Friday, September 14, 2012

Celebrity principal and 'swashbuckler' superintendent

It's a safe bet nobody left yesterday's MeckEd community breakfast yawning. The education and advocacy group brought in a speaker whose style is as much smackdown as uplift, quite a jolt to those accustomed to Charlotte's "bless your heart" style.


Steve Perry is a working principal in Connecticut,  having founded a magnet school that prides itself on sending African American and low-income students off to college.  Several teachers who attended the $50-a-person fund-raising breakfast as guests of MeckEd told me that gave him more credibility than your average research/policy/political type.

Perry is also very much a public figure,  appearing regularly on CNN,  writing books and preparing to launch a TVOne show called "Save My Son."  According to the Hartford Courant,  he spends a good bit of his time on the road doing speaking engagements like the one in Charlotte,  and has a minicam and studio lighting in his principal's office.

So yes,  Perry knows how to grab an audience's attention.  He raised plenty of deep,  thought provoking issues about the community's responsibility for all children,  the need to stop tolerating failure and the importance of loving the students you teach (read the news article here).  He also waded right into racial and gender issues and took pokes at almost everybody involved in education:  Interfering administrators,  principals who don't know how to lead,  excuse-making teachers,  lazy custodians and parents who come to school dressed in pajamas.

That made it particularly interesting when he shared a stage with Heath Morrison,  who started as Charlotte-Mecklenburg's superintendent July 1.  Morrison embraces his role as communicator-in-chief and has been on a whirlwind speaking tour since he was hired in April.  Most people I've talked to say he's very good at it,  but he's still in his honeymoon here.  Thursday's appearance gave a glimpse of what it may be like when things get a bit thornier.

An audience member's question about dealing with all the regulations that encumber public education led Perry into a long riff on his disdain for central-office staff.  He talked about how he ignores directives and ducks meetings.  "The problem with central offices is they exist to serve the central office,  not the community,"  Perry said.  "They don't seem to find solutions.  They only create more problems."  He went on to lament the distraction created by a series of superintendents bringing new programs:  "They come in and they're a swashbuckler and that stuff makes our job very,  very,  very difficult."

When Perry finished,  Morrison reached for the mike.  He said he wasn't going to disagree with Perry.  Instead,  Morrison talked about his  "loose/tight"  supervisory style that gives leeway to successful schools while keeping a tighter rein on those that aren't working.  He said he's listening to his employees and the community,  rather than charging in with his own agenda.  And he talked about  "one of the most frustrating things in North Carolina,"  the calendar law that requires most public schools to operate between Aug. 25 and June 10.  At-risk kids need more time in school,  Morrison said,  and if he can't pay teachers to work longer school years he at least needs the latitude to spread the 180 days out so there's not such a long summer break for learning to slip away.

On the racial front,  Perry left the audience with an interesting conversation-starter to take away from the session.  While he was talking about the importance of loving and motivating African American students,  he offered an observation he said the black folks in the crowd would understand:  "You know when a child is loved with one word:  Vaseline."  There were chuckles from many African Americans and blank looks from many whites.  "They'll explain it to you later,"  Perry said,  and moved on.

Actually,  the first four African Americans I asked  --  two who were there and two colleagues back in the newsroom  --  said they were stumped, too.  Reporter Celeste Smith offered the likely explanation:  Moms and grandmas rub Vaseline on their children's skin to avoid the dry,  pale  "ashy skin"  that can be seen as a sign that kids aren't well cared for.

My colleagues who had been stumped countered that most families just use lotion now.  Vaseline is an old-school approach,  as confirmed by this tweet from Perry I encountered while trying to google the answer:  "My grandmother used to think rubbing alcohol, epsom salt and vaseline was all we needed to cure us of everything."


Wiley Coyote said...

I'm surprised he didn't bring up Argo Starch.

Jeff Wise said...

It sounds like Perry's not afraid to poke at people's conceptions and that's fine as far as it goes. Ann's article quotes him as saying that student success should be measured by testing because that's what schools do: give tests.

Very short-sighted and wrong and a major reason why students are struggling.

Education is about learning and doing, not testing.

Anonymous said...

As a regular volunteer at area schools for the past few years (at least 2 of them full of at risk kids) I really resent this guy suggesting that the teachers do not love these kids so they fail. That is so not true. I have seen teachers agonizing, near tears over some of the most problematic kids in their classes. If anything they care more about those that are failing because they know what lies ahead for them and they are helpless to head off that train wreck. I can say categorically I have never seen or heard a teacher behave the way Mr. Perry suggests. I am not naiive; there probably are some, however I believe from my experience that they are few and far between. Which means that indifferent teachers are not the problem.

Bill Stevens said...

Bravo 10:54. You are entirely correct. Our urban schools have been filled with the best, most loving, most caring teachers for years. Sure there may be a few not up to the task but overall, you will not find a better group of teachers in urban than CMS has. The problem is too many have to spend their time being mommy to arrange doctor appointments, clothes, etc. for these kids.

Too bad we can never do a full audit of recipients of government aid.

Anonymous said...

As much as anything, he was talking about teachers making excuses as much as the love issue. If you always have an excuse for failure, are you really ever going to succeed? Quit making excuses is the message I got.

Anonymous said...

Wow - Who paid this guy to come speak the truth? Wonder if Bill Anderson is second guessing that one? Nope Pete Gorman funded MeckEd so its a rounding error. This guy was spot on and is a visionary.

Anonymous said...

The sad part is that ever since busing ended it has been drummed into our heads that our high poverty schools are neglected and that this has to be the problem regarding the achievement gap. (See Taylor Batten's O-pinion on yesterday's meeting--"Would CMS's lower-quality schools be allowed to persist if the community's movers and shakers had to send their kids to them?"; see almost any column by Fannie). So many in Charlotte still believe its all the school's fault(especially "old Charlotte" movers and shakers). It would be great to see an article detailing all the contributions both monetary and of volunteer hours that the public and businesses have given to our most needy students. Perhaps that would help dispel the "neglect" charge. But then again if that happened how could the editors continue to "guilt" the suburbs?

Anonymous said...

So Morrison is still not doing anything about the local needs of CMS. This guys came on his turf and rattled his cage and 0 response. I see were this is headed . Pat Riley and Bill Anderson your experiment back fired boys ! This kid is Kojo Light and you invited him to trash you how awesome. Were was he when the big boys were in town last week? I am betting he wont be invited on next year Chamber trip no will he?

Anonymous said...

You "guilt" the suburbs because that's where the money is.

No point in guilting the parents of the low performing kids.

After all, they're all supposed to be poverty stricken.

Even if the tests show differently.

Anonymous said...

Folks Project LIFT is going to fix all of this I dont know what all the complaining is about. Keith W. Hurley

Anonymous said...

One of the problems is identifying schools as low performers. Schools don't perform, students do. We measure each individual student's performance and total them up. That the total is low doesn't make the school poor, it only makes a significant number of students poor performers. We might hide the percentage by shuffling students around, but that would not change the performance of any of the students. Until we accept that fact and decide to face the issues surrounding why these students perform poorly, we will always be fooling ourselves. We need parents who expect more from their children (and themselves), support the teachers instead of blame them when there is a problem, and schools who establish and enforce discipline within the whole student body.

BolynMcClung said...


Glenn Singleton.

This is the fellow that helped our new Superintendent when he was in Nevada.

Where Mr. Perry appears radical, Singleton is radical with a ferocious plan. But both men have the same message: educators aren’t using the right methods to communicate with poor students of color and in some cases any Brown or Black student. So I’m surprised at the Observer’s report on Dr. Morrison’s reactions. I’d have thought Perry was the warm-up act for Singleton.

Perry might be the milder of the two because his similar thoughts are paired with a plan for achieving his goals. I ain’t saying I like Singleton’s program one bit, but it is highly structured. Maybe that’s what the super saw yesterday and didn’t like; words without an action plan.

Because our Superintendent had used Singleton’s book “Courageous Conversations” as a way of letting Charlotteans know something about what drives him, I bought the book. I read it too. Folk’s it is scary! Probably much more so than Perry.

I couldn’t find on the Internet any kind of working relationship between Perry and Singleton. Their speaker bureau is the same: AEI. But that don’t mean nothing. That’s about making a buck.

Now that I’ve heard about yesterday’s guest, I’m impatiently waiting for the appearance of Glenn Singleton. Or better yet, hoping he’s been put back on the shelf.

Bolyn McClung

Anonymous said...

Why do white students raised and living in poverty score and graduate better than black students?

Or for that matter hispanic students?

Ann Doss Helms said...

Bolyn, you should have come to the retreat today. Board members got copies of Singleton's "Courageous Conversations About Race," though it wasn't discussed yet. I've been telling folks since I came back from Reno in May that's a book to read to understand Morrison's approach and philosophy.

I'm not sure what reaction you're talking about. Morrison said he agrees with Perry on the urgency of confronting race and doing a better job of teaching students of color. Morrison wasn't thrilled with the attack on central office staff, but what I was saying here is he chose a response that deflected any conflict.

Wiley Coyote said...

...Morrison said he agrees with Perry on the urgency of confronting race and doing a better job of teaching students of color.

That's one of the lamest statements I've heard in some time.

Define "better job".

To paraphrase Carville, "(it's) not about race, stupid".

Those dang White kids. What will we do with them being taught differently in the same class with "other races"?

...the status quo is alive and well at CMS and in good hands with Heath Morrison...

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Wiley. I listened to Heath's comments to the Tuesday Breakfast forum this week (go to their webpage to find the videos). He said that "culture" may cause a kid to seem disrespectful or defiant, so teachers may have to learn to understand and respect that culture. Huh??? If the goal is equal outcomes or at least an outcome that allows a student to become a successful adult, how can a culture that by middle class norms is disrepectful be tolerated in a school? And how is it fair to respectful, industrious kids to have a culture of disrespect be acceptable in their classroom?

Anonymous said...

Perry is such a phoney. The population of his school is "only" 45% poor - far below Title I status for any LEA. Plus, the number of students with disabilities and ESL/LEP students is nowhere near the Hartford city average. He's just another educrat who couldn't survive a week in a CMS classroom where he can't control the student population like he can with his school. (