In Amato We Trust?

So you’ve decided to become an urban school superintendent. Good for you.

At the helm of some of the most spectacularly underachieving districts when it comes to standardized test results, you’ll have the opportunity to lead only the most desperate parents and teachers.

First, though, you’ll have to decide what kind of superintendent you want to be.

You can struggle to reach the children, improve educational standards, and show grace under fire as the easiest scapegoat for anything that goes wrong. Or, if you can tell desperate people what they want to hear, you can get a quick pay bump and cause so much strife that no one will blame you when you run for the next juicy gig, severance package in hand.

To help you decide which type of administrator you are, we’ve developed this step-by-step guide based on the work of Kansas City, Missouri, School Superintendent Anthony Amato.

Here’s the situation in which Amato finds himself. After only a year in power, he has earned a reputation as an arrogant manager. School board members are almost evenly divided as to whether they want him to continue in the job. One agency that provides after-school programs is considering filing a lawsuit for nearly $1.2 million that it claims the district owes it for services. And the teachers union claims that 22 administrators — at least 11 of whom were hired by Amato himself — have either resigned or been fired from their positions.

Amato says he’s making tough but necessary decisions to get rid of ineffective teaching programs. He says the number of staff turnovers cited by the teacher’s union is false. And he says he’s steadfastly refusing to bend to political pressure from groups that are more concerned with their own welfare than with the students’.

What’s going on here? To provide some perspective, we have consulted Susan Eaton, a Harvard professor who spent three years researching a school district in Hartford, Connecticut — where Amato was superintendent in the early part of this decade. Eaton’s research on urban education culminated in The Children in Room 4E: American Education on Trial, published this past January by Algonquin Books.

“It’s this weird type of super, almost a specific breed, that has sprung up on the urban schools’ circuit,” Eaton tells us. “There are people who go into impossible jobs and get blamed for everything. Most of the time, the things they get blamed for aren’t the fault of the teachers or themselves but [are] just larger social problems no one can handle by themselves. They do the best they can for a few years and move on.

“Then there are people who exploit the situation for their own gain. They go in, and they know what to say because they know everyone is desperate for a hero. They get their high salary, and they go.”

This guide can work for you. Let’s begin.

Step 1: Find a Desperate District

Since a 12-year stint — the longest of his career — as superintendent of New York City Community School District No. 6, Anthony Amato has repeatedly found himself in problem school districts. Not that New York City was great. There, teachers deal with some of the nation’s highest rates of poverty, crime and drug use and face many students whose first language isn’t English. He left New York in 1999 and proceeded to spend three and a half years in Hartford, which was dead last in the state’s standardized testing evaluations when he arrived. (Hartford was second-highest among urban districts by the end of his time there.) He left there in 2002 and went to New Orleans, where he stayed for less than three years. That district’s test scores were dismal, too, but its finances were even worse.

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Almost everyone we interviewed about Amato’s previous gigs started their recollections the same way: He came into a tough situation.

In Hartford, Eaton says, “He came in and gave this big speech about how they were never going to be last again, and it got him a lot of attention. And he really organized the place — he did get rid of some people who were not performing or were absent — and he went on to standardize the curriculum in ways that hadn’t been done before.”

When he started in Kansas City, Amato gave another big speech. Like the other districts, Kansas City’s was in a tough situation. The Kansas City, Missouri, School District had only recently been granted provisional accreditation after some improvements were made under former Superintendent Bernard Taylor. (The school board declined to renew Taylor’s contract in 2005.) And state testing results were poor.

During a reception at the district’s downtown headquarters on Amato’s first day of work, Amato assured faculty and staff that he wasn’t there to fire people or cause chaos. He promised improvement in scores on state tests — the most important of which is the Missouri Assessment Program, in which Kansas City students have historically had poor showings.

As much as faculty and staff appreciate that kind of talk, the honeymoon never lasts. Amato left New Orleans in 2005 under a legal agreement that included a nondisparagement clause — no one involved is allowed to say anything bad about him. After Amato’s resignation, Louisiana Education Superintendent Cecil Picard issued a statement demanding that the New Orleans district cede financial control to the state. (Picard died in 2006; Louisiana school officials declined to comment, and New Orleans School District officials did not return calls seeking comment about Amato’s time there.)

“He came in on a 4-3 vote, and if that would’ve been me, I would’ve said thanks but no thanks,” says Keith Twichell, president of the Committee for a Better New Orleans, a local group active in improving academics. “His one glaring weakness was communication. When we did try to reach out to him, it was very difficult to get a response. And he was not very good at explaining his own programs. If I were in his position, I would have probably hired a financial expert, and he didn’t go that route. When help was offered, he didn’t take it.”

It wasn’t an amicable split in Hartford, either.

“They did get the test scores up, but I think it would be a stretch to say there was any improvement in the schools,” Eaton says. “By the time he left, a lot of the teachers despised him and found him very difficult to deal with.” Regardless of what teachers thought, Amato left Connecticut with a $162,240 severance package plus benefits for one year.

Amato blames his Hartford departure on a shift in city government during his third year, when the mayor secured more power over the district.

“Any district in the country with a governance shift, a superintendent better be on the lookout because that occurs precisely because they want to shake up the system,” Amato says.

In New Orleans, he adds, the district’s financial condition upon his departure was the result of corruption that was already deeply entrenched when he arrived.

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He came into a tough situation.

Amato says his background gives him a unique handle on troubled districts. A native of New York City, he describes his childhood education as having taken place in poor neighborhoods with low expectations. He says he remembers looking around a classroom and seeing all the other students failing.

“I’m very aware of the challenges in urban America and what it takes to shift direction,” he says. “Not just to sit around and hope something happens. So I understand when people say they’re uncomfortable [with changes]. Usually the top third says, ‘Wow, this is great.’ It’s the middle third you really have to capture. Then there’s the bottom third that won’t ever agree with anything you do.”

He describes five years as a lifetime for a superintendent; an average tenure, he says, is about two years.

Regardless of their ability to tell inspirational stories about overcoming childhood difficulties, job-searching superintendents are normally subjected to background checks. However, Kansas City School District board member Marilyn Simmons, who voted against hiring Amato and remains a vocal opponent of many of his decisions, says she never saw one.

Maurice Watson, a Blackwell Sanders attorney who represents the school district, says he doesn’t know whether such a check was ever done. He refers inquiries to the ProAct Search firm, which he says investigated several of the candidates the district considered in the winter and spring of 2006. As of this guide’s press time, ProAct representatives had not returned our phone calls.

Simmons blames the district’s eagerness to hire a superintendent for the apparent lack of a formal background check on Amato.

But the problem may have been that Amato removed his name from contention in the middle of the hiring process. After the search committee had narrowed the list to three other candidates, he asked to be reconsidered.

“If we had a background check, I don’t think he would have gotten the job,” Simmons says. “We snuck him in the back door. And because we did it improperly, now everything’s a quandary.”

Step 2: Kill the Baby Sitter

Once you’re in, you’ll still have to deal with outside groups that have grown accustomed to getting paychecks from your district.

In Amato’s case, that turned out to be the Local Investment Commission, known as LINC.

LINC describes itself as an organization that provides educational, child-welfare, health, neighborhood-development and senior services. Simmons and others say LINC’s programs have been a necessary tool for keeping children off the streets when their parents work long hours and can’t afford day care, and that it has helped unemployed parents find work, offered after-school academic programs (including reading instruction) and developed relationships with other community programs.

When she first met Amato in the summer of 2006, LINC President Gayle Hobbs had high hopes.

“We were actually very excited to work with him,” she says. “He was talking the talk, and he said he wanted to work with everybody. We thought we were going to have a great future with him.”

But during Amato’s first semester, the new superintendent introduced an after-school tutoring program called Power Hour, designed to prepare students for standardized tests such as the SAT and the ACT. Students who stuck around after final bell would be required to attend Power Hour before any other activities — including LINC’s.

LINC officials say this mandate reduced the number of students who were able to take part in the organization’s programs.

Then, in December, the district refused to pay $1.2 million for services that LINC officials claim the district owed LINC under the terms of its contract.

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According to Amato, LINC never had such a contract.

“My first month here, they said, ‘Here’s a bill,'” Amato says. “So I say, ‘OK, no problem.’ I look in last year’s budget for the $1.2 million LINC allegedly said we had to pay them and, lo and behold, I don’t find it. Turns out there’s no contract. It’s not in dispute. They can’t produce it.”

Hobbs argues that the contract was a 1999 agreement with an automatic-renewal clause, but LINC officials were unable to supply the Pitch with a copy of the document as of press time. In any case, LINC ended its programs and pulled its computers and other equipment out of the district’s rooms.

Also a mystery to some: LINC’s accomplishments with its programs.

Consultant Christopher Henrich, an associate professor of psychology at Georgia State University, was hired during the 2004-05 school year to evaluate LINC for the federal 21st Century grant program, which funded some of LINC’s work. He says he was never able to gather enough data to determine whether students in LINC programs improved academically; the review was stopped this year because of problems with the district. However, he says there was some evidence that middle-school students who attended regularly might have raised their test scores slightly.

What LINC clearly did do, Henrich claims, was establish bridges to other community organizations such as the YMCA, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the Boy Scouts. “What they were doing,” he says, “was helping kids connect to their communities and to adults, something they need to do in a friendly setting.”

Besides, he adds, “there weren’t many families who needed the services and didn’t get them. At Garfield Elementary alone, you’ve got a lot of underprivileged kids, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone there who needed a LINC service they didn’t get.”

But some parents doubted the value of LINC’s after-school programs. After a recent school board meeting, one mother complained that her son’s involvement was only “sitting around watching movies, doing nothing.”

Amato says he offered LINC a chance to continue working with the district. But he proposed an entirely different role for the organization, one that would have focused on LINC’s ability to raise state and federal grant money. Amato says the two parties went back and forth on deals that were agreed upon, only to have LINC renege days later. LINC officials say they never agreed to anything.

Meanwhile, several surrounding districts have contacted LINC for programs now that its resources are available. Hobbs says the organization won’t make any commitments until the end of this month.

Amato has one word for LINC’s complaints: “BS.”

Amato says he told LINC that it could maintain its attendance rolls by reporting every kid in Power Hour as a LINC program participant, even if those students never actually went to a LINC program.

“I told them we were having Power Hour, and, as far as I was concerned, they could still count the kids in that on their tallies. I don’t care, as long as we get to prepare. They could keep being the baby sitter.”

In other words, according to Amato, it’s OK to fudge numbers that get used in grant applications.

Step 3: Get the Kids in Line

Once you’ve neutralized one powerful outside interest, you’ll need everyone in the district to support your vision. A quick way to do this is impose a curriculum that’ll get every kid moving in lockstep.

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For that, Amato has relied on something called Success For All. The phonics-based reading program, packaged and promoted by a nonprofit in Baltimore, can cost more than $3 million for schools to implement.

Amato purchased Success for All in Hartford and in New Orleans. He had been in Kansas City for little more than a week when he started pushing it.

Amato says Kansas City lacked a standardized reading program. “We needed to do something dramatic here to raise the scores. I went to the board and said, ‘We can do nothing and spend a year talking about it, and next year we’ll be in the same place. Or we can do something right now, and I guarantee we won’t be in the same place next year.'”

But Judy Morgan, who is president of the Federation of Teachers Local 691, says two reading programs were in place before Amato’s arrival.

By the end of Amato’s first month on the job, July 2006, the school board had agreed to put Success for All in 15 middle schools for the academic year that would start just a month later.

This surprised even the people at Success for All’s main office.

“We have done things fast before, but this is the fastest I’ve ever seen the program implemented,” says Sandra Pool, area manager for the program. Her territory includes Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Montana and Wyoming, along with the Kansas City district in Missouri. Pool is quick to praise teachers and administrators for their willingness to participate, but she admits that many teachers likely did not receive proper training.

“It was a rush on our end to get training rooms and materials together — especially training rooms, because that time of year you have so much going on in high schools,” she says. “My guess would be several teachers didn’t get training either because they went to the wrong place or got the wrong information. But if they didn’t get it, we offered makeup training for anyone hired after the fact. So there were opportunities.”

One teacher paints a different picture.

Bob Furrey is a special education teacher who has worked in the Kansas City, Missouri, district for 19 years. He teaches sixth-graders at Northeast Middle School. Before that, he was the superintendent at Climax Springs in the Lake of the Ozarks. (No stranger to the politics that can influence school administrators, he admits to being fired from that post.)

Furrey describes the Success for All training as chaotic.

He says Success for All’s trainers were prepared to teach the program to around 40 people. “They had 40 copies of the material, a room for 40 people. Then 178 showed up,” he says. “We had no idea why we were there. We had no idea what we were doing. And all this is while we’re trying to get classrooms together for the fall. We walked out at the end of it with no idea what was going on, and I don’t think a single principal agreed on what the program was supposed to be.”

Last month, as Amato presented the school board with his budget for the next fiscal year, he said Success for All had resulted in a 20 percent increase in students reading at or above their grade levels. He based the statistic on quarterly computerized tests that he had implemented.

Furrey disputes Amato’s claim. He says the tests became such a regular exercise that most students stopped caring about them. “I know kids were going in there and taking five minutes to do these,” he says.

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Furrey further claimed that computer systems were so poorly prepared for the workload that they crashed the first time tests were administered.

Eaton, the Harvard professor and author, says it’s reasonable to assume that simply increasing the number of tests a student takes will result in higher scores without an actual improvement in the student’s aptitude.

“It’s kind of common sense,” she says. “The more you test kids on a similar form of the test, the better they’ll end up doing. It’s not necessarily a measure of how well they know something.”

Though Success for All can give structure to a student’s day, Eaton says, it can also hinder more effective teachers by forcing them to adhere to a regimented script.

It will be awhile before we know how well the Success for All students are really doing. Cindy Beacher, hired to oversee the program, says the district is still waiting on the data necessary to paint a complete picture, including scores from the Missouri Assessment Program. If you’re a superintendent like Amato, that won’t stop you from telling the school board that you’ve seen a 20 percent increase in reading skills.

Another complication: In April, federal grant reviewers denied the district’s request for more than $3 million to expand the program. Their reasons included concerns that the district hadn’t gone through a formal process to select Success for All and had provided no data to justify the replacement of existing reading programs.

Amato doesn’t worry about complainers who say kids get higher test scores simply by taking more tests.

“So what?” Amato asks. “You practice ball, OK? Baseball. You practice baseball, and you get better at hitting. What’s wrong with that?”

Step 4: Alienate Your Staff

Union or no union, if there are any teachers left who don’t hate you, do what you can to keep them from getting close to you.

In Hartford and New Orleans, people who saw Amato in action agreed that he wasn’t the best at communicating his ideas.

By talking to Amato in person, you’ll understand why.

Amato tends to give the impression that he’s talking to a naïve child.

The Rev. Scott Meyers, a pastor at Westport Presbyterian Church who is also a member of a group called Friends of Children Learning, likens Amato’s management style to accountants trying to tell doctors how to operate.

“Somebody tries to talk to him, and he just looks straight ahead like there’s nothing there,” board member Simmons says.

Morgan, the union president, has issued several press statements chiding Amato for his inability to retain administrative staff, most notably in human resources.

Amato’s spokeswoman, Cynthia Wheeler-Linden, dismisses Morgan’s claims, calling them an attempt to gain public support before contract negotiations. Since Amato’s arrival, Wheeler-Linden says, the district has had three human-resources directors: Brenda Thomas, who left in December; Anna Fader, who “did not work out,” Wheeler-Linden writes in an e-mail to the Pitch; and Michael Ford, who never showed up to work. Don Bell, the associate superintendent of elementary schools, is acting HR director.

“I cannot find any proof of those statements made to you by the teachers union,” Wheeler-Linden writes. “What I can tell you is that when any large company experiences a change, leadership change within departments often takes place.”

Amato says he’s just trying to find the best person for the job.

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“I’m challenging you to step up to a very different way of doing business,” he says. “There’s going to be upset initially. But as success sets in, there’ll be a critical mass. After the first year or two, things will settle down.”

Amato admits that his problems in New Orleans may have stemmed from people not knowing what he was doing.

“It speaks to the possibility of not getting the terms of public relations and communications and not getting that out, but, for us, the most important thing was academics.”

Take note here of the way that Amato steers the subject back to his love for education. It’s important to stay on message.

Besides, no one can argue against the importance of academics.

In both Hartford and New Orleans, state test scores during Amato’s tenures reflected increased reading comprehension. And both places saw those scores drop within a year or two of his departure. It’s hard to tell whether such a decline shows lack of long-term success with Amato’s programs or reflects new programs put in place by his successors.

As an urban superintendent, it’s important that you change everything the previous person did. Remember, you’ve come into a difficult situation. You’ve been hired to shake things up.

Step 5: Start Looking for a New Gig

Whether you’re simply shopping for desperate-district cash or truly trying to help in a tough situation, a staff full of wary backbiters gives you a good excuse when you start looking for the next job.

Eaton says Amato was well known for keeping his name in circulation for jobs and then taking it out again. “He was weird like that,” she says.

Amato says he didn’t look for anything in Hartford until it was clear that he was on his way out because the mayor had assumed more control over the school district. But editorials from The Hartford Courant note that despite Amato’s ability to pump up test scores, his “autocratic impersonal management style was wearing thin” and he was “always on the make for a new gig.” The same editorial, in the paper’s November 2, 2002, edition, does agree with Amato that Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez pushed him out.

So far, Amato says, he has applied for nothing since arriving in Kansas City.

“Kansas City has been good to me. I’d like to stay at least five years,” Amato says.

So what kind of administrator is Amato?

“If you’re going to ask that question, you have to look at how I’ve invested in the community,” he says. “I’ve bought a house, and, if you know about real estate, you know that I’ll lose big if I leave in less than five years. Plus, I’ve got kids in the school district — adopted kids — and when you have them, you don’t want to keep moving them around. You want to give them some stability. To uproot them and have my wife yelling at me for moving again, I’m not doing that.”

Of course, he bought houses in Hartford and New Orleans, too.

Best of luck, future superintendent.

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