The Board of Education voted Saturday afternoon to name Valeria Silva, chief academic officer in SPPS; Charles Hopson, deputy superintendent in the Portland, Oregon public schools; and Deb Henton, superintendent in North Branch as the three finalists, after two days of interviews.The board also passed resolutions thanking all six semi-finalists, and all 41 applicants.
After a quiet Friday night round of interviews, Saturday morning saw an engaged crowd listening intently to superintendent candidates, enthusiastic applause, and lively conversation during breaks, as the St. Paul Board of Education interviews semi-finalist candidates. By the end of Saturday, they will have narrowed the field to three finalists. Kristal has written profiles of candidates interviewed last night, and Mary will have info from this morning’s interviews, updating this article throughout the day. (See sidebar below for interview schedules for finalists.)
All of the candidates were asked the same 10 questions (see sidebar). They were given the questions in advance and had the opportunity to prepare answers. None of the questions dealt with the achievement gap – the board decided to reserve that discussion for interviews with the finalists.
(Question wording is as close as I could get, listening to the questions in the interviews.)
1) Briefly, in two or three minutes tell us about your professional journey and why you are seeking the St. Paul Public Schools superintendency.
Click on names below to go directly to profile of individual candidate:
Some comparisons of the candidates:
Three hold doctorates: Mark Bezek, Deborah Henton, and Charles Hopson. Mack is working on his and plans to have it by June.
All but Hopson have Minnesota roots. Hopson grew up in Arkansas and now works in Portland.
• Hopson is currently deputy superintendent for a 46,312 student school district, somewhat larger than St. Paul’s approximately 39,000 students.
• Stachel and Silva currently work as administrators in SPPS.
• Mack has been superintendent in Robbinsdale, a district that encompasses inner ring suburbs with a high minority population that has 12-14,000 students.
• Bezek was principal at large urban high school, Robbinsdale Armstrong, and now is superintendent of a Elk River, a growing suburban district with about 13,000 students.
• Henton was Harding High School principal in St. Paul for four years and had administrative positions in the district for two years before heading to North Branch, a system with not quite 4,000 students.
by Kristal Leebrick
If Elk River Area Schools Superintendent Mark Bezek could “wave a magic wand” he would open a vocational high school in Saint Paul, create more pre-K centers, develop an academy to train future teachers from inside the student population and work on creating innovative schools.
Bezek told the SPPS school board Friday night that SPPS should be the premier district in the state and that it was time to move it to “Wow.” That wow for him means a high school that trains students who may not be on the college path to work toward careers in good paying trade jobs, a teacher academy that enables high-performing students of color to get a college education paid for by SPPS and in return commit to five or six years of work in the district (the military does this all the time, he said), and more pre-K centers providing early childhood education and daycare in the city.
Bezek has spent four years as superintendent of Elk River Area schools, a district that covers Elk River, Otsego, Rogers, and Zimmerman. Its enrollment is 13,000 now, but he said it’s growing 200 to 500 students a year. Bezek successfully asked voters to raise a levy to fund new schools in the fall of 2008. When he came to Elk River there was no strategic plan and the finances weren’t accessible to the public, he said. He created transparency, he said, and gained the trust of the communities as a result. He also built a new administrative team, reorganized the district office and administrative structure, engineered the changing of district boundaries and cut $8 million from the budget this year.
Bezek’s resume includes superintendency at Fergus Falls Public Schools for five years, where he helped create Prairie Wetlands Learning Center, a fifth-grade magnet school, and unsuccessfully tried to get voters to help build a new sports complex for the school district and city. He also worked as a high school principal at Robbinsdale Armstrong and in the New Prague, Hawley and the Cromwell/Wright districts. He began his career as a teacher in Pine City.
Bezek was born in St. Paul and raised in South St. Paul.
How you can be involved
All interviews take place at district headquarters, 360 Colborne Avenue. Finalist interviews (November 16, 18, 19) will be televised – live streamed on the SPPS Web site and rebroadcast on November 20 at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. on St. Paul Cable Channel 16.
Translators (Hmong, Somali, Spanish and American Sign Language) will be available for the reception and interviews. Childcare will also be available, but should be reserved in advance:
Finalist receptions and interviews
Each day’s schedule will be:
by Kristal Leebrick
Nancy Stachel began her career in Saint Paul teaching at the Red School House, an American Indian culture-based school. It was there, the Minneapolis native said, that she knew she wanted to spend her career in urban education. And she has.
She’s now in her 17th year working for SPPS and just finished up her first year working as the district’s chief of schools. She is one of the three candidates for the SPPS superintendent’s job who has never been a superintendent of a district.
Stachel has worked at every grade level in the district: She became special education teacher at Ramsey Junior High in 1992, worked at Arlington Senior High as a special education teacher, girls’ basketball and softball coach, and special education department chair.
Her elementary school experience ranges from assistant principal at the district’s gifted and talented magnet, Capitol Hill, to principal at Como Park Elementary, a school with a high poverty, high special education and high English Language Learner population.
Como Park had just been placed on academic probation when Stachel became principal. She stayed there seven years and feels she created a school culture “that successfully addressed both the academic and social/emotional needs of the students” and maintained growth in student achievement.
She was named executive director of elementary education in April 2007 and chief of schools in August 2008.
When asked how others would describe her she said: “strategic systems thinker,” “can communicate a vision,” “solution driven.” Areas where she needs to grow? “I can be intense when I believe in something,” she said, and joked about how she has asked staff to signal to her in meetings when that intensity needs to be checked.
When asked about successful or unsuccessful projects she’s worked on, she described the closing of Homecroft Elementary School last year. It’s now an early childhood and community education site, which works for the community, she said, but the process of getting there could have been improved. “We needed an honest conversation about what the options were,” she told the board. Had the district been upfront that it would not keep an elementary school at that site, she said, “it would have been far less hurtful” process.
by Kristal Leebrick
In November 2007, Robbinsdale District 281 asked voters to prop up insufficient state funds by adding $624 per student for 10 years onto the existing $848 levy. The question failed 53 to 47 percent.
Former Superintendent Stan Mack says the defeat was the result of a shadow campaign managed by anti-public education zealot Paul Dorr who Mack says used lies to sink the district’s referendum. Dorr has led 40 anti-levy campaigns in five states and defeated 80 percent of them.
The Robbinsdale defeat, Mack said, helped him and his administration learn what they needed to bring the issue back to the voters in 2008.
“We came back the next year, during a presidential election year, and passed the referendum,” he said. In this month’s school board election, three board members who “did the right thing” and pushed the referendum in 2008 were re-elected and the top vote-getters, Mack said.
What did he learn? A district can be hurt by outside influences. He said he learned to work with community groups and make it his job to personally call every “disagreeable person on my list.”
Mack worked for Robbinsdale for nine years, retiring last June. The district has about 12,000 students and covers seven communities, including all or parts of Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Crystal, Golden Valley, New Hope, Plymouth and Robbinsdale. Before joining Robbinsdale, he was assistant superintendent of Osseo Area Schools for eight years, assistant superintendent of Burnsville, Eagan, Savage Public Schools for four years, and superintendent of Northfield schools for three years.
He also worked for Eveleth and South Saint Paul Public Schools, where he taught special education.
At his Friday night interview with the SPPS board, Mack emphasized his experience working in a district experiencing declining enrollment. He saw Robbinsdale’s enrollment drop by 2,000 students in his time there. He also saw the minority population increase from 20 percent to 47 percent in those nine years. He had to close elementary schools, a middle school and shrink the district to two high schools.
Mack grew up near New Ulm, Minn., where he was raised in a German-speaking family. He said English is his second language and while in college he worked hard to get rid of his German accent.
by Mary Turck
“The school should be the center of the community,” Valeria Silva told the Board of Education at her interview on Saturday morning. She put her own experience with St. Paul schools front and center in the interview, explaining that she and her husband have watched their two children’s education through SPPS, and that her entire professional career has been in St. Paul, mostly with SPPS, but also with the Minnesota Department of Education.
Born in Chile, Silva came to St. Paul at the age of 24, learned English, and became a teacher. She moved up through the system as an assistant principal and principal, and into central district administration. She also worked for two years for the Minnesota Department of Education, focusing on developing standards for ELL and special education.
Silva emphasized that SPPS has many assets, and “pockets of excellence.” She said that the district needs to replicate these, focusing on what works and how to replicate success across the district. She also emphasized the importance of cultural proficiency in a district in which 40 percent of the students come from homes where a language other than English is spoken. Silva pointed with pride to successes in St. Paul’s ELL program that has made it a national model, and to a turn-around at Gordon Parks ALC this year.
In her closing statement, Silva said:
The school should be the center of the community. When you look at the Harlem project, it is a full community working together.
Our kids need all of us. Our kids need our passion. Our kids need the best teachers. …
Investing in human capital is essential in our district today. Good teachers matter a lot, matter more than we believe. One good teacher can change the life of a child. If a child has had a quality teacher for three or four years, that child will graduate and will be prepared. Quality teaching happens by learning, by professional development. We have a committed group of people that can absolutely move our district – we need to invest in that.
by Mary Turck
Charles Hopson started his career in Arkansas, as a teacher recruited to be the principal of a small, low-achieving, “predominantly black and impoverished” school, where, he reports, “within one year, we had a 76 percent pass rate in reading.” From one Arkansas school to another and then to Oregon, with a mantra of achieving systemic equity, he went from teacher to principal to his current post as deputy superintendent of schools in Portland.
At the interview, Hopson told a story that he said revealed his leadership style:
The lesson that I learned most about leadership came in my first appointment as a 26-year-old principal in Helena, Arkansas at this very impoverished school. … This was a faculty that was badly demoralized, with student unrest and performance that was abysmal.
I met one of the master teachers, and it was obvious that she was hurting, and she said: “Young man, I have been teaching as long as you are years old. You can’t tell me anything about how to teach these kids.”
I looked at her and said, “You know, you’re right. What can I learn from you?”
I pulled up one of those little second-grade chairs and I sat down and I listened.
Leadership is the ability to listen and learn.
Leadership is built around humility. I learned the power of humility in helping to heal and move forward the organization.
Hopson talked about his concern for eliminating racial disparities in achievement, and about leading a faculty book study of Courageous Conversations About Race. He emphasized the importance of cultural proficiency and of “addressing conscious and unconscious practices in our pedagogy that were getting int he way of addressing student achievement.”
Addressing concerns about hiring a superintendent who will stay in St. Paul, Hopson said that the St. Paul school district would not be a steppingstone for him. “I have built my career on successfully eliminating academic disparity and seeing it through from start to finish,” he said, adding that Portland has been his home for 20 years, and now he hopes to make St. Paul his home.
by Mary Turck
Deb Henton has spent seven years in St. Paul schools, serving as assistant principal and principal at Harding High School,executive director of alternative learning programs, and chief of staff for SPPS district administration. She left SPPS to take her current post as superintendent of North Branch Area Public Schools. She has also worked in Stillwater and South Washington County.
At North Branch, she noted, she has coped with problems that are similar to those faced by St. Paul schools: declining enrollment, too much space, and declining funds. She said that they have had to cut $4.5 million and 70 positions over the past two years.
Henton said that serving as principal at Harding High School was “the sweet spot in my career so far.” She said she particularly enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with students, when adults became too hard to deal with, and to go back to adults, when students were too much.
“As a teacher and as an administrator, I saw first hand the devastating effects of the achievement gap,” said Henton. “I’ve worked in urban schools, suburban schools and now a semi-rural school. I would provide sustained leadership by coming to St. Paul and staying in St. Paul. Most importantly, I believe in the kids and the community of St. Paul.”