• Same Old Song, Different Day

    March 23, 2024
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    I had such high hopes two years ago when I met Talbot County's new Superintendent, Sharon Pepukayi. She is such a positive, intelligent woman who speaks honestly. She has great ideas, is a real "people person" and loves what she does. Whenever I have asked for her time, she has willingly met with me and our parents' group. She truly cares about the students and staff in Talbot County Public Schools. I thought she would be able to make the changes this county needs in order to move ahead academically.

    Two years later, I'm beginning to doubt my assessment, not of her as a person or her intent, but her ability to slog through the mud that is the Talbot County School system, get rid of chaff, and move ahead. In short, I'm not sure she is able to make the changes that need to be made. Her strength, the positive way she builds relationships and collaboration, aren't helping her in this regard.

    Having worked in the system for over thirty years, I am well aware of the fact that even though the Superintendent sets the tone for the system, it is the next level of employees, the second tier administration, that determine how programs and strategies are implemented.

    The was very apparent on Monday, March 18 during the Talbot County Board of Education work session.

    Before I share my observations of that session, in my time in the Talbot County Public Schools, there were only two Superintendents, John Fink and Sam Meek, who were real, honest to goodness agents of change. Neither of them were likable people, but both were fearless in their actions.

    John Fink was brought on in 1987 to replace Norman Moore who had been the Superintendent since 1968. With his arrival, Fink started moving staff around, implementing new policies, and generally shaking things up. He eventually left the system after it was rumored that he had been threatened by local citizens for proposing the closing of Tilghman Elementary School.

    After a few years with Bill Cotton, a Superintendent brought in to "calm things down," Dr. Meek was hired and again came in with a blast, changing things, demanding results, and moving staff. Many people vehemently disliked Meek and he didn't seem to care. He only cared about upgrading the school system. The others who liked him saw his motives and approved of his actions. There were some things he did that I personally didn't agree with, but no one could say he accepted the status quo.

    He died of a heart attack before his contract ended.

    Being a disrupter is hard on people on both sides, especially if you don't have other disrupters working with you. The current atmosphere of political interference and state/federal mandates, make it even harder than it was in the early 2000's.

    Back to the present. I watched the Talbot County Board of Education work session Monday night and the Board meeting Wednesday night. I watched presentations and proposals from senior staff that were nearly identical to last year's presentations, or five years ago, or ten years ago.

    I know how difficult their positions are. When you are a top administrator in a school system like Talbot, you are assigned many different areas. In a larger system like Baltimore County, top administrators have many assistants in their department. Each assistant handles a different area.

    For example, the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in Baltimore County is called the "Chief Academic Officer." She has four executive directors under her, all handling a section of instructional programs. But, even better, each executive director has multiple people under them. In the Department of Academic Services, there are six coordinators of different areas. And that is just one division under the Chief Academic Officer.

    In Talbot, the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, Einhorn, is in charge of all instruction, Pre-K through high school, for all content areas. She does have content supervisors under her direction, but she ultimately has to answer for all those areas. In this day of State testing, she is also in charge of that as well as managing Principals in all the district's schools. That's a big load.

    So, it's not a surprise if each of these staff members don't have the most innovative, exciting ideas. Hard to be creative when you are overworked and overwhelmed.

    That doesn't make things better for the school system. After all, these people are well paid and no one forced them to do the job. But, if they keep sharing the same ideas year after year, aren't we getting the same sad results ? That's where the Board of Education comes in.

    Board President Emily Jackson, Debbie Bridges, Amy Dobson, and Mary Wheeler also seemed to notice that the ideas shared were very similar to every year prior. The questions they asked of the presenters indicated that they thought this was the "same old, same old."

    First up on the agenda was Assistant Superintendent for Administrative and Support Services Lynne Duncan who presented the district's efforts to attract and retain quality diverse teachers.

    The data is daunting. There are thirty-six new teachers in the district. Thirty-four of them are White, two are Hawaiian. Not very diverse. Even more concerning is that of the twenty-five staff that left the system last year, six retired and nineteen resigned. As Duncan spoke about the stats, Board member Debbie Bridges asked if the system does exit interviews to see why people leave. Duncan said the system mails surveys to personnel who are leaving. She then said there are various reasons for them to leave, moving, going to another county, or living in another county and wanting to go work closer to home. There was no mention of working conditions, pay, etc. Not very enlightening.

    When Emily Jackson asked about actions the system is taking to attract and retain staff that are different from what the school system has done before, Duncan mentioned that they are talking to counterparts in other districts but mostly "spinning our wheels." They still go to the recruiting fairs but the data shows they are not yielding results. Again, not helpful.

    Photo from Talbot County Public Schools

    Yesterday they posted a picture of staff at a recruiting fair in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, a state where the retirement system and pay is better. It could have been a recruiting table we used in the 90's.

    Housing costs, less entertainment for young people, and other factors were mentioned as barriers to recruiting. Jackson then asked if there was a chance to recruit more teachers who are older and have families since Talbot, if not a great location for young teachers, is a great place for older teachers to raise a family. These could be people going into teaching as a second career. There was some head nodding but nobody committed.

    Sadly, these are the same factors that are named every year when the county doesn't meet its teacher recruitment or retention goals. In Ms. Duncan's defense, she can do very little about the nature of Talbot County and the cost of living here.

    Assistant Superintendent Dr. Helga Einhorn was up next with test data and the results from the Kindergarten Readiness Assessment, English Language Arts and Math Test. Scores, for the most part, are either static or getting slightly worse with the exception that Math scores in grades 7, 8 and secondary seem to be improving. Einhorn recounted how the system is making changes to reading and math instruction.

    With a few replacements, these could have been the plans from ten or fifteen years ago. You could possibly replace the brand and vocabulary, but the actions are almost identical. That's not to say they are bad ideas, they don't seem to be working and they are not new.

    Einhorn said that in reading, the system had limited staff available for 5th grade reading interventions stating that they needed two additional staff, one at the middle school, one at Easton Elementary. These positions could help. She sited budget as an issue. This seems odd since Maryland's Blueprint for the Future is requiring Talbot County to increase the school system budget by millions. In Talbot's defense, we have predicted that getting a budget that forces "one size fits all" programs on all the Maryland's school systems squashes creative local approaches to teaching. This may be a prime example.

    Wheeler questioned the "timed testing" being done with the Dibels testing in grades K-3 and if that was appropriate for young children.

    Einhorn answered that it may not be the optimum but that was how the test was given.

    Einhorn mentioned that they system is reconfiguring the math supervisors to provide an overlap of coverage in the middle school. She then reminded the Board that each county supervisor has multiple duties.

    At this point, School Board President Emily Jackson said, "It seems like we are approaching math the way it has always been taught. We are adding little things like math manipulatives, what can we do to break the mold? "She mentioned double blocks of math instruction for students who are behind as some schools in other states are implementing.

    Einhorn answered that the changes they were making WERE big in the opinions of the classroom teachers. She's probably right. Classroom teachers are always asking for more materials, so any new manipulatives or instructional materials are important to them. That does not qualify as new ideas for teaching math however.

    Superintendent Pepukayi added that the system had to be "mindful of the negotiated contract" with teachers, implying that this could stand in the way of wholesale changes to instructional blocks and practices. We have seen in the past at the local, state, and even national level that innovative practices often die in the face of union negotiated contracts that won't allow flexibility in scheduling or work hours.

    The final report by Director of Student Services Darlene Spurrier was regarding school climate. Using a variety of complicated, color-coded charts she shared the results of the climate survey conducted by the system to determine if staff and/or students feel safe at school. Board member Amy Dobson asked if this data could be designated by school. Ms. Spurrier said it could not.

    It seems odd that we cannot assess and/or share this kind of data for each school.

    OUR TAKE: Dr. Pepukayi has all the tools she needs to be a great Superintendent. The three staff members who presented are accomplished professionals. But, as is the case sometimes when one has been doing the same thing over and over again, year after year, people get stuck in the mud of repetition and nothing changes. Perhaps it is time to infuse some new blood into the system, new ideas.

    It's clear that Talbot, like many school systems, is at a loss for new ideas. Some say the State is restricting their freedom to make changes. That might be true.

    Maybe it's time for the system to implement new instructional ideas and ask permission from the State and Union later. After all these are our children and we are not serving them well if we are too afraid to do what it takes to help them learn and achieve. It's time to go from status quo to positive disruption.

    We have a school board election coming up in November. We MUST elect school board members who are not afraid to disrupt the system and push for REAL reform in order to help our children achieve.

    NOTE: There was a Board Meeting Wednesday, March 20 where new reading and math series were introduced. We will share more info this week.



    Jan Greenhawk

    Jan Greenhawk is a former teacher and school administrator for over thirty years. She has two grown children and lives with her husband in Maryland. She also spent over twenty-five years coaching/judging gymnastics and coaching women’s softball.
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