The Portland Schools superintendent, praised for his initiatives and his ability to adapt to budget and policy challenges, is leaving after three years to lead a district in Kentucky.
This from the Portland Press-Herald:
When Emmanuel Caulk was named chief of Portland’s schools in 2012, the district was just emerging from a disastrous financial scandal that forced out a previous superintendent and prompted a major shakeup of policies and procedures.
The school board at that time wanted a superintendent with experience in urban schools who would build community ties and refocus on core issues, officials said. They chose Caulk, who was working in Philadelphia as an assistant superintendent in charge of a division with 36 schools and 16,500 students, more than twice Portland’s enrollment of roughly 7,000.
Three years later, Caulk is leaving Portland to be superintendent for Fayette County Public Schools in Kentucky, a system with 40,000 students.
During his time in Portland, supporters say, Caulk established important new ties to the business community and improved community outreach, while using data-driven metrics to measure student achievement. But critics say some of his outreach initiatives were only distractions that didn’t directly improve education. They also note that test scores have not improved across all grades, and that he had to withdraw a “virtual school” plan after criticism.
“Certainly (Caulk) has taken a lot of things we discussed and started and really brought them to fruition,” said school board Chairwoman Sarah Thompson. She cited the board’s work on a comprehensive plan for the school system, a multi-year budgeting process and the creation of an independent education foundation to raise funds for the district.
“I think he brought a different approach to superintendent than previous superintendents. Some people think it was good, some thought it was bad. Different superintendents have different styles,” she said.
As for the next superintendent, Thompson said the board needs to hire someone with a “style that fits into what Portland wants. Even though we’re a big city in Maine, we’re a very close community.”
Caulk’s time in Portland has been marked by tight budgets and a changing landscape that included a new charter school in town and a series of education reforms enacted by Gov. Paul LePage’s administration. Those reforms forced school districts across the state to overhaul classrooms to align with Common Core standards, adopt new proficiency-based graduation standards and, in Portland’s case, deal with a shrinking state subsidy.
NOT SURPRISED BY EARLY EXIT
Caulk did not return calls for comment Sunday, but he had issued a statement last week when it was announced that he was a finalist for the Kentucky job. “I will miss Portland, but I’m eager to take on a new career challenge that represents an opportunity for me personally and professionally,” he said.
Board members said they knew when they hired Caulk that he might leave after his first contract term, which was originally due to expire this year but was extended twice by the board until June 2019. And that may happen again with his successor, said Ed Bryan, former school board chairman and part of the team that hired Caulk.
The board purposely launched a national search in 2012 to find someone with experience in urban schools, something they didn’t think they could find in Maine, Bryan said.
“We knew if we hired a rock star there was a good chance they wouldn’t stay very long. The job is so difficult, so multifaceted, it’s almost set up for failure,” Bryan said. “The decision the school board now faces is, do we go out again on a national search, and risk losing someone in three years since we are an attractive first step for someone looking for that first school district experience?”
Among the “urban” characteristics that shape Portland schools, officials said, is a high poverty rate among families and a large number of non-native English speakers.
Portland is the state’s largest school district, and 58 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty, compared with the statewide average of 47 percent. Twenty-five percent are English language learners, who need additional resources, compared with a statewide average of 3 percent. The dropout rate is 3.2 percent, compared with 2.7 percent statewide.
Thompson said she thought the board should launch a national search again. “Portland deserves the best (either from) here or in another state,” she said.
UPON ARRIVAL, A BUDGET CRUNCH
When he arrived in August 2012, Caulk immediately faced significant budget issues.
The governor issued a curtailment order in December and shifted teacher retirement costs from the state to local districts, adding $1.5 million in spending to Portland’s school budget. Caulk also had to add $1.7 million in catch-up teacher raises in that first budget, and account for an unknown number of students from the district who would attend Baxter Academy for Technology and Science, a new charter school in Portland.
That $98.3 million budget cut 36 teacher positions and seventh-grade sports, despite being $4.7 million higher than the previous year’s budget and requiring a 3.7 percent increase in the school portion of the property tax.
Many of those positions and the sports programs were restored the next year, and in his most recent budget, 17 positions were added. Over his three years, Caulk increased the school budget by nearly $9 million, from $94.2 million under former Superintendent James Morse to the $103 million budget approved by voters this spring.
At the same time, enrollment remained steady at around 7,000 students. The district has 1,248 employees, with 660 teachers and 160 education technicians.
ANALYZING STUDENT PROGRESS DATA
Former board members and colleagues said they are sorry that Caulk is leaving.
Like Thompson, City Councilor Justin Costa said Caulk moved the district forward, but served during a time when the superintendent was finishing work initiated by the board or previous superintendents.
“As superintendent, he followed through on those things,” said Costa, a former school board member. “His role has been more about refocusing.”
“I’m personally disappointed that he’s leaving as soon as he is,” said Peter Eglinton, former chief operations officer and a former school board member.
“I think the district benefited from his being with us. He brought a perspective that was different and a style that was confident and reform-minded. He was not afraid of questioning the way things were done,” Eglinton said.
Eglinton and the other top administration officials all resigned at various times in the past year, creating a complete turnover in Caulk’s top staff. Among the resignations were the top academic, finance, human relations and transportation officers. Exiting staffers said they were leaving for better opportunities or personal reasons.
Several school officials noted that most of Caulk’s initiatives were related to building ties to the community, adding avenues of communication or using data to measure progress.
The state compiles extensive education data and makes it available through its online data warehouse, and in recent years the Maine Department of Education launched annual report cards for every school in the state, which many educators found controversial.
Soon after the state’s report card was launched, Caulk introduced a “district scorecard” with much of the same testing data, plus additional measurements.
Caulk had already made a point of sharing data internally with school leaders, Eglinton and Bryan both noted.
“Early in his tenure he met with each principal of the schools and had them review the student data with him,” Eglinton said. The data had always been available, but reviewing it personally with the principals sent a signal about Caulk’s priorities, he said.
“Data was not just reported, but evaluated,” he said. “And students were the primary objective.”
STRENGTHENING COMMUNITY TIES
Building up the district’s reputation with the local business and philanthropic community was behind several of Caulk’s initiatives, Bryan said.
“In Philadelphia he really relied on corporate partners, and he saw there was a gap here. He reached out and he started to build those relationships,” said Bryan, who serves as vice president of the Portland Education Foundation, which raises outside funds for the district.
The board praised Caulk for starting a book club, speaking at the Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Eggs and Issues breakfast, noting student and teacher accomplishments during board meetings, starting an online newsletter, and launching an online video series highlighting certain district programs. He also initiated an annual online survey of parents, and held public meetings and launched online tools to explain the school budget process.
The board also praised Caulk for his “Principal for a Day” program, when local executives come to the schools for a day. The program has led to sponsorship of the district’s first STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) exposition, and a donation of $18,000 in lab equipment from Idexx Laboratories.
Some of those efforts won’t pay off for years, Bryan said.
“He’s laying the groundwork for what’s to come,” said Bryan, noting that there have already been some successes. For example, when a local philanthropic group wanted to invest $100,000 in the schools, it called Caulk and asked how he would use it. He immediately said it would go to summer school programs in three schools, Bryan said. That clear-cut answer, with a specific program, is welcomed by donors, he said.
“We have had some relationships with the community, as a district, that have been challenging at times,” said Thompson, the board chairwoman. “(Caulk) did a fantastic job bringing them into the fold. I think that is key, having a happy community.”
Some critics of the school district said those initiatives don’t reflect the right priorities.
“I don’t think it’s totally Manny’s fault, but I don’t think the system has come up with any real framework for how to transform the school department into a place that is focused on education,” said resident Steven Scharf, a regular at school board meetings who often urges fiscal restraint.
“All these other things that come along are distractions,” he said of the community outreach efforts.
Some of the district’s biggest changes in recent years came outside the classroom. The system built a new central kitchen, purchased a new central office downtown, and moved the West School and adult education classes out of a substandard building and into leased space.
Academically, Caulk launched innovations, mostly for small numbers of students or individual schools. Among them was introducing a Spanish immersion classroom at one elementary school and an Arabic language class at one high school. The district’s pre-K program expanded slightly from 83 students to about 100 students last year. An elementary school adopted International Baccalaureate standards, and a high school adopted an international focus.
SOME MISSTEPS AMID INNOVATIONS
Caulk also had some missteps, including having to reissue the district scorecard after a contractor’s errors indicated vast test score improvements in some areas that were incorrect. He also had to withdraw his plan to launch a virtual school within the district, aimed at luring back charter school students, after criticism from the state commissioner of education and the city’s mayor.
Parent Tim Rozan said he wants the district to have a sharper focus on districtwide academic initiatives to improve college and career readiness, instead of “education bandwagon” ideas like early start times, Spanish immersion, launching a new website and the district scorecard.
“Bottom line, (Caulk) had absolutely no K-12 plan – either academic, counseling or career or college prep – and refused to press for individual skill achievement,” Rozan said. “I don’t see a plan.”
Academically, student test score trends in recent years have been mixed.
Districtwide scores on the New England Common Assessment Program, for grades 3-8, have improved across the board since 2010, while standardized test scores for grades 9-12, the Maine High School Assessment, have decreased across the board.
Individual schools have markedly different results.
In elementary school math scores, for example, East End Elementary School went from 25 percent of students scoring proficient or better in 2010 to 42 percent in 2013, and Riverton and Presumpscot schools also showed gains. Every other elementary school showed lower scores over the same period.
Complete test score data by school are available at portlandschools.org.
PLEASED WITH DISTRICT’S DIRECTION
Former chief academic officer David Galin said the district needs top leadership that will continue to develop strategic plans to reach measurable goals, with clear benchmarks along the way.
“I believe strongly that if you set rigorous goals, have really solid instruction and really strong support for students, you can get so many students to higher levels academically. That’s the hard work. It happens in the classroom.”
Currently, the district regularly cites Caulk’s goal of making the district “the best small urban school district in the country by 2017″ in news releases and public statements. The district scorecard notes goals of improving test scores to higher percentages, but Galin suggested that itself isn’t a goal, just an indicator of progress toward a goal.
Thompson said the district’s comprehensive plan, completed in 2011, needs updating, but remains the road map for future superintendents.
“I think this board is not disappointed with the direction we are (going) in,” she said. “There may have been some things that Manny put a personal touch on that may change, but the general course is not going to change.”