Monday, April 30, 2007

CCISD's Scott Eliff Tells the Emperor he is Naked, "There's nothing exciting about getting ready for the TAKS test."

The Editorial Board recently interviewed Scott Elliff, finalist for superintendent of the Corpus Christi Independent School District. He is expected to be hired at tonight's board meeting. Elliff was accompanied by Louis Garza, board president. The comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Question: What do you bring to the position of superintendent?

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Elliff: I bring the perspective of someone who knows this district inside and out as well as knowing some of the challenges that other districts around the country have faced and how they have worked through those. I bring an understanding of this community and a willingness to hear what the community's highest hopes and dreams are for our schools. I think I bring a solid knowledge of curriculum instruction.

Question: Knowing the district as you do, what needs to be worked on first?

Elliff: I think we've gotten a good start in the last two years on some important pieces that need to be finished. The district before 2003, when we had a curriculum audit, had no written curriculum for any of our subject areas. After several false starts, over a period of six months, with 400 teachers under the leadership of our staff, we were able to create curriculum guides for all of our core content areas, Pre-K through 12, English, math, science and social studies. The district had tried on two occasions to buy curriculums from other districts, because it was felt we wouldn't be able to do it. But our teachers showed it could be done.

What this really is, is the road map for what our teachers are supposed to teach in the classrooms in order for our kids to be successful. Without that, what the district essentially was doing was to give teachers a textbook and a list of objectives and say, "Good luck."

Now, 53 curriculum guides in core content areas have been developed; they are comprehensive.

The second big challenge is finding highly qualified teachers, particularly in mathematics and science. Starting with next year's freshman class, all students will have to take four years of math and science, in addition to four years of English, in order to graduate. That's going to put a press on us to be able to find the teachers to staff those classes.

Our district is only as good as our lowest-performing school. Right now, for a variety of reasons, Miller is our biggest challenge. We're taking some dramatic steps, some of which are required by law. We are reconstituting staff at the school. That is a big challenge for us. We know what we need to do. We know about strong instructional leadership, clear focus on mission, safety and security.

But there are things that impede the ability for those things to work. One is will. If you don't have the will to make changes, that's one. The other is sustainability. As a district, we've had considerable turnover. It's been difficult to keep people in key positions long enough for major reforms to take hold.

We've chosen to focus on a few things and keep doing them long enough that we believe they will make a difference. One is working on this curriculum and being relentless about our expectations that people will actually use the road map for instruction. The second is the relationship we have with the Schlechty Center for Leadership in School Reform (based in Kentucky) and what is called "Working on the Work." The curriculum guides are about what we're teaching. "Working on the Work" is about how we teach. We're in the third year of that program. Keeping some things in place long enough for them to take root is going to help us.

Question: You talk about the "will" to change. Do you have a mandate for change?

Elliff: There is a real sense of urgency to get some things fixed in terms of our academic performance, improving our graduation rate and getting our kids ready to go to college. I guess you can call that a mandate for change.

Our board hasn't established a set of goals yet. I have ideas and have articulated those to the board about things I think we need to be doing to be a world-class school district. But we all have to be on the same page about what that looks like. I had a conversation with a parent from Ray about whether I would be able to make tough decisions. Clearly, some things we need to change are going to make people feel uncomfortable; they are going to require people to think differently about what their roles are.

When it comes to making tough decisions, I'm trusting in the fact that the support I've gotten has been because people have seen who I am, and who we at the central office are, and they know we have their best interests at heart.

I'll give you an example of what needs to change. Our parental involvement and parent education program is all over the map. We don't have an organized, coherent strategy. We have people working very hard, but not in a way that is connected. A part of that is because we have people assigned out to every campus who have no connection to the whole. That's a support function that ought to be provided by the district and not left to chance. That's going to make people uncomfortable when we centralize that work.

Question: Are you going to have the autonomy to make decisions?

Elliff: Conversations I've had with board members lead me to believe that's the direction in which we'll be moving, particularly when it comes to personnel decisions. I've made it known that when it comes to selecting assistant principals and other posts, I don't see that as being within the realm of the board.

If the board is going to hold me accountable, then I need to be able to have people in key leadership positions who I believe can move forward with me as the leader of their team. That will require a change in policy. There's a policy that previous boards adopted that required certain positions to be taken to the board for action.

Question: Will you ask for that policy to be changed?

Elliff: I will.

Question: The school board approved the hiring of a Miller football coach the other night, so football coaches apparently are on the list of positions that require board approval.

Elliff: Yes, and assistant superintendents, executive directors, directors, athletic coordinators, principals and assistant principals are on that list. In some school districts, it's in the superintendent's contract that the board employs the superintendent, but the superintendent employs all other people.

Question: Is that what you're seeking?

Elliff: No. But, the existing policy reaches too far into the organization. I think there would be consent of the board on some positions, but I don't think the board needs to be voting on assistant principals or a football coach.

Louis Garza: I can't remember that we ever said "no" to any recommendation brought by the staff.

Question: Well, it doesn't work that way. What happens is that a trial balloon is floated and if the superintendent decides he doesn't have enough votes, the name is withdrawn. We know that goes on. We're advocating that you (Elliff) have the accountability so you can state your objectives and provide a report card to the community.

Elliff: Let me say something about that (accountability). If the state tells you you're doing a good job, they give you a label and that's the label you report out. I've come to believe parents aren't as gratified by "exemplary" and "recognized" as we are. I want us to develop - with input from the community to tell us what they're looking for - into a world-class system. There isn't anything that should keep us from being as highly regarded as a Plano or an Aldine (near Houston) or a Northside (in San Antonio.)

Question: Not long ago we had a debate in this community about dropouts. What would you do about dropouts?

Elliff: The district does not have a well-coordinated strategy to prevent dropouts. One thing in the next 100 days would be to bring that together and probably have a lot of activity working out of Coles High School. Coles is truly to be a center of options.

Question: Will we need to close more schools?

Elliff: I think we're going to take a serious look at facilities across the district. This may mean consolidating or replacing some aging facilities. We know because of the growth (on the Southside) that we're going to need a couple of elementary schools there sooner rather than later. There's going to have to be a question put to the community about how we do that.

Question: What do you see as impediments to your success?

Elliff: Low expectations. People have high hopes, but low expectations for our district. There is no reason we can't have a great system of schools. I'm not saying that money is the answer, but we're kind of static in terms of funding from the state. We don't get any less money than we got in 2005, but we don't get any more, either. That's going to present challenges.

If all we talk about is TAKS scores, then I think the focus on TAKS scores as an end in itself begins to eat away at the soul of what our organization is supposed to be about. There's nothing exciting about getting ready for the TAKS test.

Nick Jimenez is editorial page editor of the Caller-Times. Phone: 886-3787; e-mail: HYPERLINK

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