Man of the Hour

Forgione Aims to Improve AISD's Tarnished Image

Man of the Hour
Photo By Jana Birchum

It's rare that a school superintendent enjoys the celebrity status that has been foisted on the new chief of Austin's public schools, Dr. Pat Forgione, who for the past two months has been hogging more headlines even than our media-friendly mayor. His new charge -- guiding AISD out of a Sargasso Sea of mismanagement, criminal investigations, and community distrust -- is daunting. But Forgione has expressed a willingness to be as big as the job requires. His agenda has been packed with meetings -- with PTA leaders, with business folks, with the Urban League, the NAACP. Teacher representatives were astonished to get a call from him during his first week in town. Forgione even submitted to the talk radio treatment from KVET's Bob Cole and Sammy Allred after announcing a new school tax hike in September. By his own admission, Forgione, the former U.S. commissioner of education statistics, is a data man. That makes Forgione, in the short term at least, an obvious antidote to AISD's most publicized failings. In the past year, the district's numbers have either been hidden, altered, or misplaced -- leading both the county attorney and the Texas Education Agency to slap indictments and censure on the district -- or allowed to balloon, as with the 1996 bond construction program, which drew an uninvited audit from the state comptroller. Since taking the superintendent's chair in August, Forgione has hired his own auditors, created new positions to oversee finance, operations, and student reporting, and aired the district's costly accounting mistakes. Parents are gratified that troubling news is being swept from beneath the carpet. Reporters are actually reading AISD press releases again.

Forgione, however, is armed with more than just a calculator and balance sheet. He's brought personality, challenging ideas, and a belief that Austin's schools have a singular potential for excellence. Education in Austin is exciting again, and Forgione is being given plenty of room to work. But as a school superintendent, Forgione is still relatively untested. Does he have realistic expectations about the power of public education? Can he really make kids want to stay in school? Will he free teachers and students from TAAS drill drudgery, instilling a "rich curriculum" that both inspires students and produces good test scores? Forgione says he can. Austin will be watching closely.

Austin Chronicle: First, are you yourself a product of the public school system?

Pat Forgione: I came up in a religious family that believed in a Catholic education. In fact, I ended up studying to be a priest. I got a bachelor's degree in philosophy and theology. I guess it was in the late Sixties [when] I made a decision to leave the theological studies and decided I wanted to go into public education. I believe public schools are the greatest invention of democracy. I eventually had three boys, and they've gone through 17 years of public school. I have a senior at the University of Delaware, and he's majoring in elementary education. He's going to be a second-grade teacher. I'm just really proud of him.

AC: Your educational career tended in a more technical, policy-making direction. At what point did you decide you wanted to be a school superintendent?

PF: Well, very early. I taught for four years in Baltimore. And I realized I wasn't going to make a difference if I didn't get some graduate training. I applied to Stanford, and went out there to be a superintendent of schools. That's when I got under this one professor who was a political scientist, and he [advised] me to begin at the state agency level. So while I got my certificate to be a teacher and did an internship as a vice principal, my career got directed toward the state level. For 13 years I worked in the state of Connecticut, and I did have a technical orientation. I'll go to Purgatory for a long time -- I built about three dozen tests in my life. And that developed my understanding of how you manage a system with data.

But I got pulled away into this analytical side, and it was only in the last year that I realized that I'd like to try to be an urban superintendent. I wanted an urban community, a city that had an identity. I didn't want a suburb. I didn't want a rural superintendency. So I began to search that and it took me -- it didn't take as long as I thought, I guess -- only about four or five months and Austin opened up. And I felt very lucky. I believe I'm ready for it, but you'll make that judgment in the next couple of years, I hope.

AC: You may have already made some judgments about AISD. Its current unhealthy relationship with the community, not to mention the budget tiger that's coming when we have to start sharing wealth with poorer districts, may have scared away the first person offered this position. What did you see in Austin that made you want this job?

PF: My wife and I went for a ride and we tried to get into UT, but there's so many damn gates around UT, you can't get in there. So this old gentleman comes out and he says, "What are you doing?" And I said, "Well, I wanted to take my bride here to visit the university." And so I got him talking. I said, "Did you go to the schools here?" He said yeah, and in fact he named off his elementary, his middle, and his high school. So I said, "How do you think we're doing?" He said, "Well, we've got problems, but I think we'll get by them. We're Austin, we can solve those problems." Then he tells me about his grandchildren, and how he wants his grandchildren to go to these schools. Now, those are the unobtrusive measures that say to me there's something deep in this community.

If you want an urban area in America, none of them are easy; they're going to be complex, they're going to be challenging. The reason I took this was, I felt the potential's here. While there are problems, I think my strengths balance those problems. I think Austin was offended by the previous period, where the district didn't connect to the community, and they want to stay connected, they want you to listen. That's why I'm trying to visit schools and identify with educational issues; I know I'm going to be isolated on this data for a while, and I'm worried my image will become a pointy-headed data guy. I'm really about teaching and learning. I want Austin to have 100 schools of excellence. And I think we can do that here. I don't know if you can do it in Houston or Dallas, but I think this community has the potential and the talent, if it has the will.

AC: As an education reporter, I received a questionnaire in the mail from your office at the National Center for Education Statistics asking me to evaluate your information services. I didn't respond. A month later, I got a follow-up letter insisting I respond. You're obviously a person who believes numbers tell you where you stand. Are you the type of guy who keeps track of your car's mileage and reads those grocery stickers that tell you how much per ounce something's costing you?

Man of the Hour
Photo By Jana Birchum

PF: No, I'm really non-parametric. It's more the feeling for numbers, the sense of a broad indicator to give me the boundaries and the gauge. I want to do a customer survey on this district. I want to ask people like yourself, and empty nesters, and teachers and parents, and the business community, how we're doing. I'm concerned about the people who don't come into this office, who pay the taxes and have to foot the bill. Do they think this is a good buy? That's why I do believe data can be helpful. It's not the end-all, but it certainly bespeaks a commitment to listening. I can't talk to everyone. But I can certainly try to take the pulse of it.

AC: I wonder, though, if we are relying too much on numbers, i.e, test scores, dollars per pupil, to assess our educational quality. Have we lost track of subtler elements that make education valuable for the students themselves?

PF: You're right, we need both. Certainly, dollars make a difference. I tried to say that in the tax rate, why we had to go up some extra cents. I agree with you, though, we need those unobtrusive measures of teacher quality: the friendliness of an environment when you walk into a school, that people care about you and welcome you and don't give you the cold shoulder if you're a parent or a student.

It's nice, though, having this [TEA accountability] framework, I must admit. I can nitpick it, but I do think it's a valuable framework, and it's one that I think I need to accept. If I can show progress on that [TAAS scores, dropout rates, attendance rates], the public will believe me, because the public's never going to believe your own numbers -- you're never a prophet in your own back yard, you know. This district has quality. I'll bet there's not another district in Texas that had 50 national merit scholars [last year]. Yet we didn't give that the same visibility we gave seven [low-performing] schools. Now I'm going to make sure we get that visibility in the future. I want our best doing better, I want the average doing better, and we're going to make those kids at risk meet the standards.

AC: Do you agree with people who critique the public school system now saying that standards have been lowered to prevent unambitious students from failing and to prevent confrontations with parents?

PF: Yeah, I call it the unum. You know, we've got too much e pluribus, we need some unum. We need to know: What's a good essay look like at the end of a certain grade? One of the things I'm going to try to do by the end of the year is get examples of that, where parents can see it. I do think a lot of our teachers who've wanted to set standards have been islands of excellence, surrounded by mediocrity. The common public school needs to have high expectations. But when I look at what you ask Pat to do, is it the same thing that you're asking Kevin to do? If we're going to be a profession, we need to have common standards and agreements, and I think what's happened in the public schools is, the standards have eroded.

AC: Would you want your principals ordering weekly TAAS drills in their classrooms?

PF: No. I think you should have a rich curriculum that defines the domains of learning. And across these 16 weeks of instruction, you should be able to hit those points, and to understand whether Pat and Kevin are learning it. But you don't have to do mindless, rote drill and practice. I think that's ineffectual. I don't want the instruction to be tied to this little test. The curriculum should align to the standards, and if you're teaching the curriculum, you should be teaching the test.

AC: Some might argue that in lower-performing schools in Austin, drilling kids with those tests is the only way to keep our ratings out of the cellar.

PF: Well, I don't think so. These marginal strategies get you over the hurdle at one grade. I really want to build strategies that are much more systemic and coherent, that teach you to read with comprehension. And I believe in phonics and phonemic understanding. I'd like to have math problem-solving and conceptual understanding. Not just arithmetic and the narrow function. I don't want to second-guess how teachers teach. But I think accountability can't just be for children; it's got to be for our teachers; it's got to be for the schools, saying, "You've had these children now four years. Have they learned to read at a basic level? Can they comprehend and write a persuasive essay?" That's the kind of blueprint I'd like to build over time.

It may mean we have to give [students] more time. And God forbid you tell that boy Pat he's gotta go to summer school. Well, Pat needs summer school. Pat ain't going to get it in 180 days. But I can give you 220 days with summer school. I can give you a teacher who stays with you for a year and a half. You know, we've got to reinvent these quality measures that really tell you this community cares about you and wants you in our schools. I'm not a policeman, I'm an educator. And if you don't do well in my regular environment, I'll give you a second chance. You're going to leave the regular environment until you're civil and disciplined, but I'm going to put you some place that helps you. Now, if you don't wake up on that, I don't know how much more we can do. There's some people who just want to throw kids on the street. I don't believe in that. I believe that we've got to give them that chance. That's why we're the public schools. It's not easy; someone didn't give us a selective crowd, they gave us the best they could send us, and I want to say to parents, we'll do better.

We've got terrific teachers. Let's make the best teachers here the mentors and coaches. So my strategy is really about professional development. That's the only way you can build a good army that's going to be able to win on this battlefield.

Man of the Hour
Photo By Jana Birchum

AC: Judging from the time you've been here, do you think the problems AISD was having were caused by systemic weaknesses? Or was it the work of a few bad apples?

PF: I do typically believe that most problems are system-based, not individual-based. I believe most of the people here are good people. But we haven't supported them. What we've got to do is put in place controls that allow your work to be reviewed. But we've just not been doing that, and what disturbs me the most is that I see here a failure of having systems in place that could be catching some of these issues. We just found out that a data set is going to drop our extended-year grants from $2.6 million to $300,000. We're going to lose $2 million. Now there's nothing that could have been done. But in June, they knew this. No one raised it to the board, no one said, "Do we know this? What's going to happen? What's the implication?" Those are signs to me that this is systemic. It's deep. But it also says there's a culture that's unacceptable. That we've got to be more professional and accountable. From this level I can only do so much. But what I've got to do is identify and be able to reorganize around that, because ultimately I'm gonna be accountable.

In the mid-Eighties, Austin was one of the best districts in the country in terms of its information systems. Now they're degenerated, they're all isolated stovepipes, they're patched up with COBOL programming, there's no relational databases. And I hate to say to the public that I believe in reducing class size but then invest this money up here. Well, I can't afford to keep losing these grants. You've got to do first things first, and that's why my three priorities were better data, better collaboration, leading to better student achievement.

AC: You've talked about improving dropout reporting and made it a priority. What you haven't talked about as much are dropout prevention programs.

PF: Well, you've nailed it on the head. Collecting data is a necessary but not sufficient condition. So I should be able to know who's at risk, who's not attending today, who's been out for so long. But that's only the first step. As part of our agreement with [County Attorney] Ken Oden, we've put in place a five-place model. How do you prevent dropouts? You prevent it in elementary school, by addressing reading literacy, by looking at attendance problems. Then there's remediation and acceleration, where if kids are starting to fall behind the credit curve or attendance, you've got to change that behavior. So we've got to really intervene with some mentoring programs, some extended time program that would help them. Then if you do fall off the wagon and drop out, we've got to go get you and help your family. Most of this isn't just an individual issue, it's something that permeates the family as well. And then the fifth part of this is, once we bring you back in, being able to implement the kind of program that'll help you stay there -- changing the culture of school so you feel it's a place that cares about you and wants you to be there.

AC: Are there businesses or nonprofits that can help us?

PF: Absolutely. In fact, that's why I'm reinventing the AISD Foundation -- to start going out to the community here. And maybe they don't want to give AISD money, but they might put money into a specific project, like the Austin Project. Or Austin Interfaith. I mean, these are terrific. Building leadership in our community who can advocate for our kids. So I think we've got to have the full-court press on it. And this community does have a lot of options. We have 2,060 partners in the Partners in Education. I talked to the Hispanic contractors. They're willing to adopt kids, and take them on the job sites, give them a mentor, and then pay those kids, so they see a role model. I mean, that's the kind of real stuff that might keep Pat coming back to school, if I know that Charlie's going to give me a job. I think it's got to be more than, "This is good for you," when the kid has never had any experience that's any good.

AC: So do you support the expansion of school-to-work programs?

PF: Oh, absolutely. I'd like to reinvent it in middle school. We've got to get career pathways earlier, so kids understand that you don't need a college degree to make big money. You can make a fortune in this town. Now, again, you've got to have some basic skills. You've got to know algebra and geometry by the end of high school. But a lot of it is the motivation of the student. Too often, we wait until high school to help turn you around. So one of my priorities is going to be to reinvent middle school in science, math, and technology.

AC: The East Austin community's perception is that their schools are not as good as those attended by their West Austin neighbors. AISD spends a lot of money in those schools, but teacher turnover is high and the opportunities for advanced academic and professional programs are comparatively limited. How do we address this perceived inequity?

PF: What I'm going to do is try and put some innovations in the east side of town. One of them's going to be a principals' academy. I want to train the next generation of principals for AISD on the Eastside. It'll do two things: It'll get more adults into those environments, which will make them safer. It'll also help our teachers who want to be administrators get deep training where the action is. We're going to bring a dozen of our teachers and say to them, "If you'll go to UT for the summer, do a year with us and then another summer, you'll get a master's degree, and you're my bullpen, so when an [administrative] opening comes I'm going to put you in it." I'm about to talk to [UT] President Faulkner about the possibility of UT being a partner with us. Run the program in Johnston, or Reagan, or LBJ. Let's get our own people coming forward so career ladders are created. So when you're a teacher in Austin, you don't feel like you're burning out, you can move into this.

AC: The Austin City Council of PTAs passed a resolution earlier this year critical of the AISD administration for shutting parents out of the educational process and refusing to acknowlege the district's problems. Do you have a mechanism that will bring parents back in?

PF: Well, in a few minutes I'm meeting with the co-chairs of the District Advisory Council, and we intend to keep this process. I think, both by me going out to campuses and being present and visible and listening. The other night I visited with 15 black ministers in their church. So I think it's a two-way thing, one has to go out and keep these avenues open, so people feel that they do have a two-way interaction. But then I think it's also important to create the vehicles by which people can have formal input, and starting in January, through June, I'm going to launch a process by which we review our standards, and as part of that, I want to redo the school improvement plans. I don't think they've been very powerful. I think they've been a little unfocused and not strong enough to really compel us into this teaching and learning commitment. And that will be a place that I want parents integrally involved, agreeing to the standards, supporting the teachers, understanding them. And in building their school improvement plan, it'll be from the bottom up. I don't just want it top-down. It's got to be bottom-up. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin, AISD, Pat Forgione, TAAS, dropout, UT, Ken Oden, schools, urban, education

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