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May 16, 2012

The JCPS Shake-Up

Will the district’s reorganized central office help kids or thicken bureaucracy?

It’s not uncommon for newly minted superintendents to arrive, scrutinize and rearrange a district’s central office, especially in struggling, urban school districts.

But it hadn’t happened at Jefferson County Public Schools in a really long time.

One of superintendent Donna Hargens’ most headline-grabbing changes of late involves the elimination of 41 administrative positions. A few of the people in those positions have opted to retire. Many have been reassigned to 28 newly created positions, resulting in a total net loss of 13 administrative positions, according to JCPS. The district has hyped the up-to-$4 million in potential savings (when factoring in a freeze on vacant positions), but that’s not the impetus for change.

“It’s all about creating structure so that we’re closer to the heartbeat of schools,” says Dewey Hensley, the district’s new chief academic officer, who stresses the shake-up isn’t about poor performance by staff.

So how does a district find the “heartbeat” of schools?

Here’s one attempt: JCPS will carve its 150 schools into six clusters, each comprised of roughly 25 elementary, middle and high schools. An assistant superintendent will oversee each cluster.

Under the old structure, JCPS had one assistant superintendent for all the elementary schools, one dedicated to middle schools, one over all high schools.

If you think adding superintendents sounds like an exercise in bulking up rather than eliminating red tape, you’re not alone; Hensley has heard doubts. (In addition to the six cluster-based superintendents, Hensley will oversee a superintendent for academic support programs and one for curriculum and instruction. Each will earn a handsome salary of around $150,000.)

But Hensley argues that with the cluster system, assistant superintendents will have fewer schools to oversee. They will visit schools often and should act as a kind of front-line advocate, relaying to the central office each school’s specific weaknesses, strengths and needs.

Hensley, a former principal at J.B. Atkinson Elementary, recalls frustration under the old system. He cites a time when the central office mandated a series of math programs, each one sucking up time he felt his students and teachers needed to spend on reading.

“A superintendent covering 90 schools would have a tough old time knowing what I needed,” Hensley says. “However the district … would come up with one initiative, then another person in the district office would come up with another initiative, then there would be a third initiative.”

And he says purging those programs meant navigating a web of staff between him and the assistant superintendent of elementary schools. Now, he says, those layers are gone.

“It looks to me like they’re trying to kind of create some smallness out of being so large,” says Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a nonprofit education advocacy group. Silberman, former superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools, has worked in systems structured into regional clusters as well as the more traditional model. He says both can work.

“A lot of it has to do with leadership,” Silberman says. “A lot of it has to do with personnel who are in those positions. And they have to be strong leaders.”

In other words, reorganizing alone isn’t enough, a point made in a 2010 study published in the journal Public Administration Review. For that study, researchers conducted hundreds of interviews in the Little Rock, Ark., school district a few years after a new superintendent reorganized the central office.

While the exact structure implemented differs from JCPS, the goal was the same: cutting dozens of central office positions and redirecting manpower back into the schools.

The study found that 64 percent of the executive staff deemed the reorganization a success, versus only 25 percent of principals. Researchers cite a lack of training and communication about the new policy for that low percentage.

Patti Cosby is a 35-year veteran of JCPS. She’s retiring this year from her beloved post as principal at Shelby Elementary. She and other principals LEO spoke with say the changes could prove quite helpful, but at this point, with restructuring still in its nascent stages, there’s hesitancy.

“We just don’t know how it’s going to work. Whenever there’s change there’s a little uncertainty,” Cosby says. “I have not heard any negative comments. I think the principals are grateful that resources are being allotted back to the schools.” (In another move, 72 assistant principals will be placed in elementary schools to assist overstretched principals.)

A lot of these changes stem from a 500-plus-page audit conducted by Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional association for educators. The audit found a top-heavy central office, shackled by unqualified personnel, that was not, ultimately, meeting schools’ needs.

This “organizational drift” isn’t entirely JCPS’s fault, according to Silberman. Over the last several years, with the addition of No Child Left Behind and more stringent federal funding requirements, the amount of reports, school choice initiatives, academic improvement programs and overall paperwork exploded.

“You go back 35, 40 years ago, in some district offices you had a superintendent, a secretary and a finance person,” Silberman says. “But once the requirements increased, then it just took more people to support schools.”

Now, many districts want to shift their focus back on classrooms. Dewey Hensley hopes that within each K-12 cluster, leaders will not only strive to improve academics, but transitions between elementary, middle and high schools, a challenge given JCPS’s complex student assignment plan.

The six clusters have yet to be formalized.

For Hargens, this reorganization could prove fundamental to her tenure as superintendent at JCPS. The Jefferson County School Board will soon look different, as three current members are leaving. Will the new members view this revamped landscape as effective? Even with a methodical, massive overhaul, leaps in student performance — if they occur — will take time.

JCPS has more than 100,000 students. And when it comes to the impact of a reorganization, Silberman says, “The larger the district, the longer it takes.” 

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