Dr. Pamela Taylor Henson was the second of three candidates interviewed for superintendent of the Columbus Municipal School District. Henson is director of instructional support for the Baldwin County, Ala., Board of Education.
Henson was given 15 minutes to make a presentation, and then answered questions from board members for an hour.
[Dr. Henson apparently withdrew her application sometime this weekend due to a personal issue. – Brian Jones]
“I’ve been with the Baldwin County Board of Ed for almost 29 years now,” she said. “I am a product of the school system. We have nearly 29,000 students. We have 44 schools, which is down from 47 that we had three years ago. We hit a major funding crunch and closed three of our schools. We have 30 different languages spoken in the county, and we have nearly 3,900 special education students. I started out as a middle school science teacher. I taught middle school for about seven years. You can only teach middle school so long, and I had set my career goals and wanted to go into administration. I knew that I needed high school experience, and I transferred to Foley High School and taught marine biology for six years right on the Gulf of Mexico. I traveled widely, to Africa, to South America, to Australia, because at that time I was very passionate about the rain forest. Each time I went I would develop a unit and bring it back and we would travel to the elementary schools to share that with them.
“In 1994 I was the Christa McAuliffe Fellow for the state of Alabama,” she said. “I traveled around the county as a science resource person. At the end of the year I had high hopes the district would maintain the position because so many elementary teachers are afraid of science, but the superintendent sent me back to the classroom. I spent two more years in the classroom and in 1997 I was named Alabama’s teacher of the year. The school system removed me [from the classroom] so that I could travel around the state of Alabama. After that I never went back to the classroom. I went back to the administrative side. I was over all the science teachers until 2004.
“I know that you faced some major financial issues, and we faced the same thing,” she said. “When people think Baldwin County, they think beaches, revenue, lots of money. When I first became director in 2004 – and I had all the curriculum programs, pre-k through 12, under me – we literally had more money than we could spend. The housing business was selling condos as fast as they could be built. Each year I could buy new textbooks. Other systems came to us and wanted to buy our old textbooks. The school system embarked on a $250 million capital campaign to build new schools and new wings across the county. At that point in time we moved the sixth grade out of our middle schools because those test scores were declining. We moved the sixth grade back into the elementary schools. Our free and reduced population is about 40 percent countywide, but it can be 30 percent to 79 percent if you look at schools. Nineteen of our 26 elementary schools have been deemed Title I schools, and all of them have pre-k programs.
“In 2008 and 2009 the economy took a downturn, and it really took on in Baldwin County,” Henson said. “We were at that time the single largest contributor to the equity funding lawsuit in the state of Alabama. The equivalent of 10 mills was withheld from us each year. That particular year our contribution to equity funding was about $45 million. Then we went through several rounds of proration, and the building stopped and tourism was not what it had been in the past. We had to make some very brutal cuts. Three schools were closed, 500 employees lost their jobs. We were funding 400 locally funded units over the state allocation, and we had to take every school back down to the state-funded level. It was an awful time for all of us. I had to tell employees who were within six weeks of being tenured that they no longer had a job. We made deep cuts across the board, and we went to the public and asked for a tax increase. We did a referendum and did a campaign, and the voters passed a temporary one-cent sales tax set to expire May 2013 that generated an additional $25 million per year. A month after we passed the tax we had the BP oil spill and there were no tourists at the beach. As it stands now we’ll probably be going to a referendum in November for another tax for five years.
“You probably wonder why Columbus for me,” Henson said. “In 2010 I went to the University of Alabama’s superintendent academy. It trains those individuals who aspire to be superintendents one day. When this job came across my desk several things caught my eye. Your district has 50 national board certified teachers. In Baldwin County we only have 60. Secondly, I was very impressed with your magnet school concept. As a former science teacher that greatly intrigued me. You have a lot of community involvement. I read the part about your finances, and I’ve been on that part of the house so I know what you’re going through, I know how painful it is for employees to lose their jobs. I also looked at your test scores. Where I am now, 17 of schools went into school improvement within six months of my taking my current position. We also had an audit within three months, and there were 13 citations in our federal programs area. Those are things that I’m not going to let happen under my watch. We were audited again in 2007, which was the first full audit under my watch, and we had zero citations. We were one of only two systems in Alabama with the number of federal dollars we receive that had zero citations. We went several years with no schools in improvement. A couple of years we did have schools that did not make Adequate Yearly Progress, but they never went back into improvement. This past year was the first year we had schools go into improvement – we had three elementary schools and one middle school that are in improvement. The subgroup that is causing us the most difficulty is special education.
“Our graduation rate has just been released,” Henson said. “County-wide it’s at 70 percent. We are not pleased with that. We have seven high schools in Baldwin County, and some of them are a little higher, they’re at 82 percent.
“I also want to mention our community partnerships,” she said. “When we made the cuts we lost a lot of the credit offerings that we had in the past. We always worked closely with our community colleges, and so we went to the college presidents and we asked that we alter the requirements for dual enrollment a little bit. We wanted students to be able to go as seniors in the middle of the day if they had all their credits in place, we wanted them to be able to leave at noon and begin their dual enrollment courses. The state board did give us the waiver and that opened up that opportunity. We also had a workforce development course for our students who wanted to work. They were allowed to leave at noon each day. We also had seniors who wanted to graduate early. What is to prevent them from leaving in December if they have all their credits? If they want to go to college or work full time, why can’t they? We have several hundred seniors who finished their requirements last December. We allow them to come back and walk during our graduation ceremony. I’m a strong proponent of technical education. I believe that every child is not going to be college bound. We offer an aviation program, and the students who enroll come out with a [Federal Aviation Administration] certification.”
[Wherever possible, I have abridged the board’s questions and Dr. Henson’s responses to avoid a lot of overlap with what she said above. – Brian Jones]
“I see in your file that you have a strength in the area of grant writing,” said Jason Spears. “Please describe for us how you currently use that skill and how you would use that skill here.”
“We do not have a grant writer in Baldwin County,” she said. “You’re looking at her, when she has time. With the responsibilities that I have, I have not been able to write the grants that I used to write in the past. I was a science supervisor before I was director, and I began my grant writing skills there. I taught myself to write grants, and I decided I wanted my students to have the latest and greatest equipment. I not only wrote the grant for my classroom, I wrote it for the entire science department. That’s how we were able to travel and have my students experience other places. As director the largest grant I’ve written was in 2008, it was a US Department of Education character education grant. It came in at about $2 million. As a staff the last grant we wrote was to expand our advanced placement programs. We have about 20 AP courses we offer. We wanted the grant to encompass paying for the PSAT, because many of our students cannot afford that test. I will continue to seek grants. It’s the only way to fund large initiatives in this economic situation.”
“What would you do during your first year to determine what areas to concentrate on in order to raise student achievement?” asked Glenn Lautzenhiser.
“I’ve looked at your test scores,” she said. “You’re feeling some of the pains we were feeling in 2004 when 17 our of schools went into improvement. I would need to get into each classroom and see what’s going on. That’s typically where your achievement problems are going to be. Looking at your scores, it appears you have some core instruction problems. You don’t have one subgroup that is standing out. In our county it’s special ed. We need to work with the teachers on strategies for math and reading. It’s likely there may be some classroom management problems. Key to any achievement is making sure the standards are being taught. It is unfortunate that No Child Left Behind has caused us to focus on math and reading. As a former science teacher, that hurts. I feel like science and social studies and art and music have been moved to the back burner because of a law we have to follow. I want to see what kind of remediation is going on in the classroom. I need to know what students are not proficient. We need to put faces on data. The only way to improve test scores is to know what students are not proficient.”
“I’d like to focus on accountability,” Lautzenhiser said. “What do you think is an effective way to evaluate principals?”
“We have a state evaluation system,” Henson said. “We require all of our principals to do a portfolio focusing on communication, law, finance, data analysis. We look at their test scores. They are required to send out a minimum of 25 surveys to parents and faculty members. We sit down and we go over the results of the evaluation and then we come up with a professional development plan. I have a professional development plan. I’ll tell you I’m not where I need to be with technology. That’s part of my plan, to do additional work with technology.”
“How would you bring together a community divided over differences with how the school district is administered?” Aubra Turner asked.
“In the first 90 days on the job I would have a plan to meet with key individuals in the community,” Henson said. “I want to meet with people from the local colleges, with the mayor, with the city council, with any community organization and hear what’s going on and what we can do to work together. It takes not only the teachers and administrators, but the community members. The school system belongs to the taxpayers, and they need to have a voice at the table.”
“How can we effectively improve student achievement, and how would use ensure that we have safe and orderly schools?” asked Tommy Prude.
“Student achievement is the heart and school of a school system,” she said. “As board members you need to know as much as you can about the No Child Left Behind Act. It is important that you are well versed in anything to do with student achievement. I think the key is classroom teachers. You can have all the technology in the world, but it will not replace a good teacher that’s had sound professional development. As a board it’s important you support your teachers and administrators.
“Every child should be in a school that is safe and orderly,” she said. “Every classroom should have a classroom management plan. You should have a bullying policy. My office is located maybe a mile from one of the elementary schools, and many parents just stop in. If I parent comes in and tells me their child is being bullied, I am out of my chair and into the conference room immediately. I bring in my intervention supervisor, we get the names and we call the schools while the parents are sitting there. You also need to know your community. Many of the problems on our campuses originate in the community. Fights start in the neighborhood and then it’s carried over to the campus.”
“Many people have reservations about the fact that you’ve never been superintendent of a school district,” said Jason Spears. “Describe for me how you can effectively and efficiently manage the CMSD.”
“In 2010 I went through the superintendent’s academy,” she said. “That requires all the exams that the state of Alabama requires to be a superintendent. On a daily basis I almost manage a small school system with the number of areas and the number of people that I’m over and that report to me. All of my decisions are made in the best interests of kids. I will tell you I will not break board policy. If one of you have a child who just finished a teaching degree and you want them to have a job, that’s not going to happen on my watch. I expect the best teachers will be hired, and not because of who they are related to.”
“In the event teacher pay is reduced or jobs lost, would you be willing to take a cut in pay?” Spears asked.
“Yes, I would,” Henson said.
“How do you feel about merit pay for teachers?” asked Turner.
“I don’t have a problem at all with merit pay for teachers,” Henson said. “There are some areas where we can’t find good teachers, like mathematics and science. We are going to be hurting because we don’t have any math majors coming out of college. Teachers are not paid nearly enough. Teaching is not like it was when I was in school. When I was in school there was much more parental involvement. For some reason now parents think we’re supposed to solve all the problems.”0