Communication woes spurs new Scottsdale Schools efforts

 

Standing in front of hundreds of his colleagues, community members and his boss first-year social studies teacher John Bundy did his best to hold back months of building frustration and anguish while at the microphone.

On the evening of May 9, which was Teacher Appreciation Day, Mr. Bundy tearfully described the most recent months within the district during his first year as an educator. Mr. Bundy was one of 20 teachers who were asked to re-apply for their job at Coronado High School, 7501 E. Virginia Ave.

Mr. Bundy was not asked back to Coronado by district administration.

He described how he spent the first few months as a new teacher going through training, and often asked for advice and feedback.

“In January, I was told I would have to re-apply for my job. I went through all the steps, but come February, I never had another district personnel walk through my classroom,” he said. “For the three weeks before my interview, no one came to see what I was like as a teacher.”

Following a 20-minute interview in February, Mr. Bundy was not selected to continue at Coronado, and although he specifically wanted to teach high school, he was placed at Tonalea K-8.

Fifteen days before the 2016-17 school year comes to a close, Scottsdale Unified School District teachers and faculty continued their recent crusade, which has been publicly building over several of the last public governing board meetings.

Anchored by initiatives in the district, such as the Coronado Success Initiative, a recently passed $229 million bond effecting every district school, and new programs being implemented, many community members and teachers have expressed building angst.

Speaking at governing board meetings — oftentimes wearing matching T-shirts to show solidarity — has been a typical tactic for teachers since March when there was consternation following changes to a teacher employment agreement, changing teacher transfer options and the timeline in which teachers are hired.

In April, the employee group held up green index cards when they would agree with something someone said — the governing board asks the audience to refrain from clapping or cheering during public comment. At the end of the public comment portion of the meeting, the teachers staged a walk-out.

At the May 9 regular Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board meeting, a number of public speakers used their allotted three minutes to address myriad changes happening at the district level. Concerns have varied from teacher pay, communication, processes, and a new Coronado Success Initiative aimed to improve one high school but one theme remains constant: teachers and parents want to be included in the changes.

A view of the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board Room on April 25. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

We are SUSD

Arcadia High School teacher Rony Assali says for the first time, compensation isn’t at the center of district concerns.

Mr. Assali is a past president of the Scottsdale Education Association, and has served on several committees on his campus throughout the years.

Rony Assali

“It’s really not just about compensation, but about inclusion and feeling valued,” Mr. Assali explained in a May 10 phone interview.

“It seems money has taken a back seat to the idea of parents and teachers being a part of the process, to be a part of these plans and be a part of these grassroots changes.”

One of the first public examples was the Coronado Success Initiative, says Mr. Assali, who described frustrated teachers who believed their input would be valuable.

“Some of the best ideas, and best intended ideas will never reach the full potential — they might not even have a chance to get off the ground — if there’s not buy in, if there’s not a grassroots group of people that have come together and worked through, and dialogued about what the best way to do this is.”

In January, Dr. Birdwell and district officials announced the high school overhaul, requesting all Coronado teachers reapply for their jobs. Of 54 Coronado teachers interviewed, 34 were reportedly offered contracts.

“From there we started having unintended consequences, such as the transfer process that was put on pause because no one had been in the original planning phase to say ‘hey in six months we may have an issue,’” he explained.

In the middle of March, the Scottsdale Schools governing board voted 5-0 to suspend language in the teacher employment agreement and adopt a new expedited staffing timeline.

“If we’re going to have an issue with transfer, let’s start addressing it now,” he said. “Had more people been involved on the front end, we could have seen these things coming and handled them prior, and handled them more gracefully. Then people wouldn’t feel shut out or devalued.”

Stemming from the public angst surrounding district changes and evolution, are town hall meetings hosted by Mr. Assali and long-time Scottsdale Unified School District English teacher, Christine Marsh. Ms. Marsh, the 2016 Arizona Teacher of the Year, announced her resignation from SUSD to take a job at Cactus Shadows High School in the Cave Creek Unified School District this spring.

Beginning in early April, a few people planned to meet at a local church. Mr. Assali says he was shocked to find over 60 people, just from word-of-mouth.

“That’s when I thought ‘wow this is much bigger than teachers had been made out to feel,’” he explained.

“In Scottsdale, we value collaboration, even when people disagreed, there’s been a way for people’s voices to be expressed,” the math teacher explained.

“So now that we’re shifting over to ‘we’re just going to do things because we need to be timely and proactive, despite everyone else,’ it’s a little weird, and it’s different, and it’s a disconnect. And that’s what we don’t want.”

(file photo)

The grace of time

Days before the 2016-17 school year wraps up, Superintendent Dr. Denise Birdwell says she is working on providing a more stable system for communication beginning this summer.

Teachers aren’t the only group in Scottsdale feeling the communication could be improved, Dr. Birdwell says, as communication is the No. 1 complaint she hears.

Dr. Denise Birdwell. (photo by Josh Martinez)

A letter penned by Dr. Birdwell is set to go out to teachers Thursday, May 11, not only outlining avenues of communication but encouraging employees to use them.

Additionally, Dr. Birdwell has plans in place to train principals on “critical communication circles,” and to work on issues with the SEA to see if there are better practices to implement.

“We’re going to be meeting this summer with the SEA, they have a new executive board, they have a very positive outlook on moving forward,” Dr. Birdwell said. “I’ve met every one of them now — we’re going to look at meet and confer, can we do it in a more productive manner?”

At the campus level, Dr. Birdwell has proposed a new campus leadership structure, coined Scottsdale Teacher Instructional Leadership, providing teachers with the opportunity to apply and be interviewed by their principal to have a leading role on campus. Instructional leaders will be provided district professional development training and meet quarterly with district administration.

Prior standard operating procedure on campus included teachers appointed to be a department chair, and the principal was not involved in the appointments on campus.

A second opportunity, a teacher communication team, will be made up of two teachers per campus to serve on a communication team with the district. This team will meet bi-monthly to discuss district initiatives and opportunities for growth.

Serving on a district committee is also an option, and any teacher is welcome to apply, Dr. Birdwell says.

“We’ve admitted the communication lines have definite need for improvement,” Dr. Birdwell explained in a May 11 interview. After an interim contract turned into a permanent contract on June 30, 2016, Dr. Birdwell says she felt it was time to begin updating outdated district systems.

Her predecessor had a history in business and finance, while Dr. Birdwell says her background is in the classroom.

“The big issues I’ve heard from parents, teachers, administrators, governing board members — all the stakeholders I answer to — have shared communication. The whole engine of communication in Scottsdale needs revamping, and that’s a huge system to undertake,” the district leader said.

The Scottsdale Unified School District employees over 2,000 employees and has 29 school campuses; each of its campuses operate differently and unintended consequences can be born in such a system.

“It’s been the philosophy in the district to have principal newsletters go through PTOs, but that breaks down the communication because not every parent is a PTO member,” she explained. “So we’re saying to the principals: all principal newsletters need to go out directly from the principal to all parents.”

There are many parents who don’t join the school PTO, and even ones who have admitted to Dr. Birdwell that they give an email sent from the principal a much higher priority than one from the PTO.

“That information, not only do we want to make it a huge priority for the principal, but we will also tag into that newsletter when there’s critical messaging we need to submit,” she said.

The district’s Public Information Officer, Erin Helm, has been charged with communicating to principals what districtwide news needs to be included in their letters. The district also plans to update its website to be more user-friendly, Dr. Birdwell said, and she would like for every district teacher to have their own website.

“I do believe I entered into Scottsdale, into a very distrusting negative culture that we’re trying to shift here,” Dr. Birdwell said. “The only way to heal that is time. It’s me giving you the grace of time, and you giving me the grace of time, and those are the conversations happening behind the scenes.”

Northeast Valley News Services Editor Melissa Fittro can be e-mailed at mfittro@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/melissafittro.

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