Sunday, November 24, 2013

Principal Principles, Perspectives, and Publicity

Pioneer Perspicacity 

(I was looking for P words--and I had to look perspicacity up, but it's a good choice because essentially it means you are sharing your perspective!)

It turns out that nowadays, when I go out on a Saturday night, people come up to me and ask me about the latest school news--news which, in fact, I hadn't even heard. . . what happens to you when you go out on a Saturday night?

Friday afternoon, Pioneer parents got a short letter from the school district:
Dear Pioneer Families,I have  notified the Pioneer community today that Ms. Cindy Leaman has agreed to serve as Principal of Ann Arbor's A2 Virtual+ Academy beginning January 6, 2014. 
Ms. Tamber Woodworth will serve as Principal for the remainder of the school year. Ms. Woodworth has agreed to return to Pioneer where she served previously as both a class principal and principal prior to her retirement. 
I know we will all work together to support our students at Pioneer.Thank you,Jeanice SwiftSuperintendent
I hadn't heard about it because I'm not a Pioneer parent.

But of course I was interested!

1. You might recall that filling the position of Pioneer principal was the subject of much controversy last fall, when Pat Green didn't fill the position for quite a while, and wouldn't talk about when she would fill it either. Not only did the interim principal have a long-term sub filling his classes, but the cloak of secrecy made parents mad, especially regarding the timing of filling the position. A little bit of communication regarding timing would have gone a long way!  In any case, 51 weeks ago (just under a year) Cindy Leaman was moved from Clague Middle School to fill the Pioneer position.

2. Since it's been just under a year, of course there speculation about this latest move. Talking to Pioneer students and parents, their opinion of Cindy Leaman has ranged from "she's fine" to "she's fine unless you engage with her in any way" to "she's like Dolores Umbridge." (I know--harsh, right? Principals get the brunt of people's opinions, and often it's not in a good way.)

3. Tamber Woodworth will be the interim principal. She has served as interim principal in the past at both Pioneer and Ann Arbor Open, and I think she was a permanent principal at Tappan as well. At Ann Arbor Open and at Pioneer, she seemed to not try to make too many changes while she was there as an interim. That worked well at Ann Arbor Open. She is being brought out of retirement for this position! (And I think there are some restrictions in state law on working for the district you retired from, so she's probably a contractor.)

4. I'm not going to speculate about whether, for Cindy Leaman, the move to running the new Virtual Academy is an upgrade or a downgrade. But as far as communication goes, it's my opinion this whole thing was mishandled. First of all, in general I think that principal moves at any of the schools are significant enough that they should be shared--by the district--with the entire listening audience (probably through AAPS News), in addition to the letter home to Pioneer families. 

In particular, in this case, the Virtual Academy is a brand new entity for the district, and so I think this position is actually adding a principal position to the district. And people don't understand what the Virtual Academy is. (My understanding is that Michigan law now states that students anywhere can take online courses anywhere in the state, and if the district doesn't offer online classes then students will go elsewhere and take their money with them--but that may be oversimplified.)

My point is--please--
Share information about principals with the entire district.
Share more, rather than less. Educate parents, and they will feel more comfortable, and less panicky, about changes. Who is Tamber Woodworth? Why was Cindy Leaman chosen to run the Virtual Academy (does she, for instance, have a background in technology)? What is the Virtual Academy?

Past Principal's Possible Plagiarism

Meanwhile, last week, on Facebook, I got another piece of news: that Sulura Jackson, the former principal at Skyline, was accused of plagiarism in her new district! [By the way, in the illustration the Indy Week chose to use, there is a picture of Skyline's first graduation, and my daughter is the one on the left.]

At the Indy Week, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Billy Ball writes,

What they [teachers] found is startling: Multiple documents obtained by the INDY that show Jackson—before and after her arrival at Chapel Hill High—lifted entire passages and letters from books, online articles and teaching resource guides. She used those passages without citation in staff memos, letters to students and even recommendation letters for colleagues, frequently passing them off as her words.
. . . In some cases, Jackson, who won a Michigan secondary school association's award for top high school principal of 2010–2011, used uncited text pulled from various sources. In others, she seems to use entire letters, such as an online welcoming letter for students posted by an Arizona principal. Sometimes she seems to have attempted to disguise the copied text by changing a single word while retaining the overall form and structure. Other times, entire passages were printed unchanged.

Sulura Jackson at Skyline graduation. Photo from the
Ann Arbor Public Schools website.
And as if that weren't (quite) enough, the friend who posted it on Facebook said that he had noticed Sulura Jackson doing the same thing during the first year that students were at Skyline! And (he's a person who saves things), he sent me an email with the piece in which he noticed the copying. He says he didn't say anything at the time because he didn't want to make any trouble for his daughter.

He wrote me that in the second Skyline newsletter,

When I read the first paragraph of Sulura's letter it was clear to me that she hadn't written it. It took under a minute on Google to find that it was from a tourism press release (I think it was from "pure Michigan" or whatever it was called back in 2008).
Here are the first few lines of the paragraph:

When autumn arrives in Michigan, the state slowly explodes into a frenzy of color; the entire state is in its annual blaze of glory. There is no better place to see the dynamic colors of a trillion trees aflame than along Michigan highways, country roads and coastlines.

And here is a similar passage, attributed to, the state's web site:

It's when 19 million acres of woods slowly explode in a frenzy of color. It's when an entire state is in its annual blaze of glory. It's when autumn arrives in Michigan. And there's no better place to see the dynamic colors of a trillion trees aflame than along our highways, country roads and coastlines. So let's head out to the forests. And let's prepare to be amazed. On the fall color tours of Pure Michigan. 
So as you see, it's not exactly the same--but it's close.

My question is, "Is this plagiarism?"

My friend said to me, "That's not plagiarism! How many ways can you write a cover letter or a condolence letter? The real issue is probably that the teachers don't like her!" Which could be true--there were certainly plenty of teachers who didn't like her at Skyline.

As for the suggestion that Jackson cite sources: It would be really weird to cite sources in a letter that goes into a school newsletter.

On the other hand--if Jackson got hired in North Carolina based in part on her capacity to communicate in writing, and she didn't actually write the stuff, then there is certainly some misrepresentation there. If a student turned this in, would it be considered plagiarism?

I would have to say, though, that in the Indy Week article, the thing that bothers me the most is the thing that always bothered me when she was Skyline principal. Jackson never was willing to admit to being wrong, even when she changed or modified something because she was wrong. So, too, in the Indy Week article she says,

Reached by the INDY Monday, Jackson acknowledged she will use form letters, books and articles to inform her writings, but she denied any wrongdoing."I'm not under the impression that I can't use that," Jackson said. "This is not anything that I'm selling. This is not anything that I'm using for personal gain."

So what do you think? Is it plagiarism? 

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  1. As someone who worked under Ms. Jackson, I am not surprised by this. Often times, her "Weekly Notes" (e-mailed most Sundays as a pdf) to staff were generic, full of "inspirational quotes" and consequently mostly meaningless. While sometimes leaders believe they are being inspiring by including a lot of quotes from other people, I believe that good leaders communicate by responding with their authentic voices. While I forced myself to read the weekly notes, they became utterly meaningless when the same reminders were cut and pasted. Additionally, many school documents were reused from year to year with the dates changed. While this is somewhat routine, more than simple changes should be made. I don't think reusing documents is unethical, I do think it's sloppy and careless in the way that Ms. Jackson does it. She lost credibility with me and it sounds like she's lost it with her current staff.

  2. Wow. What astounds me the most is that she won the Michigan award for top high school principal in 2010-2011. I couldn't understand it at the time, and now the fact that it happened is even more absurd.

  3. I think this is an example of a professional who doesn't know how to write. Another one is the director of SISS, Dr Elaine Brown. Her communications aren't plagiarized--and yes, I do think that a student would be penalized for lifting writing like Jackson did and since she is getting paid in her position and communication is part of the job, she is using it for personal gain--but Dr Brown's are poorly written, often confusing and contain sloppy errors. I'm amazed that people can rise to such positions of authority without these essential communication skills. I'd love to see the focus move to how students learn to write effectively so our kids don't make the mistakes we are finding in these highly paid professionals.

  4. 1) I hadn't heard of the A2 Virtual Academy, but I wonder what this is going to do that is not already available from MVU?
    2) I read the NC article, and from the examples it provided, it was to me a clear case of plagiarism.

    1. Don, I think the main issue here is that there's a new Michigan law that says students can take online courses anywhere in the state. The school district they live in can have nothing to say about it. Their per-pupil funding will follow them though. So I think Ann Arbor is backing into this reluctantly. In order to stay competitive, they need to have online course offerings that they can offer.

  5. Yes, this is plagiarism. It's one thing to lift a turn of phrase for a sympathy letter (how many ways can you say, "My sincerest condolences?") but quite another to steal a description of Michigan in the fall. When my kids were at Ann Arbor Open, the Principal wrote some really good stuff that wound up, uncited and uncredited, in other schools' newsletters and even on the district website. How hard is it to introduce a quotation (e.g. "in the words of Joe Blow") rather than let others assume these are your words?

  6. Re: plagiariam. When I started reading that article, my reaction was "using a form letter isn't really plagiarism" (nor is reusing your own work). But some of the other examples slipped closer. And her comments on the issue suggested a fundamental misconception about the definition of plagiarism, which is the worst part of the whole episode in my opinion.

    I have heard some grumblings about Ms Leaman as principal. I'd asked my son a few weeks ago, and his feeling was that policies had become more arbitrary under her. Not more strict, or more lenient, or more flexible - just arbitrary. My own impression from a couple of interactions is that she was not working very hard to improve the (negative, unwelcoming) climate at the school. But I also don't know that the district itself felt that the climate needed improving - that could just be my own bias! That said, I agree with you that more thorough communication would be welcome. Even if the move is more of a shove, there should be ways to couch that in positive terms while also communicating the broader issues you pointed out.

  7. In my job, I have had to deal with "Dr" Elaine Brown. (Her doctorate is from some online diploma mill). She is unprofessional (late, often rude) and yes, her writing is atrocious. Let's see...neither of these ladies seem qualified for their jobs yet there they are. I wonder what they have in common and why exactly they were hired....

    1. I want readers to know that I'm troubled by the tone of your comment.

      I've left it in so that I can refer people to my comment guidelines: All are welcome to comment, but please be respectful, and assume that everyone wants the best for the schools.

      It's one thing to critique Elaine Brown's work performance or writing. It's another thing to take a cheap shot at her education and work background. I'm not a fan of for-profit PhD programs--and her PhD is from a for-profit university, Capella University. But her Ed.S. degree (which is basically a post-masters degree) is from Wayne State and it would seem that her previous job experience sets her up--at least on paper--as having the credentials for this job. [That information, by the way, I got from her LinkedIn profile:]

      But when I read your last sentence, I am especially troubled. I wonder--are you referring to the fact that they are both African American? If your implication is that they were hired primarily because of their race, I think that's wrong and unfair. I believe they were hired because their previous experience made them credible candidates. That ultimately they both may have their failings doesn't justify the tone or substance of your innuendo.

    2. Thank you, Ruth. I have worked with Ms. Jackson and Dr. Brown. They were hired for their qualifications, which were substantial. Ms. Jackson in particular had some incredible vision which she brought to Skyline. Was she perfect? No, I'm sure not. But I'd put her up against any number of administrators of all races and backgrounds in many areas.

      You can argue that she plagiarized. You can even argue that she wasn't good for Skyline (although I may disagree). But to say that she was hired because of her race is more a reflection on the commenter than anything else.

  8. The many examples show a pattern of plagiarism. The phrase "authentic voice" was used above, and what I heard from Ms. Jackson in her speech and writing were inauthentic. Like fake words of inspiration, she did little to be build honest credibility. It worked for her superiors, but for parents, teachers and students, it was hollow at best, and insulting at its worst.

    While I don't think that reusing the letter to parents from last year is a strong demonstration of commitment to the job, it's not plagiarism. Its a sign of a weak writer. Plagiarism goes beyond that weakness and portrays writing and ideas without acknowledgement as your own. She has demonstrated an inauthentic writing that includes portraying others words as her own.

    It's appalling and I for one am glad we are finally rid of her. I feel for the Chapel Hill School District, but hopefully they can address her failure better than we ever could.

  9. I don't know Elaine Brown at all, so I can't comment, but as far as Sulura Jackson goes, in her defense there are some things that she did very well as Skyline principal. In particular, I credit her with doing a good job in hiring teachers in the first two years of the school, when she had a lot of control--and for supporting the development of the magnets.

    1. Perhaps the teachers in the first two years were good. How many are still there? How many of the original stayed? My daughter was in the second class and many of her teachers were long gone by the time she needed recommendations.

  10. Yes, that absolutely counts as plagiarism, at least for the example you gave about Michigan in autumn. If my 13 year old turned that in, say as part of a Monday News assignment, it would be deserving of a "doover" and a stern lecture. As Anonymous says above, is it really so hard to give an attribution, such as "As the Pure Michigan ad says..."? And yes, footnotes would be a little odd in a school newsletter, but maybe that's a sign that you should be using your own words. - Jill

  11. Mrs. Leaman is pretty nasty. I hope that in her new position she will not have to deal directly with children, parents or teachers. Or animals or the elderly or the handicapped. She is in a class by herself.

  12. A couple of the comments above come pretty close to violating my comments policy (it's in my About Me post): "All are welcome to read and comment. Please be respectful, and assume that everyone wants the best for the schools." For instance, the comment above this one, in my opinion, goes a little bit overboard in its last two sentences.

    I'm not removing it though, but everyone--all I'm asking is that you err on the side of kindness.

  13. There's no clear reason why Ms. Leaman was asked to run the Virtual Academy given.
    I think that explaining things a little more would have been helpful to understand why a principal was asked to leave her position so abruptly. What little contact I had with Ms. Leaman was professional and respectful. I wish her well in her new position.

  14. I think this follow up blog post provides a better perspective as to why what Ms Jackson has done is plagiarism:

    Enjoyed reading the different perspectives on this.

  15. Copied below is an email that Ms. Jackson sent to staff about her "notes from the principal's desk" prior to the accusations of plagiarism. It's clear that she intended for the memos to be seen as her words and her thoughts. Any claim to the contrary is absurd.

    "Hello All

    Hopefully everyone has had a restful weekend and enjoyed the sunshine. As I reflected on how the relationships were built at my last school, I remembered that I sent them my thoughts on a weekly bases for over five years. I tried to changed that to monthly at CHHS, but now I think I need to speak to you weekly until we get to know each other much better. Maybe next year will be a better time to go monthly.

    I will do best to share my thoughts with you weekly so you get to know my belief, values, and thoughts about educating children at CHHS. Notes from the Principal's desk are attached, please read and reflect."