50, there is a new warmth and mellowing. Friends become more important than ever, but so does privacy. Since it is so often proclaimed by people past midlife, the motto of this stage might be “No more bullshit. Gail Sheehy, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life
“Status seekers, I never cared
Once I found out they never dared
To seize the world and shake it upside down
And every stinking bum should wear a crown”
I must admit to having a fascination with the story of Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. Who wouldn’t be enthralled by the tale of the daughter raised by a single parent school teacher? She starts her journey in 2001 as an intern with Senator Feinstein and rises to the top as the handpicked Commissioner of Education of Tennessee under Bill Lee. Along the way she stacks the wins up at every stop, building a resume that ranks with the best in the country, all the while serving as a champion of the downtrodden and the marginalized. At least that’s what the book jacket says.
But is it a resume that holds up under scrutiny? For this episode of as the Schwinn turns, we are going to take a deeper look at the events and circumstances around the founding and subsequent years of Capitol Collegiate Charter School in Sacramento. I think that we will find that not all that glitters is gold…well at least not for everybody. But I’m spoiling the plot.
Capital Collegiate Academy was founded back in 2011 by one Penny Schwinn. In the past, I’ve talked about Schwinn’s tenure with the St. Hope Foundation, the charter network founded by Michelle Rhee’s husband and former Mayor of Sacramento Kevin Johnson. I think it’s a safe assumption that in opening her own school, Schwinn benefited from her relationship with Johnson. It worth noting that Penny’s husband Paul, also worked for the St. Hope Foundation. Stick around, you’ll notice a pattern here.
Returning to Sacramento and opening a charter school was a self-professed dream of Schwinn’s. Per an article in a journal produced by the California Charter School Association, “Her goal was to return to her home town and start a charter school in an under-served community. Her vision was to provide strong standards and high expectations for all students.” Schwinn would assume the role of principal of the school that first year, before 9 months later she would assume a seat on the local school board followed 14 months later by becoming Assistant Superintendent of Sacramento City Unified School District, overseeing the very school she founded.
You may remember back in the Spring when Schwinn tweeted out for principal day how much she loved being a principal. Well, who wouldn’t love to be a principal for a school that only housed 60 Kindergarten students? Per their website, “Capitol Collegiate follows a slow growth model, which means we add an additional grade level each year. Our founding scholars started Kindergarten in 2011 and will graduate from 8th grade in 2020. CCA currently serves students in Transitional Kindergarten (TK) through 8th Grade.”
If you look at state achievement scores, that initial class of 2011 seems to be doing quite well. Last year, as 7th graders, 58.2% performed at or above expectations in ELA and 47.06% did the same in Math. I’d say that qualifies for celebration.
The only caveat that I would add is to point out that a class that started out having 60 students held 22 students last year and is now down to 15. So a little math will tell you that out those 22 students, 13 are on grade level or above and 9 are underperforming. That’s not quite as much cause for celebration. With such a small class, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect higher achievement levels.
Right now, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking, “This all very interesting, but Penny lit out of there on a fast train nearly a decade ago. What’s all of this have to do with today?”
Ah, but the question is, did Ms. Schwinn truly depart Capital Collegiate Academy? You might be surprised to find out that the Commissioner is still an active board member of the charter school, a seat she has held since inception.
“How does she do it”, you might ask, “Surely there are expectations about attending board meetings.”
Rest assured that when Ms. Schwinn can’t make it in person, she participates via teleconference from 710 James Robertson Parkway, Nashville, Tennessee. In case you don’t recognize that address, it’s where her office, supplied by Tennessee taxpayers, is located.
Here’s where things get even more interesting. You see Penny wasn’t just a board member, she was also the Executive Director of the school from 2015 – 2019. Currently, the organization doesn’t appear to have an executive director. Though I hear Paul’s doing nothing…never mind, I’m sure they’ve already thought of that.
While serving as CCA’s executive director, Penny was serving as an associate superintendent in both Delaware and Texas, and in 2019 she became the Commissioner of Education for Tennessee. You wouldn’t be remiss in thinking, “There is no way she could have done both jobs simultaneously”. But she did, and was paid a pretty penny – pun intended – for it.
Lotta ching, huh?
So now you might be thinking that Ms. Schwinn cut some kind of deal, and arranged a ceremonial position due to her status as a “founder” in order to receive payment long after she split to explore greener pastures. A fair assumption, unfortunately not an assumption not backed up by documentation from the Capitol Collegiate Academy charter application where the duties of the Executive Director are extensive and clearly spelled out.
That seems like a lot of work to be doing from the East Coast while also serving as Delaware’s Chief accountability officer. I know the irony, right?
If this has you scratching your head in puzzlement, don’t consider yourself alone. In 2015, CCA was up for renewal and the SCUSD School Board had some questions themselves. They list a number of promises the school made that they’d failed to keep. Also noting that “the current Executive director fills her role as a part-time position. She is employed as an education official, in another capacity, on the East Coast of the United States. Clearly, they were as perplexed as we are.
Somebody should have pointed out o board members that the school’s IRS filings have Schwinn down as working a 40-hour week. Quite the go-getter this one is. And Mr. Schwinn, what was he up to in Delaware. He was hired as the Director of Leadership Development for the Delaware Leadership Project, which is funded by the Delaware DOE, Rodel, and Vision. Seeing the pattern yet?
During the review, the board also expressed some concerns around the employees to students ratio. Thy felt the organization was a little top-heavy. Five years later and none of that has changed. In their 2020/2021 budget presentation(CCA_1920 Apr Board Meeting Slides_ts-2020.04.22 copy) CCA shows that they expect 428 students to be enrolled this year and in order to serve those students, they will hire 48 full-time employees. Good news though, they got $100k from the CARES Act fund in order to offset staff costs.
Ultimately, CCA’s charter was renewed for another 5 years, but not without a litany of demands and some skepticism. The staff’s final recommendation was, “due to an unstable governance structure with declining participation. Petitioners are demonstrably unlikely to successfully implement the program set forth in the Petition”. Devoid of context, one would be hard-pressed to discern whether they were talking about Capitol Collegiate Academy or the Tennessee Department of Education.
Per her financial disclaimers with the State of Tennessee, Ms. Schwinn is no longer receiving compensation from CCA, but she is still a board member. Interestingly enough though, 2019’s Tennessee disclaimer shows her as merely a board member but receiving compensation. If that is accurate then she was the only one of CCA’s 7 board members receiving compensation. Which begs the question – why?
Two other things to relate before we wrap up this little tale. The first concerns the curriculum utilized CCA. For math they use Eureka and for ELA they use Wit and Wisdom, both products of Great Minds publishing. It seems to me that at some time during the just-completed contentious ELA adoption process there should have been a disclaimer that the commissioner was the Executive Director for a school doing business with Great Minds. I would also wonder what kind of deal was cut with Great Minds for CCA, in the event that the Commissioner was able to persuade a large swath of Tennessee school districts to adopt Wit and Wisdom. But then again I’m probably overly suspicious.
The other thing that bears mentioning, is an interesting tale that may mean nothing, or it may mean everything.
Robert Lundeen is currently an Assistant Superintendent at the Tennessee Department of Education. In his current role, he is responsible for implementing state-level programming and policy related to virtual schools, charter schools, innovative school models within traditional school districts, private schools, and private school access. He’s a former Teach for America guy brought to Tennessee by Ms. Schwinn. Before coming to Tennessee he worked for HISD.
In 2017 he ran for a seat on the HISD board. He ultimately lost the race by about 1000 votes. A peek at his disclaimer form makes for an interesting read. It shows familiar names like former ASD head Chris Barbic, Leadership for Educational Equity – the political wing of TFA, Rachael Faulkner – Associate Director of Santa Monica-Malibu Education Association, James Scheible – CAO St. Hope Schools, Jenifer Meer – Bellweather Ed Partners, Bill Durbin – Bellwether Ed Partners, among others. Most are small donors. There also contributions from a plethora of HISD employees. Capitol Collegiate principal Cristin Fiorelli is a donor as is CCA employee Ana Gutierrez-Dooley.
I was curious if Dooley was still employed at CCA, so I went to their web site. Under staff, there is Ms. Gutierrez who is listed sans picture as a 7th and 8th-grade social studies teacher. But if you look at Linked In you find Ana Gutierrez-Dooley, who is a Special Projects Coordinator at CAPITOL COLLEGIATE INC. and a former TFA corps member.
Again it may mean nothing, or…
At the very least I think portions of Commissioner Schwinn’s resume deserve further scrutiny. Maybe there is nothing wrong with her drawing two full-time paychecks from two separate employers. maybe there is. Maybe it’s a problem for her to do business with the same entities as a private official and a public official without public disclosure, maybe it’s not. Maybe the manner in which Ms. Schwinn manages her charter school gives insight into how she manages the TNDOE, maybe it doesn’t.
A cursory look at her resume does provide evidence of numerous trends – lawsuits, nepotism, mis-staffing, poor management – that don’t bode well for the future of the Tennessee Department of Education. Earlier today PET Executive Director JC Bowman released an editorial that raised the question of should a no-confidence vote on Commissioner Schwinn be held by the Tennessee General Assembly.
It’s an interesting proposition. Ms. Schwinn seems to have Governor Lee’s undying support, but the love has not been as universal with state legislators. With several having made the trek from the legislative plaza to the Governor’s Mansion to voice their displeasure.
To date, it’s been primarily the Republican legislators that have hit Ms. Schwinn the hardest, while Democrats remain strangely silent. The more you look at Dr. Schwinn the more she is revealed as a personification of the boogeyman that they have been screaming about for years. A Gates-funded, TFA trained, Charter School promoter working the system, to their benefit, administrator, yet they’ve uttered nary a criticism. I would think that this would be a prime opportunity for Democrat challenger Jerri Green to hit incumbent Mark White over his undying support of Schwinn. But again, nary a mention.
Maybe things will change next week. Maybe they won’t. But one thing I am sure about, this won’t be the last episode of As the Schwinn Turns.
That’s it for now. See you again by the end of the week.
If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to deliver is always welcome.
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