Monday, December 18, 2017
Education

Cautious optimism prevails after Pasco schools chief's reorganization

LAND O'LAKES

FOR SIX MONTHS, Kurt Browning traveled Pasco County promising major changes in the school district if he were elected superintendent.

He won in a landslide, and quickly began making good on his pledge.

"I am committed to changing the way we run this district," Browning told principals earlier this month, during his first major meeting with them.

His speech lasted two hours. In it, he talked about the importance of having the district offices serve the schools, and the need to have everyone working together toward the same goals of student success. Principals will be freed up to do the job, he said, but also held accountable if they don't.

"Folks, our district needs healing," he said. "The way we're going to do that is to work collectively as a team. … I am not going to build up the future by myself."

Browning later announced an administrative reorganization that included new job descriptions, merged departments and reassigned workers. He noted that while many changes were about operations, some also were about image. He used the example of using the word "for" rather than "of" in department and job names, such as Office for Teaching and Learning.

That small but telling detail attracted Amelia Van Name Larson, who quit the district in the summer, to return as assistant superintendent for student achievement.

"For student achievement," said Larson, a protege of Ray Gadd, the district's other new assistant superintendent. "That is why I exist."

Larson is not the usual type to rise into the district's upper echelon. Born and raised in Brazil in an elite family, Larson came to Tampa at 19 with the intention of learning English before returning to Sao Paolo for life as a teacher.

She stayed after meeting a boy (who became her first husband), despite the efforts of her parents to persuade her to come home. She got married, had kids and became dedicated to the social justice of public education. She went to the University of South Florida, became a school psychologist and joined the Pasco district in 1995.

Larson rose to supervise a division, but never led a department or ran a school. And she, like others, understands her own strengths and shortcomings.

"I don't feel like I have to know everything," she said. "We as a team will work together to make sure what is right gets done."

She has told department directors that they should spend more time in schools and less time in meetings. She had made plans to have advisory groups of principals, teachers and even students to ensure the focus on academics is working.

Larson, like Browning, talks about flexibility, patience and heart, but also about accountability and shared responsibility.

"We are not going to be able to fit the needs of every kid doing the same things we have done in the past," Larson said.

Her appointment, though expected along with Gadd's, raised some eyebrows among district employees more accustomed to seeing leaders rise through the ranks. Chris Christoff, for instance, served as a principal for years before winning the post leading the new Office for Professional Development and School Supports.

But that's okay, Gadd said.

"It was inevitable for people to question is she ready to be assistant superintendent," he said, suggesting she is well up to the task. "I guess the proof is in the pudding. We're going to find out."

School Board members so far have been pleased with Browning's direction.

"They came in and they have already started addressing some areas that need to be addressed," vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley said. "You saw from the (first) workshop they already had their heads in the game."

She praised the ideas of fewer meetings and less paperwork, combined with increased teamwork. Communication among all parties has vastly improved, Crumbley added, calling that a critical need from past years.

"Things seem well planned out," she said. "Everywhere that I have gone there's just a sigh of relief. They do have a feeling of positive change coming."

Chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong also applauded the new administration, and said she was hopeful that employees will agree with its efforts. It's not going to be easy overnight success, though, she acknowledged.

"The money and budget issues are definitely there," Armstrong said. "If a teacher is looking for those issues to be solved overnight, that is not going to happen. I am hoping they will see we are there for them … and we are going to do things to make their jobs easier for them."

Staffers at all levels have expressed optimism, with a degree of hesitancy.

Some have noted that Browning and his team have proposed wholesale organizational changes sometimes without consulting the people who are in the trenches doing the work. They've observed that discussions about key issues such as workload have yet to occur, and the actions will speak much louder than the words.

They hear within the talk of teamwork and togetherness subtle threats to get with the program or "come and see me," as Browning has put it.

So going forward into 2013, as Browning continues to pull together his ideas, everyone is watching with hope. He's offered up a steep order — including a more effective, less expensive administration focused on school needs, and improved student and school performance for all — with 1,460 days (that includes weekends) to deliver.

"There is too much at stake for us to be worried about power struggles in our schools," Browning told the principals. "We need to get singularly focused on what our mission is."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Cautious optimism prevails after Kurt Browning's reorganization.

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