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Just one year ago, Alexandria’s public schools were thrown into turmoil with the sudden resignation of its superintendent. Facing flagging test scores, middle schools in disarray and a possible state takeover of one of its elementary schools, the system quickly turned to veteran educator Alvin Crawley to take the helm. Now in his first full year as Alexandria’s schools chief, Crawley sits down with Kojo to discuss the challenges, goals and achievements for this historically important Virginia school system.
- Alvin Crawley Superintendent, Alexandria City Public Schools
Watch The Full Interview
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOne year ago the Alexandria Public School System was thrown a curve ball. The system's superintendent abruptly stepped down, leaving some parents feeling rudderless, as the new school year opened. For about a month uncertainty hung over a district where questions about its middle schools, its test scores and even its teacher morale had generated negative headlines.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThen Alvin Crawley stepped in. A veteran educator and administrator, Crawley had recently taken the helm of Prince George's County when its superintendent abruptly left the job. Now, a year to the day after he began in Alexandria much of the turmoil in this district of nearly 14,000 students has subsided.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut this superintendent has a full plate of challenges ahead, from pressing issues like test scores, technology and even lights at the T.C. Williams football field, to big picture questions haunting all of us about how to best educate our kids. Alvin Crawley joins us in studio. Thank you so much for joining us.
MR. ALVIN CRAWLEYThank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIYou can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. If you have questions or comments for Alexandria Superintendent Alvin Crawley, you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there and watch the live stream of this conversation at kojoshow.org. You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow or email to email@example.com. Do you have kids who attend Alexandria schools? Are you alumnus? What has been your experience like in the system? 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding that you've had a busy day this morning. You had a coffee chat with parents in Alexandria. Then you had to come to an interview with a pesky talk show host. Are you having fun yet?
CRAWLEYI am having fun. And actually we started this morning with a "Walk to School" event, at George Mason Elementary School, where we have -- we're encouraging students to walk to school as a part of health and also developing stronger friendships in walking to school. And then we had a parent chat. So we've had a busy morning, but it's been a great morning.
NNAMDIYou make a superintendent/parent chat sound enjoyable. I'll have to take your word for that. One year ago this week you took over as Alexandria's interim superintendent following the departure of Morton Sherman, who resigned amidst controversy. Prior to that you were chosen to lead Prince George's County Schools after upheaval there. These were your first appointments as superintendent after more than 30 years as an educator and administrator. So what has it been like to take the reins at school systems in flux?
CRAWLEYIt has been a very challenging experience, but I would say to you that it's also been a very rewarding experience in both situations. In Prince George's County, coming in and working with the team there, and then being here in Alexandria and working with the team in Alexandria to make sure that regardless of who's at the head, that the school division continues to move forward. And so we've spent a lot of time this year really looking at our organization, looking at the work of our organization and making sure that student achievement is foremost.
NNAMDIWhen you came to Alexandria there was a lot of tension between teachers and the outgoing superintendent. A blog called "ACPS Underground," led by a group of anonymous teachers, was harshly critical of the speed of school reforms and the systems treatment of teachers. ACPS has not been active since you came aboard. What have you done to improve morale in the past year?
CRAWLEYWell, one of the things that I have learned in my experience in Prince George's, as well as now here in Alexandria, is the importance of relationships. And getting a sense of the culture of the organization and the people who do the important work on behalf of our students every day. And so since I've been in the school division, I've spent time in the schools talking with teachers and students and parents to get a sense from them of the things that we need to focus on as a school division.
CRAWLEYSo I think at the heart of this work are the important relationships that are formed. By building those relationships, you build trust. And so as a part of building trust we've had good conversations about the challenges of the school division and how we move forward together.
NNAMDIDid you get a sense that before you came teachers were beginning to feel left out of the conversation?
CRAWLEYWell, I think each superintendent has his or her own leadership style and so I'm not sure of the different venues for providing feedback from various groups. But I think that, as I look at where we are now, one of the important activities that we've tried to implement in the school division has been different venues for hearing teacher voice, whether that's our teacher advisory committee or having informal conversations with teachers or some of the drop-ins. You know, we talked about the chat. We have parent chats.
CRAWLEYThey're community chats. They are opportunities for anyone in our community to come in and have some conversation with the superintendent to talk about their ideas, their suggestions, their concerns, and more so, solutions, of how do we work together to address them on behalf of our students.
NNAMDIOur guest is Alvin Crawley, superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools. If you have questions or comments give us a call at 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. This fall many school systems are layering out their five-year strategic plans and looking at what they want to accomplish by the year 2020. What are your priorities for Alexandria?
CRAWLEYWell, this is an exciting time for us. Our current strategic plan is coming to an end. So we're in the process of developing a new strategic plan that will take us through the next five years. And there's a very defying process in developing that plan. It starts with the development of a steering committee. So we have eight members of a steering committee that will guide the work of the strategic plan with the superintendent and the school board.
CRAWLEYThat steering committee will then reach out to 25 community stakeholders and engage those stakeholders in the process. And in turn, they will go out and have conversations with different groups. Again, we're at the beginning stages of developing that plan. And one of the values that we've talked about is the importance of community voice. And so I look forward to a strategic plan that will reflect the needs of our school division and, on a larger scale, reflect the needs of our community.
CRAWLEYSo that plan is scheduled to be adopted by the board in June. And then the hard work begins. And that's making sure that the plan comes to life and that we're living it and that it's reflected in the work that happens within our schools and in classrooms.
NNAMDIYou can also watch a live video stream of this conversation at our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. We've talked a lot on this show about technology in schools and how it can be best used. Alexandria's only high school, T.C. Williams, has provided students with laptops for more than a decade. And now it's my understanding you're transitioning to tablets. How are these devices being used at T.C. and your other schools?
CRAWLEYWell, as you said, Alexandria has led the way in technology and laptops provided to our students. And now we're switching to Amplify Tablets. We started this work last year with a pilot, with a group of students. As a part of the superintendent's leadership group, a sub-committee agreed to pilot the use of Amplify Tablets and to give us feedback. Again, this is an opportunity to have our students empowered to make decisions that impact their instructional program.
CRAWLEYAnd so after getting feedback from our students and our staff within the technology department, we made the decision to give each student an Amplify Tablet. The Amplify Tablet we feel will enhance our instructional program by providing students with differentiated instructions so there are applications that teachers can use that will poll students in the classroom to get their feedback on different aspects of the instructional lesson.
CRAWLEYThere are opportunities to differentiate lessons for students, whether that's challenges students who are exceeding class-level expectations or students who are struggling. We can provide that level of differentiation right in the classroom using the Amplify Tablets. And there are just a wealth of programs that are associated with the tablets that we think will open doors for our students. So we're really excited about the tablets. It is the first year, so there will be some lessons learned and we'll make adjustments.
NNAMDIWe received an email from Dee, in Alexandria, who wonders about a -- whether a particular type of lesson will be taught to these kids. Dee wonders about introducing typing skills to kids. "Now that kids are spending more of their days on computers and even taking standardized tests on computers, are there plans to make typing a core part of the curriculum from an early age? It seems that faster typists would have a testing advantage," Dee thinks.
CRAWLEYWe've not had specific discussions about teaching typing. However, we've had discussions about developing skills in keyboarding given that at the elementary, middle and high school level, our students spend a great deal of time interacting with computers. And so, that conversation has been more around the keyboard and integrating that skill development in lessons versus a separate course on typing.
NNAMDISee, Dee, they really don't even call it typing anymore, it's about interacting with keyboards. Here now to the telephones, please put your headphones on so you can hear John in Alexandria, Va. John, you're on the air, go ahead please.
JOHNHi, Dr. Crawley. Hi, Kojo.
JOHNMy comment -- Dr. Crawley noted that there are more opportunities for teacher input. And I'm just going to make a comment and I'll take his reaction off the air. I think that that is an improvement, but I still think it inverts the proper relationship, which I would take to be that autonomous teachers describe to administrators what they need to succeed rather than administrators describing to teachers what they need to do. Thanks.
NNAMDII'll have Alex Crawley respond himself.
CRAWLEYSo I think it involves two-way communication, certainly from a leadership perspective. The principal has the role, in instructional leader, of making sure that teachers are supported in the work that they were doing benefits our students. And part of that is teacher development and how we support our students and how we support our teachers in the work that we do. So I would agree with you that it should go both ways.
CRAWLEYAnd certainly from a teacher perspective, we know that from the research that teachers are one of the most important variables in student success. And so, as a part of the work we do, we want to make sure that we're getting ongoing feedback from teachers from a variety of venues. So, thank you for the question and the comment.
NNAMDIHe called you Dr. Crawley. I've been referring to you as Crawley. Is it tomato or tomato?
NNAMDIIt's Crawley. See there, we were right. Got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Alvin Crawley, superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools. But if you have questions or comments, call us at 800-433-8850. How do you think technology should be used at public schools? Should all learning be online? What about books? Do you think schools need to cut down on standardized tests? 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Ask a question and watch our live video stream there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIOur guest is Alvin Crawley, superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools. You can watch him, keep him under close surveillance at our website, kojoshow.org where there is a live video stream of the conversation. Or if you have questions or comments, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think schools need to cut down on standardized tests? You can also send email to email@example.com.
NNAMDIContinuing with technology for a second, parents, some are naturally concerned about the amount of screen time in kids' lives. What do you say to parents who are concerned about losing touch with books and basic skills like cursive writing?
CRAWLEYCertainly we know that there is great value in technology and that students are getting information from all over the world and from a variety of sources. I would say to parents who are concerned about the amount of screen time, certainly we -- this is something that you want to monitor as a parent. We believe in our school division that technology is a resource. It helps in the facilitation of instruction.
CRAWLEYBut it is not a replacement of instruction. And so, the two should go together. There should be the instruction with facilitation. And certainly having access to the technology facilitates that process.
NNAMDIFor kids who are digital datives is technology a way to get them more excited about learning? Or is it, you know, passé for them in a lot of ways because they have grown up with this?
CRAWLEYAgain, I think it's the balance. I think the technology is here. It's evolving. It is important. It is a resource. But the other part of that is around the relationships that we build with students. And I think that there's always the balance of making sure that students have access to technology, that it's done in an equitable way across a school division. But at the same time, in the context of what we do in the instructional program that we're also teaching students about relationships and how to communicate with each other outside of technology.
NNAMDIGot an email from Judy in Alexandria, kind of long, so bear with me. Judy writes, "I have two children in the Alexandria school system, one at George Washington Middle School and one at T.C. Williams High School. We've been through principal changes, superintendent changes, curriculum changes, school structure changes and all the rest. Despite this constant change, for the most part, my children have had good teachers and a few outstanding ones."
NNAMDI"When you are seeking new teachers and evaluating existing ones, how much weight is given to the teacher's love of kids, the teacher's deep knowledge and passion for the subject? These are critical factors for student engagement, but they're not the type of qualities that show up on a resume."
CRAWLEYSo I believe that process starts in the interview phase where we're interviewing teachers who are interested in coming to Alexandria City Public Schools. And there are a number of questions. And certainly we're interested in teachers having content knowledge. But we're also interested in those teachers who are enthusiastic, who are very much interested in developing good relationships with students and modeling those relationships.
CRAWLEYAnd that shows up in the interview in a number of ways from the questions that are asked to the next level of interview. And that's really looking at performance in the classroom and situational types of questions. And so, I would agree with the caller that it's important to have the content knowledge, but also to dig a bit deeper and get a sense of relationships, excitement, enthusiasm. Those are all the things that we want to see in the classroom.
CRAWLEYThe teacher evaluation system in Virginia is pretty consistent across school divisions. There are seven domain areas that we're required to look as a part of the evaluation process. And so, as we're engaged in teacher development and teacher support, we're also conducting walk-throughs by the principals and other administrators to look for those things, whether that's how students are engaged, the delivery of instruction, the planning for instruction.
CRAWLEYAll of those are components of that evaluation system. And so, they come together to give us a picture of how our teachers are performing. And then, the next part of that is based on the information we have. What are the things that we need to do to enhance the teaching and learning process and what happens in that classroom so that our teachers are successful and that we have high retention rates for our staff.
NNAMDIOn now to Dan Catonsville, Md. Don your headphones again, please. Here is Dan. Dan, you're on the air, go ahead please.
DANHi, Kojo, thanks for taking the call. I'm an admissions counselor at a university in the area. And one of the things that I see consistently when it comes to standardized test scores and in terms of student achievement is that the number one factor that comes into play for that is socioeconomic status. You know, the students who are able to pay for the tutoring services and go to a high school that offer SAT prep courses and the like.
DANAnd I worry that the introduction of new technology to the schools, you know, the best schools are going to be the first one to get the new technology to help the students. I worry this is going to widen the gap in its performance.
NNAMDIWell, Dan, you're talking to a man who has spent a significant amount of his career looking at the gap. He's even written a book about it. Alvin Crawley's book is called, "Gaining on the Gap." You can find a link to it at our website, kojoshow.org. Now, as to Dan's question.
CRAWLEYSure. So as we think about the achievement gap, certainly there's the instructional program that we want to make sure is rigorous and relevant and engaging for our students. But also equitable practices across the division. And part of what we talk about in the book is the marriage between a strong instructional program, school climate, and culturally competent behaviors so that all of our students have access to opportunities, access to rigorous opportunities that will help them pursue their post-secondary choices.
CRAWLEYJust to give you the example of the college prep courses and making sure that as we look at our comprehensive high schools and opportunities for students that all of our students are afforded those opportunities regardless of income. And this speaks to equity and making sure that those practices are in place. So it is the combination of instruction, the relationship building that we've been talking about, but it's also the cultural responsiveness of how do we make sure that regardless of income, regardless of race, linguistic ability, that we're providing all of our students with an access to a rigorous, rich, you know, instruction program.
NNAMDIA little more on standardized tests, because they really start in earnest in third grade in Virginia. Virginia has not adopted the Common Core, but the state is raising its standards for the SOL, standards of learning, tests to align more with the Common Core. How are you addressing these elevated standards for students who may not have the support their peers have at home?
CRAWLEYSo just a little bit about the testing. And testing has been a topic of discussion in national level and certainly at the school division level where we look at the number of tests that are administered and the usefulness of these tests as it relates to instructional changes and instructional outcomes for students. And one of the things that has happened in Virginia is that there has been a reduction in the number of SOL tests with the understanding that school divisions will be given more flexibility to implement performance-based assessments or division-level assessments or alternate ways of assessing students.
CRAWLEYAnd I think that this is exciting because we know that students perform and show mastery based on different types of assessment. And so, we are looking at more performance-based assessments, more project-based assessments that will give students the opportunity to work together, to learn from each other and to demonstrate mastery in a different way. And I think that this is important for education.
NNAMDIHow is all of this testing affecting your teachers?
CRAWLEYGood question. The second part of this is we did an analysis last year. And you talked about the superintendent transition in. And one of the things that I did as a part of that transition in was to have a series of focus groups in all of our schools. And so, I met with teachers and I met with parents and I met with students. And one of the things was around the amount of testing. And so, we pulled a committee together and looked at the number of assessments administered in the school division and made some very, I think, good decisions about those assessments. And we are reducing the number of assessments by about 40 percent in our school division this year.
NNAMDIA former T.C. Williams teacher last year wrote an essay in the Washington Post voicing frustration with the endless stream of education reform initiatives teachers must absorb during their careers from the Common Core to pilot programs to education consultants. How do we cut our way through all of the educational hand-wringing, the educational rethinking to bring the joy of teaching back to educators? How much reform is too much?
CRAWLEYSo I think the important question is, what are the instructional practices that lead to positive student outcomes? What are the things that are making a difference in the life of a student? What's the quality of experience for students as they transition from elementary to middle school to high school? What are the things that we need to focus on that are working well? And then the opposite of that is what are the things that are time consuming that are not leading to positive student outcomes?
CRAWLEYWhat are the things that teachers do not find benefit their students? And let's look at those things and either stop doing them or look at ways to change what we're doing so that we get greater outcomes. And I think that that's our work. It's ongoing. Looking at what we do and the evidence of achievement.
NNAMDIWe got another question from Dee in Alexandria. "How much authority do elementary school principals have in initiating pilot programs without the approval of the school board or superintendent? And how are school specific pilot programs like Looping evaluated?"
CRAWLEYSo we want our principals to be innovative and we want our principals to have a level of autonomy in what they do as instructional leaders. But part of that work is what are the supports needed in order to implement that innovation? And so, we certainly encourage our principals to be creative and innovative, but we also ask the question about evidence and outcomes and resources that are needed to implement a particular initiative.
CRAWLEYSo I think that both of those things have to happen together so that they're sustainable and that there's a level of communication to our communities, so that they know what we're doing. If we're doing looping, are we doing it as a pilot at a particular grade level? Are there certain teachers involved in that process? And what's the long-range plan as it relates to that particular initiative. So certainly we want principals to be creative. But at the same time, we want them to be supported and to feel confident that what they're implementing is supported at the central office as well.
NNAMDIRunning out of time, but got to ask about Jefferson Houston School, Alexandria's kindergarten through eighth grade school, failed to meet state accreditation for three years straight. You now have a beautiful new facility for that troubled school, but how are you addressing the academic problems there?
CRAWLEYSo it is a beautiful school, and this summer we spent a great deal of time engaged in discussion about the future of Jefferson Houston and we had made some changes structurally in terms of the administrative structure at Jefferson Houston and we've made some key instructional changes at Jefferson Houston where we'd moved from a particular reading approach to a balanced literacy approach.
CRAWLEYIn the school division, we're implementing a new textbook adoption, math expressions, and that will be implemented at Jefferson Houston. We're also looking at the extended learning program and making significant changes in that program. And then, finally, we're also working very closely with the community to get a sense of things that the community would like to see in the school and partnering more with our businesses that are nearby.
NNAMDIAlvin Crawley is superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIGood luck to you.
CRAWLEYIt is a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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