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The New York Times

Q & A: Dr. Sonia Diaz Salcedo

Superintendent Ready for an Uphill Battle


September 10, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The New York Times. All Rights Reserved.

WHEN Dr. Sonia Diaz Salcedo took over for the long-time Bridgeport School Superintendent John Connolly on July 1 it was suggested by some that the former superintendent of School District 1 in lower Manhattan was leaving one troubled district for another.

But Dr. Diaz Salcedo, 52, said those comments mean nothing because she has been too busy over the summer preparing to make changes and improvements for the new school year in Connecticut's largest city, which, with 22,000 students, operates the state's second-largest public school system.

Dr. Diaz Salcedo said she has spent the past two months becoming familiar with the school system and its problems. Among them are low reading and math scores, political infighting, crowded classrooms, high truancy and drop-out rates, teacher vacancies and a lingering controversy over whether she was the best choice among four finalists for the Bridgeport job (at least one candidate thought to be the top choice pulled out).

Dr. Diaz Salcedo said that she is the right person for the job and she insists she can dramatically improve reading and math scores the way she did in New York City by demanding that principals take a far more active role in their schools, and that teachers work harder in their classrooms.

Dr. Diaz Salcedo, who was born in Puerto Rico where she spent part of her childhood (along with the Bronx and the Middle West), began her career in education as a bilingual teacher of first graders in the Boston public schools.

Recently, Dr. Diaz Salcedo took time out from her busy schedule to discuss how she intends to improve a school system that may trail only Hartford, and perhaps New Haven, in being perceived as under-achieving in the state. Following are excerpts of that conversation.

Q. What motivated you to seek the school superintendency of Bridgeport, a district plagued by years of poor test scores, high turnover and low morale and a school system many say is dominated more by politics and cronyism than educational quality?

A. My work has always been in urban sectors, and while Bridgeport is the state's largest city, I find it also resonates with a small-town quality that is very warm and welcoming. There are many reasons Bridgeport was an attractive place for me, among them that the city and school system has a very diverse population with a large number of Latino and African American students. That's the kind of place I want to be.

Q. The man you replaced, John Connolly, was in the job for 18 years. How difficult is it to come in from outside the system to replace someone who was in place that long?

A. I like the fact Bridgeport had a superintendent who had been here for a long time, which to me indicated that despite the problems and the school system's reputation, that there was an element of stability in the city and district. I also believe it is an up-and-coming city with a school board that wants to make improvements.

Q. Does it concern you that some school board members and community leaders want to see improvements right away?

A. For me, the fact that Bridgeport hasn't had high achieving scores was a plus in terms of coming here. I want to come to a place where I can make a difference, and I can work at helping to fix a system and to find solutions I found worked in other places. I don't mind a challenge, regardless of the obstacles. It's what I've done all my life, and it's what I did in New York. I want to come and really roll up my sleeves and work.

Q. You were not the first choice of either the school board or the community. Does that have an effect on your working relationship with either the board or community?

A. That's not an issue at all for me. The only important thing is that I am the one who was hired, and I feel extremely comfortable with both the school board and community. I don't feel like a second choice. In these search processes politics is always going to be involved and different factions are going to want different people. How I got here is not important.

Q. What are the biggest problems? And what are your top priorities going into the new school year, ones that need to be addressed immediately?

A. The largest issue is most definitely student achievement, and the fact there is an incredible achievement gap among the students in this school system. It's a combination of approaches, methodologies, support and the lack of professional development teachers and administrators have received.

We need to change a culture that evolves and devolves from the central office about what is good enough, in respect to students. I think sometimes attitudes fuel low expectations and perpetuate the status quo. Sometimes there isn't a real sense of vision about how much these students can accomplish.

Q. Keeping new teachers from leaving urban school systems like Bridgeport just a year or two after they have been hired has become a major problem. Is there any way that Bridgeport and other urban districts can solve this growing problem, which has led to vast teacher vacancies?

A. This is a a huge issue, a major problem that has a profound and deleterious impact on the district. Unless we can start competing with school systems in surrounding areas, we will continue losing many of our best new teachers. It's something that affects continuity and stability. In short, we have to raise salaries to be competitive.

Q. You left a school district with $1 to $2 million in deficits. It was suggested budgets and finances are not your strong suit. Was that your biggest frustration in New York?

A. The biggest frustration was my work with the board. At some point I was criticized for working too closely with parents and involving them in the educational process. But I'm very inclusive in my style and believe parents should be part of the process. Here in Bridgeport I find there is more a sense of caring and a willingness to have parents be involved, and I find my style and philosophy is much more consistent with that. I believe I am very good at streamlining programs and personnel to save money.

Q. During your time in the New York City district you did have great success in improving math and reading scores, in fact in the school year 1997-98 the district had the biggest gains in reading and math out of 32 districts. How did you accomplish that?

A. By focusing right away on literacy and math skills, and looking at the way that instruction was delivered because schools were not spending enough time on these basic skills and students were falling through the cracks. It was about equalizing what principals and teachers did at each of the schools so that we had a more universal system, a more balanced system.

Here in Bridgeport, as in New York, there is an overall lack of cohesiveness and fusion. My job will be to get everyone working together, principals and teachers, to strengthen their roles as instructional leaders.

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