Two EAA chancellor finalists a study in contrasts
EAA board will select between interim chancellor and Saginaw superintendent
Detroit – — The two finalists to lead the state-controlled Education Achievement Authority bring sharply contrasting skills and backgrounds to the table.
Interim Chancellor Veronica Conforme, former chief operating officer of the New York City Public Schools, has a resume filled with big-city jobs and financial experience. But she has not worked as a teacher or superintendent.
Carlton D. Jenkins, superintendent of Saginaw Public Schools, is a longtime educator who has been a teacher, principal and superintendent. However, with the exception of eight years as a high school principal in Columbus, Ohio, Jenkins' experience has been in small cities and school districts.
One of the two is expected to be named the permanent leader of Michigan's troubled district for failing schools, leaving the EAA's board with an apparent choice between focusing primarily on fixing the system's academics or its finances.
The EAA, conceived by Gov. Rick Snyder to turn around the state's lowest performing schools, has struggled with low test scores, falling enrollment and funding shortfalls since it began operating 15 Detroit schools two years ago. Enrollment fell nearly 24 percent last fall, and the district's budget is projected to shrink $26.4 million this school year.
The EAA uses a student-based learning model, allowing students to learn at their own pace, that former Chancellor John Covington introduced.
Education observers say whichever of the two is hired faces a monumental task in turning around the state's turnaround district.
"The new EAA chancellor needs to have deep experience — and demonstrated success — in school leadership, systems change and turning around high-poverty, struggling schools," said Amber Arellano, Education Trust-Midwest executive director. " Know-how and perseverance are essential."
Michael Brickman, national policy director at the Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C., said the EAA has gotten off to a rocky start and needs someone who can "right the ship."
"The ultimate goal is to achieve better results than before, and allow parents another viable option," he said.
Kenneth Wong, a Brown University professor of education, has researched statewide recovery school districts across the nation. He gives the nod to Conforme, saying that although Jenkins brings leadership skills, his experience in larger districts is limited.
"The challenge in the EAA is a little different than those in smaller school districts," Wong said. "The COO seems to have a wider range of skills that may enable her to deal with the challenges of bringing together a broader coalition of stakeholders to restore the public confidence."
While Conforme's contract as interim chancellor expires Oct. 1, the board has not scheduled a vote to choose a permanent leader. The EAA board narrowed the candidates from a field of four earlier this month.
Colleagues from across the country say the candidates are up to the task of fixing the EAA.
Jenkins, 48, has varied experience as a classroom teacher and administrator. He has been superintendent of the Saginaw schools — with 7,623 students, roughly the same as the EAA — since 2010.
Jenkins' resume touts accomplishments in Saginaw that included boosting the district's graduation rate 15.8 percent over three years and building new partnerships with Fortune 50 and 500 companies.
"He came to Saginaw earlier to take on his duties as the new superintendent, and delved into his new role with passion, energy, commitment, vision and advocacy to our district," said Beverly Yanca, president of the district's school board. "His ability to work with children, parents, teachers, staff, community partners, business leaders, etc. ... is exceptional."
Before going to Saginaw, Jenkins worked in Beloit, Wisconsin, where he was executive director of secondary and charter schools and a high school principal.
Superintendent Steve McNeal described Jenkins as a "good guy who definitely has a heart for kids."
"He is a gentleman who is level-headed and collaborative by nature," said McNeal, whose district serves about 7,300 students. "He has a way of interacting with people that makes them feel engaged and part of the process."
Jenkins said his background has prepared him to be EAA chancellor.
"As part of my cumulative experience of advocating for the most vulnerable children, I'm looking at ways to be innovative," he said. "This opportunity aligns with my demonstrated experience and desire."
Conforme, 41, was COO of the country's largest school district from October 2011 to April 2013, overseeing 1,700 schools, with more than 1 million students and 130,000 employees.
As the chief financial officer before that, she was responsible for all financial-related activities for a $23 billion public agency.
Before becoming interim EAA chief after Covington abruptly resigned in June, Conforme was a consultant to the district for five months.
"Veronica is a brilliant, organizational manager who both works hard and is incredibly smart about the work she does," said Eric Nadelstern, former deputy chancellor of school support and instruction for New York Public Schools. He is a professor of education leadership at Columbia University.
Conforme said she believes the EAA offers "the best chance we've had in a generation to succeed in providing a new direction for educating our children."
But, she added, to realize EAA's full potential requires a closer look at its operations to determine what is working and what needs to be improved.
"That is what I have focused on since becoming interim chancellor," she said. "Our children deserve a great education regardless of race, income or ZIP code and I'm determined to make that happen."
One of Conforme's first acts as interim chancellor was to implement new rules regarding staff travel and credit card use, after a Detroit News investigation discovered Covington tallied more than $240,000 in credit card charges in two years.
Advocating for Conforme, the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education said that as his COO, she made things work.
"Veronica is a smart, caring, hard-working, no-nonsense, no-excuse, get-it-done, talented individual who is never satisfied with the status quo," said Dennis M. Walcott, a fellow at the University of West Indies. "She was the person I entrusted to connect the pedagogical and operational side, which allowed a ... school district to function smoothly for the benefit of our 1.1 million students."
Meet the candidates
Education: Master's in public administration and public policy, Columbia University; bachelor of arts in international relations and Spanish literature, Syracuse University.
Background: Interim chancellor of EAA since June 2014; consultant to EAA chancellor, January-June 2014; chief operating officer, New York City Department of Education, October 2011-April 2013; chief financial officer, New York City Department of Education, November 2010-October 2011.
Boards and affiliations: Board member of the News Literacy Project, a national educational program that mobilizes journalists to work with educators to teach students how to sort fact from fiction.
Carlton D. Jenkins
Education: Doctor of philosophy in educational leadership/policy analysis, University of Wisconsin-Madison; master of science in educational administration, University of Wisconsin-Madison; bachelor of science, health and physical education, Mississippi Valley State University.
Background: Superintendent, Saginaw Public Schools, 2010-present; executive director of secondary and charter schools/high school principal, School District of Beloit (Wisconsin), 2006-10; principal, Linden McKinley High School, Columbus City Schools (Ohio).
Boards and affiliations: Member, Financial Accountability for Schools Workgroup in Michigan, 2013-14; board member, United Way of Saginaw and Saginaw Community Foundation.