A weekend interview with Pinellas schools superintendent Julie Janssen
Pinellas Superintendent Julie Janssen has been in the news a lot lately, mostly in connection with the situation at John Hopkins Middle School. She sat down with St. Petersburg Times reporter Ron Matus on March 18 and talked about Hopkins and her past 18 months as superintendent. The interview has been edited for length. Look for a story about her in Sunday's St. Petersburg Times.
What have the past three weeks been like with the Hopkins story?
It’s been very painful but really eye-opening. Because what was very clear to me was the things that we thought we had in place, realizing how people-dependent it was. That at any time, if one or more people in the process weren’t doing their part, how things could fall apart. And I think if nothing else, it really brought attention to maybe some people that were in charge of following and monitoring certain things had kind of let it slip. ... And so it kind of made us sharpen up and say, well, how would we have known? How can you detect whether somebody’s not getting done what you need to be done? And a perfect example: How did we miss the fact that we weren’t getting our monthly reports from the St. Pete P.D., you know? Someone should have been looking at that.
I think people are wondering how did things go wrong at Hopkins? So you’re saying it was a matter of a few people dropping the ball?
Uh-huh. And the other piece of that is whether they dropped the ball or not, when you put a new principal in a school, we really need to give a whole lot more support. You assume that in an interview process you ask all of the questions that you need to have answered, and you get all of those questions answered in a way that the entire committee assumed, you know, that all the skills are there … We now know that not only do kids need mentors and teachers need support - principals, administrators really need someone to be on their shoulder, kind of helping them through it.
Are you saying it’s the administrators there who dropped the ball?
Well, it’s a number of things. I would have hoped, and Mr. Effiom, in his defense, he said, you know, that he had asked for some help. And I’m not talking out of turn because he said this. And he said, but the help he got wasn’t what he needed. So I’m not sure how that went, you know. So we might need to be more overt. Sometimes you don’t want to micromanage. But it might be time that we say, okay, let us guide ... our new people coming in. You have to guide them and help them and perhaps, you know, he’s so confident in so many areas, maybe no one recognized that maybe he needed more support than he was getting. And so, you know, you always have to look back and say, what could I have done better for him? And I could have been a better mentor for him except I didn’t know he was having problems.
Were there signs along the way that things were off there and maybe there needed to be some kind of intervention?
I didn’t get any signs, no. One of the things you ask is…
Should you have gotten signs? Should somebody have said, hey, our suspensions are up, our arrests are up, or whatever the case may be. Things are not going as well as we’d like.
I think that should have happened, yeah. … I have my own ideas and, you know, I’m not throwing anybody because it’s ultimately my problem. Somewhere along the way, I would have thought someone would have drawn a flag. And I have to tell you that I was at John Hopkins, I was there twice, and I didn’t see the things. This is, you know, sort of at the beginning of the year, kind of hit a few of the schools, you know, drop in, how’s it going? I didn’t see those behaviors. Now, it could have just been the time of day that I was there. It could have been it was early in the year, I don’t know. But, you know, that’s the nagging question is, how come I didn’t know? And that worries me because this is a huge organization and, you know, there are many people that are working together, and they should be giving us those. We should be hearing those things.
So if I’m hearing you right, so somewhere there may have been a communication breakdown or a monitoring breakdown. Somebody at the school maybe should have said, hey, the indicators are off, we need help. Or maybe somebody at the district should have said, hey, your indicators are off, what do you need?
If you weren’t looking at them, you wouldn’t have seen those indicators. If you look at the discipline, I don’t think that it was that bizarre. You know, the discipline report? I don’t think it was that bizarre. So, you know, I don’t know. And in all honesty, if you sat down and looked at John Hopkins and you looked at several of our middle schools, if you look at the numbers, there’s nothing to give you alarms other than the arrests, you know, the suspensions and stuff. So that tells you, is everyone using the same measure of discipline, you know? Are they taking the same offenses and giving the similar consequences at every school, you know?
Even if you didn’t have the arrest numbers, wouldn’t there be other indicators that would have been a red flag? The suspension rates, for instance, have been going up for the past couple years pretty steadily, in a pretty steep line. And you also have a lot fewer parents applying for the magnets.
But that came during the time that, you know, we had the press, negative press. Because I think the application period was at the … it ended the 30th of …
But even the past years’ numbers, the numbers of applications were down, the number of suspensions were up.
Uh-huh, but let’s look at what we had. This is our fourth principal. We had a principal that we spent a lot of time investigating. So you had, you know, what, two years of that, two and a half years by the time we moved that principal? And then we had a principal that came in … for a semester. So when there is so much unknown, it creates a little uneasiness. So some of those things played a factor in what we were looking at. You’d say, okay, here we had some things that weren’t being done correctly, and that principal is not there anymore. And then in the middle of the year, we bring another guy in, and everybody knew he was temporary, so that kind of takes a little bit of the confidence level off for parents. So we were looking at all of those things. But this first semester part, you know, there wasn’t anything so dramatically unusual from the end of last year to this year that it would have just sounded all the things, you know, all the signs.
Who in the district or at the school was supposed to keep tabs on the arrest records?
I don’t want to turn it into a blame kind of thing. Generally at schools, when a police officer comes in and arrests a child and they take them off campus, there’s a form that is filled out that says I am removing this child from campus. That form is given to the administrator. ... The administrator on campus should be able to tell you at any given time how many arrests there were. And so I don’t know who was in charge of that. So whoever that administrator was should have had the red flag to the principal.
So at this point, we’re not sure who was supposed to be keeping track of this?
I haven’t gotten a clear answer on that yet, which of the APs was supposed to be doing that.
I’ve heard some people suggest that one of the ways that maybe could have neutralized the story a little bit is that if you had gone down to John Hopkins soon after the big bad headlines and called a meeting with whoever – the teachers, the parents, maybe even the students – and said, hey, we’re hearing something went wrong here, we’re going to make it right quick. What do you think of that suggestion? Is that something you’d consider doing? Or is that something you should have done?
That I should have made a big to-do? … You know, no matter what you do, people have their own opinion. I’d prefer to work to get things immediately in place, which is what I was doing. I certainly was not ignoring it. What’s very important for me is to … really figure out the root cause, so I’m not down there blaming anyone. ... So I was asking, you know, several people. What did you know? Did you not get, you know, a call? … I was trying to get my background information and, at the same time, doing our plan.
Nobody was suggesting that you go down there and publicly blame anybody - or even know at that early of a stage that here’s exactly what we’re gonna do. But if you had gone down there and said, we hear you, this was unacceptable, we’re gonna fix it - maybe that would have sent a different message right off the bat.
You mean, to the paper?
Well, it would have sent a message to the parents and the teachers and …
See, I think at the staff meeting there, I didn’t feel that the parents felt I needed to do it. I mean, you were there. … I didn’t know that they expected me to do that. So, you know, what you’re saying is kind of like the first time I’ve heard that. You know, like with Gibbs, you know, when we heard what was going on, when Dr. Wilcox heard. Well, I got a call at 6:30 in the morning and he said, you need to meet me at Gibbs. And we did all of that, but we had had that information for a week. He called the press to come. See, this happened in complete reverse of that, so I don’t know if they expected me to do the same thing. … I don’t know if that would have done anything different. … I don’t like to grandstand, is that the word, you know? I’m very much a doer and probably to a fault … Some people say, well, that’s not showing leadership. Well, I have to do better. I need to be there telling them what I’m doing instead of being here doing, you know? And I’ve been criticized for that, and I’m learning – I’m learning – that you have to be out there telling people what you’re doing, and I’m doing a lot more of that, I believe. I’m getting more direct communication with my teachers, you know, because what we’ve done in the past is always expect our principals to take it to our teachers. And so we started a monthly letter to our teachers and some are saying it’s really too much to read, you know. So now we’re doing a video. I mean, I’m doing … I’m trying to be what everyone wants me to be. At the same time, being able to really make sure that what I’m saying is exactly the way we’re doing things … As you know, things can be taken in a certain way when I know what the plan is, and so if you don’t know what my plan is, you can take what I say and interpret it your way. So I’m being much more careful. I’m learning a lot in the last year and a half. I have to tell you, I’ve learned a lot – painfully I’ve learned a lot (chuckles) - but I’m realizing that you really do have to be out there in front, talking about what you’re doing. But it’s got to have honesty in it. So if you aren’t finished with your thinking, don’t go out there and say half stuff or else you get yourself in trouble that way, too.
Kim Black with the teachers’ union was one of those folks who suggested that it would have been good if you had gone down there early on to meet with the teachers in a meeting ... to listen to them and hear what they think is wrong and what their suggestions might be. Now, you said you are gonna go down there?
Right. And their meeting was yesterday at 3:30.
But why not do that earlier? Why not do that right off the bat?
I thought there were a bunch of teachers … how many were there at the SAC meeting? 15? 20? Maybe more? That’s a pretty good cross-section if you count how many signed that letter. There were 27 that signed the letter, and there were 15 at the SAC meeting and, you know, if I go down and overstep Claud, I believe I have diminished his power, you know. That’s his school, and I have to help him keep his credibility. And if I go in there as if I’m going to fix it because he screwed it up, I’ve destroyed him and his leadership ability. And, you know, I was talking to Claud all along saying, Claud, tell me what happened? And we had some pretty heart-to-heart conversations. So I chose to help him be a leader. Even for SAC, I said Claud, tell me what your agenda’s like. What would you like? And he said please, let me take the lead. So that’s why I didn’t go in, I didn’t open the meeting, I sat back and I did what he asked me to do because I respect that. And I remember being a principal. If my superintendent had come in and talked to my teachers, they’d have said, yeah, well, she’s lost it. She doesn’t have any credibility.
Speaking of Mr. Effiom, lots of rumors and speculation, as you probably can guess. Is he going be the principal in there next year?
He is. Uh-huh.
He’s not part of the leadership changes?
That school cannot afford another new principal. They really can’t. And we need to work with him, you know? We needed to have nurtured him a little bit better, and I’m putting some people there that have a different kind of experience so they can learn from each other, you know? Mr. Brown wants to learn more about academics, you know? And Claud needs to learn about kids, you know? Tough kids. I mean, Barry and I had this conversation. He said, Doc, here’s a campus full of kids like me. And, see, he was at Lakewood when I was there and so I know him. Tough kid, but just a good kid, you know? And so, yeah, you try to build a team by giving people value, and I certainly think Mr. Effiom has lots.
I’d like to just ask you about the broader picture. You’ve been on the job 18 months. What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?
I think that bringing the community in, you know, letting them know we really value them and we welcome them. I think I’ve made some great partnerships with the UF group, with Lastinger, with Helios, you know, getting some great money to come in, getting the SRI team, you know, the math initiative. I think on the academic side, I have really made some pretty good strides. I think the greatest piece that I’m so proud of right now is the redesign of professional development. If you look throughout this country, you are not going to find anything like what we’re doing and, you know, I think this is significant. Our teachers have said, you know, you make us go to these nonsense, insignificant trainings and it’s all about seat time when, in reality, we didn’t need to be asking them to do that. So, you know, wiping the slate clean and starting over and saying let’s pick what’s really relevant to help them grow and then reward them for that, trying to take all the money that’s spent on random things and saying, no more. There’s a moratorium on buying programs. We’re going to build the intellectual capacity of our teachers and our support staff.
All this is still in the works, though. So you’re saying one of your proudest things is getting the ball rolling?
Right. We really are moving down the track, you know? We’ve got part of the framework built, we’ve got the UF Lastinger Center bought into it. They’re looking for some money from Gates and others, and we have SRI. They’re going after an I-3 grant for the remaking of the math middle school program for digital math based on our new standards. … We are delivering not only instruction to the students the way they want it, but to our teachers as well, you know? Some of them are coming out of their comfort zone because we’re making them stretch … We’re forcing people to use the technology because that’s where our kids are, and so the more comfortable our teachers are with it, they less likely they’ll condemn everything that the kids brings in.
What would you say has been your biggest disappointment so far?
Wow. What does that mean?
People that I have always assumed were right there with me - when you get feedback from places and you realize that people are not as loyal as you think. And that’s been kind of a real, a real letdown for me.
I don’t suppose you could name names.
No, no. No, no, no. You assume that when you’ve worked together for so many years and, you know, you’ve always kind of been part of a group that you enjoy when people become more successful and you share that. And, you know, I’m naïve in thinking that. Loyalty’s a biggie for me.
Are you talking about people within the organization? Or people out?
No, inside. Inside the organization, yeah.
What would you say has been the hardest thing about your job?
Making changes. People are so ingrained in the way it’s always been done. It’s been very tough to get in to make inroads in certain departments. There are some departments that not only people have been in for a long time but ways of work have happened forever, you know. And the comments I get: I’ve been here through three superintendents, and this is the way we’ve always done it. And you go, well, have you looked at doing it this way? Yeah. And so, that’s been very tough. I mean, much harder than I thought … In my work ethic, if I’m employed by a certain person, they come to me and say, here’s the way we’re going do this from now on, you just do it. That’s not exactly the way things happen here.
Here’s another softball: What’s the best thing about the job?
I love the job. I mean, I really do. … If you know anything about me, I really believe that public education is what makes this country. … How this country goes depends on what we do with these kids. And so that keeps me going, you know? Because I look at any of these children that come here, and that’s where my heart and soul is, you know? I say to myself, that’s why I’m here, is because of these kids. And that’s why I love being in the schools.
Did you expect when you got the job that there would be as many crises that crop up out of the blue as there has been? You haven’t had an easy road.
No, I hadn’t. I really had a little bit of an idea that things were getting tougher because I saw what was happening politically. But when the financial thing just, you know - that just kind of pulled the rug from under you. So no, I didn’t anticipate as many crises, but I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, you know. I didn’t take this thinking this was a cakewalk at all … I had other options, you know, other jobs. But I said no. I really believed in this, and so that’s why I took it and I figured, you know, I’m kind of a - I hate to use the word - but a scrapper. I always swim upstream.
Here’s another crisis-related question. I’ve heard from some people who feel like sometimes there’s two superintendents. There’s one Dr. Janssen who knows everything about curriculum and teaching and programs and budgets and personnel and has some big ideas, and is fully capable of moving the ball on all those things. But then there’s this other Dr. Janssen who shows up sometimes when this crisis comes out of the blue and is a little more unsteady.
Hmmmm. That’s interesting.
What do you think of that - the two Dr. Janssens theory?
That’s really kind of an interesting theory because I really believe that in crises that you have to think things through before you go out and talk. And maybe that’s getting people to think that I’m tentative but oh, no. I’m pretty strong-willed and I have a family background of business. And I have a lot of resources and I tell you what – I am the first to pick up the phone and call someone that’s an expert in an area where I think we’re having a crisis. But I don’t call just one. I ask around and I weigh it. And I have been criticized, I think, for kind of waiting to get several opinions. And that’s fine. People can criticize me for that. But when I make a decision, I know I have made a convicted decision. I mean, I have weighed all of it.
You used the word “tentative”? I think some people do think that. Could you not, though, send a message at the same time you’re still gathering information for whatever plan?
I hate to come back to Hopkins, but one of the things I’ve heard people say is, where is the superintendent? Why isn’t she here, telling us she’s going to fix this? Behind the scenes, it seems clear that you were working on all kinds of things. But publicly there was no message.
Right. And that’s too bad. See, I didn’t realize that. … We did send a message to the parents.
But a letter is one thing. The presence of the superintendent on campus is another.
Yeah. And, you know, that’s great feedback, actually, because we have people that are giving us feedback, and I hadn’t heard that before. And I, you know, I talked to Andrea, I talked to, you know, Mike Bessette and the people that are here, and so, you know, for me, what you’re saying is a very good criticism … In all of the things I’m trying to tweak for people to better understand who I am, that is one thing that I need to spend some time focusing on.
One of the things I heard alongside that criticism is that it’s not getting in front of a crisis or a story for getting-in-front’s sake. It’s the fact that you have so many other things to do and huge things - and when something like John Hopkins drags on for, now, a third week, that’s eating into your time.
And I agree. And, you know, I would have thought the story would have died? I mean, you think things run its course, now, really. Because we were … putting things in place and we started doing some moving and, with the kids, and the administrators, and working with the chief … Because of all of those things, I thought the story had run its course. But what I find is that sometimes lots of questions get asked, and so the more public record things that are out there, the more it drags it on. So how do you stop all that? Because the kids want to go on. I mean, the kids need to go back to normal. The parents, the teachers are ready to go on. But I don’t control how long that goes on. You know, maybe being out there and out in front and making a definitive statement – this and this and this and this are going happen … Maybe that would have stopped it. I mean, you give me a clue because I have no clue (laughs) how it still keeps going.
I wish I could give you a clue. I’m low on the totem pole. I’m just relaying what I’ve heard other people say.
See, that was the same question I had: What is keeping this going? And I don’t know because I think it’s more normal. I mean, it’s gone back.
I think that it did strike a chord with people. There are parents who are very concerned about discipline in schools. I think that ties into why fundamentals seem to be so popular. That Hopkins story hit people not just at Hopkins but at other places because they hear about fights and bullying and talking back, and it seems to be almost the elephant in the room. I think that’s part of the reason why the story keeps going. People want discipline issues dealt with. They don’t want their kids to go to a school where they have to put up with that.
Right. And I agree with you. … Our civility has just been on the decline – how people speak to each other anymore. But I think when you have financial crises that you have to take some of the things out of schools that aren’t directly in front of students. That hurts, you know. I talk about the OCIP. And I don’t know if OCIP is really the answer, but some place to take these kids that they’re not at home. You can’t suspend them because then they’re on their own. Some way to get behavior management. You’ve got to change the behavior of the students, but it has to be something that matters to them, and it can be enforced by their parents. And if you don’t get that kind of follow-through… it’s almost like a revolving door. So we are absolutely trying to figure out a way. …
Is discipline more of a front-burner issue now that the stuff’s been in the paper for a few weeks?
It’s been a front burner for us. We just haven’t come up with an answer.But I think now, until we get the perfect answer, we’d better be trying some others. And I think one of them is to have a way that those kids can be removed from their immediate environment. I don’t know that we’re going to be able to take them completely off campus, but there’d better be a place that they’re isolated from their power, which is their peers. And so that is absolutely going to happen.
Lots of folks give you credit for being inclusive, and the whole thing with your collaborative labs being as good example as any. Why is that so important to you? Why do you do things that way? It seems like it …
Slows the process down.
It does, it does. … If people don’t believe that they have had an opportunity to have input, which means value, you’re not going to sustain anything. And so if it’s built with the people that are involved in it - and I call them the ones on the ground level - if they’re helping build it, then it’s theirs and it’s sustainable. Because if you do it top-down, if the top leaves, it crumbles. And so I truly believe that if you’re going to sustain change or sustain any initiative, that you have to bring the people to the table that you’re asking to be the warriors with you. You know, nobody’s going to follow blindly. They want to feel like they have been given an opportunity to weigh in. And I’ve always been kind of a collaborative leader. I mean, anywhere I’ve worked, you can ask the teachers – I always bring it up to the table because I think there are a whole lot of people that are smarter than I am in certain areas of getting things done, you know?
Janet Clark has said this before - that she thought in some cases, when things went wrong, heads should have rolled. And I’ve heard other people say it would be nice to see more new blood among top administrators. Do they have a point there?
Absolutely. And they’re right. But you have to respect human beings. And the time to do whatever - you can call it whatever, head-rolling - is from the week after Easter. You know, that’s when we start doing our evaluations. And that’s when I bring people to the table. And I have to work with people with dignity, even if they’re not going to be brought back. I’m going to do it the right way because that’s the way I would want people to remember me, to treat them with dignity. I’m not that hell-fire person. I can’t do that. Are there people that I have said, they need to be fired? Absolutely I’ve said that. Then my very close people say, you know, well, do you want to do that or do you want to wait til evaluation time, let them leave, you know? And I have decided my real objective is for everyone to walk away from their job. Now, that’s very different than if you’re going to steal and you’re robbing from us, that’s very different.. …There’s going to be new blood. There are people that won’t be coming back, but I have to do it in the right way, you know. We have a process, we have an evaluation, we meet with that person and then you give them notice.
Do you think, though, if you don’t remove somebody quickly who needs to be removed, that you send a message that you’re a weak leader?
You mean quickly, like before the end of the year?
Yeah, I’ve heard that. And that troubles me because I think that’s almost leading into a lot of - let me think how I can put this. Do I know who is not going to come back? Absolutely. I know. And those that are working very closely with me know. Do I want to go out there and make this big to-do to for the image? That’s not that important to me. Because the people that won’t be coming back have given, you know, their time and, how do I put this? For example, Ron, let’s say you’re at the Times and maybe you weren’t perfect but you’re a pretty good reporter, you did 20 years of great stuff, and maybe, you know, things happen … Do you want somebody going right in and saying, he’s outta here … Or should they … bring you in and say, you know, it’s just, you’re not getting it, and do it during your evaluation time, and just say, at the end of this year, you know, I’m letting you go? How would you prefer it to be done to you? See, I always kind of step back and I go, you know, how would I want it?
I hope you don’t know something I don’t (laughs).
Oh, I don’t … In June, whenever the thing ends, at the end of the year, the proof is going to be there. I do know what I’m doing. Do I believe I respect people? I absolutely do. And do I think that it’s fair to just ostracize them because they aren’t really on board anymore? No. But the proof is, they’re not going to be on board.
So we will be seeing changes at the end of this year.
A few? A lot?
A few. … More than one or two. How’s that? … And so, I guess that’s my philosophy and I will be criticized for it. But I have to live with me and, you know, I just, I can’t do that. I’m gonna do it the right way, you know. A person that steals? Oh, no. They’re outta here today, or yesterday, or whenever OPS tells me it’s okay. But someone that just isn’t on board, isn’t gettin’ it? … Now if they’re lazy and not showing up for work, if they violate our policy, absolutely. Right away. But if it’s just because they’re kind of yuck and mediocre? ... You can make the statement that there will be some changes – major changes.