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Equity & Diversity

The Year in District and Leadership News

By Denisa R. Superville — December 30, 2015 6 min read
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Let’s first start by acknowledging that interns are awesome.

The most read story on the District Dossier blog in 2015 was written by our summer intern, Tiara Beatty. The post, Battle Continues to Rid Schools of Confederate Names Across the U.S., was published in August and dealt with the efforts of Kayla Wilson, a high school senior in San Antonio, Texas, who wanted to change the name of her school, Robert E. Lee High School, and remove other symbols of the Confederacy. Kayla launched a petition to remove the Civil War general’s name from the school building, but she faced backlash in some parts of the community. Some launched a counter-proposal to keep the school’s current name, which garnered several thousands of signatures.

In December, the school board in Kayla’s school district, the North East Independent School District, voted 6-1 against renaming the school.

Since nine black church members were murdered during a prayer meeting in Charleston, S.C., in June, many schools, universities, and municipalities have been debating whether they should remove Confederate symbols—including flags, statues, and mascots, from public property.

Our other top stories show that our readers are engaged in our reports on the achievement gap, how African-Americans, Latinos, and other minorities are doing in schools, the Atlanta school cheating scandal, and the downfall of Chicago Schools Chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who pleaded guilty to participating in a kickback scheme.

Coverage of race, the school-to-prison pipeline, and education equity were major education topics this year, not just at Education Week, which is running a yearlong series on race and bias in schools, but also at other major publications including The Atlantic. Here at Education Week, we also explored schooling in the St. Louis, Mo., area one year after the Michael Brown shooting and published a special report on the transformation of the public education system in New Orleans 10 years after Hurricane Katrina.

Here is the rest of the top 10:

2. Graduation Rates Rise: Gap Between Black and White Males Grow, Report Says

This February report by the Schott Foundation examined the graduation rates in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

3. Former Atlanta Educators Sentenced to Prison for Roles in Test-Cheating Case

The long-running Atlanta public schools cheating scandal came to a legal conclusion this year, when a Fulton County judge handed out tough sentences to the 11 defendants in the case. Former superintendent Beverly Hall died before she could face trial.

4 and 5. New Professional Standards for Educational Leaders Are Released and New Professional Standards for School Leaders Are Approved

The standards were more than a year in the making and were subjected to many revisions and two sets of public comment periods. The second set of standards was criticized for not sufficiently focusing on equity and serving diverse communities. The Council of Chief State School Officers took those comments to heart in the final document.

6. Former Chicago Schools CEO Indicted in Alleged Bribery, Kickback Scheme

First, Barbara Byrd-Bennett resigned her post as Chicago Schools CEO amid a federal corruption probe. Then, federal prosecutors charged her with steering $23 million in contracts to SUPES Academy, a leadership training company for which she previously worked, in exchange for kickbacks that included, among other things, a college fund for her grandchildren. In October, she pleaded guilty to a single wire fraud charge, and is cooperating with prosecutors.

7. Interested in Teaching? Nevada’s Clark County School District Really Wants You

Faced with a perennial teacher-shortage, Nevada’s fast-growing Clark County staged an all-out, no-holds-barred national recruitment campaign, “Calling All Heroes,” to hire more than 2,000 teachers for the 2015-16 school year. Superhero capes were included.

8. Broad Foundation Puts Hold on Its Prize for Urban Education

The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation announced in January that it had “paused” the Broad Prize for Urban Education, which the foundation has given out for the last 13 years to highlight the work of school districts that were successful in shrinking the achievement gap. The foundation said it was disappointed with the “sluggish” pace of academic progress in urban school districts.

9. Sobering Report on Black Achievement Comes as Obama Signs New K-12 Law

Earlier this month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce released a report showing that while African-American students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, have improved in the past 25 years, they still trail their peers, and that despite an increase in the graduation rate, many African-American students are still not ready for college. The report also drew attention to the small number of African-American students who are taking—and passing—Advanced Placement courses.

10. State Takeover Harms Black, Latino Communities, Report Contends

An August report by The Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a union-friendly advocacy group, argued that state takeovers have stripped “political power” from African-American and Latino communities. The report looked at takeovers—what it calls “market-based interventions and reforms"—across the country, including in New Orleans, the most famous example. The report came out shortly before the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, after which the state of Louisiana took over most of the city’s schools. Those schools later became charter schools.

Other things to note: The superintendent’s chair—who has left and who is leaving in 2016

  • Los Angeles: Ray Cortines, who was called in to lead the Los Angeles Public Schools after John Deasy resigned in 2014, left his post in December. Michelle King, Cortines’ top deputy, is in charge while LAUSD searches for a permanent leader.
  • Houston: Terry Grier, the district’s longtime superintendent, is set to officially leave the district on March 1. Grier served in the post for six years.
  • Pittsburgh: Superintendent Linda Lane plans to leave when her contract expires in 2016. The district hopes to have a new hire by mid-May.
  • Charlotte- Mecklenburg: Ann Clark, the long-time Charlotte Mecklenburg administrator who was named schools chief in January 2015, plans to retire from the district in July. The board is searching for a permanent replacement. Clark will not be considered for the job.
  • Rochester, N.Y.: Bolgen Vargas, who served first as interim superintendent in 2011 and then as the permanent superintendent since 2012, is resigning as of Dec. 31. He will be replaced on an interim basis by Daniel Lowengrad, a former Syracuse schools chief. Vargas will serve as a consultant to Lowengrad through June.
  • Anchorage: The school board decided not to renew current superintendent Ed Graff’s contract. Graff, the superintendent since 2013, will continue to work for the district in another capacity. The school board president said the job required a superintendent with a high level of “political savvy.

Things to Watch in 2016:

  • How districts, superintendents, and principals respond to the new added responsibilities of the Every Student Succeeds Act. Do they have the capacity to take the ball and run with it?
  • Chicago: Will state lawmakers in Springfield, Ill., bail out the district? How will the district deal with its $1billion structural budget deficit? Will the teachers’ union strike? Will Rahm Emmanuel stick around as Chicago’s mayor and how will the turmoil around his leadership affect the nation’s third-largest public school system?

Let us know what you want to see covered in the new year.

Photo Credits

Top: Kayla Wilson, a senior at Robert E. Lee High School in San Antonio, Texas, led a campaign to change the name of her school. --Tom Reel/San Antonio Express-News/Zuma

Middle: Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter presided over the trial of the former Atlanta educators who were convicted on a variety of charges stemming from a widespread cheating scandal in the school district. -- Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP

Bottom: Barbara Byrd-Bennett listens in during the monthly Chicago Public Schools board meeting in January 2015. --Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.