We’ll talk to Dr. Kent Scribner, who has been superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District since 2008. He has been selected to take over as school superintendent of the Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas.
JOSE CARDENAS: Good evening. I'm Jose Cardenas. The head of the Phoenix union high school district has been selected to take over as superintendent of schools in Fort Worth, Texas. We'll talk to Dr. Kent Scribner about his new position, the current state of education in Arizona and more. And an exhibition following an artist's journey addressing issues of power and violence. All this coming up next on "Horizonte."
VIDEO: Funding for "Horizonte" is made possible by contributions by the Friends of Eight, members of your Arizona PBS station.
JOSE CARDENAS: Thank you for joining us. We begin tonight with an update to a segment we did in June regarding the condemnation and possible eviction of families living in a trailer park in Mesa. The city of Mesa has been told by representatives of the owner of the Mesa Royale Mobile Home Park that the sale of the property has closed. Because of this new development, the city will work with the new owner, a company based in California, to make the most needed infrastructure improvements to the property. This means that the families who still live at the Mesa mobile home park have been granted a temporary reprieve. Phoenix Union High School District is the largest high school district in Arizona. Dr. Kent Scribner has led the district as superintendent since 2008. He has been selected to take over as superintendent of the Fort Worth Independent School District in Phoenix. Joining me now to talk about his time in Arizona and new position is Dr. Kent Scribner, superintendent of the Phoenix Union High School District. Dr. Scribner, welcome to "Horizonte." It's a line I've used many times. You've been a frequent guest, recognized as one of the most successful educators in the state of Arizona and certainly, the fact that you have been the superintendent of the largest school district in the state has been part of the reason why your voice has been so significant. Before we get into the details of what happened in the district and quite frankly why you're leaving, give us a thumb nail sketch of the district itself.
KENT SCRIBNER: So Phoenix union covers 220 square miles of central, south and west Phoenix. It's a large geographical space. I have served for eight years as the superintendent of the high school district, all the students, ninth through 12th, 27,000 students but we also have 13 different elementary partner districts, k-8 districts, that comprise one K-12 pipeline would be 130,000 students.
JOSE CARDENAS: You came in 2008. There was turmoil. Tell us about that.
KENT SCRIBNER: Well, there was a great deal of turmoil and a changing demographic in terms of the student population. Phoenix union serves the low-income and language minority population, 84% of the students live at or below the federal poverty line, 81% Latino, about 9% African-American, and the district was experiencing real change internally. There was an us versus them culture with the teachers and administrators, schools and community, and I had been serving within the midst of Phoenix union as the superintendent of the Isaac elementary school district for five years prior to coming on to Phoenix union, and what I found was a district that had great potential but needed to move away from focusing on adult issues and adult conflicts and really get back to the focus of preparing students for academic success.
JOSE CARDENAS: Now, as you prepare to leave and I guess we should mention that it's not formal, formal, there's still form at all that need to take place but it's going to happen, sadly, for Phoenix. Tell us what you view as the current state of the district.
KENT SCRIBNER: When we started in 2008, I found a district who like most urban districts was starting to slide into what I would call the deficit model, how do we minimize student failure? The goal being high school graduation, focusing on metrics around minimizing student failure as opposed to maximizing student success. I was very fortunate to come on board at the same time of a progressive governing board which was focusing on college and career preparedness. They took the paragraph-long run-on sentence and turned it into a simple point, preparing every student for success in college, career and life. We focused all of our efforts not on the high school graduation in the 10th grade test but rather on what number and what percentage of our students were going on to college and were actually able to take credit bearing freshmen, university or college math and English courses. We had several great initiatives in that area.
JOSE CARDENAS: So by those measures, how has the district changed in the time that you've been there?
KENT SCRIBNER: When I got there and the board wanted us to adopt this new mission of preparing every student for success in college, career and life I asked the question well how many of our questions took the ACT or the SAT the previous spring? And of 5,000 juniors, only 340 had taken the test. So thanks to a couple of members in the legislature, and most importantly the Helios foundation, we began in 2009 to offer the ACT test to all 11th graders during the school day in April on a Tuesday at no cost to the students and nothing, nothing that we've done has helped us leverage the college and career cultural transformation more than that. Teachers starting asking the questions of their top students and what grade were they getting on the act and how did that compare nationally? Students themselves were demanding a more rigorous preparation for college.
JOSE CARDENAS: Now, we've got some pictures that illustrate some of these items as successes, the first one being a graduation ceremony which I think ultimately is the measure of success. How is the district doing there in terms of graduation rates?
KENT SCRIBNER: Well, graduation rates have climbed dramatically in the last several years. Our focus, despite the fact that the graduation rates have increased, we've seen growth in that area. Particularly for some of the subgroups. So the U.S. department of education asks us to measure -- make schools measure how they're doing based on gender, race and ethnicity and what we found in Phoenix union because we have high-quality teachers, we have staff and support staff that are culturally competent, if you're an African-American student or if you're a Hispanic student, you have a better four-year graduation rate in Phoenix union than you do compared to the statewide average. That has to do with a lot of the wrap-around services and support that we provide our students.
JOSE CARDENAS: And other offerings that you have, there's been expansion in the district, we've had another picture here, I think this was a new building that was coming up?
KENT SCRIBNER: Yes. JROTC is a great program, several thousand students participating in that and our student population again representative of the larger student population but those students in JROTC are some of our highest achieving students, leadership capacity, going on to colleges and universities, really demonstrating discipline in their extracurricular activities but it translates to the classroom.
JOSE CARDENAS: And we've got a picture of Franklin police and fire school.
KENT SCRIBNER: Another initiative that we've undertaken are the small and specialized schools. That began before my time but we've really focused on high-achieving and rigorous small schools because size matters. Bioscience high school, one of the top schools in the state, Franklin police and fire, another top school. We are about ready to do a ribbon cutting at the Phoenix coding academy, a computer programming and coding school, 400 student school right on the central high school campus. We found that embedding small specialized schools within the large comprehensive high school system is the way to go because there are some students who want the large high school experience and others who want a small we call them charter-likes, and our small specialized schools outperform any of their peer schools.
JOSE CARDENAS: We have a picture of you with another accomplished graduate, somebody that we've seen here in the valley on occasion, too, and this time he was visiting I think more in connection with something going on with housing but you've been actively involved in some of the initiatives of the Obama administration?
KENT SCRIBNER: Right, in 2011, I was asked to join the president's advisory commission, it's a great experience with leaders from all over the country and really focusing on best practices for low-income and language minority students and we're very, very proud in Phoenix union to be able to tell some great stories of success. When we started this, we said we don't want to be like other large urban settings, the challenges that are in L.A. and Chicago and Philadelphia. Phoenix is different. And thankfully, we have a governing board who was stable and a governing structure focused on the right things, rigor in the classroom, relevance in instruction for our students and certainly meaningful relationships between adults and students.
JOSE CARDENAS: Which you've described in the past as the new three r's in education.
KENT SCRIBNER: When we were going to school, it was reading, writing and arithmetic. And we need to have an answer today. And relationships. The two-parent home in a stable environment is not the norm across our society so schools have to serve not only in the academic sense but in the social and emotional sense, as well.
JOSE CARDENAS: And this last picture is a reflection of another success of yours, it's what I call the Phoenix union goes to the movies picture. But seriously, this is quite an accomplishment or reflects a major accomplishment of the school.
KENT SCRIBNER: It's another national story. The carl Hayden falcon robotics team, an after-school program, four students, three of whom were undocumented, and those students entered in a robotics competition at U.C. Santa Barbara and they won the competition, mit was in second and first place was carl Hayden high school at 35th avenue and Roosevelt.
JOSE CARDENAS: And Harvard was among the losers.
KENT SCRIBNER: They also were.
JOSE CARDENAS: And it got made into a movie, that's why George Lopez is here.
KENT SCRIBNER: It did. George Lopez plays the role of the teacher and Jamie lee Curtis is the principal and I was hoping Bruce Willis would be the superintendent but that wasn't the case.
JOSE CARDENAS: We talked about a number of the highs. Let me ask you overall, the best and the worst moments in your tenure.
KENT SCRIBNER: The best and the worst moments in my tenure in Phoenix union are probably the same. When we experienced in 2009 the great recession and the economy fell off the cliff and we had to cut, we cut 162 positions. So that was challenging. That was more than challenging. It was devastating. We were able to save jobs and through attrition place people in years forward but it was also the best thing that happened to us because it forced us to identify and determine, take stock of where we were and determine what our core values are and we were able to shrink programs, we had 700 programs and you know what? We probably only needed 70. School districts that are successful, like companies that are successful, do fewer things better. So it was both a blessing and a curse.
JOSE CARDENAS: Now, people are concerned about your departure, what it means for the future of the school district. What do you have to say to that?
KENT SCRIBNER: Well, I have never applied for a job before this and when the search firm, the head-hunter came and contacted me, and if this hadn't have worked out, I never would have applied for another one, I was very happy in Phoenix. But one of the reasons that I did continue the conversation is because this is the best leadership team that I've ever worked with. My assistant superintendents and associate superintendents are phenomenal, the district made a great decision in acting quickly and decisively in naming Dr. Chad Gestson as the interim. He's a bright and dynamic leader, transformed camelback high school, now supervising the principals and one of our colleagues talked about hiring teachers, he said I'm not only looking for a bilingual tongue but a bilingual heart and he has both.
JOSE CARDENAS: He's not Latino, which may be an issue for some in the community. What do you say to that?
KENT SCRIBNER: We want somebody who's good for Latino kids, not necessarily the right surname. My last name is not Latino either but he's a dynamic leader, a brilliant educator, he's worked with me for 12 years in two different districts. And Phoenix union students and the community I think would benefit a great deal by the continued upward trajectory. Urban districts are successful when there is stability in governance and leadership and that's what we've been able to establish in Phoenix union.
JOSE CARDENAS: Last question. Tell us a little bit about the district you're going to.
KENT SCRIBNER: Fort Worth independent school district is in the city of Fort Worth right next to Dallas, 86,000 students, 143 schools, a district that's 75% low-income, 60% Latino, 24% African-American student population. One interesting feature about it, though, is the business community is really, really engaged and in some of the urban settings that I've talked about, the middle class has given up on the public schools. That hasn't happened in Fort Worth. It's going to be a great opportunity for me to learn about the community and learn from those members who are really engaged in schools and hopefully, replicate some of the same kinds of things that we went through in Phoenix union.
JOSE CARDENAS: Dr. Kent Scribner, thanks for all your years here, we wish you the best of luck in Fort Worth.
KENT SCRIBNER: Thank you very much.
Dr. Kent Scribner: superintendent of Phoenix Union High School District