Nicastro learns - and teaches - hard lessons in first year as education commissioner
When Chris Nicastro was named Missouri's commissioner of elementary and secondary education last year, the news was that she was the first woman and the first urban educator to hold that position.
No one knew that the better shorthand would be this: the commissioner who had to deal with the state's worst budget crisis in recent memory.
So is it accurate to sum up her first 12 months in the job as interesting?
"That's an understatement."
Nicastro says that being the first female in her role never meant that much to her.
"People have been saying to me that I'm the first woman to do this or that for 35 years," she said in a wide-ranging interview, "so for me gender has not really been an issue. I just want to do a good job at whatever I'm doing."
As far as being the first commissioner with a background in urban education, serving as superintendent in Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood before going to Jefferson City, Nicastro says it obviously gave her a perspective that others had lacked -- and prepared her for a flurry of activity in St. Louis, Wellston and Riverview Gardens that has been a big part of her first year.
But, she says, she needed to establish credibility in all parts of the state, not just its cities.
"I have to work extra hard to work with those folks not in urban areas, to show that I care equally about their kids and their issues," she said. "It's up to me to establish that trust and that credibility."
As far as the money part of her job, Nicastro had to hit the ground racing, as she prepared Missouri for its entry into the federal Race to the Top for a share of more than $4 billion in federal stimulus funds and tried to make every dollar count from a shrinking Missouri budget. Missouri was shut out of the federal program, at the same time that the bad news in Jefferson City seemed never to end.
"Certainly I realized before I came that the budget was going to be a challenge," she said, "but maybe I was the only one in state government who was caught off guard by the magnitude of the budget crunch that we had to deal with."
As a new school year is about to start, and another $600 million state budget shortfall looms, she wants to make sure that administrators throughout Missouri are armed with as much information as possible to make scarce dollars work toward the goal that she has emphasized over and over again -- improved student achievement.
"Nobody can do anything about the cuts themselves," Nicastro said. "It's a reality we all have to struggle with. I hope that what the folks in the field would say is that we have done a good job of keeping them in the loop, communicating as much as possible to make sure they have the opportunity to do some planning.
"You can handle almost anything if you have sufficient time to plan, so my goal has been to give them as much time and as much information as possible."
COLLEGIALITY, ENERGY, INCLUSION
Those who have worked with Nicastro in her first year on the job tend to use the same words when asked about what her accomplishments and her approach: communication, focus, hard work, making sure everyone's voice gets heard and letting everyone know the high expectations she has of them.
"Chris has done the most remarkable job in a 12-month period of any appointed or hired leader," said Peter Herschend of Branson, a longtime member of the state Board of Education, which chose Nicastro for
"She is in regular communication with all of the superintendents in the state -- not just sending out a 'hey, how are you,' but getting information out to the people who have to live with it and make the schools work. We didn't do that before."
He also praised her quick decision making -- not always a hallmark of government work. When the earthquake struck Haiti in January, Herschend said, he was approached by Convoy of Hope, a group in Springfield, to ask for help from Missouri's schools in putting together sanitation kits for kids.
He called Nicastro, who was on vacation, and it didn't take too long before she had information out to schools throughout the state; 50,000 kits were assembled in less than a week.
Herschend also praised her reorganization of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, bringing in new senior leadership and dividing responsibilities so that some of the department concentrates on academics while the other provides support services.
"She works very hard to find the men and women inside the department who are willing to work very, very hard and are effective," he said. "Then she gives them their objectives, but she doesn't hold the reins. She says I'll help you where I can and when I should, but she has confidence in the individuals who are reporting to her, and she will give them their head, making sure objectives are clear and reporting guidelines are clear."
His overall grade for Nicastro's first year? An A.
"Am I high on her?" Herschend said. "Yes. Do I think she walks on water? No -- nor does she."
That kind of praise is echoed by a former superintendent colleague of Nicastro, Maureen Clancy-May, who heads the Bayless School District. She sees more help coming from Jeff City than in the past, and she says Nicastro's experience running school districts is clear in the way she has taken over the state department.
"There seem to be more opportunities available for school districts to sharpen our skills and knowledge in the area of student performance data," Clancy-May said. "That's been significant. We didn't have such a strong, laser-like focus before on strategies to grow our student achievement level.
"Most important, she is a strong, ardent advocate for children. It doesn't matter where they live in the state or what they have available to them. She seems to understand the nuances of the different locales of the state, but she is still very strong-minded when it comes to doing the best things she can for kids."
To Stan Archie of Kansas City -- the only member of the Board of Education from one of the state's two major urban areas -- Nicastro's strength comes from direct communication and high standards.
"She's very upfront, which is very, very important," he said. "She doesn't leave you in the dark. You pretty much know what's expected, and that's a huge plus for me because I'm an upfront person. I like to know the good, the bad and the ugly.
"She's always pushing the envelope to say, let's go a little bit further, let's do a little better. Well enough is not good enough. It's a tricky balance between those two. She takes note of things that work well, but at the same time she's not content with having just a few things work well."
HARD DECISIONS IN TOUGH SITUATIONS
Few things were working well in two St. Louis County school districts when Nicastro took charge. Her former district, Riverview Gardens, was unaccredited and headed for a state takeover. Wellston, which already was under the control of a state-appointed board, was reaching the point where it couldn't stand on its own for long.
And in St. Louis, where a Special Administrative Board had taken charge in 2007, Nicastro thought it was time for the panel whose recommendations had led to that situation to take another look.
In each case, say the people involved, she approached the situation decisively, but with concern for how her actions would affect the communities and their children.
"She's got a big assignment," said Frankie Freeman, co-chair of the committee that Nicastro reconvened to study next steps for the St. Louis Public Schools.
"We're trying to do what we can for the city schools. It takes a community willing to be of service. That's what we are trying to do."
Nicastro hopes to see recommendations from the Danforth-Freeman committee by this fall. The situations in two other districts -- Wellston and Riverview Gardens -- demanded more immediate attention.
Not long after taking over DESE, she approached Normandy school officials with her plan for them to absorb the Wellston district. Normandy Superintendent Stanton Lawrence said Nicastro's prior experience in north St. Louis County gave her a credibility that earlier officials from Jefferson City may not have had.
"She has the urban perspective," Lawrence said. "She understands the challenges that urban school superintendents confront every day, and she also understands what some of the solutions are that can be responsive to those challenges.
"When people are receiving information about what is going to be a pretty extreme change, you have to be sensitive, and she was sensitive. There were those who said their voices were not heard, but she was pretty honest and upfront: These are the circumstances we are facing. This is not something to be done suddenly, without due consideration of all of the factors that had to be taken into account.
"I don't think any could have done a better job than Chris Nicastro, and I mean that very sincerely."
A few months later, Nicastro faced a similar decision in her old district, Riverview Gardens, which had not shown the necessary improvements and had to be taken over by a state-appointed board. Tommie Pierson, president of the board that had been elected by district residents -- someone who had become involved in the schools because Nicastro had asked him years before -- said she handled the news with respect.
"The public received her well," Pierson said, recalling a long meeting she held with district residents. "She explained it. She stayed there and answered every question that everybody had asked, and I think everyone appreciated that. I have not received any complaints about how she handled it.
"Chris knew exactly what to do. I don't think anybody else could have moved in and done it as smoothly as Chris. She showed respect for the entire community. I wouldn't sit here and tell you I was glad to hear what she was going to do. But after she explained it, we understood and accepted it and knew we had to move forward for the sake of our students."
For her part, Nicastro said she was "nothing short of heartbroken about what happened in Riverview. We had an excellent team when I was there -- teachers, principals, community leaders, parents. Everybody was going in the same direction, and it made a real difference. To see that that didn't continue was really difficult, not just for me but for everybody in that community."
OPERATING ON A LARGER STAGE
Taking that kind of a broader view has been one of the adjustments that Nicastro has had to make as she moved from being superintendent of one district to being in charge of 500-plus districts throughout the state.
She also had to get used to a new level of bureaucracy that often lumbers along at a speed far slower from what she is used to.
"I tend to be pretty fast-paced," she said. "I ask a lot of questions. I have very high expectations for myself and for everybody else. One thing about my style that may be a little different and may have had an impact on the agency is a focus on working as a team and improving internal and external communication.
"As a superintendent, I used to have the ability to have things move pretty quickly. Here, in state government, things are a lot more complex. There have been days when I've wondered whether I would be able to make anything happen. There are a lot of barriers to change, but that's what makes this a challenge. Sometimes, that makes it more interesting."
Besides the financial challenges, Nicastro is dealing with other issues, including a cut in funding for Parents as Teachers and a move toward academic standards that are the same across states. Both deal with what she always comes back to as the main purpose of her job -- improving academic performance by students.
"I have yet to find a single person who does not believe that Parents as Teachers has been a point of pride for Missouri and a tremendous program for children and families," she said. "But when we have to cut something like that, the department has to figure out how to manage the money that's left in the budget and how to guide districts about making decisions about funding."
As far as common academic standards, Nicastro says the proposal from the National Governors Association came up with a blueprint that is at least as good as the current standards in Missouri. She welcomes the opportunity to make sure students everywhere are learning what they should, as well as they should.
"For years," she said, "we've been comparing district to district and state to state, even though the standards, the curriculum, everything may be different. The interest here is to have a level playing field. If you are comparing Missouri to Kansas or Kansas to Massachusetts, you should have some assurance the comparisons have some validity.
"If this country is going to continue to be competitive internationally, we have to have standards for educational programs that also are competitive internationally. For some time, we have been relying on individual states to establish standards that would do that, and it simply hasn't produced the kind of results we want to see.
"We have a good opportunity here to use standards that are higher, clearer and fewer, to really focus our instructional programs and make sure that each and every child who graduates is ready for college or a career. That's our challenge."
And Nicastro doesn't worry that common standards adopted by Missouri in June will remove education from local control. Districts need all the help they can get, she said.
"Twenty years ago, maybe even 10 years ago, school districts were pretty independent about asserting their right to establish a local curriculum. They're worn out. Districts and particularly classroom teachers just don't have the time to independently develop all those tools.
"What we are hoping to do here in the department is develop what we are calling a model curriculum that would include all the tools that teachers need to do their work, from curriculum to lesson plans to assessments, the whole bag of tools they need to teach kids. Then they can take those things and adapt them or adopt them or use they as they want to locally."
It all goes back to education not being dictated from Jefferson City but having her department serve as a resource to help schools succeed academically, financially and organizationally. If school districts do well, Nicastro said, their students have a better chance to make the grade.
"What we have to keep in mind is that parents want what is best for their children: a good educational opportunity, in a building that is safe and secure, with teachers who are high quality and can get a paycheck. Part of it is helping local districts work with their communities and communicate to everyone what the issues are and what the facts are.
"If you are open with people and tell them the truth, then give them complete information, generally people will make the right decision."
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.