by David Safier
Full disclosure: I'm a friend of Rex Scott, the principal of Catalina High. I find him to be smart, capable and diligent, the kind of principal I think I would like to work for as a teacher. That will undoubtedly influence what I say here. That being said . . .
My sense is that TUSD made the wrong decision voting not to renew Rex Scott's contract. But with a 4-1 vote and Sanchez's agreement, I have to think there were some good reasons for the vote, just as I'm sure Kristel Foster's no vote was made thoughtfully.
Here are some of my concerns about the decision.
I strongly object to the state's "Live by the AIMS test, die by the AIMS test" mentality. Catalina High's "D" state rating, which is the primary reason for the non-renewal, is based almost entirely on the student scores on the AIMS test, which I find to be a questionable measure of the quality of the school or its principal. In this case, the school score was only 2 points below a C. The AIMS test being the blunt instrument it is, having 2 points deciding whether or not Scott's contract is renewed doesn't make sense.
Another problem is, if I'm right about this, a high school's state grade is based almost entirely on the AIMS test taken by sophomores, which means the school has taught the students for less than two years. In the case of Catalina High, the turnover rate makes many students' tenures even shorter. According to the Star article, the school has the highest turnover rate of any TUSD high school: 58.1 percent. Add to that the fact that the students speak 40 different languages and standardized tests are, in many ways, reading tests (even the math sections). The students' weak English language skills are a major component of their test scores. Imagine the challenge ELL teachers have trying to teach students who speak so many languages and come to the U.S. from so many distinct cultures.
With a high turnover, a United Nations worth of languages and less than two years to educate the students before the test — often far less than two years — casting a principal aside because of a 2 point deficit on the state score seems highly questionable.
Rex Scott has very high evaluations from staff, parents and students, much higher than the principal who preceded him and high in relation to other district principals, so I'm assuming the non-renewal is based on student achievement on the AIMS test, not on Scott's overall competence. If that's the case, this move sends a clear message to people who want to be TUSD principals: avoid schools with low income students, especially when there's a large ELL population. While even a mediocre principal at a high performing — read high SES — school won't be in danger of losing the job because of test scores, a good principal at a low performing — read low SES — school will always be on the chopping block. Will principals who want to keep their jobs and those who hope to move up the administrative ladder apply for positions at schools like Catalina High? If, for instance, H.T. Sanchez were an administrator looking for a principal's position, would he apply for the Catalina High spot, knowing a few years of test scores that fall below the cut mark could lead to a non-renewal, which could damage his resume and possibly dash his hopes of becoming a superintendent later in his career?
One final point. TUSD is working with the University of Virginia on developing a transformation model for the district. Six schools are involved in this program, including Catalina High. All six principals have to reapply for their jobs. So why rush through the process with Scott instead of allowing him to go through the later reapplication process with the other principals?
I hesitate to cast too much blame due to my respect for the people who support Scott's non-renewal — and I realize I'll never know what was discussed in the Board's confidential executive session — but the decision just doesn't feel right to me.