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City school superintendent candidates get generally warm reception

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 10, 2008 - The three finalists for superintendent of St. Louis public schools spelled out their visions to a generally receptive audience Tuesday night at Vashon High School in north St. Louis.

Donnie Evans, formerly superintendent of schools in Providence, R.I.,  pointed to student achievement during his tenure in making his case for the job.

“We were very successful in improving student achievement in two short years,” he said of his experience in Providence, pointing to a “26 percent increase in reading” and improvement in math scores as well.

“Some of the kinds of strategies that we used there would be the kind that I would use to accelerate student achievement here,” he said.

He was asked about an incident during which more than 100 school children were stranded on buses during a snowstorm in December of last year. Evans first said he took responsibility for the mixup, but he later blamed the incident on assistants. He said he had learned from the experience to always have a backup plan.

Eric Becoats, formerly co-interim superintendent of Guilford County Schools in Greensboro, N.C., promised to set up several new programs in St. Louis to help reduce the drop out rate and improve achievement.

“We need to have everybody at the table to talk about the issues and all of us (must) work together and move the district forward.,” he said.

One of his proposals would set up a school on a college campus where the 100-150 students enrolled could earn college credits for some of their courses. In Greensboro, he set up a program titled Mission Possible, which he said helped the school district lower classes sizes, expand teacher training and raise pay for some teachers. Before Greensboro, he had been employed by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district in Charlotte, N.C., where he had been accused of  misusing computers, telephones and employees to run a personal consulting business. Becoats said he has since abandoned the business.

“That’s something from the past. I learned from that experience, and I’m going to move on. I’ve always been a man of my word and I’ve always continue to be. That’s a pledge I will make to this community.”

The third candidate is Kelvin Adams, who worked in the St. Louis school system when Craig Williams was superintendent. He currently is chief of staff of New Orleans’ Recovery School District. Williams defended charter schools, saying, “I will be open to doing what is right to improve students achievement. I believe in choice, in competition. That’s what charters are. I view them as an opportunity to create competition. I’m supportive of student achievement by whatever vehicle that achievement takes.”

He said improving schools is a gradual process that must be focused around a leadership team of teachers and community residents who meet to support their schools and talk about what needs to be done to make their schools better.

William Purdy - a member of the elected school board that was replaced by a transitional board when the state took control of the district - said he was disappointed with the selection process set up by the appointed board.

“The administrative board made a serious mistake in the beginning by showing (former Superintendent Diana) Bourisaw the door,” Purdy said. “The district had made progress on MAP scores based on her work. The timing of this search is suspect because most of the highly qualified superintendents are already employed. To search for a superintendent after school began lowered the quality of the pool of candidates.”

Katheen Styer, who has a child in Metro High School, said she also was disappointed by the departure of Bourisaw but was pleased that the appointed board was holding a forum to allow parents and others to meet the candidates.

“We could really use time to let superintendents stay and finish a few of the things they started and see if there are improvements before we go jumping into something new again,” she said. “I’m not happy with the turnover of superintendents. I think we should have given Dr. Bourisaw another year.”

In spite of the ethical lapses in the records of two of the candidates, the audience seemed generally pleased with all of them.

In the wake of a high turnover of superintendents, school meetings have included much turmoil. But last night’s session was civil, with the audience clapping in response to some of the answers the candidates gave in response to handwritten questions from the audience. But after the three superintendents had made their presentations and just before the session was about to end, one person demanded to speak and was eventually escorted from the room.

Rich Sullivan, head of the three-member board appointed by the governor and two city public officials, said responses from the candidates were part of information that his board would consider before choosing a new superintendent.

“We have work to do in terms of site visits and lots of conversations with people who have worked with the three candidates,” Sullivan said. “Once we get through that process, we’ll sit down to make a selection in the next two weeks.”

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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