Superintendent Search: Substance or Style?

Dr. Ronald Taylor
Dr. Beth Schiavino-Narvaez

Do you want substance or style?

That is the question when it comes to Hartford’s finalists for superintendent.

On one hand, you have a candidate who saunters into the audience, does call and response, and cracks jokes. He compliments the nature of each question, goes on tangents, and often never responds to what was asked.¬† Afterwards, an audience member will describe him as “Steve Perry-esque,” not exactly a compliment.

On the other, you have a candidate whose job interview jitters seep through on occasion, but who seems genuine and approachable. Sometimes she uses the language of the administration rather than that which might be more accessible for all parents, but she described herself first and foremost as a parent whose child has special needs. She gives the impression of having spent more than the bare minimum of time in the classroom on her way up to an administrative role. She knows her stuff, has an impressive resume, and unlike the other candidate, does not have a reputation for embracing data walls and supporting the practice of letting children go hungry if they forget their lunch money.

In September 2013, it was reported that Dr. Ronald Taylor, one of the candidates, supported a policy in Willingboro, NJ that amounted to students not getting lunch¬† if they did not have lunch money and their parents had not done the paperwork to ensure that they were in the Free and Reduced Lunch program. Fox 29 quoted Dr. Taylor as explaining the decision: “Part of the reason we’re doing this is to help hold parents accountable.”

When asked “How do you intend to create a system of accountability, as it relates to principals, teachers, staff, parents and students?”, Dr. Beth Schiavino-Narvaez said that “parents have always been incredible partners and resources to me.”

She explained that when it comes to parent engagement, “there’s not a one-size-fits-all” mode, describing how when she worked in Springfield, Massachusetts, the practice of home visits to parents was in use.

With limited time for the audience to ask questions that were not filtered by Achieve Hartford!, the issue of denied school lunches never came up at the final forum on Wednesday night, but one that did was that of data walls.

A Badass Teachers Association member created this posted for his classroom to protest the requirement that he show student test scores

Although it has long since gone out of vogue to publicly shame students with dunce caps, the data wall has been permitted in schools in recent years. These are lists of “data” posted on classroom walls or in hallways, showing how students performed on tests. Their names are not always listed.

Teachers required by district to do this find ways around, such as seen in posters that a member of the Badass Teachers Association, a national organization opposed to high-stakes testing, created for his classroom. Data walls, when the student is identified and the information used without parental permission, violates FERPA.

Steven Colangelo, a Hartford resident, asked how Taylor felt about the practice of posting data in a public space. The candidate said, “I’ve used data walls quite a bit. […] When you make data important to the kids it becomes important to the parents, important to the teachers.”

Taylor and Beth Schiavino-Narvaez were both asked eight of the same questions compiled by Achieve Hartford!, the organization responsible for arranging the three public forums that all took place on Wednesday. One of these questions — “Parents, teachers and educators differ widely, and sometimes vehemently, in their views on the merits of the testing we do in our schools. Can you lay out your view of the proper uses and limits of standardized testing in educating our children?” — yielded quite different responses from the candidates.

Taylor said, “Testing is necessary. It’s a train that’s already left the station. We can’t say we’re not going to do standardized testing.” After giving a pro-testing spiel, he did concede that sometimes there are too many tests.

Schiavino-Narvaez, currently the Deputy Superintendent of School Support and Improvement in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland, is coming from the perspective of someone who is part of Joshua Starr’s administration. She said that she would not want to be judged by a single test: “You need to use other ways of assessing students.”

The current method of standardized testing provides data after the fact. Schiavino-Narvaez argued that there needs to be other types of assessments so there can be real time interventions to help the students who are struggling.

Though she stopped short of saying standardized testing should be thrown out entirely, she did say that the scores should be used as “an entry point” rather than an “end point” for measuring student performance.

Asked “What are your ideas to address neighborhood high school performance and what would you do, if anything, to change to organizational structure of our various high schools?”, a question submitted by a high school student, the candidates diverged again.

Dr. Schiavino-Narvaez spoke to the importance of paying attention to ninth graders, “when children come in” to the high school. In her experience, she found effective the use of gathering information from students on the first day. The students are given index cards and asked to identify one adult in the school who he or she can turn to for support. Those unable to name anyone are given extra attention by staff to ensure that they have a support structure.

She also suggested that questions are asked about whether or not the district or school is “putting any barriers in the way of students” as they enter high school. Regardless of the school’s structure, she said “you need to make it feel small.”

Later, she clarified that the findings on having a middle school separate from an elementary school are mixed. What did matter, she suggested, was that there be strong communication and planning across all schools.

When it came time for Dr. Taylor to answer the same question, he said “I think I’ve answered that question.”

There was a previous question that asked “How would you foster more independence and self-innovation in high school students?”

Dr. Taylor answered that by saying we need to look at the scheduling. After a tangent about scheduling — his point was ultimately unclear — he spoke about the need for internships.

There are already internship programs, which are described on the Hartford Public Schools website.

Though affable, Taylor seemed unprepared for this meeting with the public, as this was not the only time when he seemed to have not done his homework. Initially, this was veiled by his assertion that he is “going to come and listen,” but soon it was clear that he had not listened to what has already been said when it comes to the Hartford schools. When asked about assessment (did not know what standardized tests we use in Hartford), Sheff vs. O’Neill (unsure of how per-pupil spending is allocated), and the allocation of resources for special education and ELL instruction (needed to know methodology for assigning SPED students to which schools). Later, when a student attending Capital Prep Magnet School asked how Taylor would address the issue of bullying in schools, the candidate spoke about the dangers of online bullying before eventually saying he would have to check what policies and types of enforcement already exist in the schools. None of the questions asked by Achieve Hartford! or members of the community seemed to come from left field, so it was surprising to some in the audience that Taylor had so few answers.

In contrast, Schiavino-Narvaez knew about the “Lighthouse” school funding and its goal to draw people to the neighborhood by improving its schools. She mentioned Mayor Segarra’s involvement on school board; she considered it positive to have the mayor so involved. When it came to the Sheff mandate, she acknowledged its goals as being worthy, but that its implementation complicated. “I think that the mandates add a layer of complexity,” she said, “to an already complex system that you have here with Choice.”

Dr. Taylor is coming from the Willingboro Township Public Schools in New Jersey (4,000 students in eight schools), where he serves as the Superintendent. He has also worked in the Washington DC Public Schools, Boston Public Schools, and Newark Public Schools. He attended Morehouse and Trinity University, and earned his Doctorate in Education in Educational Leadership and Policy Study from George Washington University.

Dr. Schiavino-Narvaez is currently working for the Montgomery County Public Schools (151,000 students in 202 schools) as the Deputy Superintendent of School Support and Improvement. She has worked in the Springfield Public Schools, Pittsfield Public Schools, in Pennsylvania and in South Korea. She attended Penn State and earned her Ed.M in School Leadership and her Ed.D in the Urban Superintendents program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The Hartford Public Schools enrolls approximately 22,000 students.

It’s expected that a hiring decision will be made on Monday.


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