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Super intentions


How reformer Janet Barresi plans to revamp education.

Clifton Adcock June 22nd, 2011

After about half a year on the job, one legislative session and at least one highly contentious state Board of Education meeting under her belt, Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi said she still has the same amount of energy, if not more, than when she took office.

Janet Barresi
Credits: Mark Hancock

“It is so very exciting. It is fast-paced. This is a 24/7 job. There is not downtime,” Barresi said.

“This is so incredibly rewarding and so exciting to have the opportunity to be of service to my state and to the children of the state to truly reform education and to bring effective instruction.”

In an interview with Oklahoma Gazette, Barresi stressed the importance of a good education not only for the individual student, but for the greater good of the state.

“Education is the way out of poverty; education is the way for opportunity,” she said. “This is something I worked so hard for and am so honored to have the opportunity to be able to do this.”

Since the Republican Barresi took over the spot long-held by Democrat Sandy Garrett, changes have faced the state Department of Education. While there have been challengers, Barresi received support from the Legislature and much of her agenda has been implemented.

However, tough times are facing schools during the next school year, as a 4.1 percent budget cut, piled on top of deep budget cuts for the last two school years, loom on the horizon.

THE 3Rs

The main thrust of Barresi’s plan to change public education is known as “the 3R Agenda.” The Rs stand for “rethinking, restructuring and reforming” the state’s education system.

During the 2011 legislative session, many of the bills that comprise the 3R Agenda passed.

“This session was quite historic in what was able to be achieved,” Barresi said. “I am so grateful to the House and Senate membership, the president pro tempore (of the Senate) and the governor. All of those people were all on the same team; they were all on the same message. When you’ve got that type of unity and that type of teamwork, you can accomplish quite a bit, and that’s why we had such an incredibly historic session.”

Measures touted as part of the 3R Agenda included Senate Bill 346, which ends social promotion past the third grade, and SB 969, the Equal Opportunity Education Scholarship Act, which gives tax incentives to individuals and corporations that make donations to scholarship-granting organizations that assist parents in low-performing school districts who send their children to private schools.

The ending of social promotion past grade three, Barresi said, is important because the foundation of a child’s learning is built upon the ability to read. After the third grade, she said, children are no longer learning to read, but instead reading to learn.

“If these kids aren’t reading appropriately at grade level, they will immediately be left behind,” Barresi said. “The acceleration of being left behind will increase as they enter into the middle-school years. You finally get to the point where you have an eighth grader that is so frustrated, 85 percent of our dropouts decide to do so by the end of eighth grade.”

The scholarship act increases parental choice, she said, and encourages public schools to better their performance.

“It introduces competition. Any time you have competition, you’re constantly improving your product,” Barresi said. “This is the free market. Parents have before, in the area of choice and education, voted with their feet. If they do not like they way the school is responding to their child, then they have the opportunity to leave.”

Other legislative victories Barresi counted include a measure that gives schools a letter grade, rather than the current Academic Performance Index system, as well as a measure ending trial de novo, which allows a teacher to appeal his or her firing in court.

Another part of the effort to imple ment the 3R Agenda, she said, is the restructuring of the Department of Education to focus on three core areas: making sure students are ready for work and college upon graduation; promoting literacy and mathematics proficiency; and increasing focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

One of the major upcoming initiatives she hopes to implement is a longitudinal data system that would help superintendents, principals and teachers better target problem areas for students and work to provide solutions.

Barresi likened the initiative to one started by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani that used police data to target crime down to the street level, in an effort hailed by many as a key to making the city less dangerous.

“We should be able to come up with three or four data points that will predict for us if a child is struggling in learning how to read. Right now, that doesn’t exist,” she said. “We have to be able to target specific populations of students and be able to identify gaps in different communities, so teachers and principals can plan together on how to target that population of students.”

The plan is to drill down to the student level to see how their learning has progressed. The data would be accumulated through quick assessment tests throughout the year, she said.

“As soon as (teachers and principals) get the information, they can see where the gaps are in learning and move in quickly to alleviate that gap and quickly intervene with that child and not let it languish until the end of the year,” Barresi said.

FUNDING FLEXIBILITY

The budget for common education will be presented to the state Board of Education this month, Barresi said, and more cuts are expected.

The budget passed by the Legislature calls for a 4.1-percent cut, with state funds replacing some of the stimulus money used in the past few years to plug funding holes. That amounts to a cut of about $100 million, she said.

The department is focusing on programs that directly affect instruction in the classroom, as well as funding levels mandated by statute and federally funded programs that are contingent on state funding, Barresi said.

After that, however, there’s very little room, she said.

“We are having to make some very, very difficult decisions here. We’re focusing on those programs that directly affect instruction in the classroom,” Barresi said. “This will be a most dif icult year. I’ve described it before as ‘heartbreaking.’ But this is also a year for an opportunity for those in their communities who really support their schools to come and work with their superintendents and find some innovative ways to continue the important programs those schools offer.”

The department and individual districts likely will seek help from the private sector to plug some of the budget holes.

“After we release the budget, we’re going to be very aggressive about going to the private community, to our state’s corporations who time and time again step up to the plate and are very helpful with education, and to foundations to help us get through this year,” Barresi said.

“This will be a year we’re calling for all hands on deck, to be a part of the solution. Not just for us to hunker down and not improve at all, but to use this as an opportunity to think of new ways to fund programs, new ways to reach their academic goals. Districts will need assistance in the area of tutoring; they will need all types of assistance because they’re laying off personnel.”

QUESTIONS OF AUTHORITY

Her first Board of Education meeting was a contentious one, with one board member saying Barresi was acting like a dictator, and another saying Barresi’s pregnant legislative liaison appointee would be “useless” because her baby was due around the time of the legislative session.

Politicians and commentators denounced the board, and a measure was passed in the Legislature expanding the scope of Barresi’s authority, allowing her to bypass the board to hire staff.

In January, the board blocked some of Barresi’s hires, including her Communications Director Damon Gardenhire and Chief of Staff Jennifer Carter. Board members challenged Carter’s qualifications and questioned why Gardenhire was being paid by the 3R Initiative, a nonprofit group that has helped promote the 3R Agenda.

After being blocked, Gardenhire and Carter’s salaries were paid by the 3R Initiative, and Sen. Andrew Rice, D-Oklahoma City, asked for an attorney general opinion on the matter.

Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who is also a Republican, stated that those staff members could not be considered employees if they were being paid by an outside group, and any decisions they made during that period would be voided.

“We were working with the information we had to do the best thing we could for the department,” Barresi said. “Moving forward, the individuals in question are on the payroll and have been for quite some time. We’re just moving forward.”

 
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