A Publication of WTVP

Earlier this year, Peoria Public Schools District 150 welcomed Dr. Grenita Lathan as its new superintendent, and she has hit the ground running. Dr. Lathan holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business education, and a PhD in workforce education and development. She began her teaching career in her home state of North Carolina, where she also made her entrance into administration. After serving in Oak Forest, Illinois, and San Diego, California, she made her way to Peoria. It seems that no matter where she went, Dr. Lathan was able to help struggling schools meet students’ needs, as well as state and federal requirements. And that’s exactly what she’s committed to doing in District 150. We sat down with Dr. Lathan to see how it’s going so far and what changes we can expect to see in the coming year.

First of all, welcome to Peoria. How has your experience been so far?
Busy, my experience has been busy! And it’s been rewarding. Some of the initial expectations I had coming in have been met. It’s been an adjustment culturally, with reference to the options compared to San Diego—things to do on the weekends and at night, or places to go out to eat. But in reference to making the transition from one urban district to another, it’s been the same.

What’s the budgetary status of the San Diego School District right now?
The State of California is just like the State of Illinois—bankrupt, basically, when it comes to supporting education. I will say that California is better at making payments…but we have some of the same issues in reference to budgeting.

What is the latest on state and federal funding for District 150? Stimulus money?
We’re still in the midst of spending our stimulus money, and we have some carryover money that we’ll use for 2010-2011. We’re waiting for the state to make its FY 2010 payments; they received an extension until December. That’s $9 million, approaching $10 million that we’re owed, but we’re still getting prepared to open up school—we don’t have a choice! Children will show up on August 31st, so we’re trying to do the best we can and use the resources that we have wisely. Right now, we’re still able to make payments to providers we owe, but at some point that is going to come to an end.

What is the stimulus money being used for?
Most of the stimulus money was used for technology…for special education programs, and throughout all of our buildings. We bought additional hardware and software. It was used for some personnel, mainly in special education, to support our students being mainstreamed into the general ed curriculum, but for the most part, it was for technology.

How did you get into the education field?
Early on, my first teachers were actually Sunday school teachers. I always wanted to become a teacher. I played “school” as I was growing up with my dolls, and I always wanted to teach, whether it was in Sunday school, or teaching a youth group when I was in high school, and then in college. I always wanted to do something in education where I made a difference. My undergrad and master’s degrees were in business education, and my PhD was in workforce education and development, and I took additional courses in education administration.

You were successful at turning around Washington Elementary School in Guilford County, North Carolina. What lessons did you learn that you might bring to District 150?
Number one: high expectations for staff and students, modeling my expectations, holding people accountable for ensuring that all children are successful, helping staff members to be successful. Part of it for me was getting to know my staff one on one and helping them set their own individual goals, personally and professionally. But truly investing in people…investing in the adults who work with me, and in children and parents. I learned that you have to meet people where they are, and then you can develop a plan to take them to the next level.

The other lesson I learned is that children of poverty can be successful. If you have the right structures in place for children and parent involvement, all children can be successful. A lot of times people say it, but they don’t show it in their actions. There was an expectation that when you arrived in my school, you were going to be successful—that we were going to invest in you until you got it. Even if we had to keep going over and over again, adults had to change and meet the needs of children—it wasn’t about adults’ needs; it was about children’s needs. And I recruited people who understood that when I walk into the door, I have to put myself aside…and do what’s best for children.

Those were the lessons I learned—that if you get the right people on your team who have the vision that all children can be successful, it truly made a difference. I also learned to invest in training for staff, and that it takes time—success doesn’t happen overnight.

What are your top priorities for the coming school year and for the long term?
Ensuring that we have a qualified teacher in every classroom and that our schools are ready to open to receive children and their parents are top priorities. As a central office, it is a top priority to ensure that we have the right positions, and that financially, we are making decisions in the best interest of children. That we provide outstanding customer service…and focus on professional development for our teachers and administrators. If you had to ask me a top priority, it would be building capacity with our principals, because everything starts with that principal and works its way down.

Another priority would be to get parents engaged—letting them know that we’re here to serve and partner with them, but also ensuring that they understand that everything is not going to happen overnight. I know that people have waited for awhile for some things to change in this district, and for me, it would be reaching out to parents while also asking them, in turn, to be patient as we make the necessary changes.

Another top priority is that we open Peoria High School—with the closing of Woodruff and students going to Peoria High and also Manual and Richwoods—truly making sure that Peoria High School is ready, in reference to the construction, staffing and security issues, but ensuring that we have a true academic plan to meet the needs of all those children who enter those doors in August.

Long-term, it is looking at our strategic plan as it relates to student achievement and truly aligning those resources. If you go back to the strategic plan that was created about three or four years ago, it’s a wonderful plan—but now it’s just implementing that plan with fidelity. So long-term is taking the strategic plan and aligning the resources, providing the professional development that teachers and principals need to carry out that plan—truly making our strategic plan come to life.

You were quoted in another forum discussing the evaluation of district programs for their return on investment. How are programs, teachers and principals being evaluated, and do you have specific changes in mind?
What I’ve gathered thus far is that we have not truly looked long-term at evaluating programs. We’ve kind of heard: if you say it’s great, then we’ll say, okay it’s great, and move forward. But actually having a plan where we look at it annually; conduct a walk-through of the building; talk to teachers, parents and students; look at student achievement and get feedback; and look at data over time…then you’re able to say, okay, this program is working. Does it benefit 20 percent of the children? Does it benefit 100 percent? But truly going through a systematic evaluation process as it relates to programming. We need to formalize that, and our curriculum department needs to be the primary gatekeeper of making sure that information gets out to the school board and superintendent.

We’re going to work closely with the teachers’ union to develop a new teacher evaluation instrument. We’re looking at working with the regional office of education and a couple of agencies throughout the state to partner together, so we’re not going to be doing that in isolation. The state is moving in the direction of a new teacher evaluation instrument, so we’re going to pool our resources, sit down and see what we can develop.

In two different districts, we created new principal evaluation instruments and we were successful. But now, trying to take that next step…we’re working with the principals’ association and with key principals in our district and across the state to develop a new instrument for them. So hopefully that will come within the 2010-2011 school year, as well as the teacher evaluation, and we’ll put everything together, with full implementation for 2011-12.

Regarding special needs children, the plan for the 2010-11 school year is for full inclusion?
We’ll try to keep moving toward full inclusion. A group from the state provides the assistance to help us as we move into the co-teaching model. Last year, they worked with four schools; they’re moving up to seven schools next year. We want to get that model right so we can push those additional resources out and provide professional development for our schools.

Project CHOICES is the organization that’s working with us. They sit down with the principal and the lead teachers or a leadership team and design scheduling around how to include special ed students into the general curriculum. They then provide professional development and coaching, not only to the principals, but to the teachers as well.

What exactly is the co-teaching model?

It’s your special education and general education teachers working together, not as teacher and assistant, but as co-teachers. So if we’re teammates, you might take the lead and lead particular lessons, but I might take the lead on others, and we work together to build a plan of success for our children.

What about gifted children?
One of the big concerns for me is that every year we can take just a small amount of students into Washington Gifted. I’d like to see us have programs district-wide—all of our schools having some type of gifted program or a teacher assigned to support gifted efforts at schools, not only for children who are identified, but those who stay under the radar—who never get identified—so that we can provide options. That’s a big push for me.

What’s the status of early childhood education?
We’ve reinstated some classes based on our Title 1 set aside…We’re still waiting for notification from the state as to how many additional core classrooms we can open. Right now, 14 will be reopening in the fall, so we’re excited that we’re able to do that. We’d like to do more; once funding is restored, we’ll continue to add those classes back.

To what degree are these decisions being based on finances?
A lot. A lot of decisions are being made around finances—that’s another reason we’re looking at what we can do to align our resources using the funds we have, to ensure that when we keep getting hit like this, education can continue to happen. So we’re still working on that—we’re not there yet. But a lot of our decisions are being driven by financial decisions, and that’s not ideal.

What about alternative high school and adult education?
We will have four classes of alternative high school opening up in the fall, in addition to bringing back one work coordinator position. Right now, no decisions have been made about adult education because we simply don’t have the funding. We’ve been promised that the funding will be restored at the FY 2010 level, but we haven’t received payments—that’s the dilemma people are struggling with. The state says they’re going to give it to you, but we can’t keep putting the money up front and not receive anything in return.

With Woodruff closing, talk about the challenges of moving students to a new school and how the district is planning to handle those challenges.
A lot of the Woodruff decisions were made prior to my arrival; I don’t want to take any credit for the great work that happened prior to my coming on board. But we’re just preparing to open. It’s just like if you received increased enrollment at a school, you look at that and project: Do we have enough staff in place? Do we have enough curricular offerings to meet the demands of the students? You go through planning like you would for a normal year, you just plan for more children. That’s the major issue—making sure we have the right staff and multiple options as far as curricular choices for students.

What about progress at Manual?
We’re moving into year three of the restructuring efforts, and research tells us that it takes three to five years to truly turn a school around. So Manual is going to continue with the Johns Hopkins model. We at the district level will do what we can to support them, but they have not been given enough time to prove that the model does or doesn’t work. The staff there has been working extremely hard to make a difference in the lives of children, and it is our responsibility to support Manual in their efforts.

What’s your perspective on the new charter school?
I believe that parents should have a choice, and charter offers another choice. As we think about providing opportunities for our children, it’s better that we work in partnership with other organizations or schools that are coming online than work against each other. At the end of the day, we want to provide children with a quality education, but we want them to stay in our community—that’s how our community is able to grow—so I’m in full support of the choice offering to parents.

Are there elements of the charter school model that can be translated district-wide? Can its successes be translated into public education?
Yes, I believe they can be transferred into public education. Oftentimes it is the structure, the longer school days, whereas we would have to negotiate longer school days with our teachers’ union; a charter school does not. So you think about a longer school day, you think about changing working conditions of staff—things that normally need to be negotiated with the union—the charter school does not have to do. That’s where it might take us longer on the negotiating end, but we can make some of the same outstanding things that are happening at charter schools happen at our other schools.

So we have Edison schools, charter schools, full-service community schools—all these different models for operating a school. Are they in competition with one another? Can any single model work on a district-wide basis? How do you judge the effectiveness of a full-service community school versus an Edison or a charter?
I wouldn’t say they’re in competition with each other. What I can say, is that that’s where our program evaluation comes in. When you’re evaluating programs and looking to see if they truly are making a difference for children, that’s where you get your data from so you can make an informed decision. I will say that we shouldn’t have a one-size-fits-all model; we should have multiple offerings for parents and children, and that’s what all these different models are doing—offering different choices.

If there is an option that we can financially afford and that provides a quality education for children, that option should be available. We are unique because we are considered a larger school district for Illinois, but we don’t have the resources of most districts this size, so once again, it goes back to how do we align our resources to provide multiple options? But I look at models just like I look at magnet schools and choice schools. We should have multiple options so that if something doesn’t work for a child here, a parent can go to another district school and still have their needs met. That’s what we should be doing in the district—providing options. If you go to one store and they don’t have it, what do you do? You go shopping somewhere else to meet your needs; it should be the same with a quality education.

One of the major complaints about No Child Left Behind is that results are based solely on quantitative measurements—standardized testing, “adequate yearly progress,” etc. Are we missing something on the qualitative side?
I think accountability should be both qualitative and quantitative. Just like when we look at an individual child’s progress, we should look at all the components of it; we should look at how they’re achieving academically, but we also should be looking at the social component, which you can’t measure with a standardized test. You have to observe and watch a child interact with other children and other adults. You have to give them different scenarios and see how they play out.

What do you think makes a great teacher, and what’s the best way to improve teacher quality?
A great teacher is someone who has high expectations for their students. They are in constant contact with parents and have a clear set of objectives for all of their lessons. They keep students engaged. They are the masters of their art and craft, and are constantly finding ways to meet the needs of individual students.

It goes back to meeting children where they are and being able to take a child and move him or her to the next level. They are excited about what they do, and they continue to find ways to grow professionally. Even if a district doesn’t support them with the money they need for professional development, they go out and seek opportunities on their own. They’re constantly asking themselves, “What can I do to get better about what I teach and how I meet the needs of children?”

Improving teacher quality is, once again, customized professional development. I think it’s based on the needs of a particular school or subject area, and constant coaching not only by the principal, but central office staff in order to help professional development and cultural opportunities. I think we miss something when we don’t give teachers an opportunity to learn about other cultures and go beyond their community. I think if people had an opportunity to get out beyond their community, they would have a different perspective.

Thinking back to my principal experience, I required all of my teachers to ride buses so they could go out in the community and interact with parents and students. All of us had a rotating schedule, and we also had to go out and hold meetings in community centers. We had to walk the neighborhood so you could see a different side of it…walking a mile in our children’s shoes. I think we can do it with customized professional development and meeting teachers where they are, but once again, improving teacher quality means that you’re going to have to improve the quality of the building principal. So building that principal capacity
as well.

Should schools be run like businesses, or is there more to it than that?
I think it’s a combination. Certain times call for schools to be run like businesses, and other times it calls for you to fall back on the default education system, on how it was created years and years ago, but standardized testing should not be the only thing that measures a school or a school district. It should be the quality of college graduates that are produced, the quality of the skilled workforce…there are a lot of things that should be measured. It would be wonderful if we also had qualitative data to look at…so it just depends on the situation. I think when it comes to hiring and firing, it should be like a business, but, I don’t know, I think the jury is still out on that one for me.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just that if we had additional funding, I would love for a foreign language teacher to be placed in every elementary school so that students had an opportunity to take a foreign language as they enter kindergarten or first grade…an option for two years at the elementary level and another opportunity at the middle-school level. Then, by high school, they are ready to make the decision that they’re ready to continue on with French or Spanish or German. For me, that would be ideal: if every child had an opportunity for foreign language experience.

One of my other priorities is focusing on career and technical education. We need to get back to that and expand that in our district. That is an area I will be closely watching and trying to work with local partnerships to provide more opportunities for our high school students, and hopefully, our middle school students as we move forward. iBi