Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Does it matter? You betcha!

The discovery of unexplained baggage by Kenosha's newly appointed school superintendent is disturbing for many reasons.

First, it demonstrates that there were serious gaps in the vetting process by the Kenosha Unified School Board and its superintendent headhunter, Ray and Associates of Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

If the various controversies involving Michele Hancock as the diversity director and human resources chief of the Rochester, N.Y. city school district were discovered with a simple Google search, it's simply appropriate to wonder why board members weren't able to do the same?  And, if they didn't, why didn't the district's consulting firm? 

It's not rocket science to figure out that the ball was dropped.  And it gets worse.

Three board members traveled to Rochester to check out Hancock.  Did they only hear good things about Hancock, such as her oustanding performance as an elementary school teacher and principal?

If they did, then they didn't learn that things went south when Hancock went to the central office, first as diversity director and then as human resources chief, a position for which she had no prior experience. Did they know that Rochester district taxpayers shelled out $36,000 to help Hancock get her doctorate, only to have her go job hunting elsewhere?

Was it a lack of diligence or is it possible -- just possible -- that maybe some folks in Rochester intentionally may have concealed important information?  Or maybe both?

That's why it would have been critical for board members and their consulting firm to have done a simple Google search and followed by contacting the right folks in Rochester.

That research should have prompted other questions, such as why would the Rochester district take a successful principal away from the job she did so well and move her into another in which her performance was controversial?  Why with no personnel management experience (except as a building principal) was she shortly after arriving at the central office put in charge of human resources?  Why, if the Rochester district is managed so well, does it have a high school graduation rate of 46%, down from 52% the year before?

Second, the failure to get these issues out in the open and, hopefully, resolved before hiring Hancock is no favor to her.

Incoming chief executives typically have a "honeymoon period" but Hancock's may be short-lived, if she gets one at all. 

For example, her controversial advocacy of using Black English Vernacular (Ebonics) in her stint as diversity chief might have been explained better had it been placed on the table sooner rather than later.  "Hindsight being 20-20" I suspect many of us have done things earlier in our careers that upon reflection we wish we might have done differently.  If, for example, Hancock were to offer that explanation now, wouldn't folks be skeptical?

Our school district has its own set of issues.  Relocating, becoming acclimated to this community and getting down to solving the district's problems are enough to keep anyone busy.  If Hancock truly is the best choice for Kenosha's new school superintendent, she deserves to come into this community on a wave of optimism, not under a cloud of controversy.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Superintendent hiring: Why didn't Kenosha school board check out its choice?

A few years ago Kenosha Unified School Board members got laptop computers.  The current board sure needs a crash course on how to use them.

Had the school board performed due diligence it would have discovered that less than three years ago its newly hired school superintedent, Michele Hancock, was the center of controversy in Rochester, New York when she was the school district's diversity chief, over her advocacy of Black English Vernacular (Ebonics) in school -- an idea wisely flamed by many Rochester African-American community leaders, parents and students. 

They would also have found out that while they were cutting a deal with Hancock she was embroiled in a battle with teachers at a Rochester school (blandly called School #41) who recently staged a "no confidence" vote in their principal, Roschon Bradley.  According to WHAM-TV in Rochester:

Teachers say Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard and Chief of Human Capital Initiatives Michele Hancock held a staff meeting earlier this week and implied the teachers at School #41 are racist for banding against Bradley, who is black.

Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski said teachers who attended the meeting said Brizard and Hancock “berated them and lectured them. Teachers were shocked and hurt and disappointed that the district seemed to suggest that the problem wasn’t with the principal, it was with them.”

Urbanski said Hancock told the teachers their vote of no confidence was perceived as racist and as a bullying tactic.
Further investigation shows that these aren't the only two storms of controversy surrounding Hanock, who will be paid $195,000 -- $45,000 more than current superintedent Joseph Mangi, a career Kenosha Unified educator.

On May 21, 2008 WHAM's veteran education reporter, Rachel Barnhart, wrote that Hancock was named the new human resources chief (later morphed into "Human Capital Initiatives") for the Rochester district although Hancock "doesn't have a background in human resources." 

Less than two years later Hancock -- who received $36,000 from the Rochester district toward her doctoral degree studies -- was applying for and ultimately accepted the Kenosha job although she has no experience as a superintendent or even an assistant superintendent.

Last year Hancock's name popped up again in another WHAM report, this time defending the $18,000 taxpayers shelled out for a retreat attended by 29 Rochester school executives at a swanky resort:

The cost was $18,000. The trip took place from January 29 to January 31. The district said 29 staff members went on the trip, although the district paid for 40 to attend.

According to documents obtained by 13WHAM News, the district’s Chief of Human Capital Initiatives, Michele Hancock, booked the retreat in November. The trip was approved by Superintendent Jean-Claude Brizard in December.

The purpose of the trip was to “enable team-building” among the district’s Dream Schools, according to Hancock’s request for a contract with Beaver Hollow. “The retreat will include instructional leadership, learning organizations, adult growth, and professional development.”

The menu for the staff members included Jack Daniels marinated steak with tobacco onions, shrimp fritters, cheddar corn muffins, and “enticing desserts.”
The district budget deficit at the time of the retreat was about $60 million. The school board recently approved cutting more than 200 teaching positions.
The $18,000 two-day retreat was just the tip of the iceberg.  Barnhart's investigative reporting last year showed that the financially strapped Rochester district spent $240,000 on catered meals since 2007 without school board approval. 

So, what does this have to do about Kenosha?  Plenty.  Just look at what Kenosha Unified's superintendent search job posting listed as criteria for the new superintendent:

KUSD seeks a superintendent who:

• Is strongly committed to a “student first” philosophy in all decisions.
Will inspire trust, has high levels of self-confidence and optimism, and models high standards of integrity and personal performance.
Possesses excellent people skills and presents a positive image of the district and will commit to community visibility with high interest in a broad range of community groups, organizations, and unions.
• Willing to listen to input, but can make a decision when necessary including appropriate participation of others in planning and decision making.
• Demonstrates effective communication skills to include speaking, listening and writing.
Has demonstrated the ability to enhance student performance, especially in identifying and closing or narrowing the gaps in student achievement.
• Can delegate authority appropriately while maintaining accountability.
• Possesses the leadership skills required to respond to the challenges presented by an ethnically and culturally diverse community.
• Work cooperatively with the board of education.
• Is able to identify and select building and central office administrators who are capable of advancing the district vision.
Has knowledge of and successful experience in sound fiscal practices and management of district resources.

Hancock's lame defense of an $18,000 resort tab for a two-day conference for 29 administrators in a school district more than $60 million in the hole hardly qualifies as someone successful in sound fiscal pratices and management of district resources.

Although Hancock was a nationally recognized elementary school principal who successfully turned around a decaying and underachieving grade school, the Rochester district's most recent high school graduation rate was only 46%, down 6% from the previous year.  By contrast, Kenosha's most recent graduation rate was 84.1%.

As for inspiring confidence and improving the district's image, advocacy of Ebonics, defending wasteful spending and berating teachers doesn't bode well and the latter brings into question her "people skills."
This brings us back to the original point: where was the due diligence in the superintendent selection process?  Maybe our school board members aren't computer literate despite the investment in their laptops, but then why didn't Ray and Associates, the Iowa consulting firm hired to conduct the nationwide superintendent search, pick up on these red flags?
Clearly, the ball was dropped.

Officers: Keeping the streets safe starts with safe streets

I realize it's probably annoying at times for the police officers I work with to hear me say, "When I was a cop" followed by some anecdote of keeping the peace in the mid-1970's.  There are times, though, when these discussions are necessary.  This is one of them.

Truth be told -- "Radar" was said to be my middle name (and it had nothing to do with the character in M*A*S*H).  Former Grant  County Deputy Jim Stark used to remind me, though, that there was more to being a cop than "running radar."  Of course he was right.

Much of what police officers do is geared to keep our streets safe.  That said, keeping the streets safe starts with keeping safe streets. 

I am appalled each day when I drive around and see the many pot holes, worn out signs and decayed roadways.  When I was a cop we took note of these deficiencies, called them in and, unless an immediate response was in order, the dispatchers presented a list of the needed repairs each morning to the appropriate crews.

Why isn't this being done now?  And if it is, then why aren't the repairs happening?  How much time and does it take to call in a pot hole or a burned out street light?  As for deficient signs, state law requires all traffic signs to conform to the Uniform Manual of Traffic Control Devices.  How hard is it to pick up a microphone and call in a sign that needs replacement or repair?

Not very time consuming.  Not very hard.  And there's no excuse -- none -- for officers failing to comply with the time-honored community caretaking function of American law enforcement.

I love our officers dearly but there are some who need a reminder that there's more to the job than making arrests.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Incompetence at all levels

It was reported here -- from credible sources -- that Kenosha's new school superintendent, Michele Hancock, comes from Rochester, New York with a host of issues including:

  • Promoting the use of Black English Vernacular ("Ebonics") in school.
  • Allegations that she recently intimidated the staff at a Rochester school that voted "no confidence" in the school's principal.
  • Hiring her at $195,000 -- $45,000 more than the present superintendent -- when she has never been a superintendent, even in a small district.
The first two bullet points were previously discussed.  The third points out that Hancock's management experience was as an elementary school building principal, diversity director for the Rochester schools and then director of human capital initiatives (which, from reading the school district's web site, appears to be an amalgamation of a personnel director and diversity director).

This is not to say that Hancock hasn't had some successes.  Her work as an elementary school principal in one of Rochester's worst schools included literally cleaning and painting the building, uplifting educational test scores and engaging parental involvement.  Building diversity and being an effective personnel manager are also important goals.

But the job that was open in Kenosha was the top dog's.  The third largest school district in the state should command talent that has experience running a school district, and perhaps preferably one in Wisconsin.  Why did the school board hire someone without that experience?  And what about the new superintendent's controversial background in Rochester, which included criticism from the black community?

The lack of public dialogue about the school board's failure to perform due diligence here is astounding.  Even Lenny Palmer at WLIP says he's given up on the board which seems immune to public input.  The Kenosha News has simply ignored the controversy.  Ditto for WGTD.  And WLIP?  They gave up their news department years ago and rely on stories taken from the newspaper.  This isn't rocket science. A simple Google search would have provided the basis for further inquiry.

In all of this I feel a bit for Hancock, though it's hard to effectuate much sympathy when she's being paid substantially more than an experienced incumbent.  Coming into a new job with unexplained baggage helps nobody, including Hancock.  She could turn out to be the best superintendent we've ever had but this is a job that requires an experienced person who can hit the ground running.  Can that happen when there are clouds over her?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The incredibly shrinking newspaper

Not only did the Kenosha Unified School Board flub due diligence in failing to flesh out newly hired superintendent Michele Hancock's controversial background, but the Kenosha News was just as guilty.

Our local newspaper, like so many across the nation -- including big dailies such as the Chicago Tribune -- has been shrinking its size -- literally -- as well as content.  Some of this is inevitable as alternate delivery mechanisms have struck a hard blow at traditional newspapers, radio and television news.

One would think, though, that in a competitive environment the news content would be increased, particularly local news content. 

Today's Kenosha News story on the hiring of Dr. Hancock touches the surface -- her salary and praise for her from the board that hired her as well as the superintendent she'll replace -- but where is the background?  Had someone done a Google search a couple of weeks ago maybe they would have uncovered the WHAM-TV report on the Ebonics controversy or last weekend's Rochester newspaper story on allegations that Dr. Hancock intimidated teachers who gave a "no confidence" vote in their principal.  Maybe then the school board and the community could have "vetted" this candidate more comprehensively.

Vetting isn't completely a negative process, either.  There are positives in Dr. Hancock's experience, such as how she and her family invested long hours into literally cleaning and painting the rundown Rochester school where she became principal.  

Nonetheless the WHAM-TV report about the Ebonics controversy quickly deals the race card away.  All of the critical comments came from black students, parents and community leaders.  

True, the newspaper expressed concerns about the lack of openness in the superintendent selection process, but at the end of the day what would be so difficult about a one minute Google search or calling the Rochester newspaper and asking, "You know one of your school administrators is a finalist for superintendent here.  What do you know about her?"   That's basic journalism. 

It will be interesting to see if the newspaper follows up on this, even at this late date.  More interesting, though, is a reader comment on its web site: "I went to the websites that were referred to early in this blog and read them carefully. They were ALSO blogs, meaning that they were based on OPINIONS, not facts."

That's not always an inaccurate assessment as a general statement but in this case, if the writer was referring to this blog, the commentary was completely separate from the WHAM-TV reporting which was reprinted verbatim.  WHAM-TV is a well-regarded broadcast news operation.  The source of the story, including the reporter's name, was clearly stated here.  Hard to see how that could have been missed.

As for blogs, yes they are mixtures of opinion and fact, some more so than others.  But as traditional media sources increasily fail to do their jobs it's probably better that there are these outlets for opinion and information to fill the gap.

This nation has a rich history of blogging.  Except in the old days before computers and electronic communication the functional equivalent of blogging was practiced in public speeches and writings by the likes of Patrick Henry and in Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack.  In the words of the late William T. Evjue, activist newspaper publisher, "Let the people have the truth and the freedom to discuss it and all will go well."

Monday, March 22, 2010

Kenosha's new school suprintendent cited in newspaper editorial over Ebonics

School Daze -- Is English Degrading?

Daily News-Record, Harrisonburg, VA, April 2, 2007

Administrators in this nation’s public schools, we feel certain, wonder why they, at times, come under fire from those whom they serve. This latest gem emanating from the Rochester, N.Y., school system should provide an inkling.

In a recent newsletter sent to teachers and staff, two district officials — Michele Hancock, chief of diversity and leadership, and Tyra Webb-Johnson, director of coaching and leadership — warmly approved of the use of Black English Vernacular (Ebonics) in Rochester’s classrooms. Among other things, the two women said, teachers should feel free to “translate common phrases in Standard English into BEV” and “read and retell stories in both BEV and Standard English.”

Their rationale for marginalizing Standard English is stunning. “We want (teachers) to have a better understanding of what BEV is so they can incorporate it into their teaching. That way, they’re not alienating the students who are speaking the vernacular and degrading them,” Ms. Webb-Johnson said.

So, expecting kids to use Standard English — once called the “King’s English” — is “degrading”? What’s “degrading,” in our mind, is the message conveyed by these alarming sentiments — namely, that African American students are unable, for some reason, to learn the communication skills needed to succeed in life’s marketplace.

What a disservice this is to children whose very future will — not may, but will — be determined by how well they are educated. Giving them a pass on the employment of good grammar is akin to handing them a ticket to permanent underclass status. Schools are supposed to be oases of enrichment, not wastelands of hopelessness.

My take is that our new superintendent perhaps meant well but failed to grasp the bigger picture.  There's often a huge gap between being educated and being smart.  Perhaps Ms. Hancock meant well but the road to failure has all too often been route directed by those who mean well.  We have long decided that racial equality is the public policy of this great nation.  It is insulting to suggest that standards somehow need to be lowered.  To be fair, an unacceptable number of American young people of all races in college and the workforce lack basic linguistic and math skills.  We ought to be raising the student to the standards, not lowering the standards.  To do otherwise is a cynical insult to our youth. 

Kenosha Unified: Who the Hell did the background check here?

Michele Hancock, Kenosha's newly minted $195,000 school superintendent (up from Joe Mangi's $150,000) caused quite a stir at home in Rochester, New York.  Amazing how parents and students have more common sense -- and how our school board failed its due diligence in checking this out.  But what else is new?  Read on...

Rachel Barnhart/13WHAM (Rochester, N.Y.) – It’s called Black English Vernacular – or more commonly – Ebonics.

In a newsletter to staff, Rochester City School District officials say it is OK for students and teachers to speak Ebonics in class.

The newsletter, Diversity Dialogue, suggests teachers use BEV to communicate with students. It says teachers can:

• “Switch into BEV in specific situations or informal discussion.”
• "Translate common phrases in Standard English into BEV.”
• “Read and retell stories in both BEV and Standard English.”

“We need to embrace the diversity they bring into our schools,” said the district’s Chief of Diversity and Leadership, Michele Hancock.

Hancock and Tyra Webb-Johnson, Director of Coaching and Leadership, wrote the newsletter. They are both former elementary school principals.

“We want (teachers) to have a better understanding of what BEV is so they can incorporate it into their teaching. That way, they're not alienating the students who are speaking the vernacular and degrading them,” Webb-Johnson said.

Ebonics was debated nationally in 1996 when the Oakland, California school district proposed using it in the curriculum.

Ebonics is defined as a speech pattern used by some African-Americans that does not follow standard grammar.

“No matter how you speak, you do need to learn the standard form so you can embrace the larger audience of people,” Hancock said. “But you can hold on to the richness of your family environment and not feel that is beneath any standard of living.”

Hancock says many people, including her own son, who graduated from college, know how to "code switch" between Standard English and Ebonics. She said students must learn to be proficient in Standard English.

“Many African-Americans are bi-dialectic in their speech patterns. I think it's critical teachers understand those speech patterns so they can effectively, visually show children how they are speaking, but not to denigrate it, but to celebrate it,” Hancock said.

13WHAM News showed the newsletter to several black leaders in the community.

“Anybody who suggests that these kids will lose their identity because they cannot be, should not be encouraged to speak Ebonics is wrong,” said school board member Van White, who is pushing to create an African-American studies department in the district. “We are not African-Americans because of how we speak, but who we are as a people.”

“I understand there's a need for teachers and students to meet on some common plane, but I'm not sure expressing that as Ebonics as that plane is a way to go,” said City Councilman Adam McFadden.

“It's acceptable in hip hop culture, but I don't think anyone would suggest the way forward for students already coming to school with severe educational deficiencies is to maintain a deficient language pattern,” said former Mayor William Johnson.

Johnson and then-Police Chief Bob Duffy fired a white police officer for writing a memo called “Ghetto Lingo,” which claimed to translate English phrases into African-American vernacular.

Hancock and Webb-Johnson say many white teachers come to them for help communicating with students. The BEV suggestion is not a mandate, they said.

“It doesn't hurt the kids. What we're saying to the children is we value what you bring. You have value,” said Hancock.

"What if one of your teachers started speaking Ebonics to you tomorrow? I would think they were crazy!" said Jada Scott, an 8th grader.

"I just think that's outrageous. Ebonics, that's something that kids speak out in the street with their friends, it's not something to be encouraged in the classroom,” said Maxine Humphrey, a high school senior.

“I think it's not a good idea,” said senior Candice Scott. “If we learn to speak Ebonics and we get into the real world, I don't think it's going to be of any help to us."

"I don't think it's a very good idea. I think it's more important for the kids to reach up to the school standards, instead of the school coming down to the kid’s level,” said parent Melynda Scott.