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Bold Answers for Hard Questions

by Jay P. Goldman

No one who has watched Terry Grier in action would dare liken his style of leadership to that of a wallflower.

During his six years as superintendent in Guilford County, N.C. — and his 22 years in the superintendency of seven school systems from coast to coast — Grier doesn’t allow grass to grow beneath his feet. He perpetually generates bold ideas and tackles tough issues head-on, whether it’s the elimination of culturally insensitive school mascots or the dismantling of neighborhood school attendance lines for better socioeconomic balance.

Being the point person on such dramatic shakeups to the status quo, even with school board backing, tends to strike some raw nerves. As a supportive editorial in the Greensboro News & Record put it: “No one draws fire like Grier.”

The superintendent recognizes his aggressive push for change is bound to hurt feelings, yet he believes the creative tension he applies is an excellent way to effect meaningful improvement in student outcomes. “If you’re actively engaged in leading others to improve schools, you’re not always able to be non-controversial about it,” Grier says.

The real trick, he adds, is “working through the controversy and not letting it turn into conflict.”

When he assumed leadership of the 67,000-student system (that encompasses two cities, Greensboro and High Point), Grier tackled the disparity in expectations that prevailed among secondary schools — but only after pushing staff to generate first-time data disaggregated by race on student course-taking patterns. With the findings predictable, Grier told his high school principals he expected them to rework the schedules for all incoming freshmen just a few months before the start of the new year.

The result is a more rigorous curriculum for most students, not just the county’s more affluent white students. Enrollment in Advanced Placement courses at all 14 high schools is at its highest level with no school today offering fewer than 18 AP classes. All 10th graders who score 45 or higher on the PSAT, for instance, are automatically scheduled in AP World History.

More contentious has been Grier’s implementation of the school board’s design to end traditional attendance patterns in High Point by turning most schools into magnets. The intent is to break up large pockets of poverty, contributing to a more uniform set of high expectations for student learning.

A group of affluent parents has vigorously attacked the magnet school plan, raising more than $200,000 to create confrontational billboards and publicity.

“It’s been hard for him and some on the board,” says Susan Mendenhall, who is in her 14th year as a Guilford board member. “There’ve been personal attacks — bumper stickers that say ‘Honk if you’ve been Grier-ended.’”

In spite of efforts to discredit the superintendent, Mendenhall sees a strength of character she first observed when Grier was hired in 2000. “It’s amazing how he stays focused on academics to raise achievement. Certainly it’s been difficult, but he doesn’t dwell on those personal things,” she says.

Grier admits the same. “It’s such a small part of what we’ve been about here,” he says.

And he’s moved onto some new measures he describes as “audacious.” These include a goal for every incoming kindergarten student this fall to be reading on level by 3rd grade. He also seeks to expand a pilot program matching every 12 high schoolers with a staff member, who is asked to visit each student’s home once a year. “The key is relationships over time,” Grier says.

Finally, he’s ready to put in place attractive financial incentives to bring the most talented teachers in math and English to the schools with greatest needs. A top algebra teacher who transfers to one of four bottom-performing schools earns an annual recruitment incentive of $10,000. Another measure that relies on value-added assessment data would give a teacher who fosters 1.5 years of academic growth within a single year an additional $4,000 in pay.

“Children don’t have but once in school,” Grier says. “We try to fit them in the same boxes and structures we’ve used since the 1940s and then don’t understand why dropout rates are so high.”

Jay Goldman is editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

BIO STATS: TERRY GRIER

Currently: superintendent, Guilford County, N.C.

Previously: superintendent, Williamson County, Tenn.

Age: 56

Greatest influence on career: Having my contract terminated after 18 months as superintendent in Sacramento, Calif., had a tremendous impact on me personally and professionally. It taught me a lot about humility, resiliency, core values and friendship.

Best professional day: At the top of the list has to be the day I spoke to the first graduating class of one of our middle college high schools. Most graduates had dropped out of school but returned to attend the district’s first small high school on a local college campus. Following the ceremony, many students and their families told me the school had changed their lives.

Books at bedside: The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive by Patrick Lencioni; The Camel Club by David Baldacci; and The Closers by Michael Connelly

Biggest blooper: While serving as superintendent in a previous district, my wife and I forgot about a dinner at the home of the school board chair and his wife, who had spent the day cooking.

Key reason I’m an AASA member: I enjoy the professional growth opportunities that are available through AASA conferences, electronic communications and The School Administrator. In addition, I deeply appreciate the aggressive national leadership role.