Man picked to lead schools aims to bridge system into road to success

Man picked to lead schools aims to bridge system into road to success »Play Video
Gov. John Kitzhaber, left, and his pick for Oregon's chief education officer, Rudy Crew, standing, watch Alex Alonso, 6, a student at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Southeast Portland, learn through an interactive computer program. While the computers are fun for kids they are used to teach them skills, including reading and math. (Steve Benham/

PORTLAND, Ore. -  Education in Oregon is about bridges – at least figuratively – and building them to cross the gorges in the state's education system is needed to help connect it into a single, unified operation for successfully educating students.

That's what Gov. John Kitzhaber’s candidate for the state's new position of chief education officer, Rudy Crew, said about Oregon's system, and he said he wants to ensure the reforms happen if he's hired for the job.

"There are bridges that are missing," in Oregon's education system from early childhood through college, Crew said during a Wednesday morning news conference at Earl Boyles Elementary School in Southeast Portland after he was introduced by Kitzhaber.

"There are on-boarding places where there are students who are leaving high school and then trying to go into (college or the work force) – there's not a bridge for that," he said. "There are places of where middle schools going into high schools – there's not a bridge for that. There are places where elementary children who are the bi-product of having not gone to a preschool program, there's no bridge for them."

He said those missing bridges are part of the reason there is an achievement gap.

Creating a seamless educational system is the vision Kitzhaber has for the state and is the reason why he pushed the Legislature in 2011 to create the position of chief education officer and an Education Investment Board. He's often spoken of the need to eliminate the "silos" that exist in the education system.

Crew did not elaborate on the specific kinds of "bridges" he'd like to build if hired, and he said he hadn't yet spoken with Kitzhaber or Investment Board members about what specific silos exist. But he said what often happens is the bureaucracies work "singularly" in carrying out their mission of allocating resources and financing the system.

Reformers say such a system works inefficiently.

If hired it’ll be his job, along with members of the new board, to tear down those "silos" to ensure the state's education system has a clear road to student success. That will mean he'll need to oversee all the elements through the entire education system. That kind of power is unprecedented in Oregon.

"We're creating something that doesn't exist anywhere else," said Julia Brim-Edwards, who chaired a screening panel that whittled a pool of 50 candidates to three finalists.

Brim-Edwards and Kitzhaber said Crew has a track record of leadership and innovation that makes him the ideal candidate to quickly shake up the status quo.

Crew still needs the nod from the Investment Board, which is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to hire him. The board conducted a nationwide search for a candidate.

As part of Kitzhaber's ambitious agenda for his new education chief, Crew will be tasked with some heavy reforms including creating a system for budgeting to outcomes, reorganizing early childhood services and overseeing the implementation of "achievement compacts," which are specific goals that schools are expected to meet.

Crew said he won't be afraid to try new things and from "stepping into the fray" to find out what works and what doesn't.

That willingness to stir things up may have been his downfall in other districts.

He was forced from his position as superintendent in the Miami-Dade County School District in 2008. According to an Associated Press story, he told reporters he was ousted because he was so focused on reform and didn’t take too much stock in the politics.

Miami Herald reporter Kathleen McGrory, who wrote about education and Crew, said he was controversial during his time as superintendent.

"Part of being the superintendent in Dade County was navigating the politics," she told KATU News by phone. "That was something Rudy Crew had a very hard time with. I mean in 2008 he even said to me and we wrote in a story, 'I have not been the most politically astute superintendent.'"

He also overspent in Florida, going $46 million over budget one year and $66 million over another year.

"Our folks in Tallahassee, which is our state capital, viewed his administration as just spending too much and not producing results," McGrory said.

He was also fired from running the New York City public school system by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani and told The Oregonian in an interview Tuesday that it was because his reforms there and in Miami caused a "ruffling (of) feathers."

He clashed with Giuliani over a proposal to use tax money to send kids to private school. Crew opposed it.

"I can try to be far more diplomatic (in Oregon) ... but this is about the way it should be for these children. ... I am what I am," he told The Oregonian.

Under his leadership in Miami, the district built almost 30 schools and reduced overcrowding, and scores on state achievement tests increased.

When asked Wednesday about the disputes in New York and Miami, Crew said you can't reform broken systems without upsetting some people.

"I've stayed as long as there is essentially the political will to do that kind of work," he said. "When that will runs out, it's not unclear what you have to do. You either have to stay and try to fight everybody, which is not tenable, or you have to leave."

On this day, however, he was optimistic and passionate about taking charge of the myriad of fractured elements in the state’s education system.

"I think there are going to be slips and slides along the way," he said. But "I believe there are people in the field right now for whom this has been their life's work as well. Therein is the diamond in the rough. Therein is the work we have to cull and find and scratch and ask people to come out of their sense of sometimes abandonment and come to us and say, 'here's a better way.'"

He said if there is support for reform from those in high office, like the governor, a clear direction of where that reform needs to go and people are allowed to act, "people sign up, parents sign up, business community members sign up, and that's what's needed now" to get Oregon's education system on track. 

Earl Boyles Elementary School was the site for the introduction of Kitzhaber’s candidate for the new job because proponents of a revamped education system say the school is a successful model for early childhood education as it works to implement the “Early Works” initiative, which is aimed at helping children start out their lives in the school system "ready for success" even before they enter kindergarten.

"There's much to be learned in these places (schools like Earl Boyles). These are petri dishes of learning," Crew said.

The initiative aims to help parents and students get access to education classes, health screenings, preschool and support groups.

After the news conference, Kitzhaber and Crew toured the school, stopping by several classrooms to visit with children and learn about what they're learning.

Crew has 30 years of experience in education and has been credited for turning around low-performing schools. He’s currently a professor at the University of Southern California.

If he's hired, Crew will be paid $280,000 a year under a three-year contract starting July 1.

Steven Dubois of The Associated Press and Lincoln Graves of KATU News contributed to this report.