June 16, 2014 at 11:08 pm

EAA likely to retain focus as search for new leader begins

Covington (Clarence Tabb, Jr. / The Detroit News)

The abrupt departure of John Covington as chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority will have board members scrambling to appoint a new leader with less than a month to go until the district’s new fiscal year begins.

Yet education experts say new leadership over the EAA, which operates Michigan’s lowest performing schools, is unlikely to change the district’s current academic focus on computer-based blended learning and student-center models.

Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit, said Covington’s departure likely won’t impact the EAA if his deputy chancellor, Mary Esselman, stays on board and the new chancellor continues her policies.

Esselman followed Covington from Kansas City and implemented the district’s student-based learning model, which allows students to learn at their pace rather than in a traditional classroom setting.

“If she leaves, there is a much bigger question about the future of the EAA,” Varner said. “If someone new comes in and abandons that approach, it wouldn’t be good for teachers or students.”

Covington announced his resignation Monday, with one year left on his $1.6 million contract. Today, the EAA board is expected to accept Covington’s resignation and appoint an interim chancellor.

Looking ahead to the future of the EAA, other changes such as community and parental buy-in, quarterly or monthly assessments of students and additional learning models to drive competition should be considered, national education experts said.

Michael Brickman, national policy director at the Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., said recovery schools districts like the EAA need leaders who have a vision for what ultimately needs to be achieved and how to get there.

“There needs to be a plan and a structure and put good people in place at the local level,” Brickman said.

“A key ingredient to the success of this model is to have strong parental engagement. Parents need to feel like they have a stake in what is going on there.”

Kenneth Wong, a professor of education at Brown University who has researched statewide recovery school districts across the nation, said as the EAA board searches for its new leader, it should consider that turnaround districts need to put together a team that can handle all aspects of a turnaround challenge.

“Not all these turnaround leaders are good at all aspects of turnaround challenges. You need a small team of highly function experts in curriculum, literacy, relationships. You need a team based, community center approach,” Wong said.

The EAA is in its second school year running 15 Detroit schools with persistently low academic achievement and has been the focus of controversy for its spending, lack of transparency, student behavior problems and high teacher turnover.

Twelve of the schools are directly run by the EAA while three are charters.

Covington was appointed chancellor in 2011 by Gov. Rick Snyder who created the EAA to take over the bottom 5 percent of performing schools in Michigan.

Snyder’s spokesman Dave Murray said “the governor is focused on the students and stands solidly behind the mission of the EAA. He’s confident the EAA Board of Directors will work for a seamless transition for students and families.”

The Detroit News reported last week that the cash-strapped authority continues to spend tens of thousands of dollars per month on travel, using money that could be spent on computers or hiring teachers, newly released documents show.

In March and April, the EAA spent $52,000 sending school administrators and teachers to conferences in a number of cities including San Francisco, Atlanta, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Washington, D.C., Austin, Texas, and Portland, Ore. That’s atop $178,000 charged on credit cards for travel since the authority was formed in 2012 to take over Detroit’s 15 lowest performing schools.

Covington’s resignation came a week after the Michigan Senate failed to muster a vote to expand the EAA to manage failing schools statewide.

In February, state school superintendent Mike Flanagan pulled the plug on the EAA’s 15-year contract to be the sole operator of Michigan’s failing schools.

Jordan Smellie said he moved from Iowa in 2012 to teach music at Marion Law Academy, an EAA school, where he found an “utter and persistent and permanent lack of anything resembling resources.”

“If it’s just Covington leaving and they replace him with someone already in the administration, I sincerely doubt it will solve anything,” he said. “If they replace him with someone from the inside, there might be some improvement.”

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Staff Writer Joel Kurth contributed.