Pittsburgh schools chief Roosevelt moving on

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt announced his resignation Wednesday, saying he accomplished what he set out to do when he was hired five years ago -- change the culture of bickering that fostered failure in the city schools for years.

He is a finalist for the president's post at Antioch College in Ohio.

Describing himself as a "turnaround artist," who saw his mission as "improving the life prospects of the children we are privileged to serve" in a district of 26,000 students, Mr. Roosevelt, 54, said his charge was to lay the groundwork for innovation.

"My particular skill set is to plant the garden. It will be another person's skill set to bring that garden to life," said Mr. Roosevelt, who cited his ability to create a working relationship between district administrators, school board members, teachers and union officials as his major accomplishment.

"I find it embarrassing, if not shameful, that we had a culture where we as adults could not sit down and talk to each other," he said.

The acrimony that tends to characterize the relationship between administrators, teachers and union officials, he said, is often the obstacle to good ideas.

That is no longer the case in Pittsburgh, Mr. Roosevelt said.

John Tarka, president of the teachers union, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, and City Councilman Patrick Dowd, who was a member of the school board before joining council, agree.

"The greatest thing he did for the district was to change the culture," Mr. Dowd said.

With Mr. Roosevelt's help, he said, the board set higher expectations for itself and the superintendent. Mr. Roosevelt, in turn, set higher expectations for his staff, and the district set higher expectations for students, an ethos that was embodied in the Excellence for All campaign Mr. Roosevelt rolled out in 2006.

That work now continues "because we all have a clear goal of what we want to see happen in the Pittsburgh schools," said Mr. Tarka.

Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, who was traveling to China on business Wednesday, said Mr. Roosevelt's tenure will be marked by "his commitment to implement bold, transformational ideas."

Mr. Roosevelt, who signed a five-year contract last October, was recently awarded a $15,000 bonus, raising his pay to $240,000 after the school board decided that he had met his performance goals for 2009.

He hopes to become the next president of Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. He is the only finalist for the presidency of the college, which is closed, but has been re-established by its alumni and intends to reopen in the fall of 2011.

Mr. Roosevelt is to meet with college officials next week and will likely be offered the job shortly thereafter. But even if he is not, he said, he plans to leave the superintendency in Pittsburgh on Dec. 31.

Among his accomplishments here, he said, is the Pittsburgh Promise, which he pushed for along with the city's philanthropic foundations -- predominantly the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which staked $100 million to create the scholarship that currently offers $20,000 toward college costs for district graduates who meet certain requirements.

Under his tenure, the district aggressively pursued and won a $40 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to implement the Empowering Effective Teachers plan, which seeks to fundamentally change how teachers are hired, nurtured, evaluated and paid in the city schools.

Last month, the district won a $37.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Teacher Incentive Fund program to complement the Gates grant and help complete the funding for the teacher effectiveness initiative, which is the bedrock of school reform in Pittsburgh.

Another achievement, he said, was the five-year contract that the district reached with the teachers union in June, which introduced merit pay for some teachers into the city schools.

"Mark Roosevelt has provided bold and deft leadership in tackling one of the most pressing issues facing our public education system: how to help every teacher be more effective and ensure that all students learn and achieve at high levels," said Vicki Phillips, director of education of College Ready of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Standing in the second-floor board room where the school board regularly meets along Oakland's Bellefield Avenue, Mr. Roosevelt declared: "My best work in Pittsburgh has been accomplished," to a roomful of school board members, politicians and community activists.

Now, he said, it will be up to the school board -- which hired him after a long and quarrelsome process -- city leaders, district staff, parents and the philanthropic community to choose the person who will implement the reform initiatives he started.

School board President Theresa Colaizzi, who was part of the team that hired Mr. Roosevelt, said that he distinguished himself as an effective leader because he articulated a clear vision of what reform in city schools ought to look like and was tenacious about implementing it.

"When we were looking for a superintendent, I told [Mr. Roosevelt] that we wanted someone who would create a legacy for themselves. Mark Roosevelt has certainly done that," said Ms. Colaizzi.

Her sentiments were reiterated by school board members Jean Fink, William Isler, Sherry Hazuda and Sharene Shealey, who all said they were surprised by Mr. Roosevelt's decision and sorry to see him go.

"I think he's done a fabulous job. He's moved us light years forward. I just didn't want to lose him," said Ms. Fink.

"We've got the new PFT contract. That's done, thank God. We've got most of the funding in place for the initiatives. It's just such a shock. I didn't see him leaving. I guess I was hoping he'd be a [former superintendent] Dick Wallace and he'd stick around for years," she said.

But fellow board member Mark Brentley Sr., a consistent critic of Mr. Roosevelt, is pleased to see him leaving.

"I gladly accept his resignation. I think the hard work is going to start immediately," said Mr. Brentley, who objected to the fact that Mr. Roosevelt's exit will be effective at year's end.

"He is really not leaving. I am concerned that he is still trying to control the process [of hiring his replacement] and he will still be making decisions without being responsible for them in the long run," said Mr. Brentley.

Mr. Brentley has long argued that Mr. Roosevelt should never have been hired as superintendent because he lacked a doctorate in education and experience as a school leader.

Ms. Colaizzi said the board is not ready to discuss how it will go about the search for a new superintendent.

Kathy Fine, a resident of Highland Park whose two children graduated from Schenley High School and who co-founded the group PURE Reform, said, "Our group would ask that all initiatives be placed on hold until a new superintendent is found." Ms. Fine was referring to the proposed East End realignment and redesign of the career and technical education program.

"We don't want all this money, expense, experimentation done if a new superintendent is going to take it in a different direction," she said.

By his own measure, Mr. Roosevelt said he could have done a better job of engaging parents on his strategic vision for the school district and on his administration's plan for career and technical education.

But for those in the philanthropic community, whose support is critical to funding city schools initiatives, what happens next will be especially important in as far as whether the district stays on the course Mr. Roosevelt charted.

"The key for us is that it's not about [Mr. Roosevelt]. Now, the mission for the Pittsburgh schools is to continue the legacy of reform and delivering on the promises of a better education that Mark Roosevelt has made to children in Pittsburgh," said Grant Oliphant, president of the Pittsburgh Foundation.

A similar sentiment was aired by leaders of the Heinz Endowments, the Grable Foundation, the Pittsburgh Promise, the Black Political Empowerment Project, the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, and A+ Schools, a local public education advocacy group.

Mr. Roosevelt's vision was right for the time, said school board member Dara Ware Allen.

Dr. Allen said, "I think the next phase is not necessarily about visionary leadership but about stability and folks who are grounded and able to carry the work out."

Staff writers Eleanor Chute, Joe Smydo and Anya Sostek contributed. Karamagi Rujumba: krujumba@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1719. First Published October 7, 2010 4:00 AM


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