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New Utah School District a Test of Leadership Skills

Written by Dakarai I. Aarons on 21 May 2010.

superintendent of Utah’s first new district A look at the nearly museum-pristine office of Canyons school district Superintendent David S. Doty makes clear he spends very little time in it.

The superintendent of Utah’s first new district in nearly 100 years has a community full of high expectations for the district, born of a bitter rift between Salt Lake City-area communities over spending priorities.

Determined to lead from the field, and not from behind his desk, Mr. Doty sets a dizzying pace each week. He goes from school to school, meeting to meeting, putting miles on his Nissan Xterra as he sets out to show voters that the district’s outcomes will be worth the legal and political drama that accompanied its creation, and to assuage any worried staff members that change, ultimately, will be good.

The 34,000-student district comprises the Alta, Cottonwood Heights, Draper, Midvale, and Sandy communities in Salt Lake City’s southern suburbs. Mr. Doty, then a state higher education official, was hired in the fall of 2008, and the district officially came into existence last July 1, less than two months before school started in late August.

“I’ve worked really hard to not only be visible, but to make sure people feel appreciated for the hard work they’ve done. I don’t want to be seen as a figurehead or an Ivory Tower administrator,” he said in an interview this month. “It’s going to take effort on my part to make sure these disconnects don’t creep into this district.”

The district was formed nearly three years ago under a new state law championed by local mayors and citizens that set up a process for splitting a school district. Residents who lived on the east side of the Jordan school district voted in a November 2007 referendum to split that district.

The formation of a new school system is a rarity, not just in Utah—where no new district had been created in nearly a century—but nationwide, where lawmakers in states such as Maine have focused political capital on consolidating school districts.

Making the most of a political environment marked by an eagerness for change, Canyons school administrators launched several initiatives this school year, including the establishment of two new advanced high school diploma options designed to ensure that students are prepared for college.

Armed with data showing high remediation rates among the district’s graduates—many of whom are among some of the state’s most affluent students—Mr. Doty has taken the campaign beyond the district lines to state policymakers.

“A student ought to be able to go to any institution in the state and not have to take a remedial class,” Mr. Doty said during a presentation this month on the district’s new diploma options to a committee of Utah’s board of regents. “What we are after are the outcomes, not the courses,” he explained

“If Jaime Escalante can get these kids to take calculus, we can, too,” he said, referring to the recently deceased high school math teacher whose success with Latino students in Los Angeles inspired the film “Stand and Deliver.”

“It’s not the ability, it’s the will. We do not have the will,” he said to raised eyebrows among the regents.

For all the enthusiasm and passion Mr. Doty now displays when he talks about the potential of his district, he voted against its creation, even writing an op-ed essay published in a local newspaper explaining why he thought it was the wrong thing to do.

Mr. Doty’s own children were having a good experience in the Jordan district, which he believed was serving the community well.

“I didn’t see the kind of fractures that other people were agitating about,” he said. “I’ve never liked the politics of division. I wanted the district to work to solve it.”

But after the split, Mr. Doty was asked to join a transition team in charge of dividing the assets and liabilities of the Jordan district.

“It was just bitter,” he said. “The people in the existing district who thought [the split] would never happen were beside themselves that the vote had prevailed.”

As the process continued and the new school board started looking for a superintendent, Mr. Doty asked in passing how the search was going. When he heard there were few candidates and the majority were not from Utah, he became concerned.

“If you can’t get somebody who understands what has happened here, this could really turn into a train wreck,” he recalled thinking at the time. “This would be a unique opportunity to start a school district. That opportunity doesn’t come around very often in this country.”

Within a few months, he was leaving his job as one of Utah’s associate commissioners of higher education to take the helm of the yet-unnamed district. He was its first staff member and didn’t even have an office his first day on the job.

With more than a year before the schools would be his, Mr. Doty knew he had an uphill battle.

“I didn’t hold any naiveté that I was going to ride in on a white horse and solve everything,” he said.

Community Divisions

The Canyons district was created as a result of long-simmering complaints that residents on the east side of the Jordan school system, then Utah’s largest, with 81,000 students, had about the spending priorities of the district.

“A lot of constituents I represent felt disenfranchised by the Jordan school district,” said state Rep. Greg Hughes, a Republican who chairs the House education committee in the Utah legislature.

Parents complained about overcrowded middle and high schools and saw no action, despite a multimillion-dollar bond issue in 2003 that was supposed to help. Instead, Mr. Hughes said, the board prioritized growth on the west side of the district, which experienced growth of upwards of 1,000 students annually. The population is relatively stable on the east side, which has a higher tax base.

Mr. Hughes, who campaigned for a smaller school district before he was elected to the legislature in 2002 and championed the passage of the measure making it possible, said the breakup has been a good thing.

“Already we are seeing community involvement we hadn’t seen before. I get constant feedback about how refreshing that is,” he said. “The pipeline of information is creating trust with this district that didn’t exist before.”

In his community of Draper, he said, parents are excited that the school board plans to build a new high school as part of a $250 million bond proposal that goes to voters next month.

“That has people saying, ‘Wow! That’s what a responsive school district can do,’ “Mr. Hughes said.

Tracy Cowdell, the president of the Canyons school board, was among those who vehemently protested the division of Jordan into two school districts in 2007. He is one of four school board members who previously served on the Jordan board.

“I think what it came down to was philosophy,” Mr. Cowdell said. “People wanted more local control of their school district.”

Mr. Cowdell said he would vote for the split of the Jordan district if the referendum were being held today.

“The dividing of the schools has been the best thing that has happened in public education in Utah in the last 25 years,” he said. “We have the opportunity to take all that is great about the Jordan district and incorporate that in what we are doing, and see if we can add to it and innovate with some creativity.”

Building Credibility

Chief among Superintendent Doty’s priorities upon taking over was to gain the trust and respect of the teachers and administrators in the 45 schools he was to inherit.

With permission from the Jordan superintendent, Mr. Doty began meeting with principals and staff members at each school to introduce himself and his vision.

In separate conversations with the principals, he asked for the names of people who were well respected in the district. Based on those recommendations, he pursued and hired a few Jordan administrators as part of his first hires for the new Canyons district. He was aware he’d need their credibility, in part because of the wariness about his being an “outsider” who had never run a school district, nor worked for the Jordan schools.

A major fear loomed for Mr. Doty last summer as he worked to prepare for the start of school. His information-technology personnel had no access to the infrastructure until July 1, and would have little time to get everything up and running.

“I’ve never seen people work harder. They did 18- to 20-hour days for weeks to convert e-mail and [Internet protocol] addresses to the new system,” he said. “I am to this day amazed they got it done.”

Fresh Start

Canyons school officials have strived to take advantage of the newness of the district.

By both design and necessity, the district has looked to its schools as it develops its own processes and procedures, said Mary Bailey, the executive director of K-16 student achievement for the district’s high schools.

“[The] Jordan district has been great for 100 years—and so have some of the procedures,” she said wryly. “There were some procedures that we shook our head at,” said Ms. Bailey, who worked for the Jordan schools for 25 years as a teacher and administrator.

As the Canyons district has built a student-information system and devised processes for payroll, accounting, and other functions, central-office workers have asked schools how to make the processes more user-friendly and what information would help them do their jobs better. The district has 4,350 employees and a $200 million operating budget.

“This new district has given us a chance to say how should it be done, rather than ‘Let’s just do it this way because that’s how it always has been done,’ “ Ms. Bailey said.

One of his greatest hopes, Mr. Doty said, is that a shared leadership philosophy is at work in all parts of the district.

“Everyone should be a leader in their own sphere. The former district was so large that it was very top-down, as it was in many large districts,” he said. “I want to model the behavior we are here to serve the schools and not the other way around.”

Tony Romanello, the president of the 900-member Canyons Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said Mr. Doty and his staff have done an admirable job getting the school district launched, but that more work remains to help school staffs adjust.

“If you were an employee of a school at the time of the split, like the chairs and the table, you went with the school,” Mr. Romanello said. “District administrators at the central-office level had a choice whether or not to become part of the new district. Everyone else was an asset.”

That reality, he said, has left some teachers in a mode of shock this year, feeling as if they were simply “assets” or property, something he doesn’t think is always recognized by administrators.

“Sometimes that perspective has gotten lost,” Mr. Romanello said.

Susan Malone, the principal of the district’s Hillcrest High School, said the school year has brought a sometimes steep learning curve for school-based and central-office employees alike.

“We have all had to grow together,” she said.

As the year has progressed, Ms. Malone said, principals have had more say in decisionmaking, and the district has been quick to respond to needs.

Because a number of central-office employees came from outside the Jordan district, Mr. Romanello said, at times the district and school-based staff alike “have had to feel our way” through parts of the school year when something unexpected has come up.

Looking ahead, Mr. Doty said, the challenge is to sustain the momentum of Canyons’ first year while striving to become better at communicating on every level.

“The pace has been exhausting for everyone,” he said. “I want people to be energetic, but I don’t want them to burn out. One of my top goals is to create a district where you are not only happy to work, but proud to work.”

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