Saturday, August 25, 2007

Petrilli leaves Booker T Washington Academy

In a stunning development, it was confirmed by Fayette County officials Friday that Peggy Petrilli would be leaving Booker T. Washington Academy two weeks into the third year of her reformation project.

It is my understanding that the Herald-Leader has the full story. This morning, they ran this innocuous piece instead. (In fairness, I hear that Raviya Ismail is out of town. This story was written by a staff reporter. H-L may not be done with this.)

The principal of Booker T. Washington Academy has told Fayette school board officials that she will be leaving the elementary school, Superintendent Stu Silberman said late Saturday night.

Peggy Petrilli, 59, told Silberman last week that she will either resign or retire after he spoke to her about concerns raised by parents, Silberman said.

“It caused her to decide she didn’t want to go back there,” he said.

Silberman declined to discuss the issues raised by the parents. He said they’re a moot point since she’s leaving.

Petrilli declined to comment Saturday.

Petrilli became principal at Washington, which was formed by a merger of Booker T. Washington Elementary and The Academy at Lexington, for the 2005-2006 school year. Before that, she was the principal of Northern Elementary, where she received praise for working to reduce disparities in student achievement and creating Saturday programs.

In 2005, she was named principal of the year by the Kentucky Association of Elementary School Principals and a National Distinguished Principal by the National Association of Elementary School Principals. She received her B.Ed. from Western Kentucky University and an M.Ed. from Southwest Texas State University.

Silberman said he will meet with the Washington’s site-based decision making council to decide how to proceed. The council will have to decide whether to begin advertising for the vacancy now. It could also name an interim principal to finish the school year, then start searching for a permanent replacement in the summer when more candidates are available, he said.

This development is a serious blow for the school district that established the Academy to prove to the public that achievement gaps could be closed in all communities - even those entrenched in generational poverty - and that the BTW Academy would "become a model across the state."

The Academy, which was formed from the merger of two low-scoring, high-poverty schools, drew the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the University of Kentucky, the Home Builders Association of Lexington, LexLinc, the Georgetown Street Area Neighborhood Association, Success by Six, Head Start and One Community, One Voice.

Fayette County Superintendent Stu Silberman promised to make the academy one of the highest-achieving schools in the state without changing its demographics.

In January 2005, Silberman told Booker T Washington parents that much of their children's low-test-score problem could be attributed to the [former] principals and their ability to motivate their staffs. He said principals -- one at a high-scoring school and one at a low-scoring school -- could be switched, and that the scores would flip-flop in two years.

He brought in his top-gun. Northern Principal Peggy Petrilli was selected to lead the new academy. Petrilli had previously been named Elementary School Principal of the Year by the Kentucky Association of Elementary School Principals.

Test scores for the second year of Petrilli's tenure are due this fall. (Although, with the restructuring of the test this year, it will be impossible to compare the new scores to prior scores. Many teachers have commented that the new test is noticeably easier and, based on that, I'll bet you a nickel scores tend to go up all across the state.)

Petrilli had received acclaim in prior years as principal of Northern Elementary. She showed a flair for innovation, emphasized the arts and found more instructional time by starting Saturday programs. She created a more inviting atmosphere in the school, and her students made significant progress in academics.

In November 2004, Silberman explained his plan for improving schools to the Herald-Leader.
"We don't want to come in and change everything and make that the cause of the increase in student achievement. We want to take the current population and faculty and staffs that we have in place and provide them with supports and resources to show what can happen."
At the Academy, however, it didn't work out that way. When she moved to BTW, Petrilli was permitted to take the nucleus of her Northern leadership team with her. Since then, a high faculty turnover rate has been a cause for complaint within the community. While it was generally accepted that some deadwood needed pruning, the broader changes seemed to suggest a different administrative approach was at work.

Time was, when most principals preferred to hire teachers with successful track records. But Petrilli seemed to choose promising rookies. Well-motivated young teachers can become proficient and loyal. But they are also easier to fire if their performance comes up short. Apparently a boat load of teachers failed to meet performance expectations and, like Silberman, Petrilli was not shy about pulling the trigger when she felt her students could perform better under someone else.

The academy started the 2005-2006 academic year with 20 first-year teachers on a total faculty of 40. The approach was not new for Petrilli. In fact, she received acclaim for her aggressive dedication to student achievement results at Northern and was praised for the same approach she used at BTW; and if some adults got bruised in the process - so be it. Get the right people on the bus. Get the wrong people off the bus. Drive the bus.

And there was never a question about whose hand was on the wheel.

By October, Petrilli had moved to outlaw sugar from the school cafeteria and forbade the teachers from using candy as a reward in class. She received accolades for her foresight and courage. Associate Professor of Exercise Science at Transylvania University, Sharon Brown wrote, "Kentucky's childhood obesity epidemic is not going to go away unless more principals have the courage to follow Booker T. Washington Academy Principal Peggy Petrilli's lead and commit to having a school lunch program that puts our children's health first: no doughnuts, no pizza, no sugared juices, no fried foods, no chocolate milk. No compromises, no apologies."

No compromises; no apologies. That was the approach. Look at the kids. Decide what is best for them. Just do it.

Parents and students may grumble now, but they will love it when their children are successful. That's how it was supposed to work.

So great was the desire for success in the Georgetown Street neighborhood that Petrilli was given unusual leeway in implementing her programs. "She was given carte blanche,' one district official told Kentucky School News and Commentary; "She got whatever she wanted."

That included the full support of Silberman and some support apparently not available to other schools in the district. Petrilli's singular focus and drive - while valued and encouraged by some - was not universally appreciated. It apparently rubbed some principals, and many in the district's middle management, the wrong way.

I heard so many grumbled comments early on, that they lead me to believe some would have liked nothing more than to see Petrilli fail. Jealousy? Perhaps. Or perhaps, the sense of an unlevel playing field for schools that have yet to meet their goals.

But love her or hate her, no one ever accused Petrilli of not working hard.

By February 2006 the Herald-Leader reported a number of programs that had been implemented to change the culture of the school and increase student achievement numbers.

"Pre-schoolers tutored individually by University of Kentucky students. A first-grade class performing the Langston Hughes poem Dreams. A fourth-grade class playing Natalie's Dream on their violins. Classrooms no larger than 15 pupils, nutritious school lunches sans sugar and transfats, additional classes after school and on Saturday. The list goes on and on...

"But the process hasn't been easy. Petrilli spends most of her days scuttling between the intermediate building on Price Road and the primary building on Howard Street. Her work day is often more than 12 hours long.

Her goal is to increase Commonwealth Accountability Testing System scores to a reading goal of 80, a science goal of 80 -- although most of the school is already at 100 in this subject measured through learning checks -- a social studies score of 80 and a math score of 75. This is out of a total of 140 for each subject area.

The school's CATS academic index in 2004-05 was 55. The district index was 78.To make these leaps, she has introduced classes in violin and Spanish for preschool through fourth grade, Latin for fifth-graders, and a rotation of trumpet, clarinet and percussion classes. She also has enforced a dress code, with students obligated to wear either khaki or navy slacks and a shirt with a collar. And for students without the proper attire, the school has a stash of clothes."

By 2006, BTW Academy had raised its Academic Index to 82.4, just shy of its goal of 83, and was deemed a "progressing" school. Reading is at 73.7; Math = 56.5; Science = 81.4; Social Studies = 59.8; Pract Living = 56.6; Arts & Humanities = 46.4 and Writing is at 71.6; for a total Academic Index of 66.4.

The Herald-Leader reported that a "Knight Foundation grant of $550,000 had been secured" to redesign "teacher preparation programs in childhood and elementary education, creat[e] a community involvement program and conduct... an outside evaluation of the entire program to determine its weaknesses and strengths."

H-L wrote, "Parents are excited about the changes at Booker T. and hope Petrilli can fulfill the goals set out for the school."

That sounds great but it was not the whole story. A significant number of parents, and others have been concerned about Petrilli's take-no-prisoners style. The grumbling apparently reached a crescendo recently.

State Board of Education member C B Akins, who contributed his support to the Academy initiative and who pastors the nearby Bracktown Baptist Church where many members of the BTW community attend, commented at the June Kentucky Board of Education meeting that he had been fielding complaints from a number of people in his community about the loss of teachers. He did not specifically mention any particular school.

So What does this all mean?

There was a meeting between Silberman and a group of parents. Unspecified concerns were raised.

After the meeting, Silberman had a chat with Petrilli. Petrilli decides to resign or retire from BTW Academy.

Neither Silberman nor Petrilli want to talk about it.

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