Pat Forgione had no experience running a school district before he arrived in Austin, Texas. As he prepares to depart 10 years later, he earns high marks from a once-skeptical city.
If it weren’t for the stacks of boxes in his office, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that Pascal D. Forgione Jr. is about to hang up his superintendent hat for good.
He still zips from event to event at breakneck speed, speaking with irrepressible energy about the future of the Austin Independent School District, which he has led for 10 years.
“Our children are the greatest asset we have, and we can’t be naive about how we do this,” he told the local Hispanic chamber of commerce last month while reflecting on his tenure. “There is room for improvement, folks. There is much more to do. You must hold us accountable.”
Those words sound like the sentiments of someone who will still be leading the charge, but the veteran educator then alluded to what’s coming: “I can see a light at the end of the tunnel, and for once, it is not a train coming at me. It’s retirement,” Mr. Forgione cracked, to the audience’s delight.
Mr. Forgione, who has been the superintendent of the 82,000-student district since August 1999, will retire in June. In the rough-and-tumble world of the urban superintendency, such long tenures are a relative rarity. Among sitting big-city superintendents, only Atlanta’s Beverly L. Hall has been on the job longer—she started one month before Mr. Forgione. ("Atlanta's Own 'Hall' Of Famer," Nov. 12, 2008.)
As he prepares to leave the stage, Pat Forgione is being praised locally and nationally for his leadership in building strong operational and academic systems for his district. When he arrived, it was undergoing a period of turmoil: a revolving door of superintendents, a spate of financial scandals, and allegations of test-tampering that led to an indictment against three district officials. Mr. Forgione is credited by many with bringing stability and rebuilding the district’s reputation through extensive collaboration with its business community.
In a February report by the Washington-based Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy, Austin was ranked fourth in test-score gains among 37 big-city districts surveyed. It was the only urban Texas school district to meet both state and federal accountability standards in the 2007-08 school year, and it has seen double-digit gains in test scores among all student groups since the state’s latest test was introduced in 2003.
“His persistence and perseverance is phenomenal,” Mark J. Williams, the president of the Austin district’s board of trustees, said of Mr. Forgione. “He’ll fight through whatever to get to what he thinks is right.”
Last fall, the Council of the Great City Schools awarded Mr. Forgione its Richard R. Green Award for district leadership.
“I think what was particularly special and successful was [Mr. Forgione’s] ability to get people to go the extra mile for him,” said Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based organization, which represents 67 of the nation’s largest urban districts. “People love him, will do anything for him. His ability to rally his people around a common set of goals is real extraordinary.”
Mr. Casserly praised Mr. Forgione for having a firm grasp of both the business and educational sides of the district and for putting his “superb” political and personal skills to work in driving reforms.
“He was unusually hard-working, even by the standards of most superintendents,” Mr. Casserly said of the famously energetic Mr. Forgione. “The hours he put in were almost superhuman. I know there were times when he even slept there.”
The school board has hired Meria Carstarphen, the superintendent of the St. Paul, Minn., schools, to replace Mr. Forgione as the leader of Texas’ third-largest school system.
Mr. Forgione had an impressive résumé when he took the job here, but Austinites still questioned whether he was the right man for the job. He had never been a local superintendent before, having spent much of his career working at the state level on policy and testing. He had served for five years as Delaware’s chief state school officer and then as the U.S. commissioner of education statistics under President Bill Clinton from 1996 to 1999.
With the Austin district rated unacceptable by the state for poor achievement results, under indictment on charges of manipulating dropout and test data, and on a “negative watch” from bond-rating companies for its financial troubles, Mr. Forgione knew he had to move quickly.
He asked his new staff to put together a list of people who had problems with the district, and began meeting with community groups to ask for their help in turning things around.
“I said, ‘Either we convince people we’re not the problem, or we’re dead,’” Mr. Forgione recalled. “It was quite an introduction. I’d only been in Austin once.”
W. Charles Akins, a retired veteran administrator who took Mr. Forgione and his wife, Kaye, around the city on their first day, said the new superintendent proved to be up to the task. “He was able to create an atmosphere in the district of trust,” Mr. Akins said.
That was key, he noted, in allowing the district to build partnerships that hadn’t existed before with universities and businesses.
“He’s quite a dynamo and can ignite passion with his energy and know-how, and his spirit of ‘Let’s work together,’ ” said Mr. Akins.
Taking the reins, Mr. Forgione focused on cleaning up the integrity of the district’s data. He implemented a “managed instruction” plan across the district, standardizing curriculum and creating planning guides for teachers.
In recent years, the district has partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Stanford University’s School Redesign Network to redesign its traditional high schools.
New high school offerings this coming fall will include small high schools with emphases on “green” and global technology, using the New Technology High School model. Supported by the New Technology Foundation of Napa, Calif., the model uses project-based learning to help students learn “soft” skills, such as planning and organizing, while building course-content knowledge.
Marcy McNeil, the president of the 1,660-member Austin chapter of the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said Mr. Forgione has been highly supportive of teachers, offering incentives that have increased the number of teachers who have earned certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
“He’s putting students and the families and the staff of AISD first, but he’s also a very careful and responsible steward,” said Ms. McNeil, who has taught in Austin’s schools for 33 years. “He’s led us through some very difficult budget years.”
One of Mr. Forgione’s core emphases in recent years has been finding strategies to boost teacher retention, especially in high-need schools. The district worked with the local chamber of commerce and the 4,000-member Education Austin, an affiliate of both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, to create “AISD Reach,” a pilot strategic-compensation program that gives bonuses to principals, teachers, and other staff members based on goals they set for student learning and professional growth.
The district paid out $2.2 million in bonuses during the 2007-08 school year, the program’s first year. “It’s a good example of a thorny issue where we worked together collaboratively,” said Louis Malfaro, the president of Education Austin, which is the largest teacher association in the district. “I think you can look at Pat’s tenure and say, on the whole, he’s been a successful urban superintendent.”
Educators say Mr. Forgione’s irrepressible enthusiasm has been an asset in making things work on the ground.
“He points out a need and says, ‘What can we do to make it better?’” said Katherine Ryan, the interim principal of Lanier High School, where students speak some 60 languages. “He has said, ‘If they need something, you make sure you get what they need,’” a promise she says he’s kept.
Jeanne Goka, the principal of the all-girls Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders, said the school became a reality last year in large part because Mr. Forgione championed it. He closed an existing middle school and consolidated it with a school nearby to give her school a campus.
“He’s not a one-program-fits-all person. He allows for that autonomy that is creative,” Ms. Goka said. “He empowers the principals and leadership to say, ‘This is what’s working best for the kids.’ ”
Mr. Malfaro said that while Mr. Forgione deserves credit for bringing stability to the district, his tenure is not without faults. Mr. Forgione’s fiscal conservatism, fueled by his close ties with the local business community, has allowed teacher pay in Austin to “fall to the bottom” among urban districts in the state, he said.
Mr. Forgione, who sometimes refers to himself as a conservative businessman, said he is proud of his fiscal discipline. The district earned an AA bond rating last summer, which the superintendent says is saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
The district, located in the notably liberal-leaning capital city of generally conservative Texas, has benefited from having a highly engaged community, Mr. Forgione said, but that community’s desire to be deeply involved in every decision sometimes conflicts with his desire to move quickly. “Here in the People’s Republic of Austin, you are second-guessed at every turn,” he said.
Mr. Malfaro said that at times Mr. Forgione needed to listen more, and cited a decision by the superintendent to eliminate block scheduling that had many people in the district up in arms. It was later rescinded.
Mr. Malfaro is also concerned about the district’s heavy emphasis on testing.
“The last decade has been the decade of data and accountability and NCLB,” the Education Austin leader said, referring to state demands and those of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, “and so Pat has thrived in that environment.”
But the pressures that teachers face also plague superintendents. Mr. Forgione faced one of his greatest challenges last year, when he was forced by the Texas Education Agency to close a poorly performing high school after it failed to make sufficient academic progress for five years in a row.
Closing Johnston High School was a painful experience that brought sharp criticism of the state’s stringent accountability system and of the district, which some local critics said hadn’t done enough to improve the school, despite three overhauls in the five years before it closed.
Mr. Malfaro said the school had suffered from years of bad administrative decisions, including a string of short-term principals who made radical changes that demoralized staff members. “One by one, those nails go into the coffin of the school,” he said.
Now, an Austin middle school could face a similar fate.
“I got scars from it, but it was a purifying act,” Mr. Forgione said of closing the high school in a meeting last month with state officials as they worked on a plan for the troubled middle school. “I let this school down. I admit it. But it’s not that we didn’t try every year.”
Mr. Malfaro said he was especially disappointed in Mr. Forgione’s decision not to give Johnston High’s teachers places at another school. He instead required that the 88 teachers apply and interview with principals. Those not chosen would be made permanent substitutes at a school for a year and dropped from district employment if not hired after that.
The superintendent’s position won him the enmity of Education Austin, and some of the teachers from the Johnston campus filed a grievance against him. Mr. Forgione defended his decision, which he had the latitude to make since there is no collective bargaining for most public employees in Texas. “They’ve got to win a job,” he said. “You don’t get lifetime employment.”
Mr. Forgione says his work in Austin is not finished, but he’s confident that Ms. Carstarphen and the community will continue it. He’ll be around to observe, staying in Austin even as he assumes a new job running a center on K-12 assessment for the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service.
“This is not a success story. This is a progress story,” he said of his decade in the district, noting that he was the seventh superintendent of the 1990s.
“You can’t let that [turnover] happen again,” he told the group of Hispanic businesspeople. “I put too much sweat equity into this place.”
Vol. 28, Issue 30, Pages 25-28Published in Print: April 29, 2009, as Moving On