Deasy’s New England Legacy
Part I: Change Agent
First of two parts
April 9 -- A rising star in a small New England school district, John Deasy arrived in Santa Monica three years ago and began transforming the local public school system with sweeping reforms.
Driven by a passion for excellence, the new superintendent began implementing dramatic changes. He convened a team of civic leaders to craft a strategic plan to run the district based on a corporate model, pushed for policies to increase standards and split the district’s largest high school into half a dozen campuses.
Deasy, 43, also spurred heated debate with a contentious gift policy, his controversial support for charter schools and the recent removal of Olympic High School’s principal after a headline-grabbing public confrontation.
"He was as controversial here” as he is in Santa Monica, said Rhode Island’s Commissioner of Education Peter McWalters, who described Deasy as a "change-agent" whose daring innovations brought the district to a new level.
"His legacy was a house of cards,” countered Ray Spears, who preceded Deasy as superintendent of Coventry Public Schools. “Deasy saw the cards fall and jumped ship.”
“You have to motivate the system,” said Joseph Butler, who served as chair of the Coventry School Committee, the equivalent of the local School Board, during Deasy’s tenure.
“John motivated everybody,” Butler said. “He motivated other school districts. He’s not a good superintendent. He’s a great superintendent.”
Deasy was instrumental in bringing reform to the Coventry School District, where he climbed the ladder from principal to assistant superintendent and finally to superintendent in 1996.
As superintendent, Deasy piloted the district through efforts to adopt higher academic standards, successfully lobbied voters to approve a $34 million bond to expand and build schools and pushed for a $3 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Coventry was one of only four school districts nationwide to receive a five-year Gates Foundation grant, awarded to promising schools to create smaller learning environments for students.
“We took a school district where there was a lot of complaining from the community,” Butler said. “When John took over, he worked diligently with the school committee. It was a partnership, and John has always done that.”
Deasy made national news when he launched a "Pay for Performance" initiative for Coventry teachers, who would receive a $2,000 bonus for four years if they scored at least 44 out of a possible 50 points in a performance review.
Under Deasy's tenure in Coventry, one of his district's teachers made history as the first teacher in Rhode Island to become nationally certified. Dubbed RHODE, Deasy’s program drew attention from school districts across the country.
“When we went to Orlando for the National School Committee Association, we were given three hours,” Butler said. “Next year it was San Diego. And this is a little school district in the Northeast with six thousand kids.”
Determined to raise the achievement bar, Deasy terminated the contracts of a number of teachers who couldn’t meet the higher expectations his program imposed. “There were certain unpopular decisions that I had to live through,” Deasy told the Providence Journal in 2000.
Mary Kelley, an administrator in the Coventry District and acting superintendent for two months after Deasy's departure, described RHODE as a program "which honored distinguished educators whose performance demonstrated an understanding of the educational direction Deasy was trying to achieve."
This sentiment is echoed by Judy Baxter, who was English Department Chair at Coventry High during Deasy's tenure.
"John believed teachers should be paid appropriately," Baxter said. "He worked well with the union, aligning the union and school committee and the administration to work together towards a common goal."
(Such a reward program has not been introduced in the SMMUSD so far and would be met with resistance from the local teachers union, according to local union officials.)
Perhaps Deasy’s most lasting legacy in Rhode Island will be the ambitious $34 million school continuation project unveiled in 1999.
The building project aimed to ease crowding by creating a new elementary school, converting an existing elementary school into a middle school and expanding the district’s vocational education center -- the West Bay Career and Technical Center.
The plan also called for building a swimming pool and library at the Coventry High School campus. Work at the high school was estimated to cost about $13 million, and the remaining projects in the region had a $21 million price tag.
State Commissioner McWalters praised the building project.
"We were the first district to take back our state building," he said. "The bond was given local authorization by approval of the state board and put to the public vote.
"It would never have gone ahead otherwise,” McWalters said. “Maybe it was too bold, too fast for some people's likes."
Former Acting Superintendent Kelley called the finished product "spectacular."
"John was dynamic, energetic and visionary,” Kelley said. “Coventry High School, with its attached pre-school, has given the opportunity to the community to have children enrolled.”
In 1998, the School Committee had been so pleased with Deasy's performance since taking the helm two years earlier, it had renewed his contract for three years. In April 2001, district officials had secured his commitment for another three years. Deasy, however, would not be around to see the fruits if his labor.
School teacher and PTA member, Kathleen McCoombs, who went head to head with Deasy, felt the superintendent dismissed her concerns about the impact his sudden resignation would have on his initiatives.
“I brought my concern about his departure occurring before any of his fabulous-sounding initiatives were to go into practice to Mr Deasy’s attention,” McCoombs wrote in the Coventry Courier in 2002. “He pretended to be very interested in what I had to say and then blew me off when it came time to talk about them.
“Having opinions and asking questions about how our money is to be spent on our own children’s education is a right every American citizen in this country has; and attacks by public officials who want to keep us quiet should not, and will not be tolerated.”
Shortly after the superintendent’s resignation Tammy Dufour, then editor of the Coventry Courier, blamed Deasy for failing to follow through.
“It is apparent that our former Schools Superintendent had grand dreams for the Coventry School District,” Dufour wrote. “It is also apparent that Deasy skipped town without filling the rest of us in on how he intended to pay for those dreams.”
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