And the award goes to

Three lessons from the Nashville English teacher who won a shocking $25,000 prize

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Misty Ayres-Miranda greets a student shortly after being surprised with a $25,000 cash prize.

At Nashville School of the Arts, it’s usually the students who are primed for the spotlight.

But on Tuesday all eyes were on English teacher Misty Ayres-Miranda, when state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen and the Milken Family Foundation surprised her at an school-wide assembly with a check for $25,000 — one of thousands of awards to individual teachers that the foundation has handed out since 1987.

The foundation doesn’t share how it chooses awardees, who do not need to apply to win. Ayres-Miranda — who teaches ninth- and 12th-grade English and directs her school’s new Literacy Arts Conservatory performance program — had not heard about the prize before winning it. She said she would be giving much of the money back to her fellow teachers and her school.

“I’m so shocked,” she said. “There are honestly so many great teachers here. It could have been any teacher, and I wouldn’t have been surprised.”

Nashville School of the Arts is different from most schools — students audition for admission; arts are incorporated into every subject; and test scores are in the top quarter of schools in the state. But Ayres-Miranda said she believes some of what makes it special can be replicated elsewhere.

Here’s what the award-winning teacher had to say about testing, standards, and her students:

Why the Common Core State Standards don’t limit creativity in the classroom, as some have charged 

The good thing about these standards is that they are so open-ended. They give us a lot more freedom to tailor them the way we want to use them. Before the standards were a lot more detailed and specific, and some of the things weren’t necessary. Common Core English gives us more flexibility to play around and still meet the standards the state wants us to. I’m a lot more of a supporter of our current standards than the ones we had before.

A lot of teachers — and I understand why — get set in a certain way of teaching, and sometimes they are scared of trying something new, and afraid it won’t fit with the standards. Probably not every type of art will fit into every lesson, but there is a way to adapt it. If you’re open to that it will help your scores, because it will help keep your student’s interests. I’ve yet to meet a kid who doesn’t have some type of artistic — even if not necessarily strong — ability, some sort of love, and I think tapping into that, and making the kids care, makes everything easier to teach.

Why lessons should be guided by more than what’s on the end-of-year exam 

When I went to college, the first paper I turned in, I got a C-minus. I was really upset, because I had gotten all As in high school. I had a great college professor, and she told me what I needed to do differently. I was like, I never learned about citations, I didn’t learn about writing … I made a decision that I wanted to be a teacher, and really teach kids what they needed. Not, and I hope I don’t get in trouble for this, the stuff some tests say they have to know, but really what I know kids need.  To be honest, I don’t really focus on the [end-of-year] test itself until right before we take it, because it’s more important for them to work on their writing skills and the things they need to know for college.

This year, I am having to prepare them a little bit more for how to take a computer-based test. A lot of kids get testing anxiety when they have to scroll down and can’t see everything, and can’t mark things the same way. It’s really about telling them that yeah, you can do it, it’s just different. Honestly, it’s early in the year. I still have a lot of time to have fun with my kids before focusing on the test.

On the benefits of teaching at a school that chooses its theme and its students 

We are in a rare environment where kids aren’t judged based on their gender choices or whether or not they’re homosexual or heterosexual or different races. Our kids block themselves off based on their art. And the fact that we have an environment where everyone is accepted for who they are as a person is pretty amazing.

I would say to other schools, you know, there’s nothing wrong with a kid being who they are and being unique. And when you celebrate that, they accomplish so much. I really think we have a community that is very rare [and] that shouldn’t be so rare. It should be all across the board, at every public school.

first steps

Superintendent León secures leadership team, navigates evolving relationship with board

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Superintendent Roger León at Tuesday's school board meeting.

As Newark’s new superintendent prepares for the coming academic year, the school board approved the final members of his leadership team Tuesday and began piecing together a roadmap to guide his work.

The board confirmed three assistant superintendents chosen by Superintendent Roger León: Jose Fuentes, the principal of First Avenue School in the North Ward; Sandra Rodriguez, a Hoboken principal who previously oversaw Newark Public Schools’ early childhood office; and Mario Santos, principal of East Side High School in the East Ward. They join three other assistant superintendents León selected for his team, along with a deputy superintendent, chief of staff, and several other officials.

The three assistant superintendents confirmed Tuesday had first come before the board in June, but at that time none of them secured enough votes to be approved. During last month’s meeting, the board assented to several of León’s leadership picks and to his decision to remove many people from the district’s central office, but it also blocked him from ousting several people.

This week, Board Chair Josephine Garcia declined to comment on the board’s reversal, and León did not respond to a request for comment.

What is clear is that the board and León are still navigating their relationship.

In February, the board regained local control of the district 22 years after the state seized control of the district due to poor performance and mismanagement. The return to local control put the board back in charge of setting district policy and hiring the superintendent, who previously answered only to the state. Still, the superintendent, not the board, is responsible for overseeing the district’s day-to-day operations.

During a board discussion Tuesday, Garcia hinted at that delicate balance of power.

“Now that we’re board members, we want to make sure that, of course, yes, we’re going to have input and implementation,” but that they don’t overstep their authority, she said.

Under state rules, the board is expected to develop district goals and policies, which the superintendent is responsible for acting on. But León — a former principal who spent the past decade serving as an assistant superintendent — has his own vision for the district, which he hopes to convince the board to support, he said in a recent interview on NJTV.

“It’s my responsibility as the new superintendent of schools to compel them to assist the district moving in the direction that I see as appropriate,” he said.

Another matter still being ironed out by the board and superintendent is communication.

León did not notify the full board before moving to force out 31 district officials and administrators, which upset some members. And he told charter school leaders in a closed-door meeting that he plans to keep intact the single enrollment system for district and charter schools — a controversial policy the board is still reviewing.

The district has yet to make a formal announcement about the staff shake-up, including the appointment of León’s new leadership team. And when the board voted on the new assistant superintendents Tuesday, it used only the appointed officials’ initials — not their full names. However, board member Leah Owens stated the officials’ full names when casting her vote.

The full names, titles and salaries of public employees are a matter of public record under state law.

Earlier, board member Yambeli Gomez had proposed improved communication as a goal for the board.

“Not only communication within the board and with the superintendent,” she said, “but also communication with the public in a way that’s more organized.”

The board spent much of Tuesday’s meeting brainstorming priorities for the district.

Members offered a grab bag of ideas, which were written on poster paper. Under the heading “student achievement,” they listed literacy, absenteeism, civics courses, vocational programs, and teacher quality, among other topics. Under other “focus areas,” members suggested classroom materials, parent involvement, and the arts.

Before the school year begins in September, León is tasked with shaping the ideas on that poster paper into specific goals and an action plan.

After the meeting, education activist Wilhelmina Holder said she hopes the board will focus its attention on a few key priorities.

“There was too much of a laundry list,” she said.

early dismissals

Top Newark school officials ousted in leadership shake-up as new superintendent prepares to take over

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Incoming Newark Public Schools Superintendent Roger León

Several top Newark school officials were given the option Friday to resign or face termination, in what appeared to be an early move by incoming Superintendent Roger León to overhaul the district’s leadership.

The shake-up includes top officials such as the chief academic officer and the head of the district’s controversial enrollment system, as well as lower-level administrators — 31 people in total, according to documents and district employees briefed on the overhaul. Most of the officials were hired or promoted by the previous two state-appointed superintendents, Cami Anderson and Christopher Cerf, a sign that León wants to steer the district in a new direction now that it has returned to local control.

The officials were given the option to resign by Tuesday and accept buyouts or face the prospect of being fired by the school board at its meeting that evening. The buyouts offer a financial incentive to those who resign voluntarily on top of any severance included in their contracts. In exchange for accepting the buyouts, the officials must sign confidentiality agreements and waive their right to sue the district.

Earlier this week, León submitted a list of his choices to replace the ousted cabinet-level officials, which the board must approve at its Tuesday meeting. It’s not clear whether he has people lined up to fill the less-senior positions.

It’s customary for incoming superintendents to appoint new cabinet members and reorganize the district’s leadership structure, which usually entails replacing some personnel. However, many staffers were caught off guard by Friday’s dismissals since León has given little indication of how he plans to restructure the central office — and he does not officially take the reins of the district until July 1.

A district spokeswoman and the school board chair did not immediately respond to emails on Friday about the shake-up.

Some staffers speculated Friday that the buyout offers were a way for León to replace the district’s leadership without securing the school board’s approval because, unlike with terminations, the board does not need to sign off on resignations. However, it’s possible the board may have to okay any buyout payments. And it could also be the case that the buyouts were primarily intended to help shield the district from legal challenges to the dismissals.

León was not present when the staffers learned Friday afternoon that they were being let go, the employees said. Instead, the interim superintendent, Robert Gregory, and other top officials broke the news, which left some stunned personnel crying and packing their belongings into boxes. They received official separation letters by email later that day.

The people being ousted include Chief Academic Officer Brad Haggerty and Gabrielle Ramos-Solomon, who oversees enrollment. Also included are top officials in the curriculum, early childhood, and finance divisions, among others, according to a list obtained by Chalkbeat.

In addition to the 31 being pushed out, several assistant superintendents are being demoted but will remain in the district, according to the district employees.

There was concern among some officials Friday about whether the turnover would disrupt planning for the coming school year.

“I don’t know how we’re going to open smoothly with cuts this deep,” one of the employees said. “Little to no communication was provided to the teams about what these cuts mean for the many employees who remain in their roles and need leadership guidance and direction Monday morning.”