Bye-Bye Brochu, Hello Opportunity

From the beginning of Katie Brochu’s employment as Superintendent of Richland 2, the Board articulated, and it was a part of Brochu’s employment contract, that she was expected to become a significant thread in the fabric of the Richland 2 community. Earning nearly a quarter of a million dollars a year, she never purchased a home in Richland County. After two and half years of residency, and only after it became public knowledge, did Brochu obtain a S.C. driver’s license and register to vote in Richland County. Her limited memberships in civic organizations were with very little participation. The irony is that the Superintendent asked the community to invest in her vision for our children, but she appeared unwilling to invest in the community.

The proposed direction of the District under Brochu sounded good – that each and every student deserves the opportunity to succeed – but this was possible only if the community partnered with the District. For its part, the District asserted that the increasing poverty rate required a new method of reaching these students and further postulated that the shifts in society – mainly socioeconomic and single parent households – must be addressed by the schools for students to have the tools to ready themselves for the workforce. There was, initially, enormous support from parents and teachers for this notion of opportunity for every student. There was also great hope that community partnerships could enlarge those opportunities. What never got off the ground was a plan for how the opportunities could be extended, how deep the non-traditional support of nurses, psychologist and social workers (in the educating of the student) should be and how the community could constructively contribute.

When it hired Brochu, Richland 2 embarked, perhaps unwittingly, on an unsettling, expensive, long-term relationship with the Schlechty education movement. George Thompson, current President of Kentucky-based Schlechty Center, and Brochu began a working relationship in the 1990s in a Georgia school district where Thompson was Superintendent and Brochu was a principal. As Brochu moved up the ladder in her career to Superintendent, first in York County, S.C. and later in Whitfield County, Ga., she integrated the Schlechty model and its associated Schlechty training into her districts. Brochu became further entrenched in the Schlechty movement when she was named a founding member of Schlechty’s nationwide Superintendent Leadership Council.

Brochu left York County after four years, amid controversy over Schlechty’s affect on the District’s education process and excessive building projects. After her departure, the Schlechty model was immediately halted. A few years later, when Brochu left Whitfield County, the Schlechty model managed to hang on for a time under a new superintendent but the Schlechty contract was subsequently not renewed. Another superintendent hired by Whitfield County this spring said in a recent newspaper interview that the District is laying the groundwork to improve test scores by shifting staff focus more to core content like math and science.

In another divergence from traditional learning in Richland 2, Brochu had adopted the Schlechty-supported High Tech High project-based learning format from a high tech high school in San Diego. Brochu had previously incorporated that format into a newly built school in Whitfield County just before departing for Richland 2. She brought with her two of the lead teachers from the Whitfield County program who then initiated similar programs at Richland Northeast and Westwood high schools. Although the program was abandoned this year in Whitfield County, dozens of Richland 2 teachers and administrators continue to be trained to implement these programs into Richland 2 schools — most recently at Blythewood’s Mueller Road Middle.

The changes being made in the Richland 2 education program under Brochu had begun causing concern and mistrust among employees over job security, lack of communication between the District’s executive office and the direction Richland 2 instruction was taking. This lack of job satisfaction became common knowledge, documented in a September 2012 employee survey and reinforced in a March 2013 Employee Climate Survey Report initiated by the Board. The findings showed an alarming mistrust of the District Office. Employees felt disenfranchised from the District’s message and direction, yet felt a connection to their individual schools – speaking well of the leadership of our principals and administrators.

Still, some Board members have remained staunch allies of Brochu’s program for learning throughout her three tumultuous years at Richland 2. Board Chairman Bill Flemming has maintained that total professional development expenses are similar to the past, at around $600,000 annually. Through a Freedom of Information request earlier this year, The Voice obtained copies of the District’s professional development expense ledger, which reflected professional development expenses of $2.2 million last year alone. When asked about these numbers, Flemming said he was not interested in exploring the inaccuracies and excessiveness of the professional development expense report, saying that the budget was balanced and in line and that was his concern.

So how did Richland 2 come to this? Was due diligence exercised in bringing Brochu to Richland 2 in the first place? We’ll never know, but I do know that it didn’t take much digging for this reporter to learn that the Schlechty model that Brochu had brought with her to York County, Whitfield County and eventually Richland 2 had stirred controversy and was blamed for falling test scores in those districts. The research only took a few phone calls to community members in each district, a study of student performance and a review of articles in local newspapers.

As it begins a new search for the right person to lead Richland 2, the Board must evaluate the past search process and set forth guidelines that differ so that a well-thought selection of a new superintendent is ensured. This may very well be the single greatest opportunity the Board has to provide opportunity for all students.

To the Board’s great credit, they have asked Dr. Debbie Hamm to lead the District through this interim. Hamm is widely respected throughout the state for her even-keeled perspective. She has been a guiding hand for her current staff and remained above the recent fray during the Brochu era. Hamm knows the District inside and out, having managed academic affairs and in recent years the surging demands of technology. It is the District’s good fortune that she is still here.

The past is a history lesson and we must move forward. A full one quarter of a student’s kindergarten through high school education has been spent under the leadership of Brochu. Whatever worked well, let’s integrate it into our new direction. Most importantly, the Board must have the courage for diligence in research and policy setting and the community must give Dr. Hamm some space to work. The entire Richland 2 community has wonderful new potential for opportunities for its students.

Comments

  1. fredh says

    Very well written article about the issues facing R2. It is sad that it took this long to figure out one of the biggest issues was the former Superintendent. It also sounds like the current Board Chairman needs to get serious about reevaluating what he is responsible for…the education of the districts children.

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