Phenix City school board interviews first superintendent finalist

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 21, 2014 

The Phenix City Board of Education on Wednesday evening interviewed the first of the two remaining finalists to be the school system's next superintendent.

Irma Townsend, the human resources director and student services supervisor for Enterprise City Schools, answered questions read by board attorney Sydney Smith. Townsend and the board were on stage in the Central High School auditorium, with about two dozen folks in the audience.

The board is scheduled to interview Christopher Quinn, the assistant superintendent for instruction in Stafford County (Va.) Public Schools, at 5 p.m. Tuesday, also in the Central auditorium.

Here are excerpts from Townsend's interview, edited for brevity and clarity:

Why are you interested in this position in Phenix City?

"Phenix City is very similar to the experiences I have in Enterprise as far as school size. You are about 6,900; we're about 6,500. … You have 11 schools here; we have 11 schools there. I know there are some similarities in my life experiences that I can bring vision to this system, and I think this will be a good fit for me and I will be a good fit for this district, based on my experiences, based on my familiarity with this area. I was born and raised 20 miles up the road in Opelika, and I have a lot of experience as a student coming to the Red Devil territory. But I was a Bulldog, and y'all beat us so many times." (Laughter).

What do you think is the superintendent's role as it relates to the board, the employees of our system, the students and the community?

"The board is the superintendent's boss, the board is the policy maker that entrusts the superintendent to execute those policies and be the CEO of the boots on the ground to make sure those policies are executed. So the superintendent is answerable to the board. I think the relationship between the superintendent and the board should be one of open and honest communication, mutual respect. It should be a situation of transparency, where the board members could be a sounding board, some wisdom for the superintendent, to bounce things off of. I don't think the superintendent should expect the board to be a rubber stamp. … It's the superintendent's responsibility to keep the board apprised and up to date and to be forthcoming and forthright and honest and walk with integrity with that board. As far as the employees are concerned, the superintendent is the leader. … The superintendent has to establish the tone. Any time you go into the school you can feel the personality of the leader in that building. When they come into the Phenix City board office, they ought to feel the personality of the superintendent, one of caring and welcoming. … The superintendent should set high standards. The superintendent should model the example for the employees. The superintendent should also hold the employees accountable and hold, in my case, herself accountable. … As far as students, the superintendent has a great responsibility in making sure that students have well qualified teachers, well qualified administrators to lead them. The superintendent has the responsibility to make sure the resources are allocated to the schools to meet the needs of the students, and the students should know beyond a shadow of a doubt that 'I'm going to get a good education when I come to Phenix City Schools, because I have a very good leader in that office, a visionary in that office who values my getting better every day.' … As far as the community is concerned, we can't do it without the community. We have to be hand in hand together with them, because the community sends us the best it has, its children, and it has to be a situation where they trust me, they know that I listen to them, that I'm approachable, that I'm open, honest, up front, and the community needs to be able to rely on that. As far as city government is concerned - that's a part of the community as well - it's very important that we have a good working relationship, because the mayor's office, the city council's office, that's who appoints my board members, and it's very important for there to be an open, honest, cordial, congenial working relationship."

As the new superintendent of our system, what would be your intended actions in your first month and your first six months?

"My first month here, I would just want to come in and get to know people. I would make myself available to them. I would try to establish relationships, listen. I wouldn't come in making a lot of drastic changes right off the bat without having first listened to them. I would listen to the board. We would have conversation back and forth - there's a learning curve - and I would take that time to just gather information, gather data and see in what direction we need to go. I would look at student assessment data to see where are we, where are our gaps. … I would spend time talking to the staff, talking to the principals, getting prepared to kick off another school year, rolling some things around in my mind. … Six months, I would begin to look at our capital outlay plans, and I would look at budgeting that first month as well. I know there is a strong, sound financial base here, but I would look at that, spend a lot of time to see if that's so, so we can start planning that six-month period. Where are we going? What do we need to do? What do you have in place? So I can plug myself in and bring more insight and offer some suggestions."

How would you gauge your performance or your success at the end of the school year?

"Schools exist for children to make academic progress. The first thing I would look at: How did our students perform? Rome wasn't built in a day, but I would expect us to be making gains and making progress. … I would look at the culture and climate. How satisfied are the people? How are we working together? What do we do to collaborate, to build stronger teams? And I would say, in the first year, that's not a lot of time to get a lot of things done. That's just a good point of reference. You have to get a baseline, and then from there we would move forward and just grow and build on the good things."

How would you assess the district's current level of performance, its program effectiveness and its teacher effectiveness?

"I would look at student data to see how our children are doing. … You can look at student data by classroom teacher. I honestly believe that, while student data and success of students is not the only indicator of a good teacher, it has to be strong in there, because if our students are not performing, we need to look at things to get that teacher some professional development, some things to make sure the students are more engaged, some things to make sure our students are college and career ready, some things to make sure that they are meeting the rigorous state standards that are out there."

Describe any success you've had in (closing the achievement gap and increasing the graduation rate) and any plans to accomplish those goals here in Phenix City.

"I started the Early Warning Program in Enterprise. That's where, when students don't come to school … we changed our focus from being punitive to seeing what is the problem. Any time a child feels connected to a place, the child will want to be at that place. So we started to invite family services in, other agencies in, to be around the table with us, and we bring the parents in once a month when we see that the kids have a lot of absences. … If the parents still won't help us with that, especially elementary parents, I hate to tell you, but some have been arrested, because parents are responsible for making sure their children come to school, and the only way we're going to ever close the achievement gap is first with attendance. … There's another program unique to Enterprise that I have the privilege being over. That's called the Children Without Fund. We cannot take public money and meet the personal needs of children. However, we have reached out to our community, and we have community people, businesses, individuals make donations to that fund. So whatever that child's need is, we can take care of them right there at the school, and it's tax deductible. We had a tornado in Enterprise in 2007. We lost eight students that day. We lost two schools that day. We had several hundred students displaced, their families. But because of that fund and the giving of the community there, we were able to serve every child in our school district, bought them a week's worth of clothes, made sure they had everything they needed to come back to school. … I'm sure Phenix City is similar in heart."

How would you characterize your relationship that you established and hope to establish with employees as well as employee groups, such as AEA?

"The main way you establish relationships with people is that they have to know you care about them. You have to be approachable. People don't care what you know until they know that you care. The first thing I would want to do is just establish some positive relationships with people. … Every employee is important. When you say employee, I wouldn't just think about teachers. I think about the child nutrition worker. I think about the custodian. I think about the maintenance. I think about the people at the transportation department. I would be accessible to all of those people to build relationships with them so they would know that I'm concerned about them first as people, and then when you come to a situation where you have to have some conversations about some things where we need to improve, that's easier to do. And that leads over into the AEA portion. I had to deal with situations with the AEA several times, especially being a principal and especially being an HR director. Again, it's about relationships, and if you're forthright and forthcoming - and documentation is the key - if you have to deal with an employee issue, you let them know it's not personal, it's not political, it's professional and everything we do we're doing it for the good of students."

Describe your decision-making style and give us a few examples of different strategies you have used to confront and deal with different situations.

"I'm a collaborator. I get everybody involved in the process who needs to be involved in the process. Sometimes, especially in matters dealing with personnel, that's very private and certain people need to be involved. But if you have a dog in the fight, so to speak, I want to get you around the table. I want to listen. I believe in synergy. Everybody together can come up with a better solution than anyone alone. … I will always make my decision based on what is ethical, what is legal, what is right, what is best for the students. It may not always be popular, and it may make some people uncomfortable because some changes may have to be made. … And then I am one to explain why. I have no trouble sharing information and saying, 'This is why we need to go into this direction.'"

What steps would you take to ensure that all groups in the community are fully engaged with the schools and with the district as a whole?

"We have to be welcoming and open. People will come and be involved in places if they feel they are wanted. … Invite them to come and volunteer and make it conducive for them. Don't schedule open houses in the middle of the afternoon. Schedule them at night. You may have to have more than one. … Make sure the community has access to me, to the schools. Invite them to come to a parent advisory group, if there's not one already established, so I can hear from the parents and have a cross section of all groups. What is it that we can do to make education in Phenix City Schools better for your child?"

Share with us your experiences interacting with local governmental entities and officials.

"I haven't had that in the role as an official representative for the school system as the superintendent, but I have been involved with teams that have to interact. For example, grant writing. Any time that I wrote a grant for the district, I would have to get buy in from the mayor's office, from several different stakeholder groups, and I would invite them in. We would have a task force, and I would lead the charge in that regard. … They have to know you are open, you are welcoming, you are forthcoming with information, and let them know you need their support."

Describe a situation or an event where different opinions were perhaps hostile in nature. How would you handle it and what would you do to bring consensus?

"I just did that. I was in charge of the school calendar. (Laughter.) … You give parameters. These are our goals. This is what we're going to do, and then this is our mission, and then you give them an opportunity to say what they would like. I went back and tabulated the data and said, 'Based on you all, these are the options. This got the most votes.' I was very forthcoming with information, and I was able to share with them. Some things are non-negotiable because our superintendent and board want these things part of that calendar. But here again, you have to be open. You have to give people a chance to have their say, and then you have to remind them that this is our mission."

What is your philosophy on a system-wide leadership training program or schedule that would deal with development for all employees, in particular leadership teams at each of our schools?

"I have been responsible for doing just that. Administrators have to have something called PLUs, professional learning units. Instead of sending administrators all over the state, the past two years I was able to organize and orchestrate speakers to come in and train us. … Until you get the right people in the right slot, you're going to have trouble. … You have to ask them, 'What is it that you all need and how can I help you?' And then you orchestrate those things and bring in the resources and put your money where your mouth is, so to speak."

What would be your practice and procedure in dealing with the establishment of budgets and perhaps a strategic plan?

"I think we have to get everybody around the table. I can't effectively budget every penny for every school. I want it to be a team. They know what their needs are. The CFO would be critical. It's very important to have a strong working relationship with the CFO. My job would be to set the vision. We want to utilize all of our resources in the best way possible and get the most for our money, the biggest bang for our buck, to help our students and to help student achievement."

Would you like to make any type of closing statement?

"As far as instruction is concerned, I think it's critical with the new Common Core state standards, it's critical that we provide our teachers with the support that they need, the principals with the support that they need, to increase rigor. For example, things that they used to teach in fifth grade are now in third grade. For example, when I graduated from Auburn University, everything was teacher centered. I was taught you stood up, you lectured, you gave it to them. Now, it has to be student centered. It's 21st Century. Things have changed. It's going to take a paradigm shift, and it's critical that the teachers don't feel overwhelmed and frustrated and bound to set of rules but nobody gave them the support. As superintendent, I will make sure that I found out what they need, we got quality professional development, not sending them to a workshop and they come back and put the binder on the desk. It needs to be engaged. Technology is critical. … At Enterprise, I was able to be very instrumental in working with Connect to Learn. That's where our students bring their devices to school and use them to for instructional purposes, to do research, in a student-centered classroom, where the teacher is more of a facilitator, helping the students learn how to discover knowledge. At this stage and this time in my career, I just know that this is a place that has vision. It's a place that fits well with my philosophy, and I certainly have enjoyed being here today, and I just know I could easily call this area home. Thank you very much."

Smith then invited board members to ask their own questions. Board vice president Kelvin Redd asked the only one: "This is a small town, just like, to a degree, Enterprise. Everybody knows everybody. If you get here and get settled, you're going to be probably one of the two or three most recognizable people in this community. If the system is doing well, people have the tendency where their head begins to swell a little bit. Power makes people do things they wouldn't ordinarily do, just like money. … What is it about you to keep you in check so that won't happen to you?"

Townsend: "I'm a servant, and as long as you keep the servant in you focused right, on these children, the people that make up this district, it's an honor to serve. It's not about me. It never has been, it never will be, and as long as breath is in my life, I'll serve."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter@MarkRiceLE.

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