Superintendent search

10 things to know about Derrick Coleman, the suburban superintendent interviewing to run Detroit’s schools

River Rouge Superintendent Derrick Coleman, one of two finalists to become the next leader of the Detroit Public Schools Community District, appeared in a 2012 video that called him a "school superhero."

The second of two candidates to interview for schools chief in Detroit offers a stark alternative to the first.

Derrick Coleman, superintendent of Michigan’s River Rouge School District, will face a battery of interviews Monday. Where Nikolai Vitti, the Florida schools chief who interviewed last week, runs a district far larger than Detroit’s, Coleman’s district has fewer students than Cass Technical High School. Vitti has a connection to the Detroit area, but Coleman graduated from and worked in Detroit Public Schools. And Coleman’s district has struggled to boost student performance while Vitti’s has won national acclaim for improving the test scores of some students.

Coleman will spend 12 hours interviewing in Detroit on Tuesday starting at 8 a.m. with a briefing on district finances and academics. His planned schedule for the day includes visits to Cody High School and Davison Elementary-Middle School to meet with students and educators, a lunch with school board members at Golightly Career and Technical Center, and a series of public forums at Renaissance High School. That includes a 2:30 p.m. meeting with religious, labor and business leaders, a 4 p.m. meeting with parents and community leaders, and a 6 p.m. public interview with the school board.

Before all of that begins, here are 10 things to know about Coleman:

  1. Coleman graduated from and earned a master’s degree at Eastern Michigan University. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in education at Gwynedd Mercy University in Pennsylvania, where he says he’ll graduate in August.
  2. He has deep connections with Detroit’s main school district. He attended DPS schools for kindergarten through 12th grade, graduating from Western High School, today known as Western International High School. His first teaching job was at Western, and he  taught in DPS from 1997 to 1999 before moving into administrative positions, including stints in Pontiac (where he was principal of Pontiac Central High, which is now closed) and Ypsilanti (where he was principal of Lincoln High School). “I’m uniquely qualified in that I’m a product of the system,” he told the Detroit Free Press. To the Detroit News, he said, “I … represent the promise that Detroit children can hope to become. I understand the city and the needs of the people.”
  3. Coleman returned to DPS from Ypsilanti in 2008 to become an assistant superintendent overseeing 29 schools. One of them was Durfee Elementary, where the city’s auditor general in 2009 found “control weaknesses related to compliance with District cash management policy.” In a “management response” to the audit, Coleman said the principal of the school retired and the new principal would be briefed on the auditor’s recommendations.
  4. Coleman tried — but did not succeed — to become a big-city superintendent before. In 2009, he was one of seven finalists to lead Ypsilanti Public Schools. But the school board wasn’t impressed. “I thought it was a weak list of individuals — I have serious questions about every single applicant,” one board member told the Ypsilanti Citizen.
  5. Since May 2012, Coleman has been the superintendent of River Rouge School District. Last year the district, which has only four schools, enrolled only 1,750 students. (The Detroit district, on the other hand, has nearly 100 schools and 40,000 students.)
  6. River Rouge is on a short list of districts in Michigan with student performance as low as Detroit’s. Only 4.3 percent of students in grades 3-8 met the state’s standards for proficiency in reading and math last year, compared to 4.1 percent in Detroit’s main district, and all of its schools are in the bottom 10 percent statewide. The average SAT and ACT score in River Rouge is lower than in Detroit and under Coleman’s leadership, River Rouge’s four-year graduation rate declined slightly last year, from 76.5 percent to 75 percent.
  7. River Rouge has gained students under Coleman’s tenure — at Detroit’s expense. According to state data, 43 percent of school-aged students living in River Rouge do not attend district schools. (Many of the students who opt out are white: While River Rouge is nearly 40 percent white according to 2010 Census data, white students make up only 7 percent of enrollment.) Coleman’s contract promised bonuses if he boosted enrollment from 1,147, and he delivered, bringing enrollment to 1,750 last year. On his resume, he explains that he saved the district from insolvency through an “aggressive local and regional marketing and student recruitment campaign that eliminated a $3.4 million dollar deficit 2 years upon arrival and 1 year ahead of schedule.” The campaign, which included ads on Detroit buses, is one reason that a third of River Rouge’s students last year — nearly 600 — actually live in Detroit.

  8. The enrollment boost helped River Rouge stave off closure. But some in the district say Coleman has not sufficiently acknowledged the contributions of others in making the district solvent. In January 2011, over a year before Coleman came on, the district’s teachers agreed to a three-year, 15 percent salary cut and limits on health care coverage. “He did end up strengthening the district. We were teetering on closing,” David Kocbus, who headed the River Rouge Education Association until 2014, told the Free Press. “But who was really responsible? It was the teachers.”.
  9. In the fall of 2015 River Rouge, under Coleman’s leadership, opened a new primary school focused on science, technology, engineering, and math, the subjects that together are known as STEM. The new option — the district’s fourth school — for the first time meant that families could exercise school choice while staying in the district. It also aimed to appeal to prospective families.
  10. In November 2015 Coleman added a school-based health center in River Rouge, in a move that prompted the United Way to designate the district as one of its “centers of excellence.” Society places unrealistic expectations on poor students to act “normal” even when they don’t have access to “normal” necessities like breakfast and a good night’s rest, Coleman said in a speech announcing the new center.

farewell

Memphis principal retires after 17 years lifting up school with long odds

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Principal Yolanda Heidelberg with former student Maria Pena (third from left) and family members.

After 17 years at Jackson Elementary School and 30 years at Memphis schools, the principal who led her once-struggling school to national recognition is retiring.

Yolanda Heidelberg, who worked at Gardenview and Kingsbury elementary schools before taking over at Jackson Elementary, credits her love of teaching to being a third generation educator on both sides of her family.

“During family gatherings, I heard conversations as a child centered around the dinner table regarding how to best help children,” she said in a letter to Jackson Elementary teachers, fellow principals, and Shelby County Schools leadership announcing her retirement. “So then, I was innately destined to do this work.”

During Heidelberg’s time at the school, students have sustained the state’s highest rating for academic growth since 2005 and scored higher than the district average on state tests, even with the tumultuous rollout of the new standardized test, TNReady.

That’s noteworthy because three out of four students at Jackson Elementary live in poverty, and for nearly half of students, English is not their native language. That’s much higher than the rest of district, in which about 60 percent of students live in poverty and 9 percent of students are English learners. The Memphis district has long struggled to catch those students up to their peers in academics.

So in 2016, the U.S. Department of Education gave the school its highest honor for closing the gap between white students and students of color and between students from poor and affluent families.


Read more about Jackson Elementary School’s success in our 2016 story when it was nationally recognized


Heidelberg said a key to her success was working collaboratively with teachers and parents, addressing any hurdles that might get in the way of their involvement at school.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Yolanda Heidelberg’s favorite place at Jackson Elementary School: the Wall of Fame that displays former students who have gone on to college.

When she couldn’t get translation services from the school district a decade ago for parent announcements and other materials, Heidelberg improvised and used the Memphis Police Department’s resources to get it done. It is also commonplace to see parent volunteers in the school and at meetings.

Her staff also point to her coaching and leadership as a guiding force for how teachers collaborate and brainstorm to best meet the needs of students. For example, English as a Second Language teachers are often seen in regular classroom meetings and help their students in their mainstream classes.

Jackson Elementary is one of six schools that are in need of a new principal in Shelby County Schools, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told school board members Tuesday. Those other schools are Woodstock Middle, Lucy Elementary, Vollentine Elementary, Cordova Middle, and Sherwood Elementary.

You can read Heidelberg’s farewell letter below:

Rahm

Emanuel touts Chicago grads’ successes in defense of CPS

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Rahm Emanuel speaking at Marine Leadership Academy's class of 2018 graduation

In three commencement speeches, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has touted post-high school success, underscoring a prime education goal that he’s prioritized for more than a year.

“99 graduates out of 99. All going to college or a branch of the armed forces,” he said Friday at the graduation ceremony for Marine Leadership Academy, a public high school affiliated with the U.S. Marine Corps in Logan Square.

Four days earlier, he highlighted achievement at the graduation ceremony of Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep based in Roseland: “I want the rest of Chicago to hear me loud and clear: 98 percent graduation, 90 percent college bound.”  Emanuel said. Three days before at commencement at Baker College Prep based in South Chicago, he celebrated a class that was 100 percent college-bound.

The mayor repeatedly highlighted postsecondary plans, echoing goals of the initiative he announced in April 2017– that starting with the class of 2020, high school seniors must have a letter of acceptance from a four-year college, a community college, the military, or a guaranteed entry into a trade in order to graduate. He said that this requirement “is an expectation we have for every child because that is the expectation the economy of the 21st century has for them.”

While CPS educators have agreed that preparing students beyond high school is important, many of them have also worried that the graduation requirement would rush schools to get students accepted into college without preparing them to actually succeed there.

As Emanuel travelled across the city to fete graduates, he also appeared to focus on their college plans as a weapon in his war of words with President Donald Trump over Chicago education. Just before Rahm announced the graduation requirement last year, the president criticized the city’s academic numbers as “very rough,” prompting the mayor to point to a Stanford study showing that Chicago students have among the highest improvement rates in the nation.

On Friday, Emanuel said, “To Chicago, to Illinois, to the rest of America, and to one person in particular in Washington, to all those doubters, to all the cynics, to all the nay-sayers who say ‘not those kids, not from that background, not from that part of town,’ you come here and see what I see: that the Bulldogs are going on to great and better things.”

Read on for his full speech at Marine Leadership Academy’s graduation:

“I

want to congratulate this great class of 2018. I want to congratulate your teachers, your principals, all the families, all the families of the Bulldogs that are here. I want to say, just last week, I sat where your parents are sitting as my little baby graduated. And well, I’m sorry, you are to certain people still their baby. That’s the way this works.

Now this is your day, this is your accomplishment. But there are a lot of people in this room who prodded you, who pushed you, who poked you. So I want you to stand up, turn around and give your parents and your teachers an applause for what they did to help you get to this day.

Now I asked you to do that for a reason. I asked you to do that because I want the rest of the city of Chicago, I want the state of Illinois, and I want the United States of America to see what I see in this room. 99 graduates out of 99. All going to college or a branch of the armed forces. 100 percent.

$5.3 million in scholarships. That comes out to about $53,000 a student. So, to Chicago, to Illinois, to the rest of America, and to one person in particular in Washington, to all those doubters, to all the cynics, to all the nay-sayers who say ‘not those kids, not from that background, not from that part of town,’ you come here and see what I see: that the Bulldogs are going on to great and better things.

You stop running down the kids of the city of Chicago. The Bulldogs stand strong. They’re going to college, they’re going into the armed forces. When you use your cynicism to run down our kids, they got one thing to say to you, they’ll look you right in the eyes, like that valedictorian just said, and they’re going to strut to success. Don’t you ever doubt the kids in the city of Chicago.

And I can’t be more proud of what you’ve accomplished. Now I say that because unlike any other – and your principal knows this – unlike any other school (this is my third commencement this year, every year I do three), when I was a congressman (those were the days when you could get an earmark), I worked with a congressman from downstate Illinois by the name of Ray LaHood, and we got you the first $500,000 to $600,000 so you could establish the Marine Math and Science Academy. And then as mayor, I helped you get to your new building out of [shared quarters at] Phoenix [Military Academy], so you could have your separate building and expand to seventh and eighth grade. So I have a particular joy in this day, and I’m glad that you allowed me to share it with you and I want to thank you for that.

I also want to note to each and every one of you, every time you’ve confronted a challenge, you’ve met it head on. Every time you’ve faced an obstacle, you overcame it. Every time you’ve faced adversity, you’ve triumphed. And I want to talk about adversity for one second. Because while today is a milestone, and a sense of accomplishment, and it is that, you will learn more about yourself and what you’re made of in how you handle adversity, not success, how you handle failing, not triumph.

In my own life, and there’s no adult in this room that hasn’t failed. There’s no adult that hasn’t actually stumbled. One, you’re going to learn something about yourself, second, you’re going to learn who your friends are, who stands by you when you’re down. It’s easy to be by you when you’re up. That’s what you’re going to learn.

Right at this point, when I was your age, I was working to make money to go to college. I was working on a meat cutter. And I didn’t get told that on the meat-cutting blade there was a metal glove. Sliced my finger real bad, wrapped it up real tight, didn’t do anything for it for about 48 hours. They realized then that I was in a serious problem, rushed me to the hospital. I ended up with five blood infections, two bone infections, gangrene, 105.4 [degrees temperature]. They put me in ice packs for 72 hours. And for those 72 hours, they weren’t sure I was going to make it. They also thought they should take my arm off just to see if they could save me.

In the seven weeks I was there, three of my roommates died and were wheeled out in the middle of the morning. And I was not a good student, and I said to myself – it’s not like the clouds broke open and Beethoven started playing and the sun came through – but in those seven weeks that I stayed in my bed, I said if I ever get another chance, I’m going to make something of my life. I’m going to do something, I’ll go out.

And in the moment where I almost lost my life, I realized why life is worth living. And you will face your own moment, it won’t be that grave, where you stumble, you fall. You wobble, and that’s where you’re going to learn what it means to be a Bulldog. That’s where you’re going to learn who you are, and what you’re made of.

In the same way [that I learned] physically, [I also learned] professionally. So I get out of college, and I decide, I’m going to work for a president of the United States I believe in. Eight years later out of college, I’m in the White House. Political advisor to President Clinton. I think I’m in hog heaven. And I convinced my then-girlfriend, now my wife, to leave her job and join me in Washington for this great experiment – working for the president of the United States, everything that I wanted to do in life. In my career, eight years out of college here I am. The son and the grandson of an immigrant, working in the White House, working for a great president, for somebody I believed in.

And I know you find it hard to believe, but I mouthed off a little too often, to the First Lady – not a good idea, don’t do that. The day my wife Amy arrives, leaves her job here in Chicago to join me, because we’re in the White House, I lose my job. We have a home, and no employment. And the dream we were going to be part of, this journey with President Clinton, I was given my walking paper six months into it. I saw everything that I’ve worked for right before my eyes, just like I was in that hospital bed.

I don’t know where I got the gumption – I walked into the chief of staff’s office and I said, ‘I ain’t leaving.’ Now, let me say this, as chief of staff to President Obama, if somebody said that to me, I would have said something else to them. I don’t know where I got it, I said, ‘I’m not leaving until the president of the United States says I’m leaving.’

So, two days later they said OK here’s your new job. And they demoted me, put me down, I joked I got a closet of an office from a big office with a play-school phone that didn’t even dial out. A year later, I worked my way back up to being senior adviser to the president of the United States for policy and politics, and replacing George Stephanopoulos as his senior adviser. I saw my entire career pass before my eyes, but I dug down deep, and realized in that moment of failure, I’m going to give myself a second chance, and make something of this second chance. And it was in that moment of seeing my career pass, it was in that moment of seeing my life pass, that I realized why it was worth doing what I needed to do. It is my one point to you on this great day of celebration.

You should celebrate, and have joy. Know that your moments of learning and accomplishment will come as much not only from success, but also from failure. And if you approach when you stumble with an attitude of ‘what I can learn from this,’ there are only great things ahead of you in your life. And I ask you as mayor, I see the sons and daughters of immigrants, I see the sons and daughters from all corners of this city. To you are given both opportunity and obligation. Opportunity to go on to college and make something of yourself. Your parents sacrificed and struggled for this moment for you. Honor it, give it justice that you are given an opportunity in the greatest city in the greatest country to make something of that. But you are also given, and required, an obligation. An obligation to give something back, something bigger than yourself. Muhammad Ali once said, ‘the service we pay to others is the rent we pay for being here on Earth.’

So while you are given this opportunity to make your own path, to make something of your life, you have an obligation to give something back to this city, to your neighborhood, and ultimately to your country. Your city and your country need your leadership. Your city and your country need your values. Your city and your country need your leadership, your values, and your courage. There’s never been a greater moment of opportunity for us, and also challenge. Go achieve what you’ve set out for yourself. Make your parents and yourself proud of what you’ve done. Look back and not regret your decision, but look back at them with joy, but I ask you, come home, come back to Chicago, and help us build this great city for another generation of Bulldogs.

Congratulations on this great day.