Starting Over

What his Philadelphia legacy means for Santa Fe's new superintendent

By a variety of measures—graduation rates, reading proficiency, standardized test scores—Santa Fe Public Schools are failing.

But Joel Boyd, the district's new superintendent, has a plan to turn that around.

His philosophy of education reform is simple—so much so that, during a recent interview, he sketched it out on a piece of paper. It's a pyramid of sorts, with the bottom tier representing "unstable environments," or failing schools, and the top representing schools where "the culture guides the work."

Many SFPS schools occupy the bottom tier, which features isolated, unsupported teachers and principals preoccupied with managing the nuts and bolts of a school "rather than leading the building."

Boyd, a former assistant superintendent at the public School District of Philadelphia, believes in imposing a centralized management structure to turn failing schools around. Just how that structure will be used in Santa Fe remains to be seen, as he's promised to devote his first 100 days in office to listening to the needs of educators, students and the community before developing an overall action plan.

But a look at Boyd's past—and at the reasons he was hired—offers clues to the future of SFPS.

In some arenas, Boyd won't have a choice. School performance is already measured according to the state's new A-F school grading system, and a teacher evaluation system is also in the works. In the past year, 232 schools' grades went up, while 278 went down. Economist Stephen Barro cites this figure in his recent criticism of the A-F system as "highly unstable and hence of dubious reliability."

"While the intent is to communicate clearly, I don't think that's always been the outcome," Boyd says. "People have to understand, what does 'A' mean? What caused the 'F'?"

Beyond state-imposed reforms, Boyd plans to provide better support for both failing schools and high-achieving ones such as Wood Gormley Elementary, the only SFPS school to meet federal No Child Left Behind standards in 2011.

Boyd says his office will impose higher expectations and accountability, as well as provide more resources, at low-performing schools. Schools at the top of his pyramid would have more autonomy—not as a reward for doing well, but as a "catalyst for improvement."

"If we're centralizing and standardizing [a high-performance school], we're not allowing that school what it needs to get to the next level of improvement," he says.

To Board of Education member Glenn Wikle, that philosophy is a welcome change from former Superintendent Bobbie Gutierrez, who last year scolded Wood Gormley Principal Linda Besett for deviating from a districtwide reading curriculum.

In February, the board voted to fire Gutierrez and buy out her contract for $168,428. They also upped the position's salary—Gutierrez earned roughly $115,000 a year—to $171,000, and shelled out around $18,000 to the firm Ray and Associates to recruit the new superintendent.

"We wanted somebody who was a strong leader for change, [and] we knew we were going to pay a premium for that because we were recruiting from a national level," Wikle says, adding that the increased salary compares with other similar-sized districts nationwide.

But in Philadelphia, the reform efforts that Boyd worked on didn't always go smoothly. After rising from teacher to principal, Boyd, now 33, was hired as Philadelphia's assistant superintendent in 2011, under then-Superintendent Arlene Ackerman. Ackerman oversaw many large reform initiatives, including "Promise Academies," an initiative indirectly tied to federal funding that sought to turn failing schools around through a centralized, regimented approach. Boyd oversaw Promise Academies as assistant superintendent.
Neil Geyette, who taught at West Philadelphia High School shortly before it was reclassified as a Promise Academy, describes it as "top-down reform" that had "varying degrees of success."

"The elements of the model are [an] extended day and school year, scripted interventions (corrective reading and math), double-dosed English and math and a more formal student uniform," Geyette writes in an email to SFR.

Overall, Philadelphia schools saw some quantitative improvements under Ackerman. But the district also ran into massive funding problems, forcing it to cut $700 million from its budget and shut down the Promise Academies office. Ackerman, facing heavy scrutiny, was fired by the board and took a $900,000 buyout. She faced additional questions when she later applied for unemployment. Recent allegations of cheating on standardized tests have also dogged Philadelphia schools, but the school at which Boyd was once principal hasn't been implicated. He adds that anyone associated with the scandal should be immediately fired.

Ackerman has since relocated to Albuquerque, where she works a consultant. She's now providing pro-bono work for Boyd's transition team and writes to SFR in an email that Boyd's tenure in Santa Fe will be based on his leadership style, not hers.

"I know her beyond the media reports," Boyd says. "I know her integrity and her intellect, and I trust her ability to analyze instruction."

Wikle, who voted in June with the rest of the board to hire Boyd, says he “wouldn’t trust [Ackerman] in charge of my budget,” given Philadelphia’s financial problems.

"But she has taught and supervised curriculum for many years, and I'll listen to what she says on that," he adds.

For now, though, Boyd says that any discussion of adopting models like Promise Academies is premature. He stresses that Santa Fe is vastly different from Philadelphia, adding that he believes the most powerful school reform efforts are "built from the ground up."

"[Quality] instruction for a child who's here could look very different than quality instruction for a child in Philadelphia," he says.

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