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February 11, 2009 > Kari McVeigh: Dynamism comes to New Haven

Kari McVeigh: Dynamism comes to New Haven

With a wide variety of experience, Kari McVeigh, as the incoming Superintendent, took the reins of the New Haven Unified School District (NHUSD) on December 1, 2008. McVeigh, a Bay Area native, returns after 23 years teaching and serving as principal in the Clark County School District in Las Vegas, Nevada, five years as Assistant Superintendent with San Diego Unified School District and most recently, two years as Superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District. She also served as Director of School Reform in the Boston Project for Whole School Change.

A proponent of 'equity' in education, McVeigh brings unique style and management skills to NHUSD. Significant fiscal challenges and the rigors of educating children and young adults are daunting to even the most self-assured. TCV spoke with Superintendent McVeigh about her philosophy and first few months serving the NHUSD community.

TCV: Have your expectations of NHUSD been realized?

McVeigh: I am familiar with and very much in favor of all components of the strategic plan instituted under [previous Superintendent] Dr. Pat Jaurequi. As an 'outsider' coming to NHUSD, I believe the community focused on the right things. This was one of the primary reasons I applied to work with NHUSD. I was looking for a district that would match my beliefs and goals. Descriptions of this district spoke of pride of the diversity and pride in the community. I have found that there is more than just pride, there is a sense of family, an incredible strength that can be used to build on past successes.

I am not trying to wipe everything away and start again; that is short-sighted. There is a better way to build on people's strengths using the existing huge degree of commitment to this district and the community. Coming from a large family, I understand this sense of commitment and finding it here is similar to discovering an extra and unexpected present under the Christmas tree. Another piece is that coming here as the new superintendent is a little bit frightening for me as well as those already here. I wanted to feel welcomed and appreciated, given a chance to succeed. The reception has been wonderful - I feel very blessed to be here.

TCV: How will the present economy affect district priorities?

McVeigh: The impact of the economy has made things very difficult, especially for the board which is forced to make horrific decisions. We will come through this but not unscathed, the cuts are too deep, but we will survive together and united.

TCV: Will the present economy change your strategic objectives?

McVeigh: A strategic plan, no matter how well crafted, is subject to change. I have been consistent throughout my career promoting growing and strengthening teaching and learning. The only way to improve learning is to consistently get better at teaching. We are not broken but the kids we teach today are different from five years ago. In some cases, especially in middle school, kids taught in the morning are different from the kids seen later in the day.

We want our children to be able to produce, think, say and do a whole host of things beyond what the State of California calls 'standards.' The only way to do this is for us [educators] to improve at our craft. This cannot be done in isolation; we have to do this together. In this district that process has already started and continued to grow. I will be able to help with its evolution and build on what is already a part of this culture.

I hear our high school teachers talking about the need for time to collaborate. I am focused on trying to make that happen. That is not necessarily a function of budget. Some of the things we are trying to do are not budget items although money is obviously very important; the grease that keeps our district operating. It is not the solution, but money allows a solution to be achieved in equitable ways that benefit all children. However, the work that must happen is vital whether we have the money or not.

TCV: Where do you feel this sense of community involvement?

McVeigh: It comes from a variety of places. I have visited all the schools in a 'meet and greet' fashion and am now observing teaching practices. I will be in at least one school each week doing this. Just as a CEO of a large organization should make sure the products represented are actually produced, I need to do this as well. Otherwise the disconnect is too great. This isn't a widget factory; education is about teachers and students together so I need to look at that interaction to make sure all our systems are aligned to grow and strengthen those practices.

I have been at site council meetings of parents, parent events and community forums. On top of that, as part of my 90-day entry plan, I am participating in 100 one-hour conversations with individuals identified by my staff as those who are influential - titled or untitled - in the area. I have met with teacher leaders and community leaders. The thread of community involvement keeps coming through.

TCV: Your experience has spanned not only several decades, but a wide geographical expanse as well. Is there a common focus? Do you bring a unique perspective from these experiences?

McVeigh: This school district has great cultural and ethnic diversity. Although Beverly Hills has more diversity than one might think, San Diego, Boston and Las Vegas are a greater match for the kinds of diversity I see here. One prevalent concern is for equity although not well defined. I will be creating a broad-based 'Equity Task Force' of teachers, students and community members to look at issues of achievement gaps, cultural diversity and how we can help each child to be academically successful. That is my definition of equity although I will not impose this on other members of the task force. I will not lead this group but rather participate as a contributing member. In order to be successful we must address the larger cultural component of the community in which our students and staff operate.

The Equity Task Force will begin in April with goals to define 'equity' for New Haven Unified School District in a comprehensive manner. This will help us to understand how these factors affect student achievement. We can then work toward diminishing gaps, not by lowering one group and raising another, but by raising all people and accelerating learning of underperforming groups. This will not happen overnight but it is a conversation that must take place. People are defining this process differently without understanding that this definition controls everything.

Equity is not achieved without growing and strengthening student learning - not just test scores. What does the independence of student learning look like? How do we help kids get to this level and assess it? A test on one particular day is insufficient. Student learning must be examined - as many teachers do - on a broader basis. Information can be used to assess the whole child - what he or she knows, can do, can think, acts and behaves. I have no issues with an outgoing standards based test such as CAHSEE (California High School Exit Examination); the real issue is what you do with the information.

Classroom teachers can use testing information to determine what is necessary to help students learn, not just as a point of assigning judgment to their work. Data can be used in a host of different ways. At the school level, the principal can assess the information to determine who is learning and if additional support is necessary for a group of children or a teacher. At the district level, the superintendent can assess whether principals have enough information and if they understand teaching and learning in a meaningful way for their teachers. We can also examine if there are district level support systems for administrators and teachers.

TCV: How does the business community fit into the equity discussion?

McVeigh: I look at equity in terms of access to education and academic achievement. Future management and an employee pool for business is probably part of what 'independence' looks like. Can we define how we expect Logan High School graduates to think, do, say and behave? Can this be done, not in a robotic manner, but when engaging with all people, not just their own cultural, ethnic, religious, age or gender group? What level of discourse do we expect from all children? Much of this is not revealed by state testing. We have a narrow definition of proficiency and need to work on expanding our focus. Everyone has to agree on the definition and outcomes. This is not easy since societal expectations have changed. The window of opportunity for kids to make mistakes without serious consequence has become shorter with each succeeding generation.

TCV: Have labor issues been resolved or will economic conditions force reevaluation?

McVeigh: Right now we still do not have resolution of the state budget. Although we have to manage our budget, we rely on the state to fund our district. We will not know until the state situation is clear how our budget will fare. Renegotiating our labor contracts is the last thing I want to do. I have a good relationship with our teacher union president and we plan to stand together to help parents understand that changes are necessary in Sacramento to solve school funding problems. The recession has compounded the state's inability to find ways to solve their own financial problems. Without change, school districts are cannibalizing themselves.

TCV: Will there be collaboration and/or shared resources with neighboring districts?

McVeigh: I recently had the opportunity to attend a lunch meeting with the superintendents of Fremont (Milt Werner) and Newark (Kevin Harrigan) along with the police chiefs of our cities. We share some of the same challenges and are getting to know one another. Further meetings are being scheduled between Kevin Harrigan and me in the future and I am sure Superintendent Werner will be involved as well. If there are ways to help each other, we will certainly explore them.

TCV: What do you consider a core curriculum?

McVeigh: At this time of economic uncertainty, we are already slashing at the core. I believe the arts, for instance, are an essential part of education. This type of education allows us to appreciate and contribute in a more comprehensive manner. The question is what has to be cut when economics dictate such action. It is hard to say one type of education is more valuable that another - it is all core. A strong mind and body contribute to overall health, so physical education is a core element as well. We are now being forced to prioritize our core.

TCV: While at Beverly Hills Unified School District, Measure E, a $334 million bond was passed. Do you anticipate the need for a similar bond measure here?

McVeigh: Beverly Hills is a very different community and the schools in that area are very old - built in the early '20s. Half of the bond money is going for safety and seismic issues at Beverly Hills High School. The New Haven Unified School District community has been very generous ensuring that their children are in modern and up-to-date facilities. Facility needs, though present, are not as pressing as revenue concerns. I think the community needs to consider a parcel tax to stem the financial bleeding as triage for the state and federal recession. We have to find dependable revenue sources to ensure a basic level of services for our children.

TCV: Are school closures a possibility?

McVeigh: Right now, we have no place to put children if we closed any schools. Eliminating class size reduction mandates could change this but whether, if instituted, there would be any flexibility of class size is unclear and so is its impact on our budget.

TCV: Is there any savings in year-round schools? Should this be considered?

McVeigh: There is some, but year-round schools have additional expenses as well. There is more wear and tear on the buildings since there is no down time for maintenance and repair. I have been the principal of a year-round school and am not an advocate of this type of education.

TCV: Will present cuts help to balance future budgets?

McVeigh: In order to achieve the '08-'09 cuts agreed to last week, we had to borrow money set aside for future expenses. We will have to pay that back because those funds have already been earmarked. This adds to the cuts for next year. The problem keeps compounding.

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