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Defying Expectations: Jefferson Parish Public Schools (Part IV)

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Part IV: Strategic Planning: The final installment of a four-part series exploring the reform of the Jefferson Parish Public School System

JPPSS Superintendent James Meza turned to Mass Insight Education (MIE) for help in developing a plan that would help achieve his vision of a leaner, more decentralized school system focused on supporting schools. MIE’s collaboration with JPPSS focused on three main objectives, each of which involved a number of interrelated projects that helped put Jefferson Parish on a path to improvement:

  1. Redesigning and strategically staffing the central office, with a focus on improving instruction and learning in schools;
  2. Creating flexible operating conditions that the central office, school principals, and teachers need for success;
  3. Establishment of long-term structures, systems and processes needed to sustain school improvement.
The district's previous organization structure.

The district’s previous organization structure.

Conducting a diagnostic assessment was a critical first step in planning the broader district-wide reorganization effort. The diagnostic assessment examined the district’s departments, systems, and processes to identify gaps and areas-for-improvement in the JPPSS’ management and support structure. The assessment process first involved a thorough analysis of district data, including school performance indicators, central office staff allocations, and a breakdown of the budget. While the data analysis provided a good high-level snapshot, we also conducted in-depth interviews with 36 senior and mid-level central officials to gain a more comprehensive, nuanced understanding of JPPSS’ operations and culture.

Through the diagnostic assessment process, we were able to identify five areas-of-focus that were then used to inform the development of the district reorganization plan:

  • Right-size the Organization: Responsibilities at the central office often overlapped with the result that departments managed programs outside of their intended focus areas, while others spent considerable time and resources on non-essential responsibilities.
  • Provide Greater Support to Schools & Students: Multiple departments were providing professional development for schools, but these efforts were fragmented and interviews indicated an overall lack of communication and collaboration among support staff. In addition, performance data indicated the district had not been meeting the needs of its most challenged and high-risk students.
  • Focus on Data-Driven Strategies & Innovation: Departments and their staff members were not driving toward specific, measureable goals based on data and tied to broader district and state goals. Resources were directed to ineffective programs because there was no accountability for results. In interviews, staff often struggled to articulate and connect how their work impacted schools.
  • Transition from HR to Human Capital: It was clear that many problems stemmed from outdated and inefficient human resources practices. The district lacked a strong talent pipeline, and disciplinary and grievance procedures drained significant attention from Human Resources’ core responsibilities.
  • Ensure Efficient Operational and Financial Oversight: Previous audits of the district’s finances voiced concern that the oversight of various funds was distributed over several different departments. Furthermore, interviewees voiced a nearly universal frustration with the district’s current technology management system.

After considering the findings of the diagnostic assessment, we conducted a survey of the structures and strategies being used in other urban school districts to inform JPPSS’ reorganization plan. In particular, we drew upon research from the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, the leading organization in district portfolio management research, for ideas that could be adapted to the Jefferson Parish context.

Post-Reorganization structure in JPPSS.

Post-Reorganization structure in JPPSS.

Guided by the findings from the diagnostic assessment, as well as the strategies identified in the benchmarking survey, we developed a reorganization plan that recommended the closure, consolidation, and creation of several central office departments; proposed changes to delivery of various programs and services; and, recommended various changes in personnel. Finally, in light of a projected SY 2012-13 budget deficit, we conducted an analysis of the projected cost savings created as a result of the central office reorganization.

While an initial draft was presented to key members of Superintendent Meza’s leadership team for feedback, we turned our attention to district policies and regulations to align them with the changes incorporated in the reorganization plan. Toward this end, we created new organizational charts for each unit in the central office and updated job descriptions for all senior leadership positions. We also provided the Superintendent with an analysis of the board’s HR policies and recommended a series revisions to bring them into compliance with the significant changes passed by the Louisiana Legislature in Act 1 and Act 54.

When the reorganization plan was presented to the Jefferson Parish School Board in April 2012, it passed unanimously and thereafter the focus of MIE’s work shifted from planning to implementation. Superintendent Meza’s intention to shift a greater share of district resources to schools was reflected in the decentralized and streamlined central office structure delineated in the reorganization plan. This required a reduction in the number of positions in the central office, as resources were reallocated to schools. Mass Insight helped the district facilitate this process.

A summary of changes by focus area in the reorganization plan.

A summary of changes by focus area in the reorganization plan.

Finally, we planned and executed the recruitment and selection process to staff the district’s five Network Support Teams (NSTs). As part of the reorganization process, the district’s 80+ campuses were organized into five networks with the aim of providing a more responsive and integrated system of support for schools. Each network has its own NST, led by a Network Executive Director and composed of a cross-functional team of School Support Specialists who are directly accountable for the performance of the schools under their purview. While the type and intensity of this assistance varies according to the needs of the schools in each network, the work of the NSTs ultimately seeks to build the capacity of school-based staff through ongoing professional development of administrators and teachers.

Conclusion

In the course of just over two years, the Jefferson Parish Public School System implemented a series of bold reforms that established JPPSS as the most progressive and innovative school districts in Louisiana. These changes have put JPPSS on a new trajectory, and while Jefferson Parish certainly still has room to improve, overall academic performance in the district has steadily improved.

The transformation of JPPSS is also a powerful illustration of the ability of school districts – even large school districts – to “reform from within.” As Jefferson Parish’s experience shows, it requires a broad base of support in the community for change, a leader focused on the needs of students, and a strategy to reorient the organizational structure and culture on the district’s educational mission.

A version of this post originally appeared on the blog, In The Zone.

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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A Victory For Pettiness Over Progress Why Did The Governor Veto A Common Sense Education Bill?

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On Friday, Louisiana lawmakers voted to cancel a veto session to override Governor John Bel Edwards’ rejection of a number of bills passed by the legislature during this year’s regular session. The move was expected even though many Republican legislators accused the Governor of using his veto power to punish lawmakers who have consistently opposed his agenda.

Although the Governor’s line-item vetoes of construction projects in the state budget aroused the most controversy, the press largely overlooked his rejection of House Bill 568, a proposal from State Rep. Nancy Landry which would have revised the state’s student data privacy law.

Some background on H.B. 568

The story of House Bill 568 has its origins in a conversation I had last spring with a friend who works at the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford University. For years, CREDO has produced highly regarded studies on the effectiveness of the state’s charter schools using data provided by the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE). However, in 2015, LDOE officials informed CREDO they could no longer provide access to that information due to changes in the state’s student data privacy law, passed by the legislature in 2014, which prohibited the department from sharing data with research institutions outside of Louisiana.

The Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) at Stanford has published highly regarded studies on the effectiveness of charter schools.

Without access to student performance data, CREDO’s research on Louisiana’s charter schools would grind to a halt and education policymakers would lose an objective, in-depth assessment of the health of the state’s charter sector. Moreover, the refusal to share data with out-of-state researchers would mean that Louisiana’s influence on the national education policy debate would be significantly diminished.

Seeking to avoid that outcome, my friend at CREDO reached out to see if I had any ideas on how they should proceed. I connected her with State Rep. Nancy Landry, who serves as chair of the House Education Committee, to explain the situation and see if she could help. Their subsequent discussions resulted in H.B. 568, which Landry filed during this year’s regular legislative session.

State Rep. Nancy Landry (R – Lafayette), is chair of House Education Committee and has clashed with the Governor over education policy.

The bill sought to carve out an exception to the overly broad changes lawmakers made in 2014 by allowing data to be shared (in accordance with standard data privacy protection procedures) with researchers at any college or university in the United States accredited and recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. In short, H.B. 568 was limited in scope and non-controversial, as evidenced by the fact that it passed by large margins in both the House (95-3) and Senate (27-7).


Read more about how researchers use student data:

Student data privacy and education research must be balanced

Last week, the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing on data privacy protections for students. Michael Hansen highlights the gravity of the debate around how Congress will update the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) for use in the modern age where big data is king.


So what’s with the veto?

Which brings us to the question of why Governor Edwards vetoed the legislation, especially when it had broad bipartisan support. Let’s start with the “official” rationale provided by the Governor in his veto message:

“The legislation requires LDOE to enter into a memorandum of understanding in which the person conducting such academic research agrees to be civilly liable for any fine imposed as a violation of authorized uses of the student information. Under current law, a person who violates authorized uses of the student information is subject to both criminal and civil penalties. House Bill 568 references civil penalties only relative to the memorandum of understanding. However, it does not create an exception to the criminal liability provisions in current law. Because of these drafting concerns, I have vetoed House Bill 568.”

The contention that the Governor felt compelled to veto the bill over a technicality – i.e., it didn’t create an explicit exception to the criminal liability provision in the current law – is unconvincing. Even though H.B. 568 didn’t specifically address criminal liability, it’s not at all clear that it necessarily needed to do so. In any case, from a practical standpoint, it is highly unlikely that a prosecutor would pursue a misdemeanor conviction – as opposed to a civil fine – against an employee of an out-of-state research institution. In fact, to my knowledge, no one has ever faced criminal charges in Louisiana for violating the state’s student data privacy law. It’s also worth noting that the Governor’s Office never raised this concern as H.B. 568 was winding its way through the legislature and could have been amended.

The Governor’s Office never raised concerns about H.B. 568 as it was making its way through the legislature.

When taken together, the facts suggest that the decision to veto House Bill 568 had little to do with the content of the legislation and more to do with its author. Rep. Landry has clashed with the Governor repeatedly over education policy in recent years and several of the Governor’s school-related proposals have died in the House Education Committee, which Landry chairs. Although Edwards would not be the first governor to use his veto pen to punish lawmakers who opposed his agenda, it makes no sense to apply it to a bill as innocuous and apolitical as H.B. 568, especially seeing that Rep. Landry had nothing to gain by sponsoring the legislation.

Nevertheless, Governor Edwards did just that. Thanks to his veto, Louisiana’s overly broad and mind-numbingly parochial student data privacy law remains in force. Out-of-state academics who want to study our public schools will be told to look elsewhere. And as a result, our public education system won’t be able to benefit from the knowledge and insights their research would provide.


Read House Bill 568:


Read the Governor’s Veto Message:

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All About The Kids? Calcasieu Teacher Plays Politics At The Expense Of Students, Taxpayers

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For more than a year, Calcasieu Parish special education teacher Ganey Arsement has been on a self-appointed crusade against education reform in Louisiana. He has blasted charters, standardized testing, Common Core, teacher evaluation, and yours truly on his blog, as well as on social media. He has worked to coordinate his attacks with the state’s teachers unions, particularly the Louisiana Association of Educators, and has sought to ingratiate himself with anti-reform politicians like Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement with Gov. John Bel Edwards and former State Rep. Brett Geymann.

Arsement has also become an increasingly visible presence in Baton Rouge, where he has spent untold hours attending meetings of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) and lobbying in the hallways of the State Capitol. In recent months, Arsement has turned his guns on State Superintendent of Education John White – the bête noire of Louisiana’s reform opponents – whom he wants replaced. After failing to convince legislators that the law required them to reconfirm White (who has been on a month-to-month contract since the beginning of 2016), Arsement filed a petition in state court late last month that seeks to remove him from office.

Through it all, Arsement has portrayed himself as a selfless defender of public education who is fighting the nefarious schemes of greedy “corporate” reformers. However, a closer examination reveals that his political adventures have instead come at the expense of students and taxpayers.

Unethical and possibly worse

Official attendance records provided to me by Calcasieu Parish Schools Superintendent Karl Bruchhaus show that Arsement missed 16.5 days of work – more than three weeks of school – over the course of the 2016-17 school year.

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Arsement's absences and Calcasieu Parish School Board holidays.

According to Bruchhaus, all but one of these days (May 9, 2017) were recorded as sick leave. State law permits teachers to take two days of personal leave per year without loss of pay. The law also allows teachers to take ten days of sick leave per year due to illness or other emergencies without loss of pay. Unused sick leave can be carried over from one year to the next.

In Arsement’s case, it is clear that he took paid sick leave on many days when he was actually playing politics in Baton Rouge. Moreover, you don’t have to take my word for it, as he admits as much several times on his blog. Here are just a few examples…

What this means is that Arsement was off doing political advocacy while his special needs students were left with a substitute (who also had to be paid) and taxpayers foot the bill. I would venture to guess that most people would find that unacceptable, especially the parents of his students.

Missing absences?

If that’s not bad enough, I’ve also identified at least one day – and possibly two days – where his attendance record says he was working, but he was actually in Baton Rouge.

Several sources have confirmed that Arsement was at the Capitol during school hours on May 2nd. Nevertheless, his attendance record does not mark him absent on that date. Why that absence is missing is unclear, but since teachers verify their timesheets, the error should have been corrected.

The second day in question is May 8th when, by his own admission, he proudly delivered a petition calling for the removal of John White to the office of Senate President John Alario. Although he does not indicate when he made that delivery, one assumes he didn’t hop in his car immediately when school ended at 3:10pm to drive two hours to Baton Rouge to drop it off. In any case, Arsement is not marked absent on May 8th, either.

Exactly why reform is needed

When Arsement claims education reform supporters “demonize” teachers, what he means is that they actually expect teachers to do the work they’re paid to do. While this may seem draconian to someone who can apparently skip entire days of work and get away with it, this is not a radical concept to most of us. When taxpayers hand over their hard-earned money to pay for public education, they expect teachers to teach. When parents send their children off to school, they expect their kids will actually spend the day learning. When Arsement instead takes a bunch of sick days to lobby lawmakers for lower standards and less accountability, he’s breaking that social contract and possibly the law. Worst of all, he’s doing a tremendous disservice to the young people in his classroom – kids who need the most help.

In his effort to rollback Louisiana’s education reform policies, Arsement has inadvertently provided a real-life illustration of why they are so desperately needed. For that at least, I thank him.

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