Vol. 18, No. 17 Sept. 8 - 21, 2005


Back to School for Superintendent
An Interview With Region 1 Leader Irma Zardoya


Region 1 Superintendent Irma Zardoya has a full plate. Two years ago she was plucked from her District 10 superintendent post to head one of the city’s new regions, almost tripling the number of schools under her charge.

Region 1 is comprised of District 10 and District 9 and includes schools from Riverdale down to Highbridge. It also oversees the area’s high schools which used to be under the purview of the old Board of Education. The reorganization increased Zardoya’s portfolio from 53 to 135 schools, accounting for upwards of 97,000 students. Zardoya now spends less time ministering to local principals and more time overseeing the new Local Instructional Superintendents, who serve under her and work with roughly 10 schools each.

Despite the challenges, Region 1 saw some of the largest increases in its fourth grade test scores last spring, with District 9 the most improved area in the city. Zardoya was praised for her focus on assessment, professional development, and leadership change.

The Norwood News sat down with Zardoya at 1 Fordham Plaza last month in the office she now shares with her deputy, Ray Rosemberg (because of the consolidation, the bigger job came with a much smaller office), to talk about the state of area schools, what’s in store for this year, and her long-term goals.

How is the situation with overcrowding?
Re-looking at how we use buildings has really helped build capacity. We’re at a good place. We still have some schools that are overcrowded, but we are seeing a decline in enrollment. The elementary schools are getting some breathing space. Middle schools are still overcrowded and high schools are very overcrowded.

If it were an independent district … Region 1 must be among the biggest in the whole country.

Every regional superintendent is carrying quite a challenge on their shoulders because of the vast number of schools they supervise ... You have to learn the names, school numbers, where they are located. I still don’t have it all under my belt. What’s different is that now I have Local Instructional Superintendents (LISs) that work directly with principals, whereas I work mostly with the LISs. My role is to strengthen their work and how they work with the principals.

So that was a shift?
Before I was the direct person with the principals, I was in the schools every day. Now it’s not every day. When I visit a school, it’s with an LIS and to talk about the work the LIS is doing with the principal. It’s a very different kind of relationship.

Do you think the restructuring is working well?
One of the positive aspects of restructuring has been the fact that there is an LIS for every 10 to 12 schools, and in our network, some have less schools. That really allows a superintendent to be working very closely with principals to create opportunities for their professional development.

How do you pick what to do in an average day? There must be 10 emergencies every week?
I’m sort of working on different aspects of the organization [on a] larger scale. Let’s say we have an emergency in a school. The principal’s first contact is a LIS … I don’t need to go to the school to do that. My job is more with the bigger plan for the region — to anticipate proposals for new schools, planning for those, looking at math and literacy initiatives … You have more people now to delegate things to.

Region 1 has had some recent successes with test scores. What do you think has been responsible for that?
Hard work! A number of things [like] the structure with the LISs being able to work with a few principals. Principals walk each other’s schools and learn from each other. There’s a lot of focus on instruction now … The fact that once you get good professional development, every year gets better and better … Parents are becoming more involved. And some strategies we used, like looking at assessment.

What do you think of the criticisms about there being [too much] testing?
Schools do their own test prep, but we make sure it’s not during our literacy or math blocks. Teachers need to know what the standards are, so when they are teaching, they incorporate certain strategies. People can confuse that with test prep … but it’s built into study. It’s not that they are just going to learn how to take a test.

Are there areas in the region that need more work?
Let’s agree that we’ve improved, but we are still one of the lowest-performing regions in the city. We were actually the lowest region in terms of attendance, and now are number six. We have a major emphasis on attendance ... If your kids don’t come to school, they’re not going to learn.

When you look at third grade, we found it’s one of our lowest performing grades. We are looking at what we are doing in kindergarten, first, and second ... and making sure they are really rigorous.

The other one is middle schools. Middle school students still don’t achieve, although the target for middle schools is much higher for [passing the exams].

What do you think of the Community Education Councils? How useful are they to you?
I don’t work directly with them. But we have shared with them our comprehensive education plan for each district. Obviously, it’s difficult because it’s a new role ... You see degrees of effectiveness.

Are you glad to have shed the school boards?
[laughs] Don’t ask me that question!

What is your take on ending social promotion?
[It] creates accountability for teachers and students. We also have gotten additional resources for these grades [third, fifth, and seventh] to help support the extra tutoring or intervention programs. In addition, if a student is at Level 1 but has comparable Level 2 work, they will get promoted. Then you have the summer programs. What we’ve found is that, especially in the elementary schools, that many of our students are able to move forward actually with a Level 2 on the second [try with the] test.

[On where local students go to high schools]
One of my goals is to make all our small high schools attractive enough to make our students want to attend them. Our big goal for the region, and everyone in the region knows this, is to work with students to attend college. If we are thinking that way, what we’re saying is that we want to make sure from pre-K through 12th that our students are staying with us. That’s why we want to strengthen our high schools.

Part of the challenge with that is the overcrowding of the high schools. How do you combat that?
There is a commitment to build within our region. The issue for us here, as it’s always been, is where? We are working on that. In the meantime, we’ve been looking for alternative spaces within District 9. A building on Bathgate [Avenue] that will open up next year will house three high schools. We still have a long way to go, but we’ve managed to create more high school seats this year than last year.

What are your top goals?
In the next few years, the literacy and math agenda have to be focused on in early grades and middle school. We’ll put in major thinking about interventions and tracking student progress. The other one is looking at the small schools, and strengthening the high school curriculum.

Was it a big learning curve to learn about the high schools?
There still is a lot to learn. The biggest challenge is the quality of instruction.

How would you advise parents who have concerns about their kids or school to seek help? What’s the order of things they should do?
Parents should always work closely with teachers, then talk with the assistant principal or the principal. If talking with the principal doesn’t work out, then it’s the LIS. Remember you have parent coordinators, so they facilitate this process. Parents can always seek support from the LIS for their school. They are very responsive. And obviously, I’m there. Parents have reached out to me, but I make sure they’ve gone to the LIS or principal first.

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