Movers & shakers

The state-run Achievement Schools has a new academic leader. Here’s her vision for amplifying the district’s top teachers

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Verna Ruffin at Whitney Achievement Elementary School.

As the newly named chief academic officer for Tennessee’s turnaround district, Verna Ruffin said one of her first priorities will be investing in their top tier teachers.

“We know that we have critical work to do,” Ruffin said. “And we also know that investing in our classrooms is a sure way to move the needle on student achievement. We have teachers who are doing amazing work. We need to amplify them.”

Ruffin joins the state’s Achievement School District, known as the ASD, during a chaotic season of change. One month after she was hired as part of a major leadership team overhaul, the district’s superintendent, Malika Anderson, announced she was stepping down. Ruffin will work with the interim superintendent, Kathleen Airhart, until Anderson’s replacement is hired.

When the state-run district launched in 2011, it was with the aspiration to turn around schools performing in the bottom 5 percent of the state through new charter management. But results have lagged, and school leaders say turnaround work has been harder than expected in Memphis, where many of their students live in generational poverty and come to school behind grade level.

Ruffin’s role with the five-year-old district is a new one. She will oversee the district’s five direct-run schools in Memphis called Achievement Schools, a role previously filled by the former executive director, Tim Ware. But her job description also includes raising the academic bar across all 32 ASD schools and promoting more collaboration among them.

The most recent round of state test scores show the district has work ahead to reach its visionaries’ original goal. The state’s growth scores, announced last week, rank the Achievement district as a level 1, the lowest possible score. And within the direct-run Achievement Schools, which Ruffin directly oversees, three of five schools scored a level 1.

Ruffin got her start in education more than 30 years ago as a band director in Louisiana before moving into school leadership roles. She was an assistant superintendent in Tulsa, Okla., where she specialized in working with low-performing schools, before becoming superintendent at Jackson-Madison County Schools in 2013. She will earn $115,000 a year with the Achievement Schools.

We sat down with Ruffin to hear about her game plan for improving the Achievement district’s academics in her new role. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.

Tennessee’s growth formula, known as TVAAS, ranked the ASD as a level 1 overall for academic growth. What is your initial read of those scores, and how do you plan to raise the bar?

I’m very proud of the schools that earned a rating of 5 and for their contributions for growing students beyond a typical year’s growth. Of the five schools in the direct-run Achievement Schools, we had one at a level 5 and one at a level 3.

But the other direct-run schools and a number of schools within the whole network received a level 1. There is an urgency to focus on instruction and strategies to help children become successful. I’m thinking through — what does this mean for individual schools?

A focus for me will be to look at staff members and their individual TVAAS scores. We have level 5 teachers, and we can get them to collaborate more and bring their strengths to their own campuses, but also to the ASD as a network. The TVAAS conversation is still challenging to understand. How do you measure growth? How can you determine that when the assessment has changed?  It can be hard to get people to subscribe to something you can’t explain, and we’re having ongoing conversations about what the data can tell us moving forward.

Talk to me more about your vision for investing in individual teachers to raise academic performance.

When I was superintendent in Jackson-Madison, we added instructional times in the afternoons at one of our lower performing schools. We sought level 4 and 5 teachers across the district and asked them: “Would you come teach at this school in the afternoons during their after-school program?” We asked the teachers to look at the data of students within that school and come up with a plan for what they were going to teach the children. We opened up an application process, and teachers came. That year, this school jumped from a level 1 to a level 5 in growth. We attribute that to the emphasis on instruction and the quality staff that was willing to work with the children in an after-school, purposeful, instructional model.

We think that this model, effectively implemented, is how you’re going to change learning for children. We do not have enough level 4 or 5 teachers across the district to just say, we’re going to take a level 5 teacher from this school and put them over in this school because then we’re going to create a deficit model. So, it’s about how to utilize the talent of your current staff and spread it out so they can influence children in another school in an acceptable way to teachers. This is something I would absolutely consider doing within the ASD.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for the ASD as a whole?

I think one of the biggest challenges is that the ASD has existed with a tremendous amount of autonomy, and people are accustomed to that autonomy. And they may not quite embrace the fact that even if we have autonomy, we have a shared goal. And we have to meet that goal.

So, the autonomy of the ASD isn’t going away, but we have to better describe and define what an ASD education is. Our goal is the same for every school in the ASD, to raise student achievement. We have a moral responsibility working with the bottom 5 percent in the state of Tennessee to not stay at the bottom 5 percent. And so, having said that, there are some things that we’ve got to do that are non-negotiable that will get us out of the bottom 5 percent of schools. We have to be better. We have to figure out what’s going to make the ASD stand out, and how we work together as a very diverse group of schools.

Part of your role is to foster more collaboration between the direct-run Achievement Schools and the other charter-run schools within the ASD. What is your vision for building cross-district collaboration?

First, is taking the time to make connections. We are doing this work together, and the only way we can do that is to know one another. It’s a very small, but a big step. I am planning on meeting with the other chief academic officers in the ASD to work in step with them on a vision for the future.

We’re also creating a new academic team, which we are still in the process of hiring for. This team will include content specialists in literacy and math that will work across the district. These specialists can help us zero in across the district on what effective instruction is.

Our focus — across all ASD schools — on kindergarten through third-grade literacy is also going to be very strong this year. I’m asking questions like, “What does a phonics lesson look like across the ASD? How can we learn from one another on how to better teach phonics?”

We’re no longer working in silos, but there’s going to be collaboration on what classroom instruction looks like. And then we’re going to better monitor that instruction and hold ourselves accountable to making the gains we have to make.

Cabinet level

Jason Glass’s inner circle: Meet the team seeing through the Jeffco superintendent’s vision

New Jeffco superintendent Jason Glass at the Boys & Girls in Lakewood (Marissa Page, Chalkbeat).

In his first three months as superintendent of Jeffco Public Schools, Jason Glass has spent his time touring the 86,000-student district and listening to scores of educators, parents and students to learn about its strengths and challenges.

This week he unveiled his proposed vision to guide the district for the next several years, focusing on addressing students’ experiences in the classroom, as well as the many challenges they face outside the schools. A strategic plan with more details about how to roll out the vision is expected by spring.

In the meantime, the superintendent, who was previously superintendent of Eagle County Schools and is being paid $265,000 annually, has a team in place to help him fulfill his goals.

Here is a look at the 12 people on the district’s senior leadership team. Note that so far Glass has not made changes at the top levels in Jeffco headquarters. While some people left before Glass arrived this summer, most of the people in the district’s top positions have been there for more than a year, and many have deep roots in the county.

There is an ongoing search for the chiefs of schools positions. The two people in the interim positions now are charged with monitoring and evaluating school effectiveness, student achievement and curriculum. There is no timeline yet for when a hire will be made permanent.

The short profiles of district leaders include their titles, salaries and some explanation of their duties, all based on information provided by the district.

Matt Flores

Matthew Flores, chief academic officer
Salary: $131,726
Job description: Responsible for all programs that support teaching and learning. As chief academic officer, Flores works to ensure that resources, tools and training are readily available for staff to support the district’s vision and strategic plan. Additionally, all state and district assessments are organized and facilitated through his office. His team also manages early childhood education, federal program funding such as the Title 1 money directed to help low income students, choice programming and student data privacy.

Bio: In this position since May 2016, Flores has worked as a classroom teacher and as an elementary, middle and high school principal. He also worked for four years as the district executive director of curriculum and instruction.

Diana M. Wilson

Diana M. Wilson, chief communications officer
Salary: $116,836
Job description: To plan, develop and administer the district’s public engagement and communications. Chief spokesperson for the district. Partners with schools and departments to provide communications training, counsel and advice.

Bio: Wilson was hired as Jeffco’s chief communications officer in January 2016. She has 20 years of experience in public sector communications, nine of them as public information officer/management analyst for Westminster Fire Department. Wilson served on Lakewood City Council from 2005-2013. She and her husband have three teen boys in Jeffco schools. She has a bachelor of science from Colorado State University, Ft. Collins and a master of business administration from University of Colorado, Denver.

Kathleen Askelson

Kathleen Askelson, chief financial officer
Salary: $137,940
Job description: Establishes strategic direction and provides leadership of the financial services organization within Jeffco. She is in charge of maintaining a multi-year financial outlook, creating an annual budget and providing financial reporting in accordance with standards and state statutes. She oversees operational functions including accounting, budgeting, purchasing, disbursements, cash management, risk management, payroll and financial planning, analysis and reporting. Oversees a budget that exceeds $1 billion and a department with more than 50 staff members.

Bio: Askelson has been with Jeffco Public Schools financial services since 1999. Before becoming the chief financial officer in September 2014 (permanently in January 2015), she was the executive director of finance. Askelson came to the district from a finance position at a private, nationwide child care company. She is a certified public finance officer and is on the special review executive committee for the Government Finance Officers Association. Askelson was appointed and served two terms on the governor’s Government Accounting Advisory Committee and was a member of the Colorado Department of Education’s Financial Policy and Procedure Committee for 17 years. She and her husband live in Jeffco and their two children are Jeffco alumni.

Amy Weber

Amy Weber, chief human resources officer
Salary:
$141,075
Job description: To develop and implement comprehensive systems, programs, processes, and procedures in the areas of employment, personnel record maintenance and record retention, job classifications and compensation, performance management and evaluation, benefits administration, recruitment on-boarding, leave programs, substitute teacher programs, unemployment, and employee assistance programs. Weber also works with the district’s unions and serves as lead negotiator with union officials.

Bio: Weber has directed the work of Jeffco human resources for almost 11 years. In 2014, the position was elevated to cabinet-level. Before joining Jeffco schools, she worked for 10 years in Fairfax County Public Schools in Fairfax, Va., also in human resources. She has a master of business administration from the University of Maryland and worked in management consulting. She has two children, one a Jeffco graduate and the other a Jeffco senior.

Brett Miller

Brett Miller, chief information officer
Salary: $136,500
Job description: Leads the Information Technology (IT) department and serves as technology leader and innovator for Jeffco Public Schools, overseeing the district’s technology-related strategies and initiatives. Plans for the organization’s technology needs and addresses any tech-related problems.

Bio: Miller started with Jeffco Schools in September 1988, became chief technology officer in 2007 and chief information officer in 2014. Miller is a long-time Jeffco resident and a product of Jeffco schools. He worked in technology for a data processing firm in the oil industry before joining the district in 1988. His wife and four children — who have all attended Jeffco Public Schools — live in Arvada.

Craig Hess

Raymond Craig Hess, chief legal counsel and employee relations
Salary: $155,040
Job description: To provide district-wide, general in-house legal support including leadership for compliance with federal, state and local laws relating to staff, students and the public. Directs all employee relations activities. Represents the Board of Education and superintendent concerning labor relations with employee organizations. In these roles, Hess provides oversight of the district’s legal activities, employee relations, and the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) program.

Bio: Before joining Jeffco in October 2014, Hess was the employment law associate general counsel for the University of Colorado Health System. He was responsible for integrating five geographically separated hospitals’ Human Resources Compliance and Employee Relations teams into one system-wide division. Before that, Hess worked at Qwest Communications International, Denver Health and Hospital Authority and as a senior assistant attorney in the litigation practice group at the City and County of Denver. Hess also served eight years as a United States Air Force judge advocate general officer.

Hess has been involved with law school and high school mock trial programs for several years. He has served as an adjunct faculty member of the University of Denver, Sturm College of Law, and as an assistant coach of the law school’s trial team. He has also served as the chairman of the Colorado Bar Association High School Mock Trial Committee.

Karen Quanbeck

Karen Quanbeck and Kristopher Schuh, interim chief school effectiveness officers
Salary: $126,624; $126,784
Job description: To provide direct supervision of all district schools through achievement directors to increase student achievement, ensure quality school leadership, improve school effectiveness, inspire innovation and monitor safety. Partners with the chief academic officer and chief student success officer to oversee the rollout of all district targets, priorities and strategies in Jeffco schools. Also must plan, manage and direct training for all achievement directors and supervise and provide feedback to improve their performance.

Kristopher Schuh

Bio: Quanbeck started her career as a high school social studies teacher in Minnesota before moving to Colorado to work as a middle school teacher in the Adams 50 (now Westminster) school district and later in Jeffco. She has worked for Jeffco for over 20 years as a teacher, principal and central administrator for both the elementary and secondary level. She was an achievement director before she stepped into the interim position in March. She has two children in Jeffco schools, one in middle school and another in high school.

Bio: Schuh began his teaching career in Wisconsin after a university education in Minnesota and Spain and moved to Colorado to teach U.S. History and Spanish and coach at Mullen High School. He has worked in elementary, secondary and district levels for Jeffco Public Schools, including as a school counselor, coach, assistant principal, principal and achievement director. He stepped into the interim role in March. Schuh’s family is “all Jeffco,” as his wife is a teacher and their two daughters are elementary and middle school students.

Steve Bell

Steve Bell, chief operating officer
Salary: $163,865
Job description: To develop, direct and implement the district’s support services and provide general management of day-to-day operation of service divisions including Athletics and Activities, Food and Nutrition Services, Custodial Services, Environmental Services, Facilities Management, Planning Construction, Security and Emergency Management, Student Transportation and Fleet Maintenance.

Bio: Bell joined Jeffco Public Schools in May 2010. Before joining Jeffco, Bell worked in the investment banking industry. His job responsibilities included the oversight and management for the origination of municipal accounts. Bell is a 50-year resident of Jefferson County, attended Jeffco Public Schools, and is an Arvada High School graduate. He has been active in the Jeffco community, serving on civic organizations including St. Anthony Hospital Foundation, Jeffco Economic Development Corporation, the Arvada Chamber and Jefferson Education Foundation, where he served as president for two terms and then as a foundation trustee.

Helen Neal

Helen Neal, chief of staff for superintendent and Board of Education
Salary: $95,535
Job description: To manage actions and decisions impacting the Board of Education, superintendent and cabinet and advise and counsel district leadership to help the district provide clear, complete, and accurate communication to external and internal audiences. Neal manages all content on webpages and in Board Docs — the platform for sharing public meeting documents — and manages the board’s meeting schedule and agendas while serving as staff support during their meetings. She supervises one office support position in the superintendent’s office.

Bio: Neal has worked with five superintendents and many board members of Jeffco Public Schools since her hire in 1998. Prior to coming to Jeffco, she was public information officer for the Aurora city manager, mayor and city council and worked for the Colorado Department of Local Affairs on special projects for the Economic Development Commission and the Colorado Film Commission. She and her spouse are empty nesters and have two children who are Jeffco graduates.

Kevin Carroll

Kevin Carroll, chief student success officer
Salary: $137,940
Job description: To develop, direct and roll out systems and programs to serve students and families who require educational, physical and emotional support beyond standard programming. Provides leadership and management for the following departments: special education, gifted and talented, health services, homebound instruction, student services, healthy schools and student engagement.

Bio: Carroll will complete his second year as Jeffco Public Schools’ chief student success officer in February. He has served the students, families, and staff of Jeffco for 29 years in the roles of teacher, dean of students, assistant principal, and principal. He has 16 years of experience as a principal at all three levels: elementary, middle and high school. Carroll completed his undergraduate studies at Metropolitan State College, his master’s degree at Regis University, and his principal licensure studies at the University of Denver. Carroll is a Jeffco alumnus, having graduated from Wheat Ridge High School, and resides in Jeffco where his wife is a teacher and his two children attend their neighborhood high school.

Tom McDermott

Thomas McDermott, special assistant to the superintendent
Salary: $68,000
Job description: The special assistant to the superintendent is a 10-month residency program through Harvard’s Doctor of Education Leadership program. The resident serves under the direct supervision of the superintendent on identified projects of strategic value to Jeffco Public Schools. He participates on the superintendent’s cabinet, assists the superintendent in outreach opportunities to the community, provides feedback on superintendent’s strategic initiatives such as Jeffco University and Jeffco Generations and will complete a capstone project centered on the implementation of Jeffco’s strategic vision.

Bio: McDermott is a doctoral resident in his final year of the doctor of education leadership (Ed.L.D) program at Harvard University. Originally from Long Island, New York, McDermott taught and led in traditional public and charter schools in Phoenix and Brooklyn. He later joined the Achievement Network (ANet) as the director of school support in Boston before beginning his doctoral work in 2015. McDermott joined the Jeffco team in July 2017.

State of the Schools

Detroit’s first State of the Schools address aims to ‘bring all the parties to the table’  

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

There’s a State of the Union address, a State of the State address and a State of the City address.

Now, Detroiters will have a State of the Schools address.

“We thought it was important to do something just about schools,” said Jamila Martin, co-director of 482Forward, a citywide network of parents, students and educators that is sponsoring the first of what it hopes will be an annual event.

The State of the Schools will feature presentations from Detroit schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti as well as the leaders of two charter school authorizers — Grand Valley State University and Central Michigan University — that collectively oversee 25 of the city’s 60-plus charter schools.

All three speakers have been asked to bring data on their schools in a format that will allow for easy comparisons. Vitti has made no secret of the fact that he is competing with charter schools for students, and charter advocates have chided him for not working collaboratively with them.

Including charter schools in the event was a priority, Martin said, because most of the public’s attention over the past two years has focused on Detroit’s main school district.

The district, after years of state emergency management, was in so much debt that it only avoided bankruptcy last year when state lawmakers put $617 million toward creating a debt-free Detroit Public Schools Community District. Since then, eyes have been on the district’s first elected school board and the board’s hiring of Vitti last spring.

“That’s all important,” Martin said, “but it tends to obscure the fact that half of our kids are in schools that are not part of DPSCD.”

The State of the Schools event, which will be held at the Gesu Catholic Church in northwest Detroit from 6-8 p.m. on October 25, will be moderated by reporters from Chalkbeat and Bridge Magazine.

Organizers are asking people who want to attend in person to register in advance. For those not able to attend, the event will be carried live on Chalkbeat Detroit.

A parent, a student and a teacher will each play a formal hosting role in the event.

“This an opportunity for accountability,” said Jimmie Jones, an event host who has worked in both district and charter schools and sends his daughter Trinity, 7, to a charter.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there. There’s a lot of finger pointing,” Jones said. “This is an opportunity to bring all the parties to the table and unpack all of the rhetoric … and make it understandable and relatable to people.”