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          Front Page

New Super Has Plans for Change

By Zsombor Peter
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal
      Dismantling Albuquerque Public Schools' long-standing cluster system, which had divided the massive district into 11 semiautonomous geographic regions, was only the beginning.
    If the rest of the new superintendent's plans come to pass, the district's central office will have more control over everything from the number of custodians a school gets to the type of reading curricula it may use. And on Wednesday, the board approved a new policy that requires “all major technology related projects” to be approved by the superintendent.
    “Site-based management, and APS does a lot of site-based management, is not efficient,” said Winston Brooks, who served his first official day last week as the district's new superintendent.
    Some longtime principals say the added authority they've enjoyed under site-based management has paid dividends for their schools.
    Details of the change are few. For the moment, questions seem to outnumber complaints. Brooks hopes to have a plan fleshed out sometime next spring.
    Clusters are effectively gone already. Under that system, the district grouped elementary and middle schools around the high school they fed into and gave a principal in the group limited authority over administering and evaluating the other schools. Cluster leaders, for example, guided the selection of new principals.
    Not any more. When Brooks talks about centralizing the district, the word “efficiency” makes a frequent appearance. Doing away with the $12,000 to $18,000 bonuses that cluster leaders got, along with their overhead expenses and small retinue of staff, will save the district $1.3 million, he said. And that's taking into account the two additional associate superintendents and secretaries APS has hired to replace them.
    Brooks expects to save even more by giving central office new powers over staffing.
    State statutes dictate the maximum number of students a district may assign to a teacher depending on grade level. But when the site-based craze swept the nation in the late 1980s, districts gave schools more control over their budgets. The idea, recalled school board President Mary Lee Martin, was to allow schools to beef up certain services or programs as the community saw fit.
    “What it did was place responsibility on the principal to allocate funds appropriately as recommended by members of the staff and the community,” said Tim Whalen, a cluster leader who retired from APS last month after heading Manzano High School for 17 years.
    Whalen, a fan of site-based management, said the school used its authority some years to pay for additional fine arts staff and more clinics. “It allowed me to more finely tune the budget to the needs of our school and our children and our community,” he said.
    Grant Middle School Principal Edgar Briggs said he was able to adapt to the needs of a quickly growing school by hiring a second full-time counselor, a campus aide, another custodian and an educational assistant to staff in-school suspensions.
    But, in reality, said Raquel Reedy, associate superintendent for elementary education, schools have very little discretionary money in their budgets to play with, rarely enough to pay for an additional employee. And the money had to come from somewhere. Consequently, said Reedy, “over the years it started diluting other programs.”
    Brooks says he wants to come up with a formula that assigns staff to schools based on enrollment, while following state requirements. He noted that one high school has 12 custodians while another of comparable size has six. “That makes no sense,” he said.
    Still, the formula should have some flexibility, he said, to account for special needs at any given school.
    “Uniformity” also comes up when the discussion turns to curriculum.
    Brooks notes with some exasperation that schools are using different curricula to teach reading. The trouble with that, he said, is that students who move from school to school have to switch learning methods. As Reedy put it, those students lose momentum.
    Fewer curricula also make it more efficient for the district to train teachers, she added.
    Brooks hopes to eventually have every student who is learning to read — or do math, or study science — on the same curriculum. “It's only fair and advantageous to kids if the curriculum being taught at one elementary school … resembles what's being taught at another school,” he said.
    Already, elementary schools are limited to two choices for math. “That's a step in the right direction,” he said.
    Some teachers may object that a uniform curriculum will limit classroom creativity, but Brooks disagrees.
    “I think teachers can still be incredibly creative in the way they teach, but they need to teach what the district deems important,” he said. “They're not free agents.”
    Whalen said most principals with whom he's spoken are reserving judgment until they know more. Briggs said he hopes Brooks works with the community before he settles on a final plan.
    That's not to say Brooks doesn't expect at least some resistance.
    “You can't do anything without getting some pushback from some place,” Brooks said.