New superintendent of education is not new to DC

Last week the Mayor appointed Jesús Aguirre, the current director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, to the position of state superintendent of education. Aguirre does have a background in education, but will it be enough to positively affect education policy in the district?

Photo from DC DPR website.

Aguirre has worked as a science teacher in Los Angeles, a charter school operator in Arizona, and most recently as the Director of School Operations for DCPS.

Like many others in DC's school reform movement, Aguirre began his educational career as a member of Teach for America. In 1995, Aguirre and his wife, Monica Liang-Aguirre, founded and began operating Tertulia Pre-College Community, one of the first charter schools in Phoenix, AZ. (Liang-Aguirre now serves as the principal of Oyster Adams Elementary School in Ward 3.)

The school served low-income, largely Hispanic students at two campuses: an elementary school serving kindergarten through 5th grade, and a middle school serving 6th through 8th grades.

In 2006, Aguirre and his wife relocated to the East Coast for personal reasons. "Although we were still technically on the board of directors and the charter holders," Aguirre said in an email, "we regrettably were not involved in the day-to-day management of the school and were not able to truly support the school's new leader."

Testing data for the school is available going back to 2007. The schools struggled, and test scores apparently fluctuated wildly after 2009. When the school's 15-year charter expired in 2010, the Arizona charter school board declined to renew it, citing poor academic progress, failure to timely submit financial audits, and failure to comply with monitoring and reporting requirements for federal money. At the time, Aguirre was president of the board of the school, which closed in 2011.

Reasons for the school's decline

Aguirre attributes the school's decline to a number of factors. In addition to his move to the East Coast, he cites an increasingly hostile environment towards bilingual education, which, he says, "deprived our students of much-needed language support." He also says that antipathy towards immigrants in Phoenix led many of the school's families to return to Mexico, causing a drop in enrollment that led to financial instability.

While Tertulia was sometimes late in submitting state-required audits and reports during Aguirre's tenure there, he says that the audits were always clean, and the school was in compliance with all state and federal requirements.

Aguirre also notes that, although the school struggled to meet the progress deadlines set by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation, it was often "labeled as performing or higher" by the state while he was there. He points to the hundreds of students who he says were successfully educated at the school.

From 2007 until 2009, Aguirre served as the Director of School Operations for DCPS under former Chancellor Michelle Rhee. He was tasked with ensuring that day-to-day school functions ran smoothly, and he says his experience running a charter school impressed upon him the importance of freeing principals from such concerns so that they can focus on instruction.

In 2009, Aguirre was tapped to run the DC Department of Parks and Recreation. His appointment as state superintendent of education last week came after what Mayor Vincent Gray described as a nationwide search. His nomination now moves to the DC Council for approval. It's not clear when the Council will vote, but Gray has said Aguirre will assume the position on October 1st.

Role of the state superintendent of education

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) plays the same role in DC that a department of education does in a state. The state superintendent of education reports directly to the mayor and is tasked with ensuring DC residents have access to a quality education. This means that the superintendent:

  • Obtains federal funds and grants
  • Certifies educators
  • Selects, administers, and ensures the integrity of standardized tests
  • Drives educational research, and
  • Proposes educational reform ideas
If recent history is any indication, ensuring testing integrity will be an important and highly visible part of the next superintendent's job. Cheating scandals going back to 2008 have caused controversy and thrown the validity of some test results into doubt.

OSSE is not the only agency with authority over education policy in the district. The Deputy Mayor of Education, Abigail Smith (who also served under Rhee), is tasked with overseeing a District-wide education strategy, managing interagency coordination, and providing oversight and support for all education-related agencies. DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson oversees the traditional public school system, and the Public Charter School Board has jurisdiction over the growing charter sector. OSSE's oversight responsibilities straddle both sectors, as well as that of adult education.

Some have urged that the state superintendent should have more independence from the mayor. One of the education bills that Councilmember David Catania has introduced would achieve that result by making the superintendent dismissible only for cause and only after a vote by the Board of Education.

Both the Post and Examiner have reported on Aguirre's appointment, with the Examiner's Mark Lerner calling him an "extremely professional and reasonable individual." Neither article mentions the fate of Aguirre's former charter school.

Given Aguirre's background, it's difficult to predict how his tenure as DC's superintendent will turn out. He does have experience running a charter school as well as overseeing DCPS school operations, which he claims will give him a "unique perspective" as state superintendent. But without more documentation about the charter school's history and the circumstances surrounding its closure, it's not clear whether that experience will serve him well.

The school may have performed adequately while he was operating it, but as a board member and president he still bears some responsibility for its subsequent difficulties. On the other hand, he must have come away from that experience having learned a significant amount about what charters need to succeed.

Even assuming that's the case, OSSE's problems are larger than those of a single charter school. It's an agency with a history of high turnover, not just in leadership, but also among the staff. That can cripple an organization no matter how capable the leadership. If Aguirre would like to make an impact in his role as superintendent, he would do well to focus on reducing turnover at OSSE, securing testing integrity, and using the agency's resources to effect positive changes for students.

Jessica Christy has two children learning Chinese at Washington Yu Ying, where she is also the president of the Parent Association. For work, she does industrial hygiene consulting and stays at home with her two-year-old. In her free time (ha!), Jessica enjoys needlepoint and DIY home improvement. All opinions stated here are her own. 


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Thanks for the background on his charter experience. Since he's TFA he likely doesn't have a degree in education. The Superintendent position is an education position, not a management position and the person who runs that agency should have in-depth knowledge of education. Operating a charter school and running operations for DCPS are not what that position requires.

Though he's done great work at DPR and was great at DCPS, I don't think he's a good choice for this position.

I also would love to see articles stop simply acknowledging the high turnover at OSSE and start looking into why there's such high turnover.

by erik on Sep 19, 2013 12:09 pm • linkreport

Comparing former State Superintendent Deborah Gist (and current Rhode Island Education Commissioner) with Aguirre really brings the contrast into sharp relief. Gist had much more experience in education, as well as a bachelors, masters and doctorate in education, and was great.

The Council should send this nomination back to the mayor and ask why he isn't nominating someone of Gist's caliber.

by Ken Archer on Sep 19, 2013 1:07 pm • linkreport

It's really unfortunate that Gray has made such a poor decision. I can't speak to his education credentials, but having interacted with Aguirre's team at DPR over the last couple of years it's clear he's not a good candidate for this, or any kind of management job at all. Seems like a lazy appointment of one of Gray's cronies, nothing more.

by Joe on Sep 20, 2013 3:21 am • linkreport

Jesus Aguirre is professional, courteous, and as insightful about education as any similarly accomplished PhD. He is a person of utmost integrity and will be a strong leader to help OSSE emerge from the shadows to lead progress in education for every District resident. Mayor Gray has made a wise choice in nominating Jesus Aguirre to the position of State Superintendent of Education.

by JM on Sep 20, 2013 6:34 am • linkreport

@Joe and JM: You seem to have the opposite viewpoint as to Aguirre's appointment. On what do you base your opinions? Can you be more specific as to why you think he'd be good or bad for the job?

by Jessica Christy on Sep 20, 2013 1:20 pm • linkreport

"Aguirre is professional, courteous, and as insightful..."

Yes, but it would be interesting to hear from Aguirre himself on how successful he has been at DPR making lasting cultural and institutional changes to set that troubled agency back on the right foot or if he's just walking away at the first opportunity failing to provide any meaningful leadership addressing —

poor maintenance of the Wilson Pool (the largest and most expensive in the District)

• poorly maintained/managed rec centers

• dirty outdoor pools this summer

• a drowning at a pool under his (staff's) leadership a couple of years ago

• gang/drug filled parks in Shaw and elsewhere

From his first embarrassing hand picked DOES director to close staff in his administration, Gray has been known to make some dubious personnel decisions

by MrM on Sep 20, 2013 1:49 pm • linkreport

Jesus is nice enough, but he and his staff knows nothing about parks or green space. DPR has abdicated its maintenance to DGS, another agency with no working knowledge of park design or maintenance. I imagine he is more qualified to be the super intendant of schools, given that he was not at all qualified to run parks and recreation. For this reason, dearly hopes he gets the new job and takes his chief of staff and his crazy COO with him. While he has worked to upgrade playgrounds and some buildings, the bonafide District owned park spaces are devoid of investment. New York, San Francisco and Chicago have great local parks, but DC fails to invest in neighborhood parks.

by NIMBY4Life on Sep 22, 2013 3:06 pm • linkreport

did gray sleep on this decision? im sure there were better applicants out there. even on the surface this makes no sense, digging down will just make you more upset at this decision. gray cant be running for re-election with a pick like this.

by yanas on Sep 23, 2013 4:47 pm • linkreport

Hello sir. My name is samuel davis I have a son attend hart middle school he hhas been jump beaten by young gang members. He had been suspended foe try to protect his self and his belongings I was to by principal to tranfer him. I refuse to. My son is scared for his life there. Mr. Smothers is the dean of seven grade is not doing his job at all. Nor the principal.

by Delontae Jameson on Sep 24, 2013 6:16 pm • linkreport

audio: @TommyWells2014 does not support Jesus Aguirre to head OSSE.

Sunday 29 September 2013

At a campaign meet and greet held in an upper northwest neighborhood of Washington DC, candidate for Mayor, Tommy Wells, said that he does not support DPR Director Jesus Aguirre as the head of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education. Wells cited his previous tenure as the Councilmember with over sight over the DPR when when he felt that the customer service at DPR was terrible and that Aguirre is neither a risk taker or innovator — two essential leadership skills in Wells opinion.

by @ShawingtonTimes on Sep 30, 2013 8:12 am • linkreport

It's difficult to run a successful charter school especially when most students are Latino inner city kids from low income households. As a former student of Tertulia I can honestly say that Mr. Aguirre and his wife genuinely cared about students and the quality of education we received. They encouraged every one of their student to strive for a college education. Thanks to Aguirre and his wife I am one year away from completing my BA from ASU. I am sure Aguirre will do a fantastic job as superintendent of education. Congrats!

by Felix on Nov 27, 2013 12:59 am • linkreport

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