Ousted Atlanta Public Schools principal: Supervisors can’t teach what they don’t know

A former principal of Atlanta’s Douglass High school says the district is not giving the struggling school the help it needs. This is a photo of the 2012 graduation ceremony at the school. (APS Photo)

The former principal of Frederick Douglass High School — removed by APS Superintendent Meria Carstarphen in May  — offers some troubling commentary today on how Atlanta Public Schools evaluates and supports principals.

Tony Lamair Burks II was recruited to Atlanta Public Schools in the aftermath of the cheating scandal. He served the district for three years, first as North Region executive director and last as principal of Frederick Douglass High School. Douglass is among the APS schools at risk of state takeover due to low performance, if Gov. Nathan Deal’s Opportunity School District plan is approved by voters in November.

The AJC has reported on the leadership churn at Douglass, including this June story on Burks by APS reporter Molly Bloom:

In the past 14 years, Atlanta’s Douglass High School has churned through a new principal roughly every two years. The latest former principal, Tony Burks, was removed by Superintendent Meria Carstarphen in May after just one year on the job.

Alumni and parents say Douglass‘ high principal turnover rate is accelerating the school’s slide from an engine of opportunity to one of the lowest-performing schools in the state. Carstarphen did not respond to interview requests from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for this story.

Reached by phone, Burks said only, “What’s most important is that we do what’s best for students at the school and fully implement the school improvement plan.”

Nationwide, about a quarter of principals leave — often by their own choice — after a single year on the job. Turnover rates tend to be higher in high-poverty schools like Douglass, where most students are from low-income families. Several studies have linked high principal turnover to greater teacher turnover and lower student achievement.

The leadership turnover at Douglass continues. Burks’ successor, DeMarcos Holland, is leaving APS to become principal of New Manchester High School in Douglas County this summer.

Some parents protested Burks’ removal last year, saying he cared about students and needed more than a single year to turn around the long-struggling school. Burks was not offered another post in APS and is now chief learning officer of LEADright, an educational and executive leadership consulting firm.

In this piece, Burks shares his experience as principal of Douglass.

By Tony Lamair Burks II

The Rev. Dr. Patrick T. O’Neill is credited with preaching a powerful message using the question, “And How Are The Children?” In his sermon, O’Neill highlights the mighty Masai warriors and how they greet each other by saying “Kasserian ingera,” which means, “And how are the children?”

The greeting underscores the value the Masai place on their children’s well-being. “And how are the children?” is a powerful question to ask before we begin any conversation about the children we serve and the adults who partner with us in our work.

I spent 12 months serving as the principal of Atlanta’s Frederick Douglass High School. There are things I know and there are stories I can tell; however, I am writing because Frederick Douglass High School will soon get its third principal since 2014. Staff, students, and alumni have wondered what must happen next to stabilize their beloved school. I believe three things must happen:

  1. The next principal should receive a multi-year contract so that she is empowered to effect lasting change without the ever-present threat of the supervisor’s pen. School turnaround efforts are not sprints, they are marathons. They require commitment and focus. A multi-year contract enables a principal to focus on long-term, big picture goals and objectives. With a multi-year contract, the new principal will more likely see the results of her teamwork.
  2. The next principal should be allowed to choose members of her administrative team who will align with her vision of excellence. If she is selected for the principalship, she should be entrusted to build her team of assistant principals without being bullied into accepting transfers, granting favors, or engaging in the shuffling of incompetents also known as “the dance of the lemons.”
  3. The next principal should receive differentiated support with accountability. This form of accountability cannot be the armchair support that has plagued the school since 2014. This cannot be supervise-by-text or “coach-by-numbers.” A supervisor can’t sit in the comfort of his office, crunch numbers on his computer, and then place a principal on a Performance Improvement Plan…all without setting foot on the campus.

Increased accountability — as a tool to support teacher effectiveness and student achievement — is a good thing. However, what was meant to help actually hurts. In turnaround schools like Frederick Douglass, principals and teachers experience accountability as punitive, not supportive.

This “accountability” is intimidating and holds educators hostage. For example, a supervisor shouldn’t show up in the fourth quarter of the school year to conduct his first walk-through visit with the principal and then give the principal a negative evaluation for the entire year. This sustains the district’s culture of fear and intimidation. Yet, this has happened in APS since 2014.

I could offer more, but I won’t. In our own ways, we each must ask: “And how are the children?” I’ve been blessed to serve schools and districts around this country. I was the founding principal of North Carolina’s first early college high school, and I provided district oversight for California’s second largest portfolio of charter schools. I’ve been honored to support teams of dedicated adults — from educators and bus drivers to volunteers and business owners — as they collaborate to improve the educational outcomes of students.

My service as a school transformation coach, as the superintendent-in-residence with the National Center for Urban School Transformation, and as an area superintendent has given me insights into school improvement and school transformation efforts. I know that a supervisor can’t teach what he doesn’t know, he can’t lead where he hasn’t been. The level of supervisory support Frederick Douglass High School and its principals have received since 2014 hasn’t served the school or its students well.

“And how are the children,” you wonder? The children aren’t well; nor are the adults.

 

 

Reader Comments 0

32 comments
FromDetroittoATL
FromDetroittoATL

Having seen Dr Burks in action, it's clear to me he's a proven leader. APS is stuck and Burks' objective was real change and not playing politics. Douglass did increase its graduation rate when he was principal, by like 16% (I think, I don't have the info in front of me, but I know Carstarphen tweeted about it) . Whether this was a fluke or not can't really be determined if a person isn't in the position long enough to find out. He was also starting to see gains in test scores when he was executive director for the north region.  Dr. Burks is right, APS shuffles people around based on a myriad of reasons, none of them seem to be about "the children". 

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

“Douglass did increase its graduation rate when he was principal, by like 16% ….”

It was 16.2%.  See “Douglass High” on pages 4-6, here.

HokeSmyth
HokeSmyth

In DeKalb County, and probably in Atlanta too, the "Dance of the Lemons" ends with the problem principal or administrator reporting to transportation, watching over school buses.

Starik
Starik

@HokeSmyth No government agency, large or small, will be worth a damn if nobody gets fired for ineptitude.

Sienna Nichelle
Sienna Nichelle

What he's complaining about sounds a lot like what teachers experience. Pot calling the kettle?

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

Here is what Carstarphen put to the Douglass High School Alumni Association and community in response to their having learned she, Carstarphen, would replace Dr. Burks with Mr. Holland:

“I have no idea why people decide to do what they do but this job is for a seasoned “turnaround” principal – no one forced anyone to apply for these SIG schools. It’s clear you have to be a turnaround principal and that’s why the State sits in the room. And, yes, while we mentor and support, all principals must still do their jobs and more so in these type roles. Blaming other people is not going to change our decision. I can’t discuss the evaluation but I am certain we are making the right decision.”

 – Meria Carstarphen

So much for “making the right decision.”  More here…

http://dianeravitch.net/2015/06/19/edward-johnson-a-message-to-atlanta-about-real-reform/

Dr. Michelle  Davidson
Dr. Michelle Davidson

Dr. Burks has always put the learning of children first. Too often, adults get in the way of this simple mission. I hope others read and put into action his thoughts regarding how to support principals who are tasked with truly one of the most difficult jobs in a school district. 

Terri Clark
Terri Clark

Very well written asscertation and it appears they failed him and removed a man that not only cared but also had the knowledge/ ability/ experience to turn the school around and head in the right direction.

Russ Kilgore
Russ Kilgore

I want the school name changed! It's racist!

Starik
Starik

I'd like to hear more about "The Dance of the Lemons."  Is job security for teachers and administrators more important than the kids' education?  Georgia's graduation test went away. Student testing is de-emphasized, and teacher evaluations are bureaucratic and based on questionable, subjective opinions.

Wendy Stewart
Wendy Stewart

Wish I could read it with buying a subscription to the AJC!

Astropig
Astropig

Hard to know what to make of this without hearing APS' side of the story.Maybe the guy needed to get the heave-ho.Maybe he was so good at his job that he threatened others. Who knows? When we just get an unbalanced picture of this,it's hard to say.


He wasn't offered another job in the system,so he must have burned a bridge here and there.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@Astropig

He was leading school improvement, a marathon.

Carstarphen wanted school turnaround, instant pudding.

Astropig
Astropig

@EdJohnson @Astropig


Then why don't you run for the school board and change the way things are done at APS?


Oh, I forgot...You DID run and voters told you to pound sand .My bad.

gapeach101
gapeach101

@Astropig Astropig,  How are the children?

You clearly know nothing of Carstarphen and her tactics.  She was new and he was new and he probably had the audacity to express an opinion in a meeting.  That's all it takes under her regime. 

Astropig
Astropig

@gapeach101 @Astropig


I just wrote above that I can't judge this story by hearing only his side. Do you not grasp that? You're speculating that he expressed an opinion.Maybe he did. Maybe, (as we have seen a lot recently) he told some student that they were dumb,or made a racist or sexist crack at someone that took umbrage.My point is that we just have this guy's side of the tale and he's obviously going to give us the side that puts him in the best light.


The suspicion here is that this is designed to make Carstarphen look bad because she has (more or less) agreed with the need for the OSD.See? Everyone can speculate on things when there's no balance of facts. 

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@Astropig You beg a reactionary, after-the-fact way of living, like…“Wait, I need to hear Hitler’s side of the story.”

jerryeads
jerryeads

One of the things that ensures that kids in inner city schools stay at a disadvantage is the instability caused by teacher and leadership turnover. The average teacher mobility at state public schools is around 8-9% a year, as I remember from my time watching such things downtown. Some schools - including in Atlanta - reached 25% PER YEAR - or, if you will, virtually complete turnover in the teaching staff every four years. I should have but never did analyze principal turnover, but 2-3 years was not uncommon. I still hope Meria does better than the abject chaos that existed under Hall.

EdJohnson
EdJohnson

@jerryeads

Jerry, for a while now it has been quite clear Carstarphen is, at best, a rigid-minded transactional leader well-trained in the mechanics of school turnaround vis-à-vis Obama’s Arne Duncan’s school turnaround politics (e.g., here) and model, so does not hold a candle to humanistic transformational leaders and servant leaders such as Dr. Burks and DeKalb’s Dr. Steve Green.Carstarphen brings a far greater potential, and danger, to destroy public education in Atlanta than Hall ever did.

BurroughstonBroch
BurroughstonBroch

Carstarphen will be on to her next step up the Ed Biz ladder within 18 months, leaving a damage trail behind her.

Travelfish
Travelfish

Legislators: Empower parents with tuition vouchers. 

Make zip code schools like Douglass High School compete with other public and private schools for funding, and these "problems" will sort themselves out.

AvgGeorgian
AvgGeorgian

@Travelfish

Thanks Travelfish. I too believe that ALL TAXPAYERS should receive a check each year in the amount of education taxes paid, to spend as they please on any type of education. Parents are not some special privileged class. Just because you had a baby, you don't get to make me pay you money to use on any educational plan you like. 


Attention all parents - quit trying to get other people to pay for your private school. Go get 3 jobs, homeschool, or take free online virtual school, but please quit trying to take my money and my choices for education in GA.

gapeach101
gapeach101

@Travelfish Pray tell, how much will these vouchers be for?  You understand that is costs $25,000 a year to educate those deprived Buckhead children.

And what school will take these under performing students?  Needless to say, the discipline problem students will stay in the traditional public school because no one will have them. Sure, vouchers will solve the problem.

Astropig
Astropig

@sneakpeakintoeducation @Travelfish


We already give the poor and disadvantaged vouchers in most other areas of life. Section 8 vouchers let them choose housing that they want. Food Stamps are essentially vouchers to pay for nutrition.Medicaid is a voucher program with enrollment,qualification and eligibility determined by the state.Why do you hate the poor so much that you would deny them choice in education? Is it because they might choose schools that you would not choose for them? Is it because you benefit personally? (Bingo!)

FredinDeKalb
FredinDeKalb

@Astropig @sneakpeakintoeducation @Travelfish


Actually the poor and disadvantaged are limited in the choices they have for housing with Section 8 vouchers.  If more housing options were available, some might choose to live in an area with better schools, perhaps next door to you.