Modesto City Schools to dismiss three principals, other administrators

naustin@modbee.comDecember 18, 2012 

— Modesto City Schools has told three high school principals and a number of other administrators they will lose their jobs June 30.

The district would not say how many employees or who was notified Thursday. Although Superintendent Pam Able on Friday characterized the notices as standard practice, Associate Superintendent Ginger Johnson said Tuesday that it was the most administrative dismissals in one year in memory.

Principals at Johansen High, Davis High and Elliott Alternative Education Center, a continuation high school, were among those who will finish out the school year while making other plans. At least one elementary school principal and two assistant principals, at Johansen and Elliott, also got notices.

"We do not make these difficult decisions lightly, as I know that change is hard for a site," Johnson said. "I believe our decisions are in the best interest of MCS."

The mid-December notice was to give those involved ample time to apply for positions at other districts, Johnson said. Some may return to teaching.

While teachers and support staff must be notified by Dec. 15 if they face demotion or dismissal, the district is under no contractual obligation to notify administrators, and no reason need be given to end their yearly contracts.

Modesto City Schools board member Steve Grenbeaux said the board was aware that administrative changes were being made. "Board members don't really get involved in personnel decisions," he said, but all recognize the key role that principals play. "The most important figure at any site level is the principal."

Grenbeaux also said the board was told that everyone involved knew there were problems. One employee had a formal improvement plan in place, he said. "The others have had long and ongoing conversations about their performance. I doubt that this was a surprise," Grenbeaux said.

But the high school principals said it came out of the blue, with only a note the district was "going in a different direction."

"This is still so new and such a shock to me that I am still very much so doing my best to wrap my head around what has happened," Johansen Principal Julie Moore said Tuesday.

In the year and a half she's been at Johansen, Moore has made it a priority to get more teens involved in clubs and sports. She kept collaboration time for staff despite the end of grant funding and meets regularly with a broad group of students. The school gained an agriculture academy and multimedia academy.

Johansen teacher Debra Guenther said the staff was not aware of any problems. "We were really shocked. We didn't see this coming at all," she said. "I have been at Johansen 21 years. She's my seventh principal. I've been through the ups and downs, highs and lows, and for the first time, I feel like we're moving in the right direction."

Maria Guerrero said Moore brought a full-time translator to the school, making Johansen more welcoming for parents and easier for teachers. Guerrero is both — a teacher with a teen of her own at the school. "We're tired of seeing administrators springboarded into new positions at the district office. Julie took (the principal's job) with the idea of staying here, and we love that," Guerrero said.

Johansen lost an associate principal. She was hired two days before school started and said her first evaluation will be in January. She said she works with teachers to prepare for common core standards.

Moore and Davis Principal Lynn Lysko are helping lead the charge in the shift to professional learning communities, or PLCs. They trained in it, implemented the model at their sites and shared their expertise with district administrators in November. PLC is an ongoing process to establish a schoolwide culture that develops teacher leadership focused on building and sustaining school improvement, according to the Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement.

Lysko is another principal being let go. Gravelly voiced with laryngitis Tuesday, she said last week's notice came as a shock, but said she will work to ensure that programs she started at Davis thrive and help her staff through the transition.

Davis, which lost enrollment when Gregori High opened, has 1,384 students this year. Lysko has started innovative aquatics and digital photography classes to entice transfers. She champions the Davis Language Institute, which helps recent immigrants learn English and catch up to high school coursework.

"If it wasn't for her, the program wouldn't exist," said institute teacher Lindsey Bird. Bird worked closely with Lysko in Davis' accreditation process last school year. She said that with goals to meet and boundary changes in flux, the campus is at a crossroads. "In such a time of transition, it's unsettling to have your leader removed from that equation," Bird said.

Canadian by birth, Lysko became a U.S. citizen this fall and has a doctorate. But she does not have a California teaching credential.

Elliott Principal Julie Beebe, another who received notice, said she could return to teaching. Elliott encompasses a number of alternative programs for students low on credits or removed from other Modesto high schools.

"Elliott has increased its attendance rate, reduced discipline issues — zero expulsions this year — and had the highest improvement in state test scores in the county for 9-12 schools, 56 points," Beebe said. "What 'different direction' is there — down? I thought I was doing what everybody wanted."

The district could not comment on personnel actions. Johnson said many variables factor into a principal's effectiveness, generally falling into four key areas: helping teachers hone instruction; collaborating within the school and with the district; managing, making sure budgets and paperwork are on time and accurate; and communication skills.

The district will begin recruiting to fill the administrative posts for 2013-14, Johnson said. She expects teachers at those sites, parents and community leaders to be involved.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339.

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