New Trenton Schools Superintendent is off to a Strong Start

September 10, 2012

Symbolic gestures can speak more eloquently than words. That leaders of the Trenton Education Association stood to applaud Trenton Public Schools’ new superintendent, Francisco Duran, at the Aug. 26 board meeting bodes well for the new school year.

The applause came right after board President Toby Sanders stated that the new superintendent had been “unanimously endorsed” by the board and deserved full support and respect from district staff. Both the applause and Duran’s initiatives that inspired it were unusual and suggest a solid partnership for facing the district’s numerous challenges.

Early in July, right after he had taken over from the widely admired interim superintendent, Raymond Broach, Duran made a move that actualized his pledge to openness and transparency — he invited TEA representatives to sit in on interviews with candidates for his new leadership team.

It was another symbolic gesture, to be sure, but Duran is savvy enough to know that improving educational outcomes in the district depends on a good working relationship between the teachers and the superintendent.

In his remarks before the TEA’s applause, Sanders had noted that the district’s leadership team is greatly changed from last year; at the meeting, Duran had introduced a half-dozen new senior staff members, all of whom had come from other school districts. Only two members of the team were senior members of Broach’s staff.

Aware that Duran’s having selected leaders from outside the district would antagonize some current staff members, Sanders also noted that “disrespectfulness” toward the new team would “not be looked favorably upon” by the board.

One longtime district teacher commented after the meeting that full support for the new leadership was highly appropriate. Past leaders, this teacher said, have had their chance to effect real change. And they didn’t manage to do it, so it’s time for new leadership.

Equally encouraging is the speed with which Duran has taken over the district. In two months, he has not only supervised the hiring of his new staff, he also has seen to it that the district has selected nearly 30 candidates for the support personnel mandated by the New Jersey Department of Education.

This year, the state DOE has instituted Regional Achievement Centers (RACs) to provide unsolicited assistance to schools it has determined are failing. Twenty-one Trenton schools are in this category. Supporting staff can be selected by the district, but candidates have to have RAC approval before they can be hired. Duran doesn’t seem daunted by this state intervention; he is committed to using resources well.

Duran’s focus is on the youngest students and on literacy. To that end, he also launched the Superintendent’s Literacy Initiative the week before classes started. 
Further, he and board President Sanders appear to be an effective team. At the board meeting, Sanders stressed accountability and transparency, priorities both have demonstrated in word and deed. Duran not only stated his operating principles but made them available as a handout.

“All students can learn,” it claims, if they have rigorous and relevant learning experiences. Teachers and principals are at the core of successful schools, but students, families and the entire community also need to be engaged — a commitment, Duran says, that goes beyond simple involvement.

The handout was headed with the district’s motto — “Children come first / Niños son primeros” — which is also prominently displayed on the district’s website and letterhead.

With transparency, accountability and engagement from all, it’s a formula that should get the “needle moving in the right direction,” to borrow a phrase from the state’s RAC administrator. The school year’s solid start is a good sign that the needle can begin moving toward better academic performance in the city’s school district.