Getting dirty is part of a superintendent's job

Getting dirty is part of a superintendent's job

Alexandria Public Schools superintendent Alvin Crawley not afraid of tough decisions or having a little fun

Alvin Crawley relishes the days he can get a little dirty. One recent day, he played kickball with students at Maury Elementary School, and then dusted off his new suit before returning to his office.

Another day, he played drums and told African folk tales to fourth-graders during a lunch break at Lyles-Crouch Traditional Academy, an elementary school. And on still another, he and Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille rapped in a student-created music video to stem the cases of bullying.

“This is what the job is about,” says Crawley, who became Alexandria City Public Schools’ permanent superintendent last March after being interim since October 2013. “It’s about interacting with students and making sure that, aside from instruction and learning, we’re having fun and developing relationships.”

Crawley might not sound like a typical superintendent, but he is managing a $215 million budget, collaborating with the teachers union, and ensuring students are treated equally, fairly and are engaged in their learning. He stresses that he does not do this alone, but has the help of everyone from cafeteria workers to office staff members to teachers, and all personnel in between.

“It cannot center around one person,” says Crawley, who plays the trumpet and drums for fun. “And I ask myself, ‘How do you take all the energy and expertise in a school building and make that work for kids?’ I have a deep appreciation for all of the people that make this system run and make it a vibrant place.”

Road to Alexandria

It was the great disappointment of applying for but missing out on the superintendent’s job in Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland that led Crawley to Alexandria. While he was undergoing rigorous interviews with the district and public in the spring of 2013, the Maryland legislature allowed the county executive to take over the district. The job had been eliminated.

Alexandria City Public Schools

  • Budget: $215 million
  • Teachers: 1,415
  • Schools: 19
  • Per child expenditure: $17,693
  • Native languages: 103
  • Students taking ELL services: 27%:
  • Student enrollment: 13,500
  • Black: 32%
  • Hispanic: 33%
  • White: 27%
  • Asian: 5%
  • Other: 3%

Then a year ago, Alexandria Superintendent Morton Sherman was released from his contract, and Crawley seized the opportunity.

“I wanted to stay in this area and Alexandria seemed like a perfect fit,” he says. “I looked at the demographics and the work that was taking place. I was interested in working in a school district with diversity, and there was work taking place around the achievement gap and improving accountability systems.”

Alexandria’s culture

The district, which is located just outside Washington, D.C., has pockets of affluence and poverty. About 60 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunch. “This cannot be an excuse for a lack of achievement,” Crawley says.

When Crawley started full-time last spring, he visited every school and assembled focus groups of teachers, students and administrators to learn what was working and what wasn’t.

“I asked, ‘What advice do you have for me as the new guy?’ It was very informative,” he says. “I took that information back and internalized it and it shaped the direction I planned for the division. Some of our challenges are not just centered around instruction, but how to reshape the culture of an organization and how to build trust so people want to be here.”

He also met with Alexandria City Manager Rashad Young to discuss shared services, such as recreation centers and transportation. He established a monthly “Coffee and Conversation with the Superintendent” meeting for parents. “I just want people to bring ideas and concerns so we can engage in problem solving,” he says.

Crawley also brought the Wellness on Wheels (WOW) Bus, a mobile health unit, to three elementary schools—with funding from a $380,000 Affordable Care Act grant. Licensed medical professionals from Alexandria Neighborhood Health Services, Inc., deliver basic health care, including dental procedures and behavioral health services.

Finding solutions

Among Crawley’s first steps on the job was surveying teachers in nine areas, including communication, leadership, trust and parent involvement. Leaders from each school and the district as a whole are reviewing the data and developing action plans to solve any problems. “You’re never too old to improve,” he says. “It’s about being honest and creating relationships around trust.”

Alvin Crawley:Fast favorites

School teacher: Kindergarten teacher Miss Walker, who comforted him the first two days of school when he missed home and cried on her lap.

Book or author: The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Pulitzer-Prize winning Isabel Wilkerson, about the decades-long migration of black citizens who fled the South for better lives in northern and western cities.

Sports team to watch: Washington Nationals

City: Philadelphia

Pastime: Listening to jazz

Facebook or Twitter? Facebook

Dessert: Bread pudding

    The next step was to start fixing schools where student achievement had been lagging. For instance, the pre-K through 8 Jefferson-Houston School has been targeted for a possible state takeover because of chronic low test performance. “Crawley and the Alexandria school board worked with the state DOE to establish a partnership with the American Institutes of Research, which helps districts turn around failing schools.”

    On top of that, four of the city’s five middle schools were on track to lose accreditation in the coming years. Crawley’s solution is to consolidate the middle schools this year into two large schools: George Washington Middle School and Francis C. Hammond Middle School. The new administrative structure at each school includes:

    • A principal, who will set the vision, implement accountability systems and implement the curriculum.
    • Academic principals, who will observe classrooms, ensuring instruction is aligned with curriculum and targets support for students.
    • A new dean of students, who will manage discipline and implement positive-behavioral intervention for students.
    • And a director of school counseling, who will manage a program that addresses social, emotional, mental health and well-being of students, and will oversee AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, which is dedicated to closing the achievement gap by preparing students for college or careers.

    Small raises for teachers

    When he started as interim superintendent last fall, Crawley faced a $13 million gap in the school budget. “I knew coming into the job that there were fiscal issues going on that would impact our budget,” he says. “And I know that, looking at our salaries, they are pretty competitive. People are not leaving us to go elsewhere.”

    So Crawley focused on protecting the classroom. And while he decided not to authorize raises for teachers for the 2014-15 year, the district received more funding than expected from the city council and he was able to give staff at least a 1 percent raise. “While it’s not a lot, we did not have to make reductions in teacher staff or add to class size,” he says. “And given where we started in the budget, I think we ended up in a pretty good place.”

    Future concerns

    Looking ahead, Crawley expects student enrollment to surpass 16,000 over the next five years. “We are grappling with capacity and aging buildings,” he says. He has talked with the school board about adding two schools and expanding others.

    And he acknowledges he is concerned at times about the sheer volume and pace of work he must juggle. “I need to make sure that I’m moving a system in a way that is deliberate and clear and respectful of the people doing all the work.”

    Angela Pascopella is managing editor.


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