The needler in the haystack.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Schools Superintendent search off on wrong foot?

The ad for the new Super, as it appeared online at LehighValleyLive.
Gwen Thornton, the consultant for the Plainfield Board of Education's search for a new Superintendent, led a 'community input session' Wednesday evening at Emerson Community School. About twenty people braved the driving rain to attend, and contributed to a lively back-and-forth with Thornton, who is with the NJ School Boards Association (NJSBA), the agency hired by the Board of Ed to conduct the search.

The more I thought about the process though, the more I wondered whether the NJSBA was just getting off on the wrong foot or whether the organization is culturally insensitive and in need of some real consciousness-raising (as they used to say back in the day).

While I only became aware of the session after it appeared on the District's website Monday (two days notice!), the handout given to attendees detailed a twelve month calendar of activities leading up to the appointment of a new Superintendent that began last August -- plenty of time to get the word out, in my humble opinion.


There are good things to say about the process:

  • The schedule is well organized and clearly reflects the years of experience the NJSBA has in helping member districts search for top talent. Ms. Thornton made it clear that community input was invited, and if participants did not feel comfortable engaging in direct conversation at the meeting they were free to write, fax or email her.

  • The questions in the handout are good and give residents, parents and staff opportunities to weigh in on their perceptions of the District's strengths and challenges, as well as qualifications, experience and leadership style desired in a Superintendent. Finally, participants were invited to pose one question they would like to ask a candidate (this should be very helpful for the Board when the time comes).
That being said, there are plenty of questions.


1. Who is charge of keeping the community in the loop?

The question of the short notice of the Wednesday meeting leads me to wonder who is in charge of keeping the community in the loop? The Board, or the consultant? Given the detailed schedule laid out for the process, the community should get timely information on how they can participate, and, in the spirit of openness and collaboration, updates on progress as the search moves along. Whoever it is should be spelled out.
2. Should the ad for the position have had community input before running?

Participants had questions about the ad, both as to content and as to placement (the materials only indicated running in the Ledger -- it turns out there was much wider distribution). I would have preferred to REQUIRE an earned doctorate, or at least that the candidate be actively enrolled in a doctoral program; for the salary being contemplated, I would think it's a must. Also, given the changing demographics in Plainfield, I would have expected at least A PREFERENCE for bilingual ability if not an outright REQUIREMENT. These items might have been brought up by community members before running the ad and have helped to screen for more effective candidates.
3. What about the 'elephant in the room': Plainfield's changing demographics?

Except for the code phrase 'our diverse...district' in the ad, there is no indication that the most significant change in the school-age population is the continuing influx of Hispanic students, which is pointing toward a majority-Hispanic enrollment throughout the District in the near future. Shouldn't there have been some indication in the ad?
4. Should the community have input into the 'profile' distributed to applicants?

In answer to my question about whether applicants were supplied with some sort of 'profile' of the District, Ms. Thornton said one was being supplied, but that it was also expected applicants would 'do their own homework' about the District. True enough, but I wonder whether involving the community in at least a discussion of what should be such a profile would have been a sign of a more collaborative approach to the process.
5. What is the strategy for including the community, and especially the Latino population in the process?
It struck me at once that the handout was only supplied in English; odd, since the District makes an effort to distribute materials in both Spanish and English. Secondly, I think the Hispanic woman who asked about how people without access to computers would be kept abreast of the process got rather short shrift, and that points to the matter of communications generally.

I can find no dedicated section on the District's website for news and updates on the search process (and I don't mean that odious Flash gizmo at the top of the page). For openers, there should be such a dedicated section, with clear lines about just who is to keep the webmaster up to date with information.

Secondly, for those parents and community members who don't have computers at home, why not give them access through computers in the schools' media centers during regular hours, and work collaboratively with the Plainfield Public Library to make information available when the schools are not (the Library has much broader hours)?

Prepare all public materials in both English and Spanish.

And lastly, the District should make use of the Courier and Ledger, providing releases as the process moves along and giving advance notice of opportunities for public participation. There are still plenty of people who get their news from dead-wood sources.
There was a subtext in participant comments Wednesday evening that the selection of the last Superintendent was Board-driven with minimal opportunities for the public to participate, with the hint that more public participation might have meant a better outcome.

To which Ms. Thornton responded that folks should have an attitude of learning from past mistakes to guarantee better outcomes in the future, and in the current search in particular. True enough, but...

Has the process merely stumbled getting out of the gate? Or does the NJSBA need to be more aware that working in the context of 'diversity' means there are more issues to be addressed than in the more whitebread setting the process seems to take for granted?

All I can say is 'the proof of the pudding will be in the eating'.

-- Dan Damon [follow]

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Maria Pellum, Plainfield Resident said...


Not only was this meeting given with very short-notice, it was scheduled the same nigth the Biliguald District Wide Team held its district-wide meeting with Latino parents at Evergreen. So, where is the consideration to the Latino community? Do we even count for the district? Not for anything there is a Civil Rights complaint against the district.