Superintendent candidate Martinez explains his vision for improving Philly schools

    Pedro Martinez is on board with the need to “increase quality seats” in Philadelphia schools, endorsing the primary reform strategy of the School Reform Commission that is considering whether to hire him as the next superintendent.

    But while Martinez described himself as a strong supporter of school choice, he emphasized that charter schools are  “not a magic bullet” and said that the cornerstone of lasting reform are strong principals and well-supported teachers.

    “My belief is that the key to really showing significant and sustainable gains is to work with staff,” he said. “When principals and teachers are on your side, there is no limit to the potential of the school district.”

    Currently the deputy superintendent for instruction in Clark County, NV (Las Vegas), Martinez, 42, is one of two finalists for the District’s top job.  The other, William Hite, is the superintendent of the Prince George’s Country, Maryland School District.

    Both candidates are facing an uphill battle to win over a public worn down by the leadership controversies, budget woes, and ideological battles that have rocked Philadelphia schools over the past 12 months.

    “I might be waiting for Superman to come along in terms of what would actually satisfy me,” said Laura Boyce, a former District teacher who now teaches math at Mastery-Simon Gratz High.

    Boyce was one of about 35 people to take part in an afternoon discussion between Martinez and teachers, part of a whirlwind series of meet-and-greets the candidate had with parents, principals, students, business leaders, charter operators and elected officials before closing things out with a two-hour-plus public forum attended by over 100 people Monday evening.

    Hite will go through a similar schedule Tuesday.

    Whichever candidate is ultimately hired will face a mountain of problems, starting with the District’s massive budget deficit next year.

    But Martinez, confident and calm under sometimes emotional questioning from the public, didn’t seem overly concerned. At one point, he said that a $300 million deficit doesn’t worry him – he’s faced similar shortfalls in Chicago and in Nevada, which he said took a bigger hit from the recession than any other state. Even in its scaled-down budget, Martinez said Philadelphia spends more per student than Las Vegas.

    The District’s current financial predicament is an “opportunity to rethink the system,” he said.

    “I feel that there is so much potential here,” he said.

    “While there are challenges, they are manageable.”

    Martinez is also one of five finalists for the superintendency in Washoe County, NV (Reno), where he previously worked. But he told a reporter after Monday’s meeting that Philadelphia is his first choice.

    An accountant who also served as the Chief Financial Officer of the Chicago Public Schools, he was pressed by educators concerned about his lack of teaching experience. He defended his background, at one point saying that it could be a plus that allowed him to see the “big picture.”

    “You need somebody that’s going to be able to bring all the systems together and asks the tough questions,” said Martinez, “not somebody who just understands instruction.”

    In general, he said, it’s up to him and central district leadership to set the vision while problem-solving happens at the schools.

    “I have never taught, but teachers will tell you one thing, they feel I can connect with them. I’ve been in several hundred schools and more than 2000 classroom…. There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not talking to a teacher or principal.”

    He also said that if he gets the job, he will spend much of his time consulting with the community in crafting his own blueprint for change, arguing that the District’s controversial reorganization plan unveiled in April lacks detail and needs more work.

    “I think that the most important thing to having a plan is that it is shared with the community,” he said.

    During an afternoon session with teachers, Martinez got questions on everything from instrumental music to the future of school libraries. Several teachers expressed concerned over his connection to the influential Broad Superintendents Academy, often accused of promoting a leadership style that is top-down, authoritative, and anti-union.

    Martinez responded that he prefers collaboration and would not bring a pre-packaged reform model to Philadelphia.

    “Many graduates from the Broad program make this mistake.  People come in with their own plan,” said Martinez. “I don’t believe that.  I believe there is a rich history in our community, in our neighborhoods, in our schools.”

    Echoing a phrase that has recently come to dominate talk of reform efforts in Philadelphia, Martinez said his emphasis would be on expanding the number of “quality seats” in city schools.

    That includes charters, a hot topic of conversation throughout the day. When asked by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell during the public forum about the role charters should play, Martinez was clear:

    “Charters are not the magic bullet,” he said. “We have to hold charter schools to the exact same standards as our traditional schools.”

    Rounds of applause followed audience members who questioned Martinez on how he would support traditional neighborhood schools.

    Higher standards, including expanding AP classes in high schools, are critical, he said. He also emphasized that increased autonomy for high-performing schools was key.

    One strategy for increasing “quality seats,” Martinez said, is making successful small schools bigger – an answer that worried some people as not recognizing that the success could in part be due to small size.

    Unfazed by frequent flares of frustration from questioners, Martinez said that that he would rather see passion than apathy.

    “This is the energy we need to harness,” said Martinez.

    Martinez took credit for policies in Las Vegas that he said rapidly increased student achievement and graduation rates, particularly among African American and Latino men.  The district instituted a new reading and math curriculum in the lower grades and prepared individual academic plans for all the students.

    Clark County, which has 315,000 students and high schools with more than 2000 students, also implemented an aggressive turnaround program.

    He said there was initially pushback, but teachers, parents and students came around. He encouraged the media to cover the turnaround closely.

    During an afternoon meeting with parents, Martinez met aggressive questioning about how he would involve the public in District decision-making and navigate the city’s treacherous political waters.

    Parent Jay Cohen posed Martinez with a scenario intended to determine if he would see parents and community – or politicians and the SRC – as his boss.

    “That’s a question I really can’t answer,” responded Martinez.  “The only way I would take this role…is if the agenda is about children.”

    This was one of several responses that left some community members frustrated.

    Gloria Thomas, the mother of a rising senior at Sayre High School, also expressed concern that Martinez lacked the political savvy necessary for the Philadelphia superintendency.

    “If you can’t schmooze people, we won’t get the finances we need in order to educate our children,” said Thomas.

    “Does he know enough of the right people to get his back scratched in the right way so our school district doesn’t keep losing funds?”

    Earlier in the day, Martinez met privately with elected officials.

    Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell called Martinez “very capable of doing the job” if he gets the opportunity, but said its unlikely he’ll be able to extract more money out of City Council.

    Martinez has a compelling personal story – born in poverty in Mexico, he grew up in Chicago and was the first in his family to graduate high school and college.  In his Chicago high school, only 171 students from a freshman class of 700 ultimately graduated, and most of them were from a gifted class “started by rebellious teachers” in defiance of the district’s indifference to poor black and Latino children.

    He started his accounting career in the private sector, and his firm was asked by the Archdiocese of Chicago to help it out of financial trouble in the 1990s.

    He said that his mother, a devout Catholic, told him he had a duty to give back – which led to his interest in education and drew the attention of Arne Duncan, then the Chicago school superintendent. He became Duncan’s chief financial officer.

    Martinez has a 20-month-old son, and said if “blessed” to be chosen as superintendent, he would commit to sending him to the public system. He said he recognized that not being from Philadelphia could be a “weakness,” but he already started speaking about the district as “we” and said he has been following the district’s history and problems since 2000.

    “I would not be here if I didn’t have a passion for your community and a passion for you children,” he said.

    “I believe that working together we can make it one of the best school systems in the country.”

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