Monday, June 20, 2011

C-J's Q & A with Donna Hargens

The Courier-Journal reported this weekend that as a student growing up in Milwaukee, the high expectations that Donna Hargens' teachers set for her inspired her to become an educator herself.

Now, after working 30 years to raise student achievement in the Wake County, N.C., Public School System, the new superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools says she wants to pass on those same high expectations to the 99,000 students attending the district's 155 schools.

The Courier-Journal - whose editorial Board was sufficiently critical of the JCPS superintendent finalists that they called for a new search - asked Hargens to discuss the key issues that will now confront her when she takes the helm in Louisville.

These excerpts from the interview by Toni Konz at C-J:
QUESTION: First of all, congratulations on being named the next superintendent of JCPS. When we talked Tuesday night, you told me that it was important for you to start Aug. 1, so that you would be in Louisville in time for the start of the new school year. Why is that so important to you?

ANSWER: I am honored to be the next superintendent of JCPS. My husband and I are thrilled to become members of your community.

The start of a new year is an exciting time for staff, students, parents, the Board of Education and the community. A great start sets the tone for the year... I will also review the plans for the first day of school and will be knowledgeable about the plan. I want to be there before the opening and to be in the schools on Day 1 to kick-off the new school year.
Q: What drew you to a career in education? Did you always know you would be an educator?
A: I remember the moments when teachers inspired me through their expectations of me...
Q: Where would you rather be — analyzing test scores in your office or speaking to a room full of teachers?

A: I would rather be in a room speaking with teachers...

Q: How visible do you plan on being in Jefferson County's schools? Do you plan on visiting each school within a certain period of time? What is your plan for doing that?

A: I hope that you will hold me accountable for being visible not only in the schools but in the community as well...

Q: How does Jefferson County Public Schools' academic achievement stack up against other comparable school districts around the country?

A: This is a school system and a community that is not satisfied and should not be satisfied with the current level of achievement. Helping students to grow academically is the reason that a school system exists. It is the core mission...
Q: What's the best way to improve academic performance at Jefferson County's lowest-performance schools, and how long do you think it will take to substantially improve them?

A: Improvement takes discipline and a focused effort over time. The keys are being able to effectively answer three questions: What is it that students are expected to know? How do we know if they know it? What do we do if they do know it or don't know it? ...

Q: What role should the teachers'union play in setting the course for improving Jefferson County schools?

A: It is imperative that the teachers' union and the administration work collaboratively with a focus on what's best for students. ...Teachers are the variable that can make the most difference...
Q: Should JCPS be trying more than one option for fixing the district's persistently low-achieving schools? So far, the remedy has been to restaff the schools and move out the principal.

A: I think that it is fair to say that all four turnaround options (restaffing, closing the school, turning it over to outside management or tying teacher evaluations to student performance) are worthy of consideration. … and deserve that. I need to take time to do my homework on this issue...
Q: Have you had the chance to review the programs and initiatives Dr. Berman has brought to JCPS? Which ones do you plan to keep, and which will you end? How will you review those programs?

A: I read a lot about JCPS before arriving in Louisville...I look forward to learning more, to looking at the data and to listening to the perspectives of students, teachers, principals, parents, the school board, the business community and other stakeholders.

Q: Do you support using merit pay or incentives to reward good teachers? Why or why not?

A: It is important to understand what teachers consider to be an incentive and to understand what it takes to retain high-quality teachers and to provide consistent high-quality instruction...I need to learn about the history of merit pay and incentives in Jefferson County and in Kentucky.

Q: In The Courier-Journal's earlier profile of you, a principal in Wake County described you as “data-driven.” Are you an advocate for using test scores and other data to evaluate teachers and schools? Why or why not?

A: I am data-driven. In order to improve, you have to know where you are starting from. When doing any kind of an evaluation, it is important to look at multiple measures and data points.

Q: Some have criticized Wake County's disciplinary policies as discriminatory against African American students. The same criticism has been made of Jefferson County. Why do you think African Americans are so often disciplined out of proportion to their actual numbers not only those school districts, but in many school districts nationwide? How do you think school districts should handle discipline?

A: When you look at the data and you see trends that are disturbing...Both looking at the policies and the implementation of those policies are keys to improvement...
Q: Can you envision there ever being a situation where you would publicly take a stand against a position taken by a majority of the school board? If so, what would that situation be? If not, why not?

A: I cannot speculate on a particular situation where I might take such a stand...
Q: Republican gubernatorial candidate David Williams has proposed legislation that would mandate that school districts allow parents to send their children to neighborhood schools — those closest to their home. What is your position on that idea?

A: Local school boards are entrusted with the responsibility to make decisions regarding student assignment. Decisions are best made by the officials who are closest to the situation. A student-assignment plan should not take the district back to a time when all students did not have the same educational experiences and opportunities.

Q: What is your timeline for reaching a decision on whether you support the current student assignment plan?

A: There is a student assignment plan in place for 2011-12. The staff is committed to a successful implementation of that plan. Dr. Gary Orfield (a leading desegregation expert hired as a school board consultant) will be making recommendations for any modifications to the plan for the 2012-13 school year...
Q: Should the superintendent's annual performance review be public? The public still doesn't know precisely why your predecessor was let go because it was done behind closed doors.

A: Personnel issues are confidential and should be treated as such...

Q: Were you surprised by the negative reaction you received from some groups and organizations in Louisville? Have you experienced that before?

A: I respect people's opinions and respect their right to express them. What this demonstrated to me was that this is a community that passionately cares about the education of JCPS students...
Q: How will you reach out to those who appear to have doubts about whether you are the right person to lead JCPS?

A: I look forward to meeting with them and to listening to them...
Q: What would the community here be surprised to know about you? What are your talents and hobbies? If you had a weekend where you could do anything you wanted to do, what would you do?

A: I ran a 3K in May in Washington, D.C., this past May with my son, my daughter and my daughter's boyfriend. My goal now is to run a 5K.

I love to attend community and school-sponsored events on weekends. I can't imagine a Sunday morning without attending a service...

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