Photo Credit: Austin Steele
After observing our school district over the last few months, I am left to wonder: Is Superintendent Demond Means the right choice to move Clarke County schools forward? Means is passionate, social-justice-oriented and extraordinarily relatable. Those are all wonderful characteristics, but are they enough to meet the unique challenges of Clarke County? Is his leadership style compatible with the local control our charter system contract dictates?
Recently, I listened to Means’ presentation to the school board about the direction in which he wants to take this district. Most schools in CCSD are going to participate in AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a program of strategies geared toward closing the achievement gap by preparing all students for college.
The board has indicated that it supports this move based on Means’ experience with the program in his previous district. In looking at the data from Mequon-Thiensville, WI, one is left to wonder what impressed the board so much. In 2015, 44.3 percent of African-American students scored in the proficient range; that number dropped dramatically to 31.3 percent by 2017. Scores of white, Hispanic and economically disadvantaged students dropped similarly. What exactly is the board seeing to inspire such confidence? Means said that Clarke County’s data “forces you to cry.” Did he also cry over this 13 percent drop in the proficiency of African-American students in his former district?
We know that Clarke County’s data showed troubling disparities, but at least the percentage of students scoring in the proficient range is increasing each year. Means likes to say that our schools are perfectly designed for the results we are getting. I would prefer a slow and steady increase in proficiency over a system that results in staggering drops in proficiency in a three-year span.
Prior to Means joining CCSD, our county elected to have “local control” at the school level rather than at the board office. When CCSD became a charter system in 2015, schools were required to form Local School Governance Teams (LSGTs). Early on, those of us used to the endless waves of initiatives were a bit skeptical about whether or not LSGTs were worth the many hours of training and the million-dollar price tag. We questioned whether or not LSGTs would have staying power, especially as a superintendent search was being conducted. We were told that the charter system was a five-year contract with the state; this was insurance that the LSGTs and all other aspects of the charter system would be in place regardless of who became superintendent.
Decisions about whether or not AVID is right for the district are meant to go through LSGTs first, not after Means and the board decide that they are the right move for the district. One only has to read the minutes of LSGT meetings to see that this did not happen. Perhaps if the decision had gone through LSGTs, teachers would have had a chance to point out that they already employ a lot of these methods. Perhaps a parent would have wondered about the impact AVID had on his previous district. Perhaps a community member would have been able to delve into the scant research available about AVID to then find that AVID has no discernible effects on achievement. By bypassing the local governance teams, we miss out on the opportunity to make sure these broad-scale decisions are right for our schools.
I am not suggesting that Means is not a good leader. I am, however, suggesting that his leadership style is not right for Clarke County at this time. His leadership style is very top-down, almost autocratic. As local school level control has diminished, positions at the top of the organizational chart have grown. Means has imported colleagues from Milwaukee to head up both elementary and secondary education. They might be wonderful educators, but their proficiency data, too, would force one to cry. At the same time, key positions in the district go unfilled. Means often asks for people to hold him accountable, yet the people who would have been able to are no longer in those positions. The only ones above Means on the organizational chart are the Board of Education, and our board seems only willing to place blind trust in him.
This top-down approach to school governance seems antithetical to the local school governance that we are obligated to follow based on our contract with the state. Did Means understand the local governance model when he applied? Did the board not see how incongruous his leadership style is with our legally contracted shared governance model? Who is providing oversight to ensure that we are in compliance with the state contract? What are the implications if it is disregarded?
If the local school teams had been given the opportunity to provide input prior to the decision to spend upwards of $300,000 on teacher training for AVID, perhaps they would have chosen other ways to spend the funds. In fact, the minutes of two schools indicated that as of February, they had other plans for Title I carryover funds that included hiring personnel, buying math supplies and putting the money towards summer programs.
We need creative local solutions, not repackaged national ones. Our contract with the state gives us the freedom to create this. It also mandates local control. The board is the only one who is in a position to hold Means accountable to this contract. I call upon them to do so.
Gerow is a CCSD parent and a former CCSD teacher who now runs the private school Double Helix. This article originally appeared in the Apr. 15 Athens Banner-Herald and is reprinted with the author’s permission.