Raising Expectations, Then Raising Results
September 01, 2023
Appears in September 2023: School Administrator.
Trent North makes no bones about the fact that he prioritizes students as the superintendent of Douglas County School System in Douglasville, Ga.
“For me, it’s important that all of my schools have the same opportunity for success, regardless of their zip code,” says North. “I don’t debate that. I don’t waver.”
North, who was the 2023 Georgia Superintendent of the Year and one of four finalists for the national honor, is not afraid of confronting challenges. He sees it as the route to leading a successful school system. Others in his orbit do, too.
Nia Brown, a local business leader who had three children in the Douglas County schools, remembers meeting North shortly after he arrived in 2017 as the district’s first Black superintendent.
“He told us that he would put the students first,” says Brown. “He wanted to make sure that his staff had opportunities for training and development for leadership. And he talked about the importance of community engagement.”
She adds: “He has lived up to that. Those three pillars have consistently been his mainstay.”
When it comes to his educational philosophy, North sums up his top priority in one word: quality. He wants it plainly visible in each of the district’s 34 schools, which serve 26,000 students.
“When you grow up poor, like I did, you learn very quickly how important it is to experience quality, to interact with quality, and that becomes a priority for you,” says North, who spent his formative years in Carrollton, Ga.
When he first came to Douglasville, North saw great potential: a vibrant community with great teachers, and people deliberately choosing to move there and send their children to public school. But he saw low expectations. And he set out to fix that.
North recognized a divide between economically disadvantaged students and others. He learned a substantial number of students never scored above the “developing” level on state assessments. He challenged school leaders to raise their sights, to help students achieve “proficient” and even “distinguished” status.
He pushed staff to develop rigorous expectations for all students and prioritized use of a districtwide improvement process. After two years with the intensified focus, economically disadvantaged students attained nine percentage points of gains in English/language arts and five percentage points of growth on the state’s end-of-grade math assessment.
North didn’t overlook his promise to his faculty, either. He convened a teacher advisory council and listened to their concerns. When he learned teachers wanted more planning days, he made it happen.
While raising expectations for students, North also strengthened the nexus between the district and its surrounding community, located west of Atlanta. He met with community members, selling them on his schools. He met with the Chamber of Commerce, the county’s Board of Commissioners and local real estate agents. He made presentations that were chock full of data about the schools’ gains and launched a weekly superintendent’s newsletter.
Tahira Chandler, coordinator of an AVID program at New Manchester High School, says the hard work is paying off. “He shares the good news of Douglas County everywhere he goes.”
The plan, says North, is to let everyone know what excellence looks like — and to hold each other to high standards to drive future success.
“That’s what I want to leave in Douglas County,” he says.
BIO STATS: TRENT NORTH
Currently: superintendent, Douglas County School System, Douglasville, Ga.
Previously: middle school principal, Carrolton, Ga.
Greatest influence on career: To be successful, one must embrace hard work and value people. My parents’ lives mirrored these values, and they instilled them within me at a young age.
Best professional day: As a young, new assistant principal, I intervened with a student labeled as a constant troublemaker. During a one-on-one and a deeper conversation with the family, we uncovered our blind spot and learned how to manage the student’s behavior better. That student blossomed and is an adult with a family of his own.
Books at bedside: Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America by William Frey; and Instructional Leadership: Creating Theory Out of Practice by Peter DeWitt
Why I’m an AASA member: As someone interested in education policy decisions, I find AASA synthesizes policy legislative conversations and inspires meaningful dialogue.