Kent Paredes Scribner, the sole finalist for superintendent of the Fort Worth school district, has a message for Fort Worth.
“Those who don’t understand the importance of a healthy organizational culture and climate are going to have a difficult time working with me.”
When he was hired as superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District in 2008, Scribner found a culture that pitted administrators and teachers against one another, he said in an interview with the Star-Telegram.
“Those members of the team who didn’t believe in the value system that I was asked to implement, they no longer had a seat on the bus,” said Scribner, 49.
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The Fort Worth district has grappled for years with political infighting, a lack of consistent leadership and low student achievement. It has been a perennial low performer even among the state’s largest urban school districts, records have shown.
The last superintendent, Walter Dansby, abruptly resigned on June 2, 2014, after two years on the job.
“I want to be in Fort Worth,” Scribner said. “I’m not just passing through as a steppingstone to something else. I want to be a part of the community and have a long and successful run and build something special.
“I believe the district could really become a model for what urban education should be.”
Scribner has led the Phoenix district for about eight years, more than double the national average of three years.
Big challenges ahead
Student achievement is a top concern for many parents in the Fort Worth district, especially advocates for African-American students, who wonder where the new superintendent’s allegiances will lie. Scribner is part Hispanic and is bilingual.
“All we are asking is, ‘What is the plan for African-American children … [and] schools that are failing?’” said Malikk Austin, spokesman for IPAC, an advocacy group made up of African-American parents and community members.
The district has achievement gaps between lower-income, predominantly minority students on the southeast and north sides and their more affluent peers on the west side, accountability ratings show.
Lela Alston, president of Phoenix Union’s governing board, said Scribner has plenty of experience with racial issues.
“We have racial groups that think they should have more of this or more of that,” Alston said. “Hey, he’s not a babe in the woods who’s walking blindsided by differences of opinion and racial unrest in a public school district.
“That is everywhere, and it is in Arizona as well, and he’s the guy that’s managed it.”
The Fort Worth district’s next leader will have to improve some of the lowest-performing campuses in Texas. Just this month, 21 district schools, including the southeast’s O.D. Wyatt High School, appeared on the state’s watch list for “improvement required” under the state accountability system.
Alston said Scribner has a “genuine, deep and absolute caring for the students.”
Althe Allen, his associate superintendent of instruction and accountability at Phoenix Union, said that “means all students, as in A-L-L. If we say all, that means all. We have to know every kid and where they are and how to move them.”
Trustees announced Scribner as their finalist Aug. 11 and must wait 21 days before the hire can be official.
Improvement in Phoenix
Change at Phoenix Union didn’t come easily, said Allen, who arrived after serving as a public school administrator in Scottsdale.
“I didn’t get to see what they have described as an adult, dysfunctional, isolated environment,” Allen said.
But after Scribner had spent two years as superintendent, his guidance was shifting the culture, Allen said.
By 2010, “people were getting along,” Allen said. “The foundation was laid for a really good culture and climate. … People knew that they wanted to see student achievement rise. They were ready, but I don’t think they knew how to navigate that.”
It was soon discovered that poor student performance was due in part to a lack of focus, she said. The district operated a hodgepodge of curriculum and hit-or-miss intervention strategies. A 2010 audit report showed that Phoenix Union operated like 16 different districts.
“We were trying to do too many things,” she said. “We were grabbing at all these random programs, random curriculum to try to solve all the problems.”
A review of district programs zeroed in on those that yielded high results for students “if done with fidelity,” she said. “Fidelity means, Do we do it as prescribed to us to do it?”
The conversations went something like this: “If we are going to increase achievement, we’re going to have to have consistently aligned practices … so what we came up with … was that we need to focus on ‘What are the things that will help us move forward?’”
Educators pulled data on individual students and taped it to the office doors of counselors and principals. The data walls allowed them to focus on each learner’s test score rather than on the total number of students in “high” and low” achievement categories. So students who were close to proficiency — one or two correct answers shy of passing — were easy to spot.
“It generated excitement when we could see and say, ‘Look at these kids on the bubble. … They just get two more questions correct, and they’re going to bump up.’”
Some teachers became frustrated with the data walls, Allen said. “You’d hear a lot of teachers say, ‘They’re just not ready. They don’t come to us ready. What am I supposed to do with them?’
Allen’s response: “They may not come to us ready — but as a result of being with us, they are supposed to grow.”
Auditors who returned to reassess Phoenix Union in 2013 were pleased with what they saw, records show.
“Teachers and school leaders understand that teaching and assessing the district curriculum is a non-negotiable,” auditors wrote.
‘The work is never done’
The 27,000-student Phoenix Union High School District has seen some improvement in student achievement under Scribner.
The district has received national acclaim for three magnet schools: Franklin Police and Fire High School, Bioscience High School and Metro Opportunity High School.
And several campuses have improved their letter-grade rankings under the Arizona Department of Education’s accountability standards.
Besides the letter grades, Phoenix Union must also meet a state benchmark — the “annual measurable objective” — which requires 75 percent of sophomores to pass math and 86 percent to pass reading.
In 2014, 52 percent passed math, state records show, and 80 percent passed reading.
Overall, Scribner’s district has a C, which demonstrates an “average level of performance,” based on test scores, graduation rates and student growth. About 25 percent of Arizona public school districts and charter schools were rated C; 31 percent A; 32 percent B; and 12 percent D.
Scribner acknowledges that he will leave a district that has yet to meet state math and reading standards.
“The work is never done,” he said. “But this is the strongest leadership team with whom I’ve ever worked, and the momentum exists here.”
I believe the [Fort Worth] district could really become a model for what urban education should be.
Fort Worth trustees chose Scribner partly because of his unconventional leadership style, board President Jacinto Ramos has said.
Scribner isn’t an authoritative, hard-nosed leader, Ramos said. He’s known for statements such as: “A leader is not about having followers but about creating leaders,” “Don’t mistake kindness for weakness,” and “As a leader, you have to earn your right to lead.”
Scribner’s selection as finalist happened in the blink of an eye, Ramos said — not typical for this board. It had narrowed its choice to three semifinalists from a list of 60 applicants, he said.
“It went really smooth, and I know that’s hard to believe based on our track record,” Ramos said. “I went around the room and let them individually express who they wanted to go with, and every single board member went with him.”
The first attempt to hire a new superintendent flopped. The former finalist, Santa Fe Superintendent Joel Boyd, withdrew from consideration at the eleventh hour after some trustees questioned his track record on student achievement in New Mexico.
A second superintendent search began after the May 9 elections. On Aug. 11, Scribner made his first appearance in Fort Worth as trustees announced that he was the top contender.
Another challenge for Scribner: whether he can persuade nine trustees accustomed to emotional outbursts and widespread disagreement to get along.
Scribner’s supporters in Phoenix said he is a skillful, evenhanded communicator who won’t be sucked in by petty concerns or hijacked by any special-interest group.
He pretty much has an open-door policy.
Tina Smith, an English teacher at Franklin Police and Fire Academy
‘Skillful in handling people’
Scribner said he has made it a mission to hire and promote educators who have a passion for students and learning.
In Phoenix, one of those was Lorenzo Cabrera, who was hired in 2007 as dean of students at Alhambra High School, one of Phoenix Union’s lowest-performing campuses at the time.
Cabrera was hired because he had experience working with troubled students.
“I had students with issues,” Cabrera said. “They were gangbangers. Some of them had been kicked out of school. They had been in fights, done drugs, had weapons, all of that. … They came with labels. I dealt with the students nobody wanted.”
In 2011, Scribner paid Cabrera a visit at Alhambra. The principal at Franklin Police and Fire High School was retiring, he told Alhambra’s disciplinary dean. Would Cabrera be interested in becoming interim principal there?
At the time, Franklin employed a “mishmash” of teachers of different backgrounds, Cabrera said. Some were former law officers; some were laypeople.
Auditors who returned to reassess Phoenix Union in 2013 were pleased with what they saw, records show.
“There was tension,” Cabrera said.
Scribner’s words were: “I’m sending you over there to heal,” Cabrera said. “And I really took that to heart.”
When Cabrera took over as principal, the school had fewer than 287 students, he said. About four years later, it has 326, he said. Cabrera attributes the higher enrollment to the school’s growing popularity among families. The school is among the state’s “A” campuses.
Tina Smith, an English teacher at Franklin who has worked in the district for 24 years, said communications have improved under Scribner.
“He pretty much has an open-door policy,” Smith said.
Scribner said he credits much of his ability to interact with people to his education. He has a master’s degree in counseling psychology.
“There’s nothing to prepare you better for the job of superintendent than counseling psychology …” Scribner said. “That is what we do as leaders. We listen. We de-escalate conflict. We motivate those who need motivating.”
Alston, the governing-board president, said: “He’s skillful in handling people from all walks of life, from diverse opinions. He has an uncanny ability to talk to people and to see the best in them and to see how he can draw out those things from them that are the most meaningful and applicable to the job at hand — that is helping students to be successful.”
▪ The Fort Worth school board will meet in executive session at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday to finalize the contract offer for Kent Paredes Scribner.
▪ No action is scheduled to be taken.
▪ Under state law, a school board must wait 21 days after naming a lone finalist for superintendent before offering a contract. Although that waiting period ends Tuesday, a meeting has not been scheduled to formally hire Scribner.