New Orleans may be known as "The Big Easy," but that's certainly not the job description for the superintendent of public schools. This district--along with its 125 schools and almost 70,000 students--has long been plagued by decaying buildings, high student absenteeism, poor academic performance, and deficits in the education budget. It's also had a non-stop succession of superintendents who have left behind a long list of broken promises to improve the district.
Recently the discovery of years of financial malfeasance has catapulted the district into the national headlines, and in April a FBI task force came to investigate.
But all this pales in comparison to what's happening now, as the school board aims to fire its big-name superintendent, Anthony Amato. The case, which is far from settled, has already involved a federal judge, the governor, the state legislature and the state school board, which may seize control of the New Orleans district before all is said and done.
Maybe the biggest surprise is that all of this public fighting comes just two months after Amato received a positive review from the seven-person board, garnering a grade of B+. The crux of the issue is a bill that has already passed the state House of Representatives. This bill would require that a super majority, five of seven, board members would be needed to fire its superintendent. The bill also would give Amato sole control over contracts, and the power to hire and fire individuals without the board's approval.
Amato was only hired with a 4-3 vote, and some board members have publicly claimed he was behind this bill, and viewed his action as a way to usurp their power. Amato denies he was involved with the bill, which still has to pass the state Senate.
On June 4, the issue came to a head when the board called an emergency meeting to discuss Amato's performance. When it appeared four board members would join to fire Amato, two pro-Amato board members successfully requested a restraining order from a federal judge. (The order was given, in part, because of a provision in Amato's contract that seems to require the board to provide 10 days notice before firing him.)
Board attorney Clare Jupiter called the restraining order, "The most retarded, idiotic, dangerous, repugnant action. That's what the board was elected to make a judgment call on," she told the Times-Picayune.
One anti-Amato board member, Ellenese Brooks-Simms, released a 51-page report that outlines her complaints about Amato, according to the Times-Picayune. She cited instability in Amato's administration and a lack of oversight of federal programs. Even if Amato isn't fired, she said the superintendent should not garner more power. "Even if he's related to Jesus Christ, what happens next if he leaves," she told the Louisiana newspaper.
After these complaints were aired in the media before he was told of them, Amato told the Times-Picayune, "Now I'm really pissed."
At presstime, it appeared the state law giving Amato more power would be passed before the restraining order was lifted, ensuring that Amato would at least have an opportunity to finish the job he started.
Amato has said he welcomes a challenge, and he arrived 18 months earlier with his sleeves rolled up. He has already overhauled and standardized the district's literacy program, launched a series of "signature" high schools built around different career tracks, and pushed through a controversial plan to close a dozen underperforming middle schools and replace them with K-8 schools.
"I've been asked a thousand times, 'Are you going too fast?' " Amato said before his most recent dustup. "I've never walked into a non-urgent situation. For me, while we as adults take our time to formulate our plan, look at the research, and review our data, there's a third grader who has one shot at being a third grader. And that third grader is waiting for us as adults to do the right thing, and to really make her life move ahead educationally."
"It bothered some people that Amato was moving too fast, but he's our last hope," says Orleans Parish School Board member Jimmy Fahrenholtz. "For the first time in 15 years, we have gotten to the point where we have a true educator instead of a political appointee. If we lose him, the state will take us over, and the state doesn't really know how to run an urban school system."
Being Decisive and Highly Visible
Amato came to the job with urban roots and a track record of succeeding in urban schools. He grew up moving between New York's south Bronx and his mother's native Puerto Rico, and he divided 17 years as a superintendent between New York City (where he also spent six years as a principal) and Hartford, Conn., his last address before heading to New Orleans.
In New Orleans, many of Amato's early reforms have been decisive and highly visible. In August, he opened the academic year by ringing a hand-held bell in front of one his schools. The idea was to publicize his commitment to eliminating absenteeism, and while 10,000 of the city's students were still missing, that number was 3,000 less than on the previous opening day.
The bell also tolled for 20 principals whom Amato reassigned to lesser administrative posts or to classrooms. "If you're very clear about what you want for performance in kids, in a very short amount of time you'll know who the performers are that care about kids," he explains. "And you also realize there are a lot of good people in bad places--good people who just weren't meant to be a principal in that particular situation or who weren't meant to be a principal, period.
"At that point, you have to be very, very clear that the students have to carry the day. It's not about adults. It's about the kids that we serve. You look at the data, you look at the performance, you look at the kids, and that should drive your decision."
Putting students first, Amato admits, drives all the policies he has put in place and the message he communicates to his principals.
"You put a brand on yourself that you're going to talk about kids, you're going to talk about instruction, you're going to talk about teaching and learning. You're going to walk the talk of an instructional leader, not walk the talk of a political icon or a manager," he says. "You're going to make sure 90 percent of any meetings you have with principals are about teaching and learning issues, and not about managerial, administrative nonsense, and hopefully you'll be a model so that those principals will do exactly the same thing at the school level."
First Up: Student Literacy
For Amato, his first priority was addressing student literacy, especially since 50 of the district's schools were designated as "academically unacceptable."
"I saw absolutely no systems whatsoever in place for literacy," he recalls. "It was haphazard all the way through, even from one grade to the next at the same school--in terms of the number of literacy systems in the district, the times it was taught, how it was taught, the philosophical backbone. And that problem was certainly confirmed by the scores on high stakes tests."
So Amato conducted 500-person seminars for principals and teams from their schools, including union, building and parent representatives. After analyzing student test scores and drawing on literacy research, he offered a choice of two scripted reading programs--Success for All or Direct Instruction. At the Avery Alexander Elementary School, which adopted Success for All, Principal Charlotte Matthew says Amato's message came through loud and clear.
"We've always been data oriented," she says before the start of school on a sunny spring morning. "He has insisted that we don't just talk about it, but use it to make a difference for the child. Now we've finally got someone at the top saying, 'Let's look at what children are doing.' That's a fundamental shift."
She points to a bar chart that hangs behind her on the wall and shows 62 percent of this Title 1 school's 545 students reading at grade level compared to only 34 percent in the fall.
That difference becomes more visible once school begins, and students walk briskly to classrooms matching their literacy levels. They may not be taking the same routes a month from now. As they gain in proficiency, they will move to different classrooms--even joining students from other grades who are on the same reading level.
In a classroom rated at the 6.1 grade level, advanced fourth and fifth graders join sixth graders as they tackle a mastery list containing words such as "optimism," "enthusiastic" and "cooperative."
"The difference this year is there is a clearly defined focus on what's expected to happen in every classroom," Matthew says. She plans to use a similar district-wide program in numeracy that Amato has introduced.
"He really has determination to make these things work, and what we needed was a leader who would not give up," she adds.
Taking Off with Signature High Schools
Across town, a different kind of educational program is taking root for the pioneering ninth graders at almost a dozen new Signature High School Centers. These learning academies offer career-oriented programs from aviation to medical sciences to culinary arts and each will expand to 400 students as the current freshmen advance to their senior year.
The aviation program landed in a vacant junior high school building it shares with the culinary arts, media and communications, and automotive technology schools. The shabby walls reveal the state into which many public schools here have fallen. But the surroundings don't dampen a newfound enthusiasm in the students.
"At 5:30 or 6:00, we have to make an announcement that it's time to go home," says Signature Center Principal Eleck Craig. We have 55 kids with uniforms in our aviation program who think they are going into the aviation world."
Digging Up Fraud
For all of Amato's emphasis on managing learning and keeping students in the forefront, he has found himself focusing on areas he hadn't planned on, starting with the systemic corruption for which he's called in an FBI and Homeland Security task force.
"This makes All the King's Men look like a bedtime story," he says, referring to the classic novel of Louisiana politics and corruption during the Huey Long administration in the 1930s. "Over this past year, I've had to learn more about operations and finances than I ever wanted to do just to keep my head above the incredible schemes that are done on a daily basis. It's been a day-to-day and week-to-week challenge. This is not for the faint of heart."
Amato emphasizes that these problems do not necessarily reflect on his current employees. But he estimates that the district's financial losses from fraud and other wrongdoing--in areas from purchasing and technology to personnel and finance--may reach $100 million.
"There were a lot of dead people receiving checks," he says. "So we had employees come in personally with ID and social security numbers to get paid. When we did that, 1,500 checks were left on the table. And these checks had been going out every two weeks. So we've had to call in law enforcement people and auditors and collection agents. I call them 'ghostbusters.' "
Amato has also engineered a $50 million reduction in the district's annual $550 million budget. He is aiming to replenish the district's reserve fund and to use the lion's share for a bond issue that would raise enough money "for a first-class system of new facilities."
"We have some of the most challenged facilities I've ever seen. They are abysmal," Amato says. "People here were not used to supporting public schools at the rate at which they should be supported. That dynamic continues to this day where people feel that having super-challenged facilities is acceptable because you have this backup plan called parochial/private school."
So will Amato get to finish the job he's started? That issue will likely not be answered even after it's decided whether the board can fire him or not. The damage and name-calling from this very public spat might make reconciliation impossible.
Ron Schachter is a freelance writer based in Newton, Mass. With additional reporting by Wayne D'Orio.