Moving Beyond Titles and Barriers

by Jay P. Goldman

Bryan Blavatt’s last administrative job before moving into his first and only superintendency carried the official title of “court liaison.”

Yet such peculiar nomenclature didn’t do justice to the central role he filled for four years in the Charlotte-Mecklenberg, N.C., school system.

Blavatt, who has been superintendent in burgeoning Boone County, Ky., since 1996, says he didn’t get hung up on the title. He was recruited for the liaison post by John Murphy, someone he had come to revere when the latter was superintendent in Prince George’s County, Md., where Blavatt was a high school principal. As a member of Murphy’s cabinet in Charlotte, Blavatt devised a comprehensive model for discipline that included alternative school programs for disruptive youth, advanced computer applications for developing individual student plans and in-service staff training on effective behavioral management.

He admits he soaked up useful insights on executive leadership over 10 years working with Murphy that he’s applied in Boone County, a school system of 15,000 students located 30 minutes south of Cincinnati. Blavatt’s work as an instructional leader and especially his strong arm promoting public accountability have pushed the Kentucky district to near the top statewide on various performance measures.

From the beginning, Blavatt has required each school in Boone County to maintain an oversized placard in its front lobby to display test scores and progress on benchmark goals dealing with attendance and student behavior. “I honestly believe,” says Blavatt, “that if you don’t measure it, it doesn’t get done.”

That attitude has engendered plenty of support from the business community and outside funders, bringing in the resources needed to fund Blavatt’s ambitious agenda for health clinics in schools, early childhood literacy programs and award-winning adult education.

“He’s resourceful enough to carry out that visionary style of leadership,” says Randy Poe, Boone’s deputy superintendent and a 20-year veteran in the district. “He’s the first superintendent in my tenure able to bring county agencies together. … He’s overcome the barrier and turf issues because for him relationships are all important.”

The superintendent has placed a special emphasis on student reading achievement. In the mid-1990s, Blavatt says, nearly 35 percent of the district’s 3rd graders were functioning below grade level compared to 4 percent today. The rapid gains on state tests at Kelly Elementary School, which serves the lowest-income and most rural student population, have propelled the school to the top of the district’s 11 elementary schools and captured the attention of State Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit.

Wilhoit spent a full day in the company of Blavatt in late May visiting some of Boone County’s model programs and absorbing details of the factors contributing to the recent successes. He came away impressed most of all by Blavatt’s leadership, saying, “He weeds through the noise that comes with education reform. He wants proof. He’s data driven.”

Blavatt, who was appointed recently to the AASA Leadership for Learning Award selection panel, says he can’t get complacent because of the growth his district is experiencing. Because the district has gained nearly 4,000 students since he came on board seven years ago, Blavatt has presided over an $89 million facilities initiative that has built and renovated nine elementary schools, added 16 classrooms to a middle school and expanded two of the three high schools. The growth worries him.

“How do we maintain the quality of instruction? When the Major Leagues went from 24 to 30 teams, the talent pool got dissipated,” he says.

Even in tight fiscal times, the school system needs to commit its spending priorities on what will make the greatest difference in student outcomes. Blavatt signaled his orientation a year ago when he encouraged the Boone County school board to add a voting student representative, the first in Kentucky to do so.

“They’re our largest stakeholder,” he says, “so if we’re about students, why not include students in the process?”

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: