Bridgeport tabs national figure to head school reform effort

A nationally known educator who led school reform efforts in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans will try to turn around one of Connecticut’s most troubled public school systems.

The Bridgeport Board of Education was expected late Tuesday to name Paul Vallas as acting superintendent while the school district prepares to find a permanent successor to John Ramos, who leaves at the end of the month.

The board also named Sandra Kase, a prominent New York City educator who specializes in school turnarounds, as the school district’s acting chief administrative officer.

Vallas and Kase will take over a struggling school system with dismal test scores, high dropout rates and shrinking budgets. Less than 40 percent of the city’s 10th-graders scored at a proficient level in mathematics on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test last spring, and only 10 percent met the state goal.

The district also is the subject of a state Supreme Court case over a reorganization of the Board of Education.

Vallas, who was to be introduced at a board meeting Tuesday evening, is to begin duties Jan. 2.

“We’re extremely fortunate to have him,” said board Chairman Robert Trefry, who was introduced to Vallas by state Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor.

“He has enormous respect,” said Pryor, who worked as a volunteer alongside Vallas last year in the earthquake recovery effort in Haiti.

In a news release issued by the Bridgeport Board of Education, Vallas said he will tackle some of the district’s most serious problems while helping local officials recruit a permanent leadership team.

“I plan to stabilize the district’s finances while developing a long-term balanced budget strategy, to develop and implement a comprehensive education improvement plan in partnership with the school community that will improve student achievement in every school,” Vallas said.

“I’m looking forward to the challenge of moving this district forward,” he said.

In both Chicago and Philadelphia, he raised test scores, closed budget deficits and renovated hundreds of schools. Later, he headed the Recovery School District of Louisiana, a statewide district that reformed public schools in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Kase also has specialized in reforming low-performing schools. In New York City, she was responsible for turning around 41 elementary, middle and high schools and since 2004 has been a consultant on school improvement, teacher quality, charter school evaluation and instructional program development throughout New York, according to a news release from the Bridgeport board.

“I plan to work closely with Paul to identify the outstanding issues in all of the city’s schools that need immediate attention and to create school improvement plans for each school across the district,” she said in the release.

Vallas and Kase have been hired for 12 months or until permanent replacements are named.

The state appointed a new board of education in August at the request of Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch and six members of the Bridgeport board, but that decision is being challenged in the state Supreme Court by previous board members, parents and others.

Meanwhile, Ramos’ contract was terminated by the board in October.