Phenix City Board of Education interviews second of two superintendent finalists

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comMay 27, 2014 

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

Christopher Quinn, the assistant superintendent for instruction in Stafford County (Va.) Public Schools, answered questions read by board attorney Sydney Smith. Quinn and the board were on stage in the Central High School auditorium, with about 30 folks in the audience when the meeting started.

An audience of about two dozen watched the board interview Irma Townsend, the human resources director and student services supervisor for Enterprise City Schools, last Wednesday.

The board has called a meeting for noon Friday in the Educational Services Center. Board president Brad Baker said board members will discuss the results of the interviews and decide the next step.

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

Why are you interested in this position in Phenix City?

"Location. There's nothing like the South, the Deep South. I'm reminded of, when I leave my mom in Augusta, Georgia, to go back, my wife and I, she always says, 'Boy, you're going back up North, aren't you?' And I say, 'Mom, Virginia is not the North.' But I know what she's saying. So, I just breathe better when I'm back home. It's always good to be around Southern folks. I think that's where I do best. I kind of relate best in terms of the community. We have a son that lives in Atlanta, and we have a son that lives in Augusta. My mom lives in Augusta, and with her age being what it is, it would be nice to see Mom more than three or four times a year. So that's very important to me. It would be a lot more convenient. In terms of my knowledge of Alabama, you're about to adopt or in the process of adopting the College and Career Readiness standards. And we've gone through this in Stafford. It's not that hard. It's not that insurmountable. A few years ago, we implemented the - we don't call them the Common Core; we call them the Standards of Learning - and we revised those at the state level and throughout all the school divisions in the state of Virginia. We revised or implemented the math standards a couple years ago and the literacy and reading standards last year. It involved a lot of training and a lot of professional learning, a lot of sharing, a lot of locking arms and working together, and I like that challenge of doing that in Phenix City Schools. Also, in my research, I've been very impressed with the continuous improvement plans of the school system. It really makes me smile and gets my motor going thinking about having principals and teachers in these schools working together in terms of a very strategic, intentional way, identifying areas of challenge and areas of strength and developing action plans. I've been very impressed with what I've read, what the schools have written about their schools. … When you have those kinds of leaders in our schools, there's no telling what we can do as a school board and as a superintendent. It sounds like to me, the impression that I got - and you can tell me to stop anytime, Ms. Smith - but that there's structures in place, there's leadership, and there's no reason that Phenix City Schools can't be the best in Alabama or the best anywhere. That would be my commitment if I had the opportunity. And I do want to say this to the board and also the community: I'm not really selling anything tonight, OK? Selling is creating a need, so I'm not selling anything. I'm marketing, because marketing is finding a need and meeting that need. And I think the Phenix City Schools needs a superintendent who's an instructional leader. That's been my passion for 30 years, and I think I'm uniquely qualified to step in and be the instructional leader, to know instruction - that's been my passion. … I like talking about scope and sequence and pacing and standards and how to develop assessments in terms of curriculum. … Also what I like about the Phenix City Schools is the size. I've been in a large school system. I've been in school systems about the size of Phenix City, and I think it's about the right size for a superintendent to get to know what's going on. In our school system of 27,000 in Stafford, Virginia, we hire over 200 new teachers a year. Every three years, maybe you're replacing 30 percent of your teaching force, and it makes it hard to really get momentum. I mean, we are a high-performing school system, but the challenge is always to bring in new staff and build capacity and get them trained in the way we do curriculum, instruction and assessment. But I think in a system like Phenix City, again, the sky's the limit because you have more of a stable teaching force, good leadership."

What do you understand to be the role of the superintendent as it relates to the board, the employees, the students and the community?

"I think, very obviously, that the school board and the superintendent, in every high-performing school system, they work together. There's strong communication, and they have the laser-like focus on the No. 1 priority, which should be student achievement. Every decision we make, whether it's about staff or principals or coaches or buildings, anything that we talk about, it should always be, 'Well, how is this going to affect student achievement?' So there has to be trust between the superintendent and the school board, which means you have to have a lot of communication, just like in a marriage. I know that you all are my boss corporately and I'm not going to take direction from any one individual. I'm going to be upfront about that. Corporately, you make decisions, not to say I won't listen to you individually, but sometimes I might say, 'Well, let's see if we can get four votes for that.' Whenever you ask me for information, any one of you individually, all of you will get the information. I will tell all the others who ask for the information. That's part of the transparency and the trust you have to have. … Also, I think you have to support your superintendent. He or she has to know your expectations, the roles. … I wouldn't expect you to micromanage things where I'm supposed to be the CEO. … And you all are supposed to help me be successful, keep me from making mistakes. … You would know the values of this community better than myself, at least initially, so I would lean on you to help me be successful. … In terms of the employees, there has to be a culture of sharing. The employees, whether you're in the classroom or driving a bus or working in food and nutrition or in facilities or any area of the organization, the employees have to know that the superintendent is their advocate, that he or she listens and includes them in the decision making, because I know, like I said, there are a lot of smart people in Phenix City Schools, and my job as superintendent is to be like an orchestra conductor. I have a role to play. Hopefully, everybody singing from the same sheet of music can do something really great for the students. … I really get a sense through the structure of what I see that people are pulling together and want the best in this community, and you don't always find that in a lot of places. In terms of the structure of the schools and the people that I've talked to and the research that I've done, everybody really seems to say, 'Well, how can we make this work?' And that's important to me. … Students are the most important. We in education, we have a moral purpose with children. They're counting on us, aren't they? And every minute that goes by is a minute wasted. We have to redeem the time. So in terms of students, the priority has to be achievement, student achievement. We have to bring the best programs. We have to bring our A game every day. We have to make the instruction engaging. … The community is vital. The community wants to see a return on investment. Taxpayers like to have confidence that the money is being used well, effectively and efficiently. It's so important, and I would hope that every citizen in Phenix City would drive by their school and say, 'That's my school," and feel a sense of ownership. It's everybody's responsibility. Everybody who comes into our schools needs to feel invited. They need to see some evidence of student learning, whether it's achievement charts. So often we're hesitant to brag. We should be bragging. Also, we should be showing where we have needs, be transparent with the community, so that, again, we can build that support."

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

"When there's children not in the schools, the schools look different. So the first month, if it's in July, getting into the schools, I really wouldn't be seeing what I want to see. So that might be the second month. … But I do want to visit the principals. I want to hear from the principals, what they're proud of, where they see challenges, same with the central office, get their perspective, to see if we have the right people in the right place, if they have the capacity to be successful. That's one of the roles of the superintendent, to have the discernment that people are being fulfilled in their work and seeing the results. If not, then maybe it requires some capacity building or professional learning, but the superintendent has to have those critical and crucial conversations with staff, make sure we have things, a game plan, so that we can win. My two favorite questions are: Is it working? And how do you know? That's what I'll be known for. … In terms of the first six months, Ms. Smith, I would like to look at the reading and math programs. … I'd like to know about the culture. It doesn't take me long to understand what the culture in a school is. Is it a nice place to be? Are teachers working together? I read a book recently - just real quick, I know you've got other questions - it's called 'The Multiplier Effect,' and I encourage everyone to read it. It would be one that, if I'm selected here, I would like to have our principals and teachers reading as much as possible, but definitely the principals. The books says, 'How do the best leaders make everyone smarter?' The way you do that is through the multiplier effect, where you're creating unity and ownership and you're asking people questions and you're listening, instead of being a leader that shuts that down by saying, 'I have the answer. I've got this figured out,' then the top-down delivery and directing people to implement it. You make mistakes that way. I've done it. I know. It's better to take a little extra time and get input from the organization so that you make better decisions."

How would you gauge your successes or failures at the end of the school year?

"First of all, I would look at data. I'm a data guy. I'm a data geek and really would want to look at the assessments. … I have a history and evidence of high achievement. Look at Stafford County Public Schools, where we've increased all of our reading and math scores. … Look at some measure of the culture. I don't know what the culture is now. That's part of what I would have to evaluate. But I would hope that people would feel more a part of the community, that they feel more of a sense of responsibility for the success of the school system."

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

“I think I covered all of that, in terms of AP scores, in terms of expectations, in terms of what happens in the classroom.”

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.

“If you look at the material that I’ve left with you … there’s been a real focus on closing the achievement gap. In terms of Stafford County, we were double digits nine or 10 years ago, in terms of the math and reading, and we’ve been able to narrow that gap to, I think it’s probably, I don’t have the material in front of me, like 9 percent in math and probably 8 percent in reading, over that time. Really the way we do that is, again, focusing on curriculum, instruction and assessment. That’s so key in terms of what teachers are doing in the classroom. But then it goes back to, and I know I’m repeating myself, but what is the culture like? There’s basically three kinds of schools, the way I think about it. One would be conventional schools, where teachers work hard. You know, I think 99 percent of people in education are in it to work hard and make a difference. That’s a core value that they have. But in conventional schools everyone pretty much works hard and closes their door and says, ‘I’m responsible for these 30 students in my classroom today.’ … In a congenial school, it’s a nice place to work. Everyone gets along. There are nice social parties. … But in both of those cases, they’re not optimizing the kind of student performance that our students deserve. What you really need to have is a collegial school. I think if you came to Stafford and walked through our schools -- you probably have the same thing in Phenix City -- but a collegial school is where teachers get in one another’s business, and the principal gets into instruction, and they talk about data, and they get together in professional learning teams and say, ‘I’m trying this and this is working for me when I’m teaching equations or fractions or exponents.’ And the teacher shares that with his or her colleagues. I think that’s so important, and the more we can do that, the better. So in some cases, we don’t have to fix the people; we really need to fix the system. How can we structure our school day to where teachers have more opportunity to do that? That’s the challenge, within the limited resources. That’s, what I found, is how you close the achievement gap. … We’re in the process of exploring the idea of teacher rounds. Three or four teachers get together and they go into a colleague’s classroom and watch him or her present a lesson, and then they meet afterwards and debrief with that teacher. … We have to listen to the students, ask them what they think about a teacher, a lesson. Have a little survey after a lesson. How did this lesson meet your needs? Was it engaging? Was it relevant? Provide the kind of feedback to the teacher so they can use the information to improve. That says a lot of things, but it also says to the student, ‘Hey, they care about what I think, and this teacher is just like me, or this principal or this superintendent, they’re learning.’ The student is our most critical customer, who sometimes we don’t listen to. … Have them be involved in goal setting. So much of education, when you think about grading, is something we’re doing to them. They should really be involved in setting their own goals and establishing some kind of reciprocity in terms of evaluating their own progress.”

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

“I think if you talk to the Stafford Education Association, they would feel that I’m an advocate who works with them. I think the No. 1 priority always has to be student achievement. I really don’t see the school system as an employer organization; it’s a learning organization. … The education associations represent the needs of the teachers. The superintendent has a unique role in terms of meeting those needs, communicating with the associations, hearing their grievances, hear their ideas. Maybe there are blind spots that we have in the school system that we need to consider. … There are things we can do in terms of compensation, in terms of working conditions, in terms of supporting our employees better. … In terms of building that relationship, knowing that the superintendent’s door is always open, and we’ll bend over backwards to listen to their concerns, I think that’s fair.”

Describe, briefly, your decision-making style and give us a few examples of different strategies you have used to resolve different situations.

“My leadership style is collaborative. I believe in distributive leadership. I said previously the superintendent has a role to play in terms of orchestrating the effectiveness and efficiency of the school system. Everyone has to have an opportunity through advisory committees, through different committees that you might have in the school system, whether they are curriculum related or other kinds of committees, to share their viewpoint. I’ve always found, as I shared previously, that I can make a decision, but I find that I make better decisions if I take just a little more time to give people an opportunity to have input. … I can think of a couple examples. One, if you go back and look at the achievement of our Title I schools in Stafford. If you went back to 2006 and 2007, most of our Title I schools were on corrective action or some kind of assistance because of performance for students. So we took our federal money … and started meeting with the principals probably more than we ever have before. … Through that collaborative approach, we came up with some ideas about how to use coaches, how to use paraprofessional people to come in and assist and run small groups, trained in the reading program and math program, how to implement responsive intervention, so that we can in a preventive way, before children are referred to special ed, try all the strategies in terms of intervention. That’s an example of the collaborative style. Another one is when we developed our professional growth appraisal system, where we involved our SEA and teachers and spent a whole year going through each component and getting feedback as we developed a system. We’re really at a place where I think most of our teachers understand that it’s not a gotcha game. It’s really not a game but really a process where teachers are being coached. They have an opportunity to set goals.”

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

“It’s very important in terms of building community support to be a listener. Sometimes in schools we hold an event or have an open house or a meeting with the superintendent, and people don’t come. I think in a community like Phenix City or really any place, what we really have to do is go where the people are. It might mean going to a church. It might mean going to the community center. It might mean going to a civic organization or some kind of governmental organization, whether it’s the city council.”

What is your experience having worked with local governmental entities and officials?

“In Stafford, we have our board of supervisors that allocates money to our school system each year. So that really provides a lot of opportunity to talk about our program and the needs we have. I’ve been involved over the years with presenting our needs and priorities in terms of our fiscal budget. Also, I’ve been involved with different task forces and committees that are associated with our board of supervisors, a social services task force developing a strategic plan aligning the different agencies, whether it’s family services or whatever, foster children, in terms of being a part of that process and developing a report presented to our board of supervisors. Also, I’ve been involved with a youth services task force in our community, where we ran workshops and partnered with different administrators from the county government in terms of providing leadership opportunities for our youth.”

What is your philosophy about having a system-wide leadership training and development program for all employees, in particular leadership teams at each of our schools?

“I see the value of that. We have, over the nine years that I’ve been in Stafford, we have our summer leadership academy. It’s usually a two- or three-day event. We focus on analyzing data, developing a strategic plan using technology, all the relevant topics that have to do with education. It’s primarily focused on our leadership team in terms of the principals and assistant principals and central office folks, but we have a day where we invite teams from the schools to come in and be a part of that program.”

Smith then invited board members to ask their own questions. Board vice president Kelvin Redd asked, “How are you going to contain that ego that dwells in all of us?”

Quinn: “I’m just a regular guy, Mr. Redd. I have a role to play as superintendent. I don’t think my role is any more important than any teacher in this school system. I mean, think about the responsibility they have as leaders, to deliver the content and understand those children. I admire teachers. Let me say this: There’s nobody in this community who works harder than teachers. … So I’m always humbled by that. I represent teachers and principals, but my job is no more important than a bus driver or someone who works in a cafeteria or facilities, any place in this school system. I don’t have a problem with the ego part. I just want to lead. I get energized by working with principals, hearing their stories, what they’re excited about. I’m a cheerleader for, an advocate for them. I have about seven or eight more years doing this, and I want to do it to the best of my ability. If given the opportunity here, I will work hard, collaborate with the people within this learning organization. My focus is going to be entirely on them. As I said, I believe, in the opening, I’m an instructional leader. There are other things that I know a superintendent is supposed to do: to be a PR person, to get the message out, to be in the community, to be the face of the school system, to justify the resources that we ask for, to be the CEO in terms of managing it and making sure we’re using the money well and people are working hard and being supervised as they should. But my focus is really going to be on instructional leadership. … I guess I’ll be a part of the community, but that’s never really been an issue for me. I feel like I’m a servant leader. I would hope that you all would limit whatever authority I have. You would tell me what the expectations are. I would hope you have policies in place and an evaluation system. … In terms of the whole idea of power, that’s not something that’s an interest of mine. I’m more concerned with having authority, and authority comes from being an expert, having credibility about what you’re doing, knowing what you’re doing, listening to folks and building trust.”

Board member Paul Stamp asked, “What will you do to maintain that excitement we have in the classroom?”

Quinn: “Teachers want to know that they’re making a difference and that they’re part of the process. That’s why I believe in the multiplier effect. Let’s build community. If that is characteristic of how teachers feel about their work, I’m going to multiply that and nurture that and encourage that, because, again, if you don’t have that, then you’ll never be a high-performing system. You have to have that. That would be my commitment to you. And I have the skills to do that.”

Quinn’s closing statement:

“Thank you, once again, for having me. I’m so honored. Thank you, all of you in the community, folks and the citizens. It means a lot to me that you’re listening. How often do you get to respond and explain and describe things that you’re most passionate about when you have a lot of people listening and hear every word? I appreciate that. It means a lot to me. I think, whenever we talk about the outcomes in the Phenix City Schools -- and I’m glad you talked about the achievement gap, because schools, whenever you talk about the input and output, the output should never be the same as the input. If children come to us who have high needs, then they should become high performers whenever we’re done with them after a K-12 program. If we’re not doing that, then we’re not doing our jobs. I really believe that. We can’t expect children to adjust to us. We’re the adults; we have to adjust to their needs; we need to know where they are, where they need us. And they’re dependent on us. It’s our moral purpose, to deliver a quality educational program, just like the vision of this school system, ensuring that every child experiences excellence. And that means working not just harder but working smarter and working together. … In this school system, my impression is that we can do that. I think we have a great school board, just being able to have fellowship with you today and listening to your questions. Administrators and principals and teachers I’ve been able to meet in just a few hours and their continuous improvement plans speak loudly of that commitment and having strategies in place, the research-based practices. I guess I can sum up … if you want a caretaker, someone who just keeps it as it is, then don’t hire Chris Quinn, because I’m really a change agent. I want to make it better. I want to make this school system the best anywhere.”

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

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