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Profile                                                                Page 47

 

Challenging What Seems

Insurmountable

 

BY LIZ GRIFFIN 

CJ Huff
C.J. Huff

When C.J. Huff took over the superintendency in Joplin, a city of 50,000 in southwestern Missouri, he faced an apathetic community that showed piddling interest in the affairs of the school system. Of the 7,600 students, 60 percent were living in poverty, and the annual graduation rate hovered between 70 and 75 percent.

That was five years ago. The face of the Joplin schools could not look any more different today, figuratively and literally. The district started a 1:1 laptop initiative, hired 13 teaching and learning coaches in a genuine commitment to 21st-century learning, passed a controversial $62 million school bond issue and cut the dropout rate by an astounding 42 percent over that period. The district’s current state perhaps is best signaled by the name of its outreach program, Bright Futures.

It’s a fitting appellation, as Huff has led the district’s resounding bounce back from a devastating category EF5 tornado in May 2011 that flattened nine of Joplin’s 19 schools. Yet Huff does not see his leadership tenure defined this way. He barely referenced the life-altering act of nature during his candidacy as one of four finalists for 2013 National Superintendent of the Year.

Born to a family of farmers and educators in the southeastern Missouri town of McCune (population 500), Huff says growing up on a working farm was fitting preparation for public school leadership. Farming and adversity go hand in hand, he observes.

When he arrived in Joplin, Huff says he discovered the community’s apathy stemmed partly from the public’s perception of the poor graduation rate “as a school problem, not a community problem.” He reached out to the public, creating Bright Futures, an umbrella covering 280 partnerships with local businesses, faith-based organizations and human service agencies to provide round-the-clock attention to the basic needs of poor children.

In the tornado aftermath, Huff acted decisively to reopen school for the entire district just 87 days later. Among staff, the district motto informally became “Every child, every day, no matter what.”

Although insurance money would cover basic rebuilding of Joplin High School, Huff saw an opportunity for something more — a state-of-the-art facility fit for 21st-century learning. Some residents objected loudly to the expense of an upgraded facility. But Huff persisted, educating the community about why it was so important to the city’s and students’ future.

“He was tireless,” says Carol Stark, editor of the Joplin Globe, calling Huff a man of “principles and morals” who solicits input widely and then “questions whether a decision is the right (one).”

In the case of the contested school bond, the superintendent personally sought out the critics, Stark says. He would call individuals who had written critical letters to the editor in the Joplin Globe and often meet them over coffee. The bond proposal was approved by 46 votes.

That it passed “is a testament to plain hard work on Dr. Huff’s and his team’s part, but also on the comprehensive nature of the plan to get people on board,” says Gary Pulsipher, president and CEO of Mercy Hospital in Joplin.

An educator since 25, Huff says he finds joy in devising new initiatives to overcome major challenges. “I love my job,” he adds. “Even the week after the storm, I loved coming to work. I was put on this earth to help kids.”

Liz Griffin is managing editor of School Administrator. E-mail: lgriffin@aasa.org

 

BIO STATS: C.J. HUFF

Currently: superintendent, Joplin, Mo.

Previously: superintendent, Eldon R1 School District, Eldon, Mo.

Age: 43

Greatest influence on career: Without question, my family. My wife and kids have encouraged and supported me during some very trying times. They keep me going.

Best professional day: Aug. 17, 2011. That was the day we hit our goal of opening school on time following the May 22 tornado.

Books at bedside: Influencer by Kerry Patterson et al.; Leading in a Culture of Change by Michael Fullan; and Love Works: Seven Timeless Principles of Effective Leadership by Joel Manby

Biggest blooper: When the Missouri Legislature passed a bill requiring additional structured time for physical activity, we used one recess. We began referring to it as “structured recess” and that name stuck. Parents cried foul at the idea of structured playtime. We are much more careful now when we name initiatives.

Why I’m an AASA member: Advocacy. AASA stands up for our children, whose voices are seldom heard.

 

 

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