Plenty of principal candidates, but some schools clash with district over hiring

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When Galileo Elementary Principal Alfonso Valtierra died in December,
many saw his assistant principal of two decades, Blanca Miarka, as a
natural successor.

When Galileo Elementary Principal Alfonso Valtierra died in December, many saw his assistant principal of two decades, Blanca Miarka, as a natural successor.

But there was a hitch: Miarka failed the district’s controversial year-and-a-half-old principal eligibility procedure, a gauntlet that includes case studies, interviews, and an exam. Now, the principal selection process has ground to a halt, and parents are locked in a contentious dispute with district officials over Miarka’s selection.

Earlier fears that the more rigorous eligibility criteria would lead to a shortage of principal candidates have not been borne out. This year, CPS has 103 principal vacancies, and 283 candidates—up from 208 in late March—have passed the screening process so far, according to the Office of Principal Preparation and Development. Two-thirds of the vacancies have already been filled, leaving 215 candidates for the 35 schools still looking for leaders.

But anger has been building among administrators who feel the tougher eligibility requirements are unfair and overly subjective. The district consulted with more than 300 current and former principals to develop the newer process, which 70 percent of candidates failed on the first try, according to CPS data from last September.

Now, local school council members are taking up the charge.

“It’s in the state law that the district can establish additional criteria,” says Valencia Rias of education advocacy group Designs for Change. But to meet tight timelines for filling vacancies, some LSCs interviewed candidates before they were officially eligible – then became frustrated when candidates failed and were taken out of the running.

 

Galileo parents and community members are taking their case to a rally outside tomorrow’s school board meeting. More than 500 people have signed petitions asking the district to make an exception for Miarka.

Galileo is not the only school to experience complications.

One of three finalists for the principalship at Thurgood Marshall Middle School failed the eligibility process. A second took a job outside the district.

Teacher Christa Alvarez says the school’s LSC – which she serves on – had to reopen the position and examine about 18 more resumes.

But in the end, she says, things turned out well. “I think we’re feeling lucky, because I’m hearing it’s getting more and more difficult” to fill open positions, Alvarez says.

At Galileo, Miarka was one of 12 finalists. Yet, LSC members have tabled the search until fall, says LSC parent representative Kali Plomin. If Miarka isn’t a possibility, they want to observe the other contenders at work during the school year.

So far, Plomin says, the district has offered to extend Miarka’s term as acting principal until August 1. Plomin hopes the extra month will help her and others put more pressure on CPS; they are looking to buy even more time by asking the district to appoint Miarka as the school’s interim principal. (Acting principals can normally serve for just 100 days; interim principals can stay at a school until a permanent principal is found.)

“We feel like once Ms. Miarka leaves the school, we’ll just never be able to get her back,” Plomin says.

But with August looming, CPS officials organized a forum Monday night to introduce two potential interim appointees. Reggie Bright, a deputy officer in the district’s AMPS office, was conciliatory.

“I know there are a lot of mixed feelings in the school community here, with many of you wanting your assistant principal to serve as principal,” he said. The room erupted into clapping and cheers. “Depending what happens with the Board, you may not need to interview any candidates, including the two here tonight.”

Candidate Adam Parrott-Sheffer (who was profiled in the most recent Catalyst In Depth) drew applause when he handily spoke a few sentences in Spanish. But he also faced tough questions: Had he been a principal before? How would he have the expertise to manipulate the budget and avoid ballooning class sizes?

“I could see them being interns, maybe, and learning under someone like Ms. Miarka, but I don’t think they’re ready to lead a school,” community LSC representative Elizabeth Mayoski said Tuesday.

After the candidates left, parents and LSC members began to turn on Bright. One asked that Miarka be appointed as interim principal, and then began loudly chanting her name.

“Tell [the district] to quit wasting our time,” said another. He raised his voice as he noted the candidates’ lack of experience, and complained that both were from outside CPS.

Not everyone involved with the school agrees that Miarka is the best choice. Martha Barbiaux, a parent who serves on the school’s Title I advisory council, was won over by Parrott-Sheffer’s knowledge of the school’s assessment data, as well as his analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats Galileo faces.

“Ms. Miarka is a very beloved woman. But the thing is, she didn’t pass the exam; the process is one of selecting [for] quality,” Barbiaux says. “I think there’s a lot of fear – fear of losing the school, fear of [test scores] going down. For 20 years, we had one principal. A lot of people are still in mourning.”

A similar situation happened at Dewey Elementary, after Principal Janice Buckley died in February 2009. 

During the search that followed, LSC chair Matt Johnson says, the school lost its first-choice candidate – Galileo’s acting assistant principal, Linda Owens-Thompson. Like Miarka, Owens-Thompson didn’t pass the final step of the process – a three-hour session that includes a mock teacher observation; a school case study, which tests data interpretation and improvement planning; and an interview.

Since that time, Johnson says, Dewey has found a principal. But because of that experience, about 20 Dewey parents and community plan to show up at Wednesday’s rally.

Owens-Thompson says she was docked points on the case study. “But I can clearly show that I know how to use data, have implemented it, and have had success,” she says. She wishes that the interviewer had questioned her specifically about her weak areas and given her a chance to bring up more supporting evidence.

Now, Owens-Thompson says, she will likely look for a position outside the district. Seeing Miarka, who supervises her at Galileo and who she describes as “a stellar leader,” fail the process only adds to her discouragement. “I don’t get it,” she says.

Miarka, on the other hand, hasn’t yet made time to ask the district where she lost points, though she says she plans to do so later in the summer.

“A lot of the people that did not make eligibility lists have been working as administrators for over 5 to 10 years, easily,” Miarka says. “It’s hard for us to understand.”