Senior editor Wayne D’Orio talks to renowned Coachella Valley superintendent Darryl Adams about his resignation, tense teacher contract talks, and the district’s highly acclaimed 1:1 initiative.
If you want a lesson in how hard it is to be a superintendent in 2016, consider Darryl Adams.
Adams, until earlier this month, the superintendent of California’s Coachella Valley USD, lived a double life, of sorts. On the national stage, Adams was an acclaimed educator. In a 20,000-student district where nearly every student was poor and many were English-language learners, Adams rolled out an iPad 1:1 initiative. He got the community to easily pass a $42 million bond to pay for the devices. President Obama name-checked him at 2014’s ConnectEd to the Future conference, praising his innovative efforts to bring free wifi to low-income neighborhoods. The National School Boards Association took members on a two-day site visit of the desert district just last month. Apple recently named some of the district’s schools “distinguished,” the second year they got that honor.
But inside the district, unrest was brewing. For more than a year, the district has been in a contract dispute with teachers. Coachella recorded more than 250 teacher absences in September alone. Teachers refused to participate in any school activities outside the regular classroom hours and even students have protested at district headquarters.
Adams, besieged by a series of health concerns, resigned this week. Reached by School Leaders Now after his decision to step away, Adams said the internal problems didn’t push him out or sully the progress he made during his six years in the district. Joking that a typical superintendent tenure is just three years, Adams says, “I enjoyed my time there. It was like two lifetimes.”
Contract Negotiations Cloud Progress
Adams did admit “this year was different” because of the contract stalemate. He felt like some staff used the contract talks to “be challenging and negative in a way because they are trying to get their money. … It’s part of any transformative approach. If you get 80 percent of people involved and the other 20 percent get out of the way,” he adds, without finishing the sentence.
In the local paper, The Desert Sun, teachers criticized Adams for losing touch with them. “We were willing to take on this new frontier with him … but as things started to get messy with the amount of training teachers needed, he didn’t implement it well,” teacher Lisa Espinoza told the newspaper. “It was heartbreaking.”
But the progress Coachella made under Adams is real. The graduation rate has jumped from 74.4 percent when Adams started in 2011 to 83.6 percent last year. While the district’s test scores are still low, Coachella had the highest gains in California this year. And in a district where some students live in abandoned railroad cars, the district now sends nearly 60 percent of its graduates to some type of higher education. Dropouts are down, and daily attendance is up.
“It is clear that [Adams’] passion drove much of what the district and community has accomplished for their students,” says Ann Flynn, the NSBA’s director of education technology. She led her organization’s tour of the district last month. Educators from six states marveled over one fifth grade classroom where teacher Sean Giloni has eliminated desks in favor of couches and decorates his walls totally with items that contain QR codes.
Some teachers refused the visitors entry to their rooms, however. “At the same time, such transformational change can be difficult for staff to embrace,” Flynn says.
Adams says he worked hard to make sure the gains Coachella has notched would continue. Given this week’s decision, he was still bullish on the district’s long-term outlook. “People are so embedded in what we do, it’s their district. They’re not going to accept mediocrity anymore,” he says. “Parents will hold [my successor] accountable. I think they’ll be fine.”