A Pedicone Education

The new TUSD superintendent speaks on transparency, accountability and the controversial ethnic-studies program

More than two years ago, the Tucson Weekly interviewed Elizabeth Celania-Fagen as she started her new position as the superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District.

At the time, outgoing superintendent Roger Pfeuffer was being lambasted by critics for what they called a bloated administrative budget, a severe lack of transparency and mistrust.

Toward the end of Pfeuffer's administration, librarians and school counselors were cut from the budget, and the district began a process to close several schools to avoid what was described as a financial crisis.

When Celania-Fagen was hired, the school board halted the school-closure process, and she began a campaign to unveil a district-wide school-choice program that helped the district with its desegregation issues while also putting some schools on alert: Administrators at schools suffering from decreasing enrollment were told they'd better start finding ways to attract students.

It seemed like TUSD was perhaps on the upswing ... but then came the Great Recession. Public education, already under attack by the Republican-controlled state Legislature, was hit by deep budget cuts. TUSD, one of the state's largest districts, was forced to revisit the idea of closing low-enrollment schools.

Finally, earlier this year, Celania-Fagen left Tucson to take a new position in Denver.

Last week, the Weekly sat down with John Pedicone, hired last month by the school board to take over where Pfeuffer and Celania-Fagen left off. Pedicone—a retired superintendent of the Flowing Wells School District, a senior faculty fellow at the UA College of Education and the vice president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council—was selected out of a final group of four candidates. He officially starts his new job in the new year.

Will you call upon the community to rally behind, rather than against, TUSD's students and schools?

I retired from Flowing Wells in 2004. I retired as an adjunct at the UA, and they created a faculty fellow position for me. I've been working on the doctorate program and most recently the master's program. I've been in this community for 30 years, and anyone who knew me from Flowing Wells would know that I would rather confront issues. It's also our responsibility to make sure that we recognize the good stuff. People have such a different perspective (on TUSD). Some of it is justified, but what I am learning as I get closer to this district is that there are some remarkable things going on here that no one seems to know about. ... I just found out that across the whole state, TUSD has more nationally certified teachers. That's impressive. It isn't easy to become nationally certified.

How do you rally behind the district and at the same time recognize the deficits and make changes?

The only way I know how to do that is to be honest about what is going on. We have more money through desegregation funds than virtually any other district in the state. So part of what we have to do is look at how that money is being spent, make sure we are doing the right things with that money, and then tell the community what some of those things are.

I'm going to be on this panel for a screening of Waiting for "Superman," and I just had this conversation with a number of business leaders about a week and a half ago, that charters are touted as being the panacea, the real reform jewel that's going to make a difference. Well, I'm one of those people who support the idea of charters, but not in the way they were introduced in the state. They are supposed to be these little unique institutions that show us another way of doing things when you take away a bunch of constraints. ... But you know what? The ones that work, (they) work really well. The (charter schools that) don't (work) go away. Unfortunately, when they go away, the victims are the kids. And I see the other side of that with some public schools: If they don't go away, the victims are the kids.

But really what's ended up happening is that schools have been put upon to solve social issues. ... It used to be schools were these reactive institutions that responded to the needs of society. The needs of society in the early days were to teach kids how to read, write, math. ... Parents took care of their children, and neighborhoods took care of the children. All of a sudden, the responsibility has shifted from where it should be, and the schools are expected to provide social-engineering institutions, so they take these responsibilities on, because no one else will. Then they are criticized for doing exactly that. ... We've got to be sure that people understand: Instead of criticizing teachers, they should be recognized as heroes, because they are doing some remarkable things.

During the superintendent-selection process, you were attacked for what some believed to be your perception on ethnic studies. Tell me your thoughts on the program.

First of all, (critics) don't know me. I am not Hispanic. There is this fear from a very important constituency, as far as I am concerned, and I would be afraid, too, if I were Hispanic or a Mexican citizen in this environment, in this city.

So this is how I got introduced to this: When I became one of (the) four (final superintendent) candidates, I get a frantic call from a community member: "They are saying things about you in a blog." I hadn't read it before, but on a video, (they said) I have a terrible history with Hispanics in Flowing Wells. First, I'm taken aback, because there is no truth to this, no truth to what (was) said, and then I'm bothered ... because if that were true, in a district that moved from 8 to 9 percent minorities to 45 percent, dealing with families that I really cared about, it would be such an insult to those kids, those families. ... I have 40-something-year-old students who I still keep in touch with. Facebook is great for that. I started out as an assistant principal and graduated into assistant superintendent when these kids graduated from school. Some of the responses on the blog have been from my students: "Don't say this about this guy," and I'm thinking, "Oh, gee, I have to have some of my kids defend me over this?"

So now I start listening to them criticizing my position, when they don't even know what my position is. For me, it's always good to listen to the extremes: Don't ignore (them), because there is a kernel of truth. That's where I come from.

Here's what bothers me about ethnic studies: I support it because of the data that I see that says there are remarkable things in student achievement, working with an underserved population—but we need to make sure the data is clean. That is one of the arguments on the other side, and here we are, about to get assaulted now by a guy who has unbridled power: The state superintendent (Tom Horne) is now the state attorney general. ... (The law) says the state superintendent or the state board can rule that a program doesn't meet the intent of the law. Then he has all the power to do this anyway he wants to. So I think this is what's going to happen: He is going to declare (ethnic studies) illegal, because he built the law to go into effect before his term is up. I think that was done with intention so that he will be able to declare it illegal, then he leaves (new Superintendent of Public Instruction John) Huppenthal to clean it up or do something about it.

I have to be prepared to defend this program, but I have to know what I'm defending. So we ought to be having serious conversations about what's really going on there. I need to get involved in that. I know a couple of the teachers: I'm going to be meeting with Sean Arce and Auggie Romero again ... to be sure that I know exactly what they are doing, and what this lawsuit (by ethnic-studies teachers against the state) looks like. I support it from what I know.

I know there has been a suggestion that we have an independent assessment, a citizen assessment. Why is that not a good idea? You build some transparency in this. Most recent response is that anyone who suggests you do that is the enemy. (On one blog), there is a chart: One side is the enemies, and the other side is the friends. An arrow is pointed in two different directions under my name, with question marks. I guess I'm going to be the enemy, because I am going to say, "Look, my job is to be sure I can defend this."

There are people who are against the program who may have dishonorable intentions. If you involve them, then you are going to insult those who support ethnic studies.

Look, the moment that I seal something from you, there will be the call that goes out with the marching orders for you to come after me. Why is this any different? If you act as if there is something to hide, people will think there must be.

I have seen some of the graduates who have come out of this program. Remarkable kids. They are kids who have grown up with a sense of resiliency, and they know more about social justice than anyone coming out of the university. This program has supported and helped the (students) I have met. That's the framework I have. ... But if we don't do the right thing this month and by January, who will be the real victims in this whole thing? The kids. (Ethnic-studies supporters) have this protective feeling, and it has become a holy war, in some respects. Our job, though, our responsibility, is that we be upfront and defend what is right, and make people feel safe. You create a level of fear (among) a constituency in this community that already feels unsafe, and now I have to go out and do damage control. They are going to be fearful of me, when I am the person they should feel they can trust.

Celania-Fagen came in with a school-choice program, and all of a sudden, principals had to scramble to figure out something that stood out about their school. Did it work?

It is a cool idea. ... I've seen remarkable things, but in the end, you are experimenting with kids' lives and their future. I've always been a strong proponent of taking risks, but that takes on a different definition when it involves our kids' lives.

We know essentially what works in education at this point, don't we? It's not rocket science.

There are fundamental things that schools need to do. ... But we don't even know what jobs are going to be out there for kids anymore. We need to prepare kids today, and we're not prepared for that. It's a remarkable changing world, but schools aren't particularly prepared. ... We need to do the fundamental work well, and then allow the schools to do other things we know they are doing well. Every principal I've got wants that to happen, but they need to have the support and training, and the ability to make teachers accountable, and if you don't have the training and tools and ability to make teachers accountable, or training for teachers, or principals getting the support they need, what do you have? You have this frenzy going on. The district is not that out of control. But the district has always suffered from a lack of quality control across the system.

When Celania-Fagen came in, her challenge was PR and finance. What is your big challenge?

If there is such a thing, it's the work that needs to be done to change the culture in the district. I have to do that and get past all of these other distractions in order to do that work. I can't wait. ... I want to look at the structure and what we have to do to be successful. Give me the spring and summer to get some things under control, but come fall, that's (when) I'm hoping we can launch, in a very dramatic way, this kind of "meet yourself," envisioning a new culture by the message we make and the attitude we want to portray.

How will you create accountability for schools?

First of all, I'm not the one who's going to create the plans. If (principals) don't, then I will hold the assistant superintendents accountable for not working with principals to help them do the work. Then we'll make some changes. If you think it's OK that a certain percentage of our kids fail, that's not my belief. ... When it comes to underperformance, research again shows that so often, it is about the people working with the kids.

What's your working style?

(Look at) Michelle Rhee in Washington (D.C.) in Waiting for "Superman." Some people are so frustrated that they love a Michelle Rhee approach—that you go in and kick ass—and I get it, but if you look at Washington schools, they are so crazy and dysfunctional. Someone like her has a place, for a while. But if you want to have sustained leadership and sustained change, you don't do it by fear. If you do it by force, in a positive sense, then it's a matter of each (person) doing (his or her) part. ... I shouldn't punish you for making a mistake, but I should if you know what you should do, you've agreed to do it, and you've chosen not to—now we go to war.

Do you believe we need to give principals more power to fire and reassign underperforming teachers?

There are agreements that I have to be more aware of, but if ... rules prevent a principal from doing the work that he or she needs to do, we have to look what that means, and that we are not creating more barriers to what teachers want. If teachers want strong leadership—I don't know any teacher who doesn't—they may not define it that way, but they want someone they can trust, someone who is on their side and someone who will help support their goals. I'll ask the assistant superintendents to help me with that, but I also want to have those conversations with the principals. You have to give principals the authority to do the work. But you also have to show them what good instruction looks like, and (make sure) that the teacher understands that as well, and has the support to do that.

How are you going to work with the Legislature and address the nasty rhetoric that comes from some of our lawmakers?

There are many leaders in the Senate and House who are paralyzed by their political positions; there is no doubt about that. They have as much said that the only way out of this problem is retractions, deficits, taking this away. We had this conversation (recently) at the Arizona Business and Education Coalition meeting where we are talking about the exact same thing.

You simply have to have a relationship with these leaders. ... I kind of believe that members of both of those houses are not satisfied necessarily with extreme leadership. I think what happened was there was a phenomenon of in-fighting, and you ended up with some extremists running, especially in the Senate. I think there will be a dynamic that will take place that will give us some opportunity for some degree of moderation to come out of this. And you also have a governor who really is interested in not doing terrible things to education. Don't make it personal—and it is hard for me, believe me. Some people are just hard to deal with, but engage, and force yourself to be at the table as often as possible.

I am meeting with (John) Huppenthal. ... Hopefully, we'll have a chance to talk and find out what his approach is going to be for dealing with this, and then maybe we can find some common ground for what we both want. I know he wants to see TUSD approve in achievement; so do I. If we do that together, we can do some things that are really interesting. That's the only way I know right now.

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