Jonathan Raymond saw his charge as superintendent of Sacramento City Unified as transforming the district. This week, after 4½ years leading the 42,000-student district, he departs with a credible list of accomplishments at least partly attributable to his leadership.
Some of those – progress in implementing Common Core standards, greatly expanded summer programs, new college and career programs tied to businesses and the community, home-school visits and new parent-teacher partnerships – will survive. So too probably will the new focus on social and emotional aspects of learning, which, Raymond said, “is really catching on like the beginning of a wild blaze.”
Other changes, though – protections he provided a half-dozen once low-performing Priority Schools and a waiver from the No Child Left Behind law tied in part to adoption of a new teacher evaluation system – will remain under attack from the teachers union with whom Raymond repeatedly clashed.
Harder to predict is whether Raymond’s vision of an infectious commitment “to do whatever it takes for kids” will endure. Superintendents, he said in an interview, “can create the culture that becomes the permanent change.” Raymond expressed confidence that he has.
But whether he or, for that matter, any superintendent in conflict with a strong teachers union, can create irreversible, systemic change in several years will be left for his successor and future school board members to determine.
Raymond, 53, is leaving to return to the Boston area, where he and his wife are from, and their three young children’s grandparents still live. Resigning for “family reasons” is sometimes code for feeling the heat to quit. But Raymond has had the support of his school board throughout his time, although the once sure 6-1 votes have edged closer to 4-3. Leaving, nonetheless, is his choice.
Raymond came to Sacramento from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina, a high-achieving district, where he was chief accountability officer in charge of data, innovation, school performance reviews and measures of student achievement.
His career path – while not unique among urban superintendents – made him an outsider. He previously was a practicing attorney in business and labor law, deputy director at the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Workforce Development and chief executive officer at a Boston nonprofit before turning to education.
He received his training in education as a fellow at the Broad Superintendents Academy, an 18-month program funded by the Broad Foundation of Los Angeles that trains executives from inside and outside education to become activist superintendents for urban districts. Graduates include Los Angeles Unified Superintendent John Deasy; Chris Barbic, superintendent of the Achievement School District in Tennessee; and Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist.
“I relish the challenges and opportunities that urban districts bring,” Raymond said in a recent interview. “I am not an auto-pilot, cruise-control kind of guy.”
Admirers praised his fresh perspective.
“He thought differently from other people, because his background was different,” said Rick Miller, a former deputy state superintendent who worked closely with Raymond as executive director of the eight CORE (California Office to Reform Education) districts on the No Child Left Behind waiver.
“He took the district forward around a vision that encapsulates the whole child. He is not afraid to take risks and speak his mind, and that has caused challenges as well,” said Jay Schenirer, a Sacramento councilmember and former school board member who worked with Raymond in expanding summer programs for low-income youths.
Detractors said his lack of first-hand classroom experience showed in his frosty relationship with teachers.
“Jonathan came in with an agenda dictated by the Broad Foundation that included union busting under the guise of doing what’s best for kids,” said Nikki Milevsky, a veteran school psychologist and president of the Sacramento Teachers Association.
A new approach
Raymond arrived in Sacramento at the worst of times. The district was hit with the double whammy of big state cuts and a loss of revenue from declining enrollments. “It was like landing at Normandy,” he said.
So Raymond turned to outside resources through partnerships with the community and through foundation grants for two priorities: expanded summer learning and a focus on social and emotional learning, which stresses developing students’ non-cognitive skills, such as resiliency, self-control and self-motivation as underlying conditions for effective learning.
“Whole child, whole year” summed up the district’s approach. Seven-week programs this year included SummerQuest, giving 2,000-plus elementary school students hands-on activities in science, engineering and technology; Summer of Service, with a range of activities for 900 middle school students; and an orientation, incorporating social media, academics and bonding activities for 700 incoming 9th graders. Summer at City Hall provided class credit and internships for 80 high school students. A youth leadership camp that Schenirer launched gave a wilderness experience to several dozen high school students.
“(Raymond) was good at bringing in civic and community leaders and groups that had not traditionally been associated with our district,” said School Board President Jeff Cuneo.
Sacramento is one of eight districts nationwide – Oakland Unified is another – to receive a three-year, $750,000 grant to participate in CASEL, the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
Milvesky, president of the teachers union, dismissed the CASEL initiative, saying good teachers have always been in touch with their students’ emotional needs and modeled behavior for learning. But schools associated with CASEL – about 30 out of 80 in the district this year – stress building a school climate and training for all staff. Parents are involved through home visits and after-school programs.
Soft skills like self-motivation and empathy are hard to measure, and evidence of effectiveness so far has been largely anecdotal but encouraging, said Koua Jacklyn Franz, Raymond’s chief of staff, who administers the program.
“As a huge advocate of social and emotional learning, Raymond is much more thoughtful and a big-picture kind of guy in ways that run counter to the tenets of the corporate reform movement,” such as merit pay, said Carl Cohn, a member of the State Board of Education, director of the Urban Leadership Program in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University and retired superintendent of Long Beach Unified.
Friction with teachers
Friction with the Sacramento City Teachers Association started early, during tense negotiations in response to state-forced budget cuts, over higher class sizes, furlough days, pay cuts and hundreds of preliminary layoff notices.
But it accelerated when Raymond created six Priority Schools in 2010 and added a seventh a year later. Those schools – among those that would have qualified for federal school turnaround grants – were Raymond’s beachhead into instilling a sense of urgency and taking on practices in the low-performing schools.
“It was about changing the culture in our neediest schools towards one of excellence, and demonstrating, in a time of great financial stress in our state, that we can do something really dramatic and bold in our most difficult schools,” Raymond said.
Raymond hand-picked the principals for the schools, gave them full hiring authority, created positions for additional teacher coaches and site administrators, provided extra training and time for collaboration, and gave the schools more latitude to choose their curriculum. Two years ago, Raymond chose the Priority Schools to be the first to switch to the Common Core State Standards.
Some teachers in other schools resented the extra resources to Priority Schools amid cutbacks. And when Raymond exempted Priority Schools teachers from seniority-based layoffs, citing the threat to the progress they were making and the need to protect low-performing schools from staff churn, the teachers union challenged the move. In a landmark decision, a Superior Court judge ruled that Priority Schools qualified for protection, along with teachers in areas of shortage, under the teacher layoff statute because Priority Schools teachers received specialized training.
The district and the union have continued to spar over which individuals have the training for an exemption, and there has been continued staff turnover in some schools. But improvement has been marked: Along with increased attendance and declines in suspensions, API scores in four years rose significantly – 180 points in one case – in six of the seven schools. Four of the schools with the biggest gains, including Hiram W. Johnson High, are now designated as exemplary “Reward Schools” under the CORE waiver. They will be paired with low-performing schools to share lessons they’ve learned.
Contested future of Priority Schools
Projected increases in funding under Proposition 98, which sets a minimum funding level for schools, plus more money to the district under the state’s Local Control Funding Formula, should ease some of the tensions over the district’s special treatment for Priority Schools.
But Raymond predicts the Priority Schools will be under siege.
“I think the teachers’ union leadership is going to continue, both locally and statewide, to try to do anything they can to sort of roll back on the culture and climate that we’ve created there,” he said, “and the mechanism which we have used to be able to stabilize those excellent communities of practice.”
The court ruling on Priority Schools was a watershed moment in Raymond’s relationship with the union. The animosity has continued. Raymond is openly disdainful of the union, and vice versa.
Milevsky said that Raymond hasn’t listened to teachers. Instead, “he has surrounded himself basically with a bunch of yes-men. He believes he should make all the decisions.” She predicted that now that layoff protections aren’t needed, teachers will defect from the Priority Schools. “He needed to sit down and talk about how to keep the best teachers in needy schools. His approach only worked in a time of layoffs.”
Raymond said teachers at the Priority Schools don’t want the union to interfere. “And I think they also believe, frankly, that their union doesn’t represent them, or doesn’t speak for them. And I think more and more of them are becoming outspoken about what they want to see, and what they believe, and what they get in the profession for.”
If the Priority Schools are the model for team-building and training for other low-achieving schools, then it will be left to Raymond’s successor to replicate it. And that, says Carl Cohn, who served as Long Beach superintendent for a decade, is the risk in leaving too soon.
“When you can get some of the best teachers to embrace kids who are the neediest, that is no small accomplishment,” Cohn said. “But you don’t know where Sac City is going next and whether it will build on what Jonathan Raymond has done. That’s the big gamble.”
Cuneo, the board president, praised Raymond for “directing the focus on some of our vulnerable and disadvantaged kids” and said the Priority Schools initiative was one way to address it. But he also acknowledged that relations with the Sacramento City Teachers Association “became frayed, and there could have been more effort to repair the relationship.”
Could relations have been fixed if Raymond had stayed? “You wonder,” he said, adding that he is hoping “the next superintendent is adept and diplomatic to bring everyone to the table to see kids achieve.”
Cuneo said he wants the next superintendent to continue the initiatives that Raymond started: “Someone who can understand the landscape of Sacramento and build on what has been done. We’re on a good path.”
Looking back, Raymond said that he would have spent more time early on developing a deep leadership team. “Who you recruit and develop and retain is absolutely critical,” he said. “People make or break you in this business.”
Other than that, he said, “No regrets. Things unfold the way they unfold. It is what you do with the cards you are dealt.”
John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.
Do you count on EdSource’s reporting daily? Make your donation today to our year end fundraising campaign by Dec. 31st to keep us going without a paywall or ads.