textbooks for about a decade. In many cases, teachers had to photocopy existing books and the curriculum was inconsistent across schools and non-existent for some classes. The high school dropout rate is 54 percent.

“Some of these high school classrooms didn’t look much different than the high school I was in 42 years ago,” Vallas says. “It was obvious that the district had lost its way financially and academically.”

The summer before Vallas’ arrival, the city’s board of education descended into dysfunction and voted to disband. The state stepped in and appointed a new board — an action that the state Supreme Court would eventually rule illegal.

But in the interim, Pryor suggested that the newly appointed board invite Vallas to come to Bridgeport to give them advice. While other similarly troubled cities like Hartford and New Haven had shown improvement in test scores, Bridgeport’s numbers had not budged for years.

“We told him we don’t want advice. We don’t want pointers: We want you,” said Jacqueline Kelleher who was a member of the board then and is now board chairwoman.

The board members looked to his track record in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans, which wasn’t without problems, but saw that that he had raised test scores and closed budget gaps.

Experts on educational reform say making this kind of change is Vallas’ strength. “He’s very good at coming into these really dysfunctional systems and giving them a swift kick in the ass,” said Andy Rotherham, one of the founders of Bellwether Education Partners, a national non profit consulting group.

Rotherham said that Vallas comes into systems that “don’t have the guts to do it or the know-how or the desire. … It’s a ‘go along, get along’ system and he’s not a ‘go along, get along’ guy. … He’s a disaster specialist.”

Starting Out In Chicago

Trying to interview Vallas is a little like trying to get a sip from a fire hose. Ask about his greatest accomplishments in Bridgeport and he’ll talk for a bit about closing the budget gap, but then veer off non-stop onto budget issues in Philadelphia or in Chicago.

The trait can be annoying to education board members, such as Maria Pereira, who says it’s hard to get a straight answer to a simple question. But, Pereira, who is generally critical of Vallas, said, “I think he has done a good job on expressing what he wants to do.”

Although Vallas spent a short time teaching social studies in Montana, his early professional years were spent working on government policy and then as budget director for Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. When Daley became frustrated with the quality of the public schools, he made Vallas chief executive officer for the schools.

Vallas’ first task when he came to Bridgeport was to bring financial stability to the district, which he did in part by obtaining more money: an additional $5 million from the city and $3.5 million more from the state. In addition, he’s restructuring the high schools into smaller academies, including a medical career magnet that will be partnered with Bridgeport Hospital.

He is expanding summer school programs, including two weeks of orientation for ninth-graders, and giving freshmen and sophomores double-periods of math and English. Vallas also plans to expand options for technical training and for apprenticeships and internships.

“Beyond my wildest expectation,” is how Finch describes the chance to work with Vallas. “It is a privilege for a mayor of a city of 150,000 to be working with a national talent.”

“Sometimes you just need to bring in a bull in a china shop. People get too comfortable.”

Privatization Agenda?

One of Vallas’ toughest jobs is dealing with a board of education that is sharply divided between the five Democrats who generally support his initiatives and the three members of the Connecticut Working Families Party and one Democrat who often do not.

Lindsay Farrell, executive director of the Connecticut Working Families Party, sees Vallas as part of a “national assault” on public education aimed at privatizing it.

Although Vallas hasn’t brought in any charter schools so far, Farrell points to his work in the Recovery School District of Louisiana in New Orleans where 80 percent of the children are now attending charter schools as evidence of his plans for Bridgeport.

“He’s profit-motivated, said Farrell. “… I think he’s a businessman who is trying to turn a profit and use the thing that he’s known for to make money either in Bridgeport or other places. I don’t know how he’s going to give the district of Bridgeport the attention it needs.”

Sauda Baraka, one of the Working Families Party members on the board, raises the same issue, saying, “I’m very concerned nationally about what’s going on with school reform and privatization. I have issues taking public dollars and giving them to private entities to run anything.”

The board’s recent 5-4 vote on Vallas’ contract reflects the deep divisions. Opponents say Vallas cannot be named superintendent because he is not certified to perform that job in Connecticut.

Vallas is working toward certification through an independent study course at the University of Connecticut, but he raises questions about the need for it. “Technically, Stefan Pryor couldn’t be superintendent here,” Vallas responds. “[U.S. Secretary of Education] Arne Duncan couldn’t be superintendent here.”

Gary Peluchette, president of the Bridgeport Education Association, said life has been “very chaotic” under Vallas.

“We’ve introduced all this new curriculum, a new evaluation plan, so it’s been very difficult for teachers. They are having a lot to cope with.”

Big Plans For Coming Year

In a recent meeting with teachers at Bridgeport’s Aquaculture School, Vallas acknowledged that there have been glitches.

The state’s new teacher evaluation system, which he agreed to pilot this year, is “way too complicated, way too confusing,” Vallas told them. “If we’re not careful we’re going to be so consumed with assessments and evaluations that we are going to have very little time on instruction and it’s going to overwhelm my principals.”

Vallas also conceded that “benchmark” tests begun under his watch — modeled on the state’s mastery and performance tests — take up too much time. These will change next year and become more like ordinary quizzes and tests geared to the curriculum.

“I’m really glad that the benchmarking testing is going to change because we lost some education time with that,” Lea Catherman, a conceptual physics teacher, told him.

Vallas went on to talk about other plans he has, including one to bring in 58 graduate students as intern teachers.

“They are not displacing any teachers, honest to God. We’re not displacing teachers,” Vallas said. “I’m trying to get more people into the classroom. In the ideal world, I’ve got a second person in every classroom whether it’s an apprentice teacher or a student teacher or a graduate student.”

Hiring 58 teachers would cost $4 million, but this can be done for just $500,000. “So I’m trying to leverage money to bring in resources,” Vallas explained to the teachers.

“I know it makes some people angry when you have change like that but to have someone with a plan and to be giving the students options for academies and to be having some accountability in the district … I’ve really enjoyed it,” Catherman said afterward.

“It’s a much more positive outlook than we had previously. So far I’ve been very impressed with how he’s doing.”

 

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