Report assails Pontiac schools, urges reforms
Recommendations could save district up to $8M now, $5.6M over next few years
Of The Oakland Press
Whether it's spending $1 million per year in district legal fees, failing to adequately monitor service contracts, allowing unethical practices such as nepotism to guide personnel decisions or failing to maintain consistent curriculum throughout the district, Pontiac faces formidable reform challenges in nearly every aspect of its day-to-day operations.
These were among numerous less-than-complimentary findings of the Chartwell Education Group, a consulting firm headed by former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and hired by the Pontiac school district late last year to evaluate management practices.
On Tuesday, the group released to the public a 292-page report containing hundreds of reform recommendations. If enacted, authors suggest, these measures could not only improve academic achievement and rebuild languishing community trust and confidence, but also save the district up to $8 million immediately and an additional $5.6 million over the next two to five years.
Board of Education President Letyna Roberts told about 50 community members gathered for Tuesday's report release that the board is committed to "revolutionary change" namely taking whatever measures are necessary to stem the tide of lackluster student achievement, rapidly declining enrollment, the loss of millions of dollars in operational funding each year and many other problems.
"If we keep going like this, this school district will not be around much longer," she said. "We mean business, people. I hope, I encourage and I urge you to become part of the team."
Based on five months of site visits by educational experts, interviews with individuals in every part of the district, a detailed community survey, facility inspections and other research, Chartwell consultants found both flaws and some commendable aspects of board governance, district management practices, school leadership, community support, financial operations, technology management, personnel services, school safety, instructional practices and student engagement.
At the top of the leadership structure, consultants found considerable disharmony between Board of Education members and top district administrators.
"It was something that was evident in almost every interview we had," said Scott Jenkins, a Chartwell consultant.
Additionally, the report suggests, some board members look to micromanage day-to-day operations rather than set policy, and some make decisions based on community political pressure, rather than the best interests of students.
District executives and other school community members also took heat for decisions made without regard for the best interest of students.
"The district is plagued by a variety of unethical behaviors "particularly nepotism" when it comes to personnel matters, promotions, awarding contracts and the retention of employees," the report states. "Enough examples were provided and confirmed by various sources that it is clear the district faces serious issues regarding unethical behavior at all levels."
Principals are said to be left out of a variety of district planning processes, despite the fact that they are considered vital team members in many other districts. "Those are frontline leaders in every school. They need to be part of the central planning," Jenkins argued.
Shirley McClendon, principal of Owen Elementary School and a member of the Pontiac Association of School Administrators, said she and her colleagues are eager to become part of that process.
"Whatever it takes, we will be there," she told board members Tuesday. "We have the energy, the talent and the time."
It may take considerable efforts to convince the Pontiac community that reform recommendations can bring about tangible change to will benefit students.
A Chartwell survey revealed that 67 percent of local residents believe the district is either failing or beyond repair. Even more, 69 percent, said they would put their children in other schools if given the choice.
Among prominent community concerns is the district's failure to prepare many students to be successful beyond high school.
Just one example of that, Chartwell consultants found, is the fact that less than 5 percent of Pontiac graduates qualify for state scholarships awarded to students meeting basic learning benchmarks. This compares with 45 percent of students at average Michigan high schools doing so.
"The (Pontiac school district) must discontinue practices which clearly hinder high-quality teaching and high student achievement," report authors suggest. "These practices are what contributed, in large part, to the district's low test scores and a widening achievement gap with the rest of the state."
School safety is yet another community concern. Though the district has made efforts to address safety issues in the schools Ñ such as installing metal detectors and hiring security officers consultants found no districtwide safety management system.
"This lack of a comprehensive plan is clear, particularly in the high schools, where several violent outbursts and gang-related activities have made it necessary to involve local and state police." the report states.
"What the (Pontiac school district) must realize is that if the safety of the school system is not effectively addressed, it will be at the risk of the students, the district and the entire Pontiac community."
Despite these and many other unflattering findings revealed by the five-month investigation, some community members expressed confidence that an inclusive, community effort to review and implement report recommendations can help turn the crisis-ridden district around.
"I think there's everything we need right here in this community already," said Evelyn LaDuff. "We are the solution to the problem."
With the report now released to the public, school leaders plan to begin prioritizing report recommendations and developing a strategic plan for renewal. Though some changes are expected to be in place by the start of the coming school year, others may take years to complete.
District officials said a synopsis of the Chartwell Education Group situational analysis will be available on the district's Web site starting today. The address is www.pontiac.k12.mi.us.
The full, 292-page report will be distributed free of charge to 75 key community stakeholders to be determined in the near future by Board of Education members. Others interested in obtaining a copy can do so for a $10 fee. They will be available at the district administration building, 47200 Woodward Ave., starting Monday.
Contact staff writer Dave Groves at (248) 745-4633 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Ê Article View Links
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