Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Dec. 15, 2008.
In less than two months, Susan Andrews’ responsibilities will increase six-fold.
Now, she is superintendent of the 5,000-student Harris County System, the county where she grew up and the district where she began her career as a teacher. Her office is an old school building and she leads the district in the same room that she began teaching in 32 years ago.
In February, she will become superintendent of the Muscogee County School District, overseeing the education of 33,000 students in a much larger and more urban community that continues to grow.
But no matter how big the district gets, Andrews seems intent on building relationships with everybody.
“Trust is a big deal to me. People are saying, ‘Why in the world does she want to do this?’” she said. “Some people may question my motives. But I just want people to get to know me in the community and in the school system and know that I am about teaching and learning. We need to build those relationships and meet the people we need to meet.”
The Ledger-Enquirer sat down with Andrews to discuss her career as an educator and her plans as superintendent. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Moving from a small district, where you’ve grown up as an educator, to a large urban district, what sort of challenges do you think you will face?
Well, I am used to being able to visit every one of my schools every month. And I certainly won’t be able to have that luxury in Muscogee County.
Here I am just able to get my arms around the whole system and know what’s going on everywhere. I’ll just have to figure out what my pace is there.
I’d like to still have a small system feel even in a large system, because we are a family of educators.
Any specific things you’d like to do to promote teamwork and that family atmosphere in the schools, particularly between schools in the north and south ends of town?
There is a teacher advisory group that already meets with the superintendent. A teacher from every school comes to that meeting.
We want to make those meetings very intense, so we’re receiving information from those schools and sending out information.
In most large districts, you will have some discussion of this school gets more money than other schools.
There are a lot of nuances to that. So I think you have to make the budget very transparent. Go that extra mile to help people understand how much is being spent per pupil no matter where they go to school. Some schools might get more money because they have certain programs, like magnet schools.
We need to explain that to try to dispel that disparity-of-resources idea that’s there. And if that idea is real, then, of course, we need to do something about it. But I believe it’s more of a perception than a reality.
I think we have to ask the community, “What do you not know about the school district that you want to know? What would help you feel better about your concerns in the school district?” And then get those questions out there.
Muscogee County Schools have a higher percentage of low-income students than Harris County. How do you help those students succeed?
You have to understand that poverty is such an issue and a challenge for those children. They come to us with an achievement gap. If you look at middle-class children and children who were born into generational poverty, they enter school with that gap.
We’ve been successful in closing that gap in Harris County. If you look at our scores, we’ve just put in intensive effort.
The classroom teacher makes the difference.
I can get really riled up about that, because I really believe that education is the key out of poverty. I have some stories that I tell. One is about Clarence Thomas, who is a Supreme Court justice who grew up in Pinpoint, Ga. And in his biography, he says, “I was just this little kid growing up poor in Pinpoint, Ga. Nobody really knew there was a Supreme Court justice inside of me.”
And then on the other hand, there’s Alan Jackson, the country music star. One of his sisters said to me last time I talked to her, “You know, if we knew he was going to be so famous, we would have treated him better.” So you see you really don’t know what’s inside those children. You have to treat them like they are all Supreme Court justices or they are all country music stars.
In your interview with the editorial board, you mentioned bringing successful adults who come from impoverished backgrounds to the schools. Could we see this program anytime soon?
I would love to do that. I think the speaker’s bureau at the Chamber would be the place to start. We’re going to have to recruit people who are not part of the Speaker’s Bureau yet and just say, “If you are in this community and you made it, then please make yourself available to us.” I think we could see that within the first year.
The school board has a reputation for being divisive. When the board has a lot of votes that split 5-4, how do you deal with that?
First, you have to understand that board members have offered themselves for public service and that is a very honorable thing to do. Whether you agree with them all the time or disagree with them all the time, you have to admire the fact that these people who get very little pay for doing this job have offered themselves to their community for public service. It’s a hard job and it’s a very political job. As superintendent, it’s not my job to please the board. It’s not my job to help the board get along. It’s my job to bring them recommendations on programs, on personnel, on how I want to see the school district run, bring them good information, so they don’t feel like they don’t know enough to make a decision.
They trust who they’ve hired or they wouldn’t have hired me. But I hope to increase that trust level as we work together, until they know my heart’s in the right place. I’m not bringing them a recommendation for a political reason. It’s all about students, it’s all about teaching school.
The board table is the place to debate and dissent and discuss their ideas and their opinions. Once a decision is made, then we all go in the same direction. You may bring something in there that you are really passionate about, you feel like it’s the right thing to do and the board doesn’t support you.
And then you step back and you decide, “Was it the wrong thing to do? Was the timing not right? Did I not give them enough information?”
What about dealing with growth from Base Realignment and Closure, with little funding?
What makes BRAC so challenging is we have no idea where those children are going to live. We’ve got all these children coming and we can only go by a model that doesn’t have all the information in it to determine what we have to do.
There are schools in Columbus that have some extra space in them. Then there are some schools that are jam-packed. But if we knew where the children were going to live, then we could fix it. We are going to have to develop a plan based on the model. We’re going to have to look at our facility needs, we’re going to have to look at old schools, we’re going to have to decide which ones need to be replaced and we’re going to have to develop a plan that we know we may have to modify when the real kids get here.
What are some of the things you plan to do during your first 100 days on the job?
Visiting the schools. We already have three days in February, I think, planned for school visits. I’m not going in to spend the day at every school. That’s not the purpose. It’s so that I have a baseline of what the schools look like, what the facilities look like and just get a taste of the instruction in each school. I’m going to start with the schools that didn’t make AYP because I need to talk to those principals about what we can help them with as we are going to be going through the budget process.
How do you plan to build public trust and transparency, particularly in the upper administration in the school district?
I think you have to be available to the people and I think the central office staff has to be available to the schools. I’m saying this without knowing how often the central office and cabinet-level people visit the schools. The entire purpose of the central office — that huge bureaucracy — the only reason they exist is to support the schools. So the schools need to know who they are.
Moving from a rural district to an urban school district, what challenges will you face?
There’s more poverty in schools there (Columbus). I’ll probably begin doing a lot more research on how to deal with those challenges, the challenges of a budget that size and the cuts that continue to come to public education all across the state. We have such public support here and I’ve got to learn how to operate in an environment where I’m not defensive, but where I’m really explaining and being as transparent as I can to try and build that public support.
Here, if I make a decision, I’ve been here so long that people trust me, and even though I’m transparent, I don’t have to explain every single detail. I’ll have to learn to operate in an environment where I don’t have that level of trust yet — I haven’t earned it. So I’m going to have to make sure that we lay everything on the table and that we have that public buy-in and that we’ve explained ourselves well before moving ahead with large project.