Veteran educator touts simplicity, autonomy

By Christi Milligan

Ron Russo
Ron Russo

The comparison between Lee Iococca’s management style at Chrysler and Delaware’s public school system might not be that apparent to others, but veteran educator Ron Russo draws it clearly.

“I believe school is a business,” said Russo. “Lee Ioccoca didn’t go into Chrysler and tell people working on the line how to build cars and it shouldn’t happen in schools. There should be no micro-management.”

Nixing micro-management from above is one part of Russo’s prescription for Delaware’s public schools. The former president of The Charter School of Wilmington insists each school should operated like an individual business — “The Bold Plan” he’s introducing first to the state’s business community and then later to the Delaware Department of Education.

It is essentially a reboot of the state’s 1995 mandate that created the charter schools program — a public school that was empowered to replace rules-based governance with performance-based accountability.

In contrast to the Vision Coalition’s expansive efforts hinged on research, interviews, steering committees and the input of educators and citizens, Russo touts a model that simply gives local schools the power to do continuous improvements from year to year — a customized, rather than standardized, approach.

Russo said he has trouble envisioning a plan that would be right for every one of Delaware’s more than 200 schools. But under “The Bold Plan,” each principal, or Chief Education Officer, would be given the autonomy to customize their own school.

And while he lauds the work of the Vision Coalition, he said he’s simply offering a different idea, one that found success among charter schools.

He noted the DCAS and NAEP assessment scores for Delaware public schools. The Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System scores from 2013-14 show that 70 percent of Delaware students are proficient in reading and math, while the National Assessment of Educational Progress (Considered the “Nation’s Report Card”) indicates that it’s more like 40 percent.

“Shouldn’t we care more about what we look like nationally?” asked Russo.

Russo, who said he’s hoping to leverage the support of the business community before meeting with DOE officials, is quick to point out that is was the business community and the state that were the biggest cheerleaders of the original 1995 model, which ultimately led to the creation of The Charter School of Wilmington, consistently one of the nation’s top performing schools according to U.S. News and World Report.

“I think the people in the building have to take ownership of that building,” said Russo. “If you feel that you’re in control, that changes the ballgame.”

He added that constant changes in policies and procedures leave teachers feeling undermined and overwhelmed. But he’s careful about offering specific solutions for Delaware schools.

“You can’t ask me to propose a solution,” he said. “Telling you what to do goes against my bold plan.”

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