A consultant’s report that prompted a sweeping reorganization depicted the Payson Unified School District as a ship without a rudder.
The report, obtained by the Roundup on Monday, offers a glimpse into the logic behind the sweeping changes in administration, job descriptions and response to state and federal mandates launched last week by Superintendent Ron Hitchcock.
The changes really started with Hitchcock’s decision to make consultant Brenda Case the district director of student achievement, charged with boosting test scores.
The community saw the next step last week with the change in who will serve as principals and vice principals at every single school site.
“Change is never easy,” said Case in offering the first public look at the report she prepared that triggered fundamental changes. “Last week was a really tough week.”
Case has worked as a turn around principal in districts in rough and poor parts of the Phoenix metropolitan area for almost a decade. The three-year plan of action she outlined for PUSD included strategies she used in what she called “districts in the ’hood” to bring scores up and discipline issues down.
Her proposals call for a complete overhaul of the system, starting with new school site leadership. The district last week announced that Rim Country Middle School Principal Will Dunman and Julia Randall Elementary School Principal Rob Varner will change campuses. Meanwhile, Payson Elementary School Principal Donna Haught will return to the classroom and Payson High School Principal Anna Van Zile will take on the newly created position of student achievement director for the high school. The high school will also get a new vice principal, while Rim County Middle School Vice Principal Yvette Harpe will move to a newly created district position coordinating vocational education programs in accordance with a new state requirement.
“If a job description is not defined, people don’t know what to expect,” said Case. “In the absence of leadership, people will do anything.”
She said that as a consultant in January she concluded staff at all levels had limited directions and unclear expectations.
“Kids and teachers don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘I can’t wait to fail today,’” said Case, “but without direction it’s easy to get lost.”
She said principals and teachers need clearly defined goals to succeed. Case said she created a three-year plan, but it might take longer.
“It takes from three to seven years for systemic change,” she said.
When she came to Payson in January, she focused on the principals.
“I had to determine if they were building managers or curriculum specialists,” said Case. To find that out, she asked the four principals a set of questions, such as:
• Explain the top three things you spend your time on and how those things affect student achievement.
• How does the schedule protect instructional time?
• What are your strengths and weaknesses?
She said the answers and non-answers spoke volumes.
Some answers told her that the principals did not follow state statutes. Take teacher feedback as an example — according to ARS 15-537, principals must give written evaluations to teachers. In Payson, however, principals often gave only oral feedback. “Observations were verbal, there needs to be documentation,” said Case.
And only the high school had a master schedule, she said.
Instead of a master schedule to maximize instructional time at elementary schools, she was often provided a schedule that organized special programs such as art and music without indicating how long teachers actually spent on reading or math.
After Case was hired, the district asked her to help with principal placement. “I started by writing up a list of skill sets for each school site,” said Case.
A group of advisers that had known the principals over the years then gathered to match the strengths and weaknesses of the principals with the needs of each school.
In the case of the middle school, Case said the group decided the district couldn’t afford to continue having an assistant principal. “They don’t have the number (of students) for (an assistant principal),” said Case.
At the middle school, she said having a principal who worked with family members on the staff created community relations issues and had to be changed.
She said the group made the decision to move the principals “because of the need of the kids.”
Former school board member Matt Van Camp said the board knew things had to change before it hired Hitchcock. He said the board deliberately hired someone with experience.
“We saw big things coming down the pike,” he said, “We needed someone that could handle everything.”
It seems the big changes have started.