Interview with Jonathan Raymond

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Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Interview with Jonathan Raymond

An abbreviated transcript of the audio:

Yatsko
You spent four and a half years as a superintendent in Sacramento, a relatively large sized district, around 48,000 students. You were given credit for doing a lot of interesting things including beefing up Common Core training, introducing robust summer programs for students, engaging the business community, introducing some aspects of social-emotional learning. And at the same time you signed the district-charter collaboration compact in the city. Can you talk about why you were interested in collaborating with the charter sector, especially given a pretty charged political atmosphere in the city at the time?

Raymond
Early in my tenure, the very first meeting we had with our charter operators, we had to have facilitated by somebody from the California Charter School Association because things were that contentious. When I look back, we had facility-use agreements that were months long overdue, we had renewal applications, we had a host of issues. We needed to figure out a way to work together.

At one of my first public meetings I was asked how I felt about charter schools. I said I like charter schools that are doing good things for kids. But charter schools that aren't, I don't have a lot of patience and tolerance for them just like I wouldn't a regular public school. Families have every right to get the best education possible for their children. So we needed to figure out how to work together, particularly when these were charters that our school board had authorized.

Yatsko
What, if anything, did you hope to gain as a district in terms of collaborating with charters?

Raymond
Charter schools were designed to disrupt the education system that obviously was failing a lot of students and families, and to create new approaches, strategies, and new ways of educating children, that could then be studied and replicated through the rest of the public education system. But clearly that wasn't happening in Sacramento, not when you're not even talking to each other, let alone sharing best practices or professional learning. We had to start by first establishing some communication and trust by following up on some things we were committed to do, and some of them we were legally committed to do.

Yatsko
One of the things I know you thought about at the time, and your superintendent peers across the country think about quite a bit, is the sustainability of this work, "How can we get the work on the ground which ensures that it will last beyond personal tenure?" Can you talk about the impact of the collaboration with the charter sector inside the classroom and what evidence you had that it was making a difference in terms of teacher practice?

Raymond
I view the charter schools in our district as a place where we could learn from and with. Some staff that had worked in some of our charter schools could be recruited to come work in our priority schools. I also viewed charters as a really competitive pressure in the marketplace. And as much as I have healthy respect for them, you can bet I wanted to make sure our turnaround schools-our priority schools-to perform in every shape and way. So they provided not only the collaborative learning partner, but also some good competitive pressure.

When we had an opportunity to become a compact city with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, that enabled us to make a public commitment to our community that we were going to work together. Because we had the same mission: to educate and provide the best possible options, choices, and education for the students and families in Sacramento. [The compact] was such a straightforward agreement that I signed it. I didn't even feel it was necessary to bring it to my school board, because it wasn't a change in policy, this was practice.

This was about sharing information, sharing data, sharing professional learning opportunities like the work we were doing with Common Core. We invited our charter partners to become part of that. We created a leadership academy to begin to recruit, train, and retain the very best leaders we could in Sacramento. We opened this up from the very beginning to our charter partners. We had about 40 teachers that participated, roughly 20 from our school district, and roughly 20 or so from the charter schools in our district. And one of the remarkable things that they both said was, "We met teachers that were just like us, that care about kids the same way we do, and that want to be great, not just good."

You know, that was one of the things that really bristled me about this dialogue, is when people start saying, "They're taking our money." It isn't "our money," it is the public's money, and ultimately the public gets to decide where they want to go and what they want to do with their resources. And if that means they physically take themselves up and they walk across the street where they think they are getting a better education, well then, you know what, we better start improving our schools.

And that was a great impetus for the priority schools in Sacramento. We needed to take advantage of the fact that we had charter schools that were growing and coming into our community. One of the amazing things today in Sacramento is Oak Park. Oak Park was the scene of the beginning of the charter school movement in Sacramento with ASPIRE and Sacramento Charter High School, and then P.S. 7 coming into Oak Park, the poorest and most disadvantaged community in Sacramento. Now Oak Park has some of the highest performing schools in Sacramento County. Pretty remarkable.

Yatsko
One of the things you did as superintendent of Sacramento was you identified a group of these schools, you called them “priority schools,” you challenged additional funding and flexibility to those schools, some increased autonomy, and right in the mix were charter schools that were doing much of the same thing, granted, not under district direction, but on their own. Is what charters were doing partly what influenced how you decided to approach the priority schools in your district?

Raymond
We did a lot of things differently and I am proud of that. We didn't have all the flexibility that charter schools have because of our collective bargaining agreements. And we didn't have the flexibility with the school day and the school year. But we really went very deep and aggressive with our ability to create and use an inquiry process looking at student work. We focused on culturally responsive teaching practices, we looked at literacy as a place where we were going to be able to begin to make that stand, and creating a culture of not only working together on our campuses but one of continuous improvement.

And I have to give a lot of credit to our school leadership there-to our school administrators-for really laying it out there. And then I think a strategy, which oftentimes gets overlooked, not only in charter schools but in most public schools today, is how authentically they are engaging and empowering their families. And that is something we were very intentional about with our parent-teacher home visit program, which is now expanding to create academic parent-teacher teams where we are bringing back whole classrooms of families to actively engage them in their own child's learning and success. So when you want to talk about extending the day and the school year, do it with the child's most consistent teacher, a family member.

Yatsko
I think the example you just gave is a good one in terms of how the relationship between the sectors can often be beneficial on both ends so that's maybe an example in Sacramento of something that the charter school sector got from the district-some new thinking around engaging parents. Is there any other way that you think the charters continued to engage with the district in a way that benefits them? In other words, what have they gotten out of this?

Raymond
They [charters] are visiting our schools and we're visiting theirs. We opened up and offered them to participate in our Common Core trainings, they are active participants in our leadership development work and we are in regular meetings with them.

We are looking at inviting them to join our accountability framework, called, The Guide to Success and again under the Core accountability framework through the waiver, we get a chance to develop an accountability model that is 60 percent based upon student test outcomes, but both from a proficiency standpoint and from a growth standpoint, as well as a greater focus on disproportionality so some of the measures like suspensions and time out of school, graduation and drop-out rates, all get factored in. The other 40 percent of the way schools get viewed in terms of student success is 20 percent on culture and climate, at how engaging and supportive that school is in the eyes of students and families, and then social and emotional learning indicators. Charters are being invited to be a part of that framework, which I think is exciting because then it gives our families an apples-to-apples comparison which is what they should have.

Yatsko
I think that's evidence of your tenure living on. The Guide to Success in Sacramento is one of only a handful of districts across the country that are doing accountability frameworks: pulling in the charter sector, as you say, to give parents the benefit of the apples to apples. Parents want a high quality school, whoever runs it, so being able to give them information that crosses the sector is great. The Guide to Success is strongly in the works, and the district hopes to unveil it shortly.

Is there any advice in terms of sustainability that you would give your peers across the country who are leading the charge in similarly tense political environments on how to make sure the work lives on beyond your time in office?

Raymond
Before I get there, Sarah, I'd like to just offer one more area where charter schools and CMOs in Sacramento have benefited is through our facility use agreements as well as through our bond efforts.

The District-Charter Compact allowed charter stability. The one to two year wasteful facility-use agreements (FUAs) were replaced with five-year FUAs aligned with the dates of their charters. And the Language Academy was provided a 30-year FUA, so they knew they would be able to stay at the site they were investing in. It was the right thing to do for kids, but adult criticism came with it.*

We were successful with charter active participation and support to pass two school bonds in the fall of 2012, the first time in over ten years that that had occurred. And the charter schools and those facilities that they're in, they will actively benefit from those resources. That's another area where school districts and charter schools can get together and be collaborative.

I would offer my colleagues that you’ve got to do what's right. To me, you get into this work to fight and advocate for children. We are here to provide the best education possible. I think superintendents get in trouble when they get themselves in a situation where they are beholden to other interests. And at the end of the day it's the people that you leave behind to carry on the work. Because once you leave, your legacy is only as good as the people that are there to continue and to carry on the work. You know I am learning that the hard way right now. So now, in fact, the school district made the decision to give up on their waiver to NCLB, so sometimes these things are very tenuous and you put your faith and trust in adults to do the right thing, to make the right choices based upon their beliefs in children and you hope they have the commitment, the competence, the courage, and the compassion to do what's right for kids.

Yatsko
Thank you very much for your time and your insights. This a great rearview mirror look at some real successes in Sacramento and obviously, some hard work that lies ahead.

*This paragraph was later added by request of Jonathan Raymond and his colleagues.

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