Sue Brothers, who worked under Mt. Diablo schools Superintendent Steven Lawrence in his two former districts, has been hired to replace Gary Swanson as principal of Clayton Valley High in Concord. Swanson is retiring.
Brothers knows she is stepping into a contentious environment, where teachers are mounting an effort to convert the campus to a charter school. She said she has been reading our local blogs to get a sense of what’s going on here.
I asked her about some of the blog comments about her appointment, as well as her feelings about some of the concerns addressed by charter proponents.
Although some in the community appear to believe she has been hand-picked to quash the charter, Brothers insists that’s not the case. In fact, she shares some of the same ideals as the charter proponents (although she believes these could be accomplished without converting the school).
Given the intense interest in the community about the charter and Brothers’ appointment, I’m posting large chunks of my interview below, as a Q & A, with some paraphrased notes in between. My questions are paraphrased.
My first phone interview was Thursday, followed on Friday by a shorter phone interview with Brothers, as well as a brief conversation with Washington district superintendent Dayton Gilleland.
Q: Why do you want to move from a district administrator to a school principal? Is that a step backwards?
A: “I think it’s funny that people think it’s a step backward because really, they’re two totally different places and you do different things. High schools are an interesting challenge because to get all kids to achieve at all levels is really tough. I really have found that I enjoyed working hands-on with staff and kids rather than at that next level. So, that’s the reason.
I really like high school. In my current position, I spend quite a bit of time on school sites and in classrooms, and frankly that’s the part of the job that I really like — working with teachers and with kids. So, I did some thinking and thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Q: Would you want to move into district office administration after a year as a principal?
A: “I can tell you the last two times I’ve moved, it’s been after five years. I was Director of Curriculum and Instruction in the Roseville Joint Union HS District from 2001-2006 and Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services in the Washington Unified School District for five years.”
Brothers said Lawrence was Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction in the Roseville district when she was the director.
Previously, she said she was assistant principal at Woodcreek High School in the Roseville Joint Union HS District, from 1996-2001.
Before that, Brothers said she worked in “kind of a hybrid of administration,” from 1994-96.
From 1985-94, she taught at Roseville High School. Before that, she said she taught preschool.
Q: Some people think you have been hand-picked to wield influence in the district because you have an allegiance to the superintendent. What is your response?
A: “I think that’s funny. I don’t know of any plots.”
Q: Were you surprised when Trustee Cheryl Hansen voted against your appointment?
A: “I don’t know anything about that. I can’t even make a comment, because I’ve got no idea what that was about.”
Q: One of Hansen’s concerns was that it’s been several years since you were a site administrator. She said she would prefer someone with more recent experience on a high school campus. What’s your response?
A: “It’s an interesting concern, because I spend a lot of time on campuses. I coach principals. I advise them on disciplinary issues…I have actually quite a bit of site administrative experience.”
Q: Julie Braun-Martin, assistant superintendent for personnel, said you were asked to provide a writing sample about how you would implement a strategic plan at the school. What’s your plan?
A: “(Number) one, I’m going to move to the community. I need to be there. This is a job that takes a lot of hours. I’m going to be at after-school events. I’m going to be around. People are going to see me. Absolutely, I’m going to have to get to know the community. I’m going to meet a lot of people. The district is working on setting up a time when I can meet the teachers and have some meet-and-greets with parents.
I think there’s a lot of listening that I need to do. You’re going to see me at sporting events and music events. I don’t know everything in the community and I’ll have to listen to people who are there to find out things.
I need to do a whole lot of listening to staff and to students and to parents, to find out what the collective vision is — what people are expecting. I believe expectations are very high, so I don’t have a specific plan yet, because I need to listen to figure out what is most important to tackle first.”
Q: What is your opinion of the charter conversion effort?
A: “I really don’t know enough about the specifics yet to give you an intelligent answer.”
Q: Some people suspect you are being brought in to quash the conversion effort. Is that your intent?
A: “No, I haven’t even had any conversations with anybody about that. I think my role is to be the principal of the school.”
Q: Some conversion supporters have been frustrated by lack of consistent direction and follow-through by the school and district administration. What’s your management style?
A: “I find I have very good follow-through. I’m clear. I say what I’m going to do and I do it, so I don’t think they’ll find that’s an issue.”
Q: Would you be willing to consider some of the changes the charter organizers would like to see on campus?
A: “The school seems to have some direction in some areas. I need to talk to staff before I comment and find out the pieces they’re really passionate about — and then we need to go in that direction.”
She said she knows the campus has a Project Lead the Way academy and pointed out that she’s a member of a Project Lead the Way steering committee in the Sacramento area.
“I really support programs like that. So I doubt that I’m going to find something that I disagree with philosophically.”
Q: What is your current salary?
She acknowledged she’ll make less than that in her new position, but added that the benefits “work differently in Mt. Diablo.”
Q: How old are you?
Q: Why do you want take a pay cut to make this move at this time in your life?
A: “This is a passion, absolutely. My last child graduated from high school and is now in college. I’ve got freedom. I can absolutely do what I want to do and what I want to do is site administration, so it just looked like a really good fit.”
Q: Did the superintendent recruit you for the job?
A: “No. We talk once in a while. He told me he had an opening.”
She said Lawrence originally told her about the College Park opening, then she later found out about the Clayton Valley spot.
“Sometimes, things happen and you end up in the right place. I like challenging work, not boring work. There’s some people that are really interested in positional power or money. I’m really interested in getting great outcomes for kids. That’s what floats my boat. I never want to be a superintendent. I’m really interested in kids. I think high schools are such an interesting challenge.
We know how to move elementary and middle schools, but high schools are the great black box. Also, I love the environment where you have a lot of other adults, sports and events. I like the complexity.
This really is passion and it’s me at this time of my life having a choice, which I just love. I think it’s going to be very interesting.
I’ll be willing to meet with anybody who wants to talk to me because I know this is a complex situation.”
Q: You heard Dr. Norm Gold’s school board report about English language learners. What would you do at Clayton Valley to help those students?
A: “Four percent of students at Clayton Valley are English learners. I would take a look at the draft master schedule, go through all the transcripts, make sure kids are enrolled (in appropriate classes)…I’ll need to pull test scores. It will also help me get familiar with the students.”
Q: The district has been identified by the state as “disproportionate” in terms of the percentage of blacks and Latinos who are identified for special education, suspended and expelled. What strategies do you have for dealing with that?
A: “If you’re talking about discipline, one is at a high school, you’ve got an administrative team that’s doing discipline and you really have to be on the same page and it needs to not matter which kid it is, the penalty’s got to be the same.
You also need to get to the root problem. I think it’s absolutely critical to bring parents in the first time you have a disciplinary contact with the student. If a student has been called to the office, you need to call the parents. You need to look at discipline data.
We are doing that (in the Washington district). We actually log referrals and take a look at: Where did it occur? What time of day? What are the patterns of problems and how are we going to addess them?
At the high school level, it is critical to have supervision. Kids — anytime they look around — should see an adult, which makes them safe.”
Brothers also said the Washington district has a good relationship with the charter schools in town.
FRIDAY, MAY 27 INTERVIEW:
It was brought to my attention that the Washington district school board agreed in closed session March 10 to inform Brothers that she might be “reassigned” to other duties.
Here is what the minutes say:
“On a unanimous vote of yes 4, no 0, absent 1, the Board adopted Resolution 101114 reassigning an employee holding an administrative or supervisory credential to a position for which he/she is credentialed and qualified to serve. In closed session the Board discussed Public Employee Discipline Dismissal/Release/Reassignment: Government Code Section 54954.5(e): 54957. The Board took action in closed session on a vote yes 4, no 0, absent 1, to notify the Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services of a possible change of assignment as required by Education Code Section 44951. This is not a dismissal or disciplinary action. It is a special assignment to be determined at a later time.”
I asked Brothers about this, as well as about concerns expressed by teachers at a charter presentation to the Clayton Valley Business and Community Association that I attended Thursday night, and about other concerns that arose on blogs.
Q: What is the status of your position as Assistant Superintendent for Educational Services in the Washington school district?
A: “I am finishing the first year of a three-year contract through 2013, although I’ve just submitted my resignation (due to being hired as the Clayton Valley HS principal). I’ve been here for five years, and it’s (the contract) gotten renewed periodically.”
Q: Were you reassigned to different duties?
A: “My job title is the same. The contract is the same. It’s a confidential personnel issue. It wasn’t a reassignment. A reassignment would have been some sort of change in job description. My duties haven’t changed. I’m still doing the same thing I was doing.”
She said she couldn’t tell me more than this because the issue involved another person.
Q: Why do you think some people thought you had been demoted or disciplined?
A: “This district’s a litle bit similar to where you are (Mt. Diablo). There were rumors and speculation.”
Q: Do you feel you are being forced out of the Washington district?
A: “No, my feeling is: I want to work with kids. And I wish I could tell you about the other (confidential) part. That is really my passion.”
She encouraged me to speak to her superintendent for more information about the March 10 closed session.
Q: Will you be giving up seniority in terms of retirement benefits, by moving to the Mt. Diablo district?
A: “It doesn’t change STRS (California State Teachers’ Retirement System) at all. STRS carries with me as long as I work in a California school.”
Q: When teachers move to a new district, they lose seniority in terms of salary schedules. Is that true for administrators?
A: “Administrators don’t have those same kinds of job rights. So, I didn’t have that anyway. Administrative salary schedules are just kind of flat.”
Q: I attended a CVHS charter presentation to the Clayton Valley Business Association (CBCA) Thursday night, where some Clayton Valley HS teachers said they don’t feel listened to. You have said that you intend to listen to teachers and to the community. But then, what would be your next step?
A: “Step one is: I need to figure out from the teachers, from the staff — classified included — what kind of governance structure they’d like to use. I have a bias towards action and if there are things that staff feel need to be done immediately then I would do them immediately. You’ll see some changes pretty rapidly. I want to take care of some of those things that teachers bring up. I use team leadershp and teachers are the leaders of the teams.”
She said the Washington district is working with techers to write new curriculum standards.
“But they’re the ones making the decisions, deciding essay prompts, deciding on their own rubrics. Teachers are putting on staff development for other teachers after school, so I have a lot of team leadership.
If (Clayton Valley) teachers haven’t felt listened to, I’m a good listener and I can also help them get the things done that they want to get done.”
Q: The Clayton Valley charter organizers want a responsive administration.
A: “It sounds like I’m in the right place.”
Q: The charter organizers have said inconsistent discipline is an issue on campus, along with lax enforcement of dress code. How would you deal with those issues?
A: “If you don’t have a safe and orderly learning environment, nobody learns anything. It starts with dress code. I believe in the ‘broken window theory.’”
(The broken window theory states that when one window is broken, it’s easier to break the next and the next. If you prevent the first broken window, you can prevent deterioration.)
“If you let little things go, they become big things. Dress code. Inappropriate language. I think schools need to be very purposeful. If they’re into dress code, so am I. That can be a real distraction from learning.”
Q: Some are concerned that you have never been a principal. What is your response?
A: “I’ve been an assistant principal for seven years and have done everything a principal has done, so that shouldn’t be a concern. And now, I coach principals, so I’ve got that skill set.”
INTERVIEW WITH WASHINGTON DISTRICT SUPERINTENDENT DAYTON GILLELAND:
I asked Gilleland to explain the closed session action that took place March 10 regarding Susan Brothers. He said the two actions taken by the board involved two separate employees and that Brothers was ultimately reassigned to an assistant superintendent position on special assignment, under the same job title. He said Brothers has two years remaining on her contract.
“The idea was to focus more attention specifically on Program Improvement schools…It was not by any means a demotion. It was not a disciplinary action. It was simply a matter of refocusing our attention on specific school sites.”
Q: What is your opinon of Brothers?
A: “I have a very high regard for Sue Brothers. She did a lot of wonderful work here. I’m sorry to see her go. She’s very communicative. She’s very astute as an educator and a leader and the (Mt. Diablo) district’s gain is our loss.”
According to an op ed piece Gilleland submitted to his local newspaper earlier this month, it appears that the Washington district, like the Mt. Diablo district, is battling a negative reputation in the community. Gilleland’s op ed piece is in response to “disparaging” remarks about the district made by the mayor, including allegations that the district isn’t doing a good job of educating Latino students.
In his response, Gilleland defends the district and notes improvements made since he assumed leadership, including four intitiatives spearheaded by the Board President to “validate our commitment to work within and throughout our surrounding communities.”
“In title alone,” he wrote, “these initiatives demonstrate the collaborative intent:
- The Whole Child Initiative,
- The Parents Bill of Rights Initiative,
- The Better West Sacramento Initiative, and
- The Community Networking/Outreach Initiative.”
Earlier in the piece, Gilleland praised his staff for their hard work on behalf of district students.
“I don’t intend to venture any deeper into the political abyss that West Sacramento seems to offer,” he wrote. “However, without regret or apology, I will continue to defend what is working and acknowledge those responsible for our success.”
Do you think Brothers has the experience necessary to lead Clayton Valley High?