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Brown on evals, scripted lessons, parent engagement and more

Buffalo got to meet Pamela Brown, the third superintendent finalist, yesterday.

Today's story touches on some of the highlights from her group interview with reporters.(We already wrote about the other two candidates, Amber Dixon and Edward Newsome. Here's the story we had about the two of them, along with a blog post with additional info that didn't fit into that story, and a summary of the three candidates' educational and work histories.)

There's plenty more from yesterday's interview with Brown that we couldn't fit into today's story. Here's some of it:

- Brown, like Newsome, worked as a kindergarten teacher early in her career. As a bilingual teacher, she taught students in English as well as Spanish.

Brown interview- She extensively cited her experience as an elementary school principal in Charlotte, N.C., saying each of the three schools she worked at was a turnaround situation. She cited impressive improvement -- far more impressive than North Carolina schools data seems to indicate.

Her resume says that during the four years she was principal at Bruns Avenue Elementary, the school showed the highest growth in reading in the district, and the second-highest growth in math.

State data, though, shows that reading scores increased from 57 percent at or above grade level to 70 percent -- less than half the 30 percentage point increase she cited during the interview.

And math scores actually dropped nearly 30 points, according to state data.

- Asked how the schools can engage parents, she said there are different ways for parents to get involved. One of the most important, she said, is what happens at home, in terms of parents encouraging their children to do well in school.

"Sometimes just the way parents refer to the school [makes a difference]. If parents refer positively to the school, normally, children do, as well," she said. "We have to reach out to parents and let them know we want them to be part of the school. When they visit, we want them to feel welcome. Sometimes it's how well-received parents feel when they enter our buildings."

- In Philadelphia, Brown was hired as an assistant superintendent. After about a year, she was promoted to serve as interim chief academic officer. She was not given the job on a permanent basis. Instead, she returned to her position as an assistant superintendent. She says she was appointed interim chief academic officer "with the understanding the district was going to go through a reorganization at the end of that school year."

- Philadelphia was not exactly a calm place when Brown worked there. Arlene Ackerman, the superintendent who hired her, was forced out, with a $900,000 buyout on her way out. Brown left a month before Ackerman did. She says she knew Ackerman would be leaving and decided to go. Brown says she did not take a buyout when she left.

- When I asked about teacher evaluations, it was clear that Brown had done some homework to familiarize herself with the details of the district's latest agreement -- although she was fuzzy on some of the details. (For instance, she said there was a provision at the elementary level for schools with a high percentage of English language learners. In fact, that provision applies to all schools.)

At any rate, like Newsome, she avoided giving a clear answer on whether she thinks the performance of all students, regardless of attendance, should be counted toward a teacher's evaluation. Instead, she talked about the importance of finding ways to improve student attendance.

Eventually Brown said that, since the latest agreement makes allowances for schools with extreme attendance problems, "I think that's the system we would work with. I think with that agreement being in place, we would move ahead and hope to arrie at a longer-term agreement."

- Brown was one of more than half a dozen people on the Philadelphia school district's negotiating team when it brokered a contract with its teachers union in 2009. The president of the union told me the district had only one designated spokesman -- an attorney -- during negotiations, so Brown did not speak during those sessions. 

But she says if she comes to Buffalo, she would use the same strategy that Philadelphia did -- "being good listeners" -- to build a rapport with the union to reach a new contract.

"The contract was very fair and also allowed us to really intervene in those schools that were struggling most," she said. "We were able to get an extended school day, school week and school year in our schools that were struggling the most. Ninety percent of our schools were able to do site selection so they could select their own teachers."

- What would be the first thing she would change if she came to Buffalo? She declined to answer. She said she would want to go on a "listening tour" first, visiting "many more schools, probably every school."

- All of her efforts, she said, would be geared toward improving instruction in the classroom. I asked how she felt about scripted instruction such as what Buffalo uses.

"In my experience, a differentiated approach to managing schools has been successful," Brown said. "I don't believe in trying to fix what's not broken. If a school has been demonstrating a high rate of growth on student performance over the past several years, I think that type of school might benefit from having more autonomy than a school that has struggled for years and is low-performing."

- Mary Pasciak

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