Friday, April 23, 2010

IC Board Peeks at Meeks

April 23, 2010, 7:45 a.m.

[This is essentially the sixth in what is, as of this morning, a six-part series on the Iowa City schools search for a new superintendent: "School Boundaries: There Are Better Ways," April 16, 2010 (with links to 23 prior, related blog entries and other writing); "How to Pick a School Superintendent; And My Questions for Candidates," April 17, 2010; "Bringing Home the Bacon and Bezek," April 20, 2010, "ICCSD's Triple Play: From Bezek to Murley to Meeks; Bezek Can Talk the Talk -- On Four Hours' Sleep," April 21, 2010; and "Hurlyburly Over Murley," April 22, 2010.]

Want to know the results of the finalists' "email exam"? See "IC Supers' Email," April 25, 2010.

Brad Meeks Rounds Out Three Finalists
(brought to you by*)

With the conclusion of Brad Meeks' public meet and greet and Board interview last evening the Seven Bishops of the Board disappeared behind the curtain, leaving us to wait for either the white flag of surrender (and a new search), or the white puff of smoke, perhaps a week from now, informing the community that a new leader has indeed been anointed.

Today is our day to review the third and last finalist: Brad Meeks.

Summary: He seemed relaxed and self-assured last evening as he easily handled the questions, well regarded by those he works with (according to our local news reports), talks the talk (e.g., importance of communication and collaboration), recently (seemingly successfully) put 70% of his students in different schools (boundary changes), got in a bit of a twist (law suit) over location of new high school, comes from a district a fraction of the size of ours (i.e., five elementary and two middle schools, one high school), a 49-year-old who will have a son attending UI and already has a wife from Cedar Rapids (a prescient choice). (Photo credit: NIck's iPhone; Meeks at "Meet and Greet.")

For those following this saga, there is also an additional, insightful piece this morning about Steve Murley and his insights regarding the process of superintendent hiring and evaluation: Jeff Charis-Carlson, "Clarifying the Roles of Boards, Superintendents," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 23, 2010, p. A9. Give it a read.

To begin our recap on Meeks, here are excerpts from some basics in Lee Hermiston's early overview:

Meeks said his son, Devin, is going to be a freshman on the University of Iowa swim team in the fall and his wife, Terri, spent her childhood in the Cedar Rapids area. . . .

According to the district's Web site, the population within the Farmington district is 30,000 and the student population is 6,400. The district employs almost 750 people, including more than 400 licensed teachers.

Those who know and have worked with Meeks during his seven years as the Farmington superintendent describe the Gettysburg, S.D., native as a visionary, an innovator and someone who values the opinion of others.

Julie McKnight, a Farmington School Board member . . . was looking for a strong leader with problem-solving skills. "He's displayed that and more" [having] transformed Farmington from a "mediocre district, at best," to a "very good district with a lot of great things happening." . . .

Christine Weymouth, assistant superintendent of education services for the Farmington district, . . . said "It's been fabulous working with Brad. Simply fabulous. He's a great leader."

Weymouth and Farmington School District human resources director Linda Goers said one of Meeks' best qualities is his ability to listen to many voices. . . .

"He's . . . one of those people that asks questions and gathers all of the information. He doesn't make quick, snap decisions. He values input from all the parties involved."

Meeks was involved in some controversy in 2005 when the school district and city had a dispute about the location of a new high school. McKnight said the district found a suitable location on the north end of the district, but the city wanted a location closer to the center of town to attract business. A lawsuit eventually was filed and went to mediation . . ..

"Typically, the best way is to try to be as objective as possible and get information out to the public so they understand what the two sides of the issue are," [Meeks] said.
Lee Hermiston, "Meeks Described as Innovative, Visionary," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 17, 2010.

And here are excerpts from the local papers' reports of his performance last evening:

Rob Daniel, "Candidate backs team approach; Cites how it improved test scores," Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 23, 2010, p. A1 ("Brad Meeks said one of his proudest moments as superintendent of the Farmington (Minn.) School District was seeing the passage of a $112 million bond that built a new high school and a fifth elementary school. . . .

During a meet-and-greet with community members before the interview began, Meeks told the story of how Gillian Lynne became a choreographer later noted for her work on the Broadway musicals "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera" . . . showing it is necessary to encourage students. . . . (Photo credit: Nick's iPhone; Meeks telling meet and greet crowd his Gillian Lynne story.)

[L]last year, three Farmington area schools were taken off the federal watch list under the No Child Left Behind Act thanks to improving test scores. He said one way that was accomplished was by hiring more reading and math specialists who work with teachers on instructing students.

"It should be a team-teaching approach," Meeks said. "What our test scores are showing us is it's a more effective model."

He also . . . tries to . . . 'keep the right people in the room,' when they are developing curriculum or negotiating a new contract with teachers and other district employees.

"It starts with trust," Meeks said. "My role as superintendent is to place people ... where they're going to be successful. I'm not the keeper of all knowledge.").

Greg Hennigan, "Candidate Isn't New to Challenges of Redistricting,"
The Gazette, April 23, 2010, p. A2 ("Farmington opened a new high school and added an elementary school and reconfigured its middle schools. About 70 percent of its students and staff were in new buildings this year.

“We didn’t miss anything, and it went off real well,” said Meeks, the Farmington superintendent. . . .

Meeks, 49, has been Farmington’s superintendent for seven years. He started his career in his native South Dakota and also has been a teacher, principal, coach and athletics director. . . .

The city and the school district disagreed on the location of the high school, which resulted in a lawsuit that contributed to the school opening a year later than usual and seeing its price tag balloon to $97 million, according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Also, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed $24 million sports facility addition to the school, the newspaper reported. . . .

When asked how he would help school board members prepare for a potentially controversial decision, Meeks said he’d get them as much information as possible and present them with multiple options.

Meeks cited as one of his proudest moments getting three of the district’s schools off the “in need of assistance” list under the federal No Child Left Behind law this year.").

For the insightful observations and opinions of an experienced, observant and thoughtful classroom teacher, here are the morning's comments from my wife, Mary Vasey, "Brad Meeks, Team Player," Iowa City Press-Citizen On The Record, April 23, 2010:

As a long time classroom teacher I was happy to hear Brad Meeks talk about his management style. He emphasized more than once his practice of involving the staff and community when appropriate. He talked about getting the right people in the room when planning and making decisions. When asked about accomplishments he gave credit to others instead of claiming it solely for himself.

Three schools in his district were taken off the School in Need of Assistance list. He said they identified the issues, made a plan and then used an online testing program three times during the year to monitor progress and make adjustments. I did not have a chance to ask him about it but I wonder if students took the test at various times(not as a group that is) and were involved in looking at the results. Then I would hope the students were a part of the planning process about how to proceed and make adjustments.

When asked about what he was proudest of Meeks cited two things. One was a math program but the other is what got my attention. He said that they minimized pull outs from the classroom. Specialists and special education teachers work with the teachers in the classroom as members of a team. He said that the test scores reflected the wisdom of that approach. I have talked with some teachers in Iowa City who said that, in their schools, there were more and more pull outs and that it was quite disruptive. My own experience has been that the team approach is effective.

I think both Steve Murley and Brad Meeks are strong candidates. They also have quite different styles. Murley has strong communication skills and a fairly traditional management style. I think Meeks would have a quieter, more inclusive style. Bezek’s main strength is that he comes from a district similar in size to Iowa City and he is the only one who talked about having an alternative school.
Michelle Hillenbrand, "School Board interviews third hopeful," The Daily Iowan, April 23, 2010, p. A2 ("Brad Meeks . . . said Thursday that searching within a budget for inefficiencies can allow him to stretch the dollar.

By purchasing a different type of health-care policy . . . the district saved $1.2 million . . ..

“How we build our budget should reflect our priorities, and our priorities should be in the classroom,” he said. The quality of teaching and class sizes also top his list of priorities . . ..

Linda Goers, the director of human resources in the Farmington district, hailed Meeks as a visionary. “He has the ability to look long-range and find ways to get input so everybody is kind of on the same path toward the goals in the district” . . ..

“What makes a difference in the classroom more than the class size is the quality of the teacher in that room,” . . . [b]y providing staff development to teachers, he said, he hopes to ensure their quality.

When asked by School Board members how he plans to close the student-achievement gaps, Meeks said he would begin preparing students for testing earlier by providing online tests throughout the year, a method he says would allow teachers to modify their approaches based on individual student needs. . . .

But some in Farmington criticized Meeks for accepting a salary only 10 percent less than the superintendent in his neighboring district, the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District, which has 4.5 times as many students as Farmington.").

The questions asked by the Board have, appropriately, been similar if not identical for each finalist. Since I have not summarized them before, here were the ones I made a note of last evening. (This is an approximation, not a transcript of the precise language.) (Photo credit: Nick's iPhone; from left: Michael Shaw, Mike Cooper, Pati Fields, Gayle Klouda, Brad Meeks, Tuyet Dorau)

Why Iowa City?
What have been your proudest moments, and what do you wish you'd done differently?
What is your management philosophy, and how would you assess your own strengths and weaknesses?
Tell us about your dissertation, addressing "perceptions and expectations" in community-schools partnerships.
How do you decide when there is a need to reallocate funds; who is involved in that decision making process and how do you communicate about it to stakeholders?
How do you interact with your school board?
What are some specific examples of how you communicate with the community about complex and controversial issues?
How do you go about identifying an issue, coming up with an approach, implementing it, and then monitoring and assessing outcomes?
What have you done to establish good working relationships with employees?
How would you go about preparing the Board on a sensitive issue?
What do you do to encourage employee participation in organization planning, and what is an example of an idea you have implemented that came from a staff member?
How can we close the achievement, assessment and access gap?
What ideas do you have for the ICSSD relations with the City and UI?
Given the stresses of the job, how do you stay renewed?
To what extent have you been involved in legislative activity?
What is the role of the Board in curriculum development?
How important is average class size and what can you do about it?
Each finalist was also given an opportunity to ask questions of the Board. Three of Meeks' were:

What is your idea of an optimal superintendent-board relationship?
What is your sense of the priorities for a superintendent's first 30 days on the job?
What is the Board's approach to Board members' school visits? (Photo credit: Nick's iPhone; from left: Sarah Swisher, Michael Shaw, Mike Cooper, Toni Cilek, Brad Meeks)

If you're interested in the answers as well as the questions, as mentioned below I'm hopeful the District's videos of the three sessions will be cablecast on the District's channel repeatedly between now and the puff of white smoke.

One additional comment:

I have been frustrated by the Regents and UI seemingly focusing on the need to improve communication with the legislature and people of Iowa, while simultaneously failing to utilize the multi-million-dollar resource that is now called "Iowa Public Radio" (station announcements don't even hint that the University of Iowa is the licensee!), and the ICCSD Board's failing to ring all the benefit it might from its very own television channel. So I couldn't help but be impressed with how creative the Farmington District has been with its informative streaming videos for the community ("Ed Channel Online") -- notwithstanding its size.

(The District's Web site is a part of the rSchoolToday group and the "Wiki Way of Websites," which from appearances looks like a good way for small districts to go.)

Not incidentally, in this connection, the three evenings' ICCSD School Board interviews of finalists have been videotaped by the District -- initially for purposes of Board members only. Hopefully, they will be distributed for the community on the District's cable channel as well.

So, how do the three stack up? Is there an obvious choice? None is from among Iowa's 300-plus superintendents; all will start from ground zero trying to understand Iowa school finance and getting to know the legislature, Iowa City's culture, the role of the University, UIHC and major businesses in Eastern Iowa, not to mention the stakeholders already in place when they arrive. All are "white males in suits" (teaching backgrounds: two former coaches (who also did some teaching) and one industrial arts instructor). None is a national star superintendent. All are, as then candidate Obama once characterized candidate Clinton, "nice enough." None had much to say (or, in fairness, were asked) about education, curriculum, or teaching methods. All are, clearly, at least minimally competent (actually more than that, but at least that); each has his supporters and detractors, his impressive accomplishments and things for which he wished for a redo.

Although I don't have a recommendation for the Board as to whom they should pick -- nor would it make much difference if I did (except, perhaps, to lessen the chances of whichever finalist I favored) -- I will go way, way out on a limb with regard to whom I would take a wild guess they'll end up with. Mind you have have not a scintilla of a clue from anything that is first, second, or even third-hand information or rumors from any member of the Board. It's just a guess based on what I observe, know about, and my evaluation of, the Board members (as distinguished from my evaluation of the finalists). So who will they pick, after hours of back and forth discussion and fruitless efforts to resolve a classic, impenetrable, multiple-variable-comparative analysis? Brad Meeks.

* Why do I put this blog ID at the top of the entry, when you know full well what blog you're reading? Because there are a number of Internet sites that, for whatever reason, simply take the blog entries of others and reproduce them as their own without crediting the source. I don't mind the flattering attention, but would appreciate acknowledgment as the source -- even if I have to embed it myself.
-- Nicholas Johnson
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1 comment:

Nick said...

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