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Jim Causby Two Feet on the Accelerator

by JAY P. GOLDMAN

In just his third year of classroom teaching, Jim Causby approached the superintendent of the district in which he was working to inquire about the prerequisites for becoming a principal.


“Come back and see me when you’re 35,” Causby was told.

Lacking the patience for the slow career track, the native North Carolinian relocated to another community in the western part of the state, moving into a principalship at age 25 and a superintendency at 31.

“I don’t accept excuses for not doing things that we can do for kids,” says Causby, trying to explain why some fellow educators call him a “can-do, no-excuses” school leader.

With the same deliberate speed he used to propel himself into school administration, Causby has push the Johnston County Public Schools, where he has been the superintendent since 1993, into the most improved ranks in North Carolina. During his decade at the helm, the school system’s aggregate scores on statewide achievement tests have risen from the bottom third to the top 10 percent among school districts, despite enrollment that has swelled from 14,000 to 23,400 and has become significantly more diverse over that period. By decade’s end, the student population is forecast to hit 36,000.

What has fueled Johnston County’s rapid transformation from a sleepy agricultural region that relied on its tobacco and sweet potato harvests to a burgeoning high-tech corridor is its strategic location at the crossroads of two major interstate highways. Bayer, the giant German pharmaceutical company, opened a production plant in 199x that now employs about 3,000 workers in the county, which is situated just outside the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

Causby has sparked the major academic advances through an aggressive stance on accountability that puts almost as much pressure on parents to commit to the oversight of their children’s studies as on students themselves. Causby’s unrelenting push for raising expectations and performance standards included an end to social promotion and a novel measure that requires every parent or guardian, along with every secondary school student, to sign an achievement pledge annually.

“Some teachers had said to me, ‘It seems everyone is now accountable (under state regulations) except parents and students.’ I took it to the board. … It seemed like common sense,” said Causby

The pledge mandate—highly controversial during its initial year when it had to survive a legal challenge—ties real consequences to failure to perform. High school students lose their parking privileges at school and their chance to participate in sports and other extracurriculars. Also, the district will not release the student’s quarterly report card until the parent shows up at school for a conference with teachers and counselors.

“He did a good job of convincing the education community and the public at large that this could be the best thing for students’ education,” says Kay Carroll, who was on the school board in 1992 that hired Causby, who earlier had superintendent stints in Polk County and Swain County, also in North Carolina.

The superintendent could set a good public example of compliance because his youngest son was a high school sophomore at the time.

Under Causby’s leadership, the school system has closed the achievement gap between white and African American students faster than the rest of the state. None of the district’s 32 schools have been labeled low-performing under the state’s 7-year-old ABC accountability program, yet more than a handful would be deemed failing under the No Child Left Behind Act, which requires yearly progress for each subgroup within a school. Causby endorses the goals of the sweeping federal law, but he’s been active at the state level to push some alternative language to several unrealistic standards regarding student progress and teacher hiring.

Now in his 25th year as a superintendent, Causby is a well-known presence in the state capital, where he has chaired statewide reform and bond referendum campaigns. He’s been honored twice since 1991 by the state superintendents association as superintendent of the year and served a term as president of the North Carolina Association of School Administrators. He’s also the lone school leader to serve on the board of the North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry, which functions as the statewide Chamber of Commerce.

That exclusive stature has moved Causby, symbolically at least, a thousand miles from his modest beginnings in the North Carolina hamlet of McDowell, where he became the first member of his extended family to graduate from high school.

As he has become increasingly in demand as a consultant and speaker across the country, Causby has decided that the 2003-04 school year will be his last as a local superintendent. He has taken the initial steps toward the elected post as a Democratic candidates for the state superintendency.

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

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