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Published in Print: May 6, 2015, as Chicago Schools Probe Prompts AASA to End Alliance With Firm

National Superintendents' Group Backs Away From Firm at Center of Chicago Probe

Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks at a news conference in Chicago in 2012 after being appointed to the position by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right. Ms. Byrd-Bennett has taken leave from her position amid a federal investigation over a $20.5 million no-bid contract that the district awarded to the SUPES training academy where she once consulted.
Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett speaks at a news conference in Chicago in 2012 after being appointed to the position by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, right. Ms. Byrd-Bennett has taken leave from her position amid a federal investigation over a $20.5 million no-bid contract that the district awarded to the SUPES training academy where she once consulted.
—M. Spencer Green/AP-File

FBI investigating no-bid contract

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AASA, the School Superintendents Association, is moving to end its partnership in a preparation program for new schools chiefs that it runs jointly with the SUPES Academy, the Illinois-based firm that’s part of a federal investigation in Chicago.

Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of AASA, said Monday that his organization wants to run the still-nascent superintendent-training program on its own, given the cloud over the company.

“The bottom line is that I have no complaints about the work they have done for us,” Mr. Domenech said, “but the program that we are running requires that it be beyond any type of reproach, and thus the move on our part to assume the management of the program entirely.”

The group’s pullout is the latest blow to the SUPES Academy, which provides professional development and training to district superintendents, administrators, principals, and teacher leaders, since news broke last week that the FBI is investigating the company along with the Chicago Public Schools and others. The investigation revolves around a $20.5 million no-bid contract to train the district’s principals, according to local media accounts. Neither the school system or SUPES Academy will comment on the scope of the investigation.

While no one has been accused of wrongdoing, a federal subpoena made public demanded that Chicago school district officials provide records of contracts, payments, and communications between the company and key leadership officials with the school system, including Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who worked for SUPES Academy as a consultant before joining the school district in 2012. The subpoena also sought information about Gary Solomon, the chief executive officer of the SUPES Academy; Tom Vranas, the company's president; and the Chicago Public Education Fund, a well-connected nonprofit made up of civic, academic, and business heavy-hitters, some of whom have close ties to both Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner.

In the wake of the investigation, Ms. Byrd-Bennett has taken a leave of absence from her job, and the Chicago Board of Education has suspended the district’s contract with the SUPES Academy.

A spokesperson for the Chicago school district did not respond to an interview request before publication.

Mixed Reviews

In addition to Chicago and AASA, the SUPES Academy has worked on district leadership training programs with 14 school districts, one charter school network, and two departments of education, according to the company's web site. The academy also runs selective superintendent programs.

There are glowing testimonials on the company’s website about the services it has provided, and Mr. Domenech said that the superintendents who participated in the program have found it valuable.

In its national certification program for superintendents, Mr. Domenech said that the SUPES Academy helps AASA whittle down the candidates selected to participate and helps choose the sitting superintendents who provide the lectures, coaching, and mentoring services. The company also helped develop the curriculum for the program with AASA leaders, he said.

Mr. Domenech said AASA partnered with the SUPES Academy because of the company’s extensive background in training school leaders. The AASA program, which started in the summer of 2013, is aimed at training and providing support to superintendents with less than five years on the job.

“We did that primarily because they had been involved in doing extensive training for aspiring superintendents and principals and other administrators,” he said. “And they seemed to have the experience that we were looking for to work with us on the certification program.”

Mr. Domenech said the program has gotten very high evaluation results from all the participants. In Chicago, however, many principals were less than impressed with the company’s work through the district’s Leadership Academy.

Clarice Berry, the president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said the program received “uniformly negative” reviews in the first year.

“Most principals thought the contents of the workshops were completely useless and of no value to them,” Ms. Berry said.

Ms. Berry said she heard two strands of complaints: that content was not relevant to the work that Chicago principals were engaged in, and the courses were taught by educators from districts too dissimilar to Chicago and who did not understand the city’s unique local school governance structure.

Ms. Berry said she took those complaints to Ms. Byrd-Bennett, and principals were allowed to sign a waiver to opt out of the program.

Although there were rumors that principals feared repercussion from signing a waiver, since it had to be sent to Ms. Byrd-Bennett, Ms. Berry said she had heard of no one being disciplined or facing blowback from not signing the form or simply not going to the sessions.

“I wasn’t pleased with the SUPES [Academy] when it came in, we took it directly to her, and without much consternation on her part, she gave us the waiver immediately. There was no sanctioning or punishment or any issues,” Ms. Berry said.

She said she did not believe that the contract was money well spent.

“Any professional development here for $20 million should have been customized,” Ms. Berry said. “That’s a lot of money for professional development for principals to walk out of it and say they got no value.”

Defending Chicago Work

But Mr. Solomon, the CEO of the SUPES Academy, defended the work in Chicago. Mr. Solomon said the training was customized to the city—as it would be for any district—and lecturers were briefed on the unique attributes of school governance in Chicago.

When seeking lecturers, the company looked for school leaders with a track record of success. The company then provided the names of possible lecturers, with their backgrounds and expertise, to district officials who approved the list of practitioners, he said.

Further, Mr. Solomon said, the professional-development program was developed to address needs that were articulated by the district, and the programs were tweaked throughout based on feedback from participants and the district.

For example, he said, the second year of the program offered electives, including a deeper dive into student-based budgeting, staffing, communication, time management, and, at the time of the teachers’ strike and wave of school closures, managing through “unsettled waters.” The courses covered personal leadership, fostering buy-in and support for a school’s mission, vision and goals, parent and community outreach, teacher evaluation, common-core instruction, and financial strategies.

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Mr. Solomon said that there was “constant evaluation [of the curriculum] to make sure that it’s best aligned to meet the needs of the practitioner or end user, which, in a lot of places was the principals.”

He said there was also a coaching component to the training; but acknowledged that given the complexity of the system, some relationships between principals and coaches were stronger than others. He said of the 200 principals who provided feedback of the program, much of it was “quite flattering” and “positive.”

“I am very proud of the work we did in Chicago, and we have a long working relationship with the district, and we think that our work has added value to the leaders that we’ve been fortunate enough to work with,” Mr. Solomon said.

But Troy LaRaviere, the principal of Chicago’s Blaine Elementary School and a frequent critic of the city school system’s leadership, including Mayor Rahm Emanuel, said he found the courses lacking and that they did not address the issues he thought a professional-development program for principals in Chicago should cover: understanding and implementing best practices as identified by educational research; improving school climate and culture; improving students’ soft skills; and helping teachers to improve the quality of their instruction. Most importantly, he said, the program lacked follow up.

Mr. LaRaviere wrote on his blog about a dissatisfying experience in a marketing class he said was taught by S. Dallas Dance, the superintendent of the Baltimore County, Md., school system, who is also a 2011 graduate of one of the SUPES Academy’s superintendent program. A request for comment to Mr. Dance's office was forwarded to the Baltimore County School's press office, which declined to comment.

Mr. Dance, who had accepted the consultancy with the SUPES Academy at the same time his own district had a contract with the company, is no longer working with the firm, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Vol. 34, Issue 29, Page 6

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