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New leadership needed but delayed for Caddo schools

The Caddo Parish School Board lived up to its history of indecisiveness with superintendent hiring last week when it failed to name one in a scheduled attempt. Meanwhile, a partial list of school performance scores came out, which may have everything or nothing to do with what the Board finally will do next.

One might have thought that with seven months of lead time some kind of final decision could get made. Back then, the Board did not renew the contract of outgoing Superintendent Gerald Dawkins, meaning his last day of work ends up being this week, right before the school year’s beginning. Dawkins’ five years was marked by a rapid deterioration in the district’s fiscal position that led to retrenchment mirroring that drop in pupil population and was marked by a persistent inability to raise district performance …

… until perhaps this past year? Although it will be in the fall that the state releases all the data on school performance, under federal law it must alert parents about the status of failing schools (that continue under the same operator) prior to the beginning of the school year. It did so quietly last week, not even posting a list statewide.

But media across the state were quick to pick up on the notices, and in Caddo of the 22 persistently failing schools that represent about a third of the entire district roster, ten had managed to get above passing for the first time in almost a decade. Three unfortunately slipped into that status, although only one was not an alternative school, to leave 15 now categorized as failing. Still, going from a third to a quarter in the district comprising this was progress.

So perhaps Dawkins should be given some credit for this hike in school performance scores? And maybe as well one of the two candidates the Board deadlocked over a couple of days before releasing of these data, current Central Office Chief of Staff Mary Nash Robinson? In fact, the other candidate John Dilworth’s job prior job before his temporary retirement was as the head of the East Baton Rouge School District, ending a year-and-a-half ago, where one school board member there gave him credit for the improvement. Then again, all that has been released are these aggregate numbers, with no data on subgroup performance, nor on overall district performance, so the picture is incomplete.

And, these might also be statistical artifacts. The scoring system underwent some changes this year, mainly in below high school removing the attendance component and in high school deemphasizing other factors in favor of adding in the American College Test and increasing graduation rate. It also changed metrics from a 200- to 150-point scale, although these should remain largely comparable among the A to F categories.

Especially for high schools the changes might boost scores from what they might have been otherwise. The addition of the ACT is scored so that failure occurs only with a score below 18; with a state average of over 20, bonus points well above failing are added. The same goes for students doing decently or better on advanced placement exams, where there has been a tremendous push to take them that sent the number of attempts statewide skyrocketing with many more earning credit, all of which serve as more bonus points.

That scoring changes may have had a separate impact receives some confirmation from the fact that the state’s largest districts generally all saw the numbers of failing schools drop, from Orleans to Jefferson to East Baton Rouge, and it seemed that high schools disproportionately enjoyed promotion. This may quiet some febrile critics of the use of the ACT who felt convinced that its use with the below-18 standard, which conveyed no points in the SPS calculation, was there deliberately to punish some schools.

So a good case can be made that neither Robinson nor Dilworth really effected the change. Robinson managed during the district’s decline while Dilworth, himself a long-time employee in the district before taking superintendents jobs in Montgomery, AL, and Baton Rouge, while having prior experience in such a job also has a history of clashing with boards and has a had an erratic employment record as one: after a short interval he ditched Montgomery for EBR, then said he was resigning but after a few days said he’d stay put, then two years later abruptly declared retirement for health reasons. Dilworth also faced declining enrollment and fiscal positions in his three-year tenure there.
That both candidates are close to or at 60 in age also means neither could be a long-term solution. And, in a sense, that's what happened this week when  the Board met in special session and twice more deadlocked, then named Robinson to an interim job provided she did not apply for the permanent post. It's a partial win for her and her supporters because this time next year campaigns for reelection will be in full swing, and it makes no sense to try to hire a permanent superintendent until that is sorted out. But it also means she's in the job for no more than two years.

Perhaps the best thing was the Board splitting its votes and thereby rendering itself unable to hire one of them, leaving a chance to take a mulligan and start over with an eye to selecting a younger, if less experienced, talent from a more successful district. Then again, last time that happened they came up with Dawkins. And that's largely a recipe for stagnation in a declining district that can't afford any time to waste to turn that around.

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