Alabama superintendent upsets educators with changes to career tech

Alabama superintendent Michael Sentance landed in hot water again over a proposal to reorganize the state's department of education. Sentance, who has publicly discussed making many changes to how public education is done in Alabama, spoke Friday with Al.com.

At issue now? Sentance's proposal to abolish the separate office of career technical education and workforce development and place it under the office of academic affairs. Sentance said no restructuring within career tech is proposed, just moving the box on the organizational chart.

The reorganization proposal, not yet made public, was leaked to the Alabama Association of Career and Technical Education Executive Director Ann Gilmore, who blasted Sentance's plans in an email to career tech educators in public schools across the state Friday morning.

Deputy State Superintendent Philip Cleveland 

Abolishing the separate office effectively eliminated current Deputy Superintendent Dr. Philip Cleveland's position, another point of contention in Gilmore's email.

Cleveland resigned on Feb. 6. He served as interim state superintendent from April to September last year while the board searched for Dr. Tommy Bice's replacement.

Sentance, a Massachusetts native, was appointed in August and began work in September. 

On Friday Cleveland told Al.com that he resigned due to differences in leadership and lack of a clear vision for the career tech division. Cleveland plans to remain with the department until July 3.

Cleveland has been with the department since 2011 and has helped raised the profile of career tech in Alabama. Reached by phone on Friday, Cleveland said he has not had conversations with Sentance about what the restructuring actually looks like, but fears the worst.

"Right now we have something going [in career tech] that is special," Cleveland said, adding he regularly receives calls from other states asking how Alabama does it. Making this move risks losing the momentum, focus and emphasis that makes the program successful right now, he said.

The system the state has created over the past four to five years has gained credibility with lawmakers, business, industry, and parents, Cleveland said.

Career tech is a broader field than what used to be known as vocational technical education. It includes careers like welding, but also architecture and business management. The idea is to help students get practical knowledge in what a chosen career path will look like.  

Career tech and workforce development have been areas of focus for lawmakers in recent years, and in 2013, lawmakers approved a $50 million bond issue for career tech equipment for schools and centers across the state through the 21st Century Work Force Act.

Sentance acknowledged the large investment and the resulting equipment that has been bought, but said now it's time to focus on what kind of student outcomes those resources produce.

Sentance said although the area's placement on the organizational chart could change, nothing else will change about the actual daily work in career tech and workforce development. He said he is a strong supporter of career tech education and believes the move will bolster the academic bar within career tech.

He said he has concerns about whether academics remain an emphasis for students who choose a career tech pathway. "The reality for career tech is that a great career tech program is based on strong academic skills and a strong understanding of mathematics and the ability to both read and write at a fairly high level," Sentance said.

Sentance said the recommendation for the move comes from a proposal based on two separate studies, one performed last year by consultants Nancy Beggs and Bill Taylor and one performed by former Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama executive director Jim Williams.

Sentance said he plans to share the full reorganization proposal with the state board of education at their March 9 work session. He shared it internally with senior leadership on Friday.

State board member Mary Scott Hunter, R-Huntsville, who represents areas of north Alabama, posted an email Sentance sent to board members Friday afternoon. In that email, Sentance tells board members about the move. It reads in part, "This would allow for better integration of academic and school improvement programs with the CTE efforts. Contrary to some rumors, the office is NOT being abolished."

Cleveland said his having to go through more administrative layers would bog down the ability to respond quickly to workforce demands when, for example, a new piece of equipment is introduced within an industry or when a new industry comes to Alabama. 

"If industry calls us on Monday and say, 'we have a new welding technique,' I need to be able to work with teachers across the state immediately," Cleveland said, and the slow down resulting from adding layers of bureaucracy could impede opportunities for students.

"You have to be willing to adjust on a dime. We've created a system that is now respected by industry because we're doing what industry wants us to do," Cleveland said.

State board member Dr. Cynthia McCarty, R-Jacksonville, represents areas of northeast Alabama. "I've been hearing from people by the hundreds," she said, adding she was not aware of the changes before she started getting emails and phone calls. McCarty is a strong supporter of career tech and said she'll do "whatever it takes" to keep the program running.

Reached by phone on Friday, Gilmore was agitated and angry, saying the move has symbolic meaning and will result in career tech reverting to an afterthought as it was before it became a separate office in 2012. Asked why the move would doom career tech, Gilmore said, "Twenty-six years have taught me that."

In the email sent to educators, Gilmore said Sentance should resign and "never should have been interviewed for his position much less appointed state superintendent."

"My most important issue is to make sure career tech doesn't become an afterthought," Cleveland said. "The reason we are where we are today is because people in state government and others were forced to see career technical education as an equal, not as a less than."

In recent months, Sentance, has also proposed changing science, math, and reading instruction and standards to improve student outcomes. He has questioned whether the Alabama Reading Initiative and the companion math (AMSTI) and science (ASIM) programs are effective for students.

He has said from the beginning he wanted to make sure the state department of education was organized in a way that supports best practices and school improvement processes and wants to add a new area within the department devoted to school turnaround.

Asked his response to critics who say he is moving too fast with proposed changes, Sentance said, "Every day, a child is moving through the schools. And every day means their opportunity for success is either enhanced or diminished." He is trying to enhance that opportunity, he said.

"Children can't wait, so we have to move with the kind of speed that their lives demand," Sentance said.

The state board of education meets next in Montgomery on Thursday, March 9. 

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