Features

No More Business As Usual

by MICHAEL H. JONES

I am not your typical superintendent. In 1995, I retired after 25 years in corporate America and entered the world of public service. Until now, I have spent more time in Fortune 500 companies than I have in education.

At 58, I am probably older than most first-time superintendents, and I will admit this: There are some 12- to 16-hour days when I feel that difference and think a little bit longingly about the energy I had at 35. But as I tell people all the time, excellence is not a destination, it’s a journey. Here is mine.


Lessons in Leading
My background explains some of my desire for this job. I was raised in Kansas City, Mo., in a lower-middle-class setting. My grandparents took the responsibility for my upbringing, and they emphasized the importance of reading because they believed if someone could read well, all other learning was possible. I was not what you would call a good student, though. I had both academic and discipline problems.

My first formal lessons in leadership came during high school ROTC where I learned that leadership is important and that good leaders listen, learn, respect and never carry themselves in a compromising way. When I dropped out of high school after 10th grade, I joined the military, whose very existence depends on leadership and discipline (something I learned somewhat painfully). Those lessons have become so instilled in me that I consider them a part of who I am today.

I earned the first 30 credits toward my bachelor’s degree while in the military, and when my enlistment finished, I returned to school. It was the mid-’60s, and I found myself in the throes of the civil rights struggle. I made every attempt to add reason to what was often anger and misdirection, and again I found myself learning a lesson in leadership and life that has served me well ever since.

After I graduated from college, I spent the next 25 years in corporate America. There, regardless of the assignment I was handed or the job I was asked to do, I learned that having experience is not the same thing as being prepared, and I resolved always to be prepared.

I’d hoped for many years to become an educator (my master’s degree, after all, is in education), and after retiring from my corporate career, I went to work in the Rockford, Ill., Public Schools as director of human resources. After that, I was hired by John Stanford, a retired U.S. Army major general who became superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools, as that district’s executive director of human resources.

But already I was looking ahead. As a high school dropout, I was part of that middle third of students, the ones who so often get overlooked and whose talents are often lost. I didn’t want that to happen to other children. And while I didn’t think I could change the world if I became a superintendent, I did believe I could send out the right signals. To prepare myself, I attended Northern Illinois University, where I studied school law and standardized testing. In Seattle, I became part of a superintendent cohort at Washington State University and earned my superintendent’s certificate.

I finished the Washington State program on June 1, 2001. On July 1, I began my first superintendency.


The First 100 Days
July 1: From my first day on the job, I know how fortunate I am. East Valley is a well-managed school district and its finances are in good shape. The school board already is working toward excellence, so I have a good foundation, a sound platform on which to build. My job is to get us to the high side of excellence.

Like other districts in this age of accountability, East Valley is also intent on aligning curriculum with state standards and raising test scores. To borrow President George W. Bush’s slogan, we want to leave no child behind.

I have told the community that in the first 100 days I will listen and learn, and early in my tenure as superintendent I begin to make good on that promise by visiting schools and by urging students to become lifelong learners and to develop character. I attend back-to-school retreats to let people know who I am. I seldom leave the office without a camera in my pocket, and I use it to take pictures of the students I meet. (Over the course of this first year, I give most of the photographs away, but by year’s end I have perhaps 70 stacked up on my desk and another 40 in the car.)

At the end of August, I send a letter to parents and community members to let them know that a series of community meetings is about to begin. (I had promised to hold such meetings when I was a candidate for superintendent.) I include my home and office telephone numbers in the letter and invite them to call if something concerns them. To be honest, only a few call at home, but in my mind it’s essential that they have that level of contact, and the telephone numbers provide that. As I tell my staff, this isn’t a job that can be confined to a certain number of hours in the day. Everything is urgent business.

We also launch a formal reading initiative at all grade levels. The initiative doesn’t address the mechanics of teaching reading. I let that one go. Instead, our rationale is the same my grandparents had years ago: Reading is fundamental, and those who are successful in their academic pursuits will have mastered reading and made it a part of their lives.

As part of the initiative, each student is asked to read at least a book a week. Teachers stock their classrooms with books, magazines and newspapers, and community members are urged to become volunteer readers, to join a book group and to read a book a week on their own.

At one school, students respond by reading 23,600 books in the first 100 days.

At the end of the school year, schools still will be awarding certificates of achievement for reading. Our initiative is a success.


Focusing on Kids
January 2002: I’m used to things moving quickly in the business world, and I would like a more immediate response to plans here in East Valley. But I am happy with the high points of the year so far. I feel good about my relationship with the public, with students and with teachers. (I have spent some mornings in schools, in classrooms, working with children.) My board is wonderful as well.

With my immediate staff members, the going has been a bit tougher. I’m a taskmaster with a different leadership style, and I am asking for accountability at a different level. I am also learning that in a district this size (5,000 students), everyone is friends with one another, so emotions run high when things change--emotions that have nothing to do with kids and learning. It’s clear, though, we’re not always concentrating on the right things and we’re not always focused on the mission.

This problem with focus becomes evident in the spring when we try to pass an $8 million technology bond and fail for the second time in two years. The loss is a shock to me. We have only one computer for every 16 students--well below the 1-to-4 ratio the state recommends. The bond called for a minimum of four computers in a classroom, a high-speed fiber-optic network and cameras and emergency phones to improve security. Also part of the package were community and student access to computer labs at all schools along with software, technology training and online access so that parents could check on their children's progress.

Our constituents want the best for students; I’m certain of that. But as the bond election shows, we didn’t demonstrate the importance of technology to our curriculum. We didn’t stay focused.

Stung by this failure, I go ahead with plans I have been developing for months to reorganize the district in 2002-2003, not to save money but to put our resources closer to students and refocus us on what’s essential. Among the changes: We create the position of director of student achievement and assessment and director of total quality management. We also consolidate some positions and move other staff members from the central office to the schools. We want our resources focused on what really matters. We want accountability and a structure that will deliver it.

By summer we’ve filled all but one of the newly reorganized positions. And while nothing is ever accepted by everyone, I’m finding most people are pleased with the changes.


Next Year
What’s ahead? In education, we rationalize: This is a poor neighborhood with large numbers of children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, so how can we expect them to achieve at high levels?

I don’t buy such arguments. Marketers live and die by being able to figure out how to sell a product to someone. We in education don’t have enough of that kind of drive to perform. If a child is poor, I don’t want to hear about his deficits. I want to hear about what we’re going to do to get him into college. That’s the only conversation I want to have, and it’s the only reason we have for being here.

I expect those conversations will increase. I expect that we’ll try again to pass a technology bond and that we’ll make the reorganization work. Our constituency needs to know that we’re doing things right and it’s our responsibility to deliver on that promise.

This first year we’ve begun that journey to excellence. Next year the journey will continue.

Michael Jones is superintendent of the East Valley School District 361, 12325 E. Grace Ave., Spokane, WA 99216. E-mail: jonesm@evsd.org.