insights (2007-09)

Choosing a New School Superintendent

Outgoing School Superintendent Charles Lindsey has performed better than critics give him credit for. But I concur with the school board's unanimous decision last week that the time had come to make a change.

Lindsey can point to many accomplishments during his tenure. Introduction of a specialized curriculum at struggling inner-city schools has helped lift student performance to the point that all of them have been removed from a state list of schools targeted for improvement.

For the school system as a whole, elementary and secondary schools now get all A's on the state's "value added" scorecard for measuring student achievement gains from year to year against a norm.

There's also been remarkable improvement in the ACT scores of high school students from well below the national average five years ago to well above it (at 22.2) in 2006. And Lindsey gets credit for making good personnel decisions, especially in his selection of principals who contributed to these gains.

Still the prevalent sense among school board members was that Lindsey had grown weary and wary after eight embattled years on the job to the point of losing his focus and becoming gun-shy. Many of his battles were with County Mayor Mike Ragsdale and County Commission over funding issues, and he managed to alienate them to the point that he could no longer be an effective advocate for schools in those quarters. He also had to deal with factional disputes within the school board. Against that backdrop, he began to waver in his budget recommendations over the past two years, or so it appeared to several members of that body.

In his evaluation of Lindsey last year, highly respected former board Chairman Sam Anderson criticized the superintendent for "not being focused during the budget process." Anderson, who's been a Lindsey supporter over time, says, "You're not going to get a superintendent who can last more than six or seven years. The job takes too much out of a person."

The issue now is what are the prime attributes the board should be seeking in its search for a successor--a search process that board members hope will lead to having a new superintendent in place by next fall. Anderson starts out by saying that, "We need someone who can recharge the school system and move us toward the 'world-class system' that Dr. Lindsey dreamed of." Along with other attributes, he also puts a lot of emphasis on "someone who gets out into the community and has the charisma to sell our goals to the public.... Charles' one weakness was that he wasn't very good at selling the school system."

Similarly, board member Indya Kincannon is looking for a superintendent who "will give us a renewed energy and focus, someone who will give public schools a higher profile and higher support." Another former chairman who's still serving on the board, Dan Murphy, takes a different tack with his emphasis on "somebody with a strategic sense of how local education fits in a global context." Yet Lindsey's mantra from the day he took the job was to make Knox schools "internationally competitive"--a slogan that became the subject of much derision for being too highfalutin.

The best summation of what's most needed that I've heard is, "the passion to do whatever it takes to prepare all kids to the best of their ability." It comes from the president of the Cornerstone Foundation, Laurens Tullock, who has collaborated with both Lindsey and Ragsdale--no mean feat in itself--on several meaningful steps toward doing so.

One person who clearly has that passion is the school system's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, Donna Wright. She has zealously sought out ways to make Knox schools more rigorous and more nurturing for all students, especially those who are struggling. She's consulted with foundations that are in the forefront of such efforts nationally and traveled extensively to evaluate other pioneering schools that could be models for curriculum and instructional innovation here.

At the high school level, she's championed ways for reaching out to engage students who've lost their way in a large, impersonal school setting. She hopes to make the new Hardin Valley High School a model for doing well here rather than just a place for relieving overcrowding at Farragut and Karns. Meanwhile, she's focused on preventing failures on the part of freshmen in existing high schools which, studies show, usually lead to their becoming dropouts. Those studies indicate that lack of reading skills is a root cause of most failures. So starting this year every entering freshman is getting a reading comprehension test, and those who score poorly are being steered toward a special reading course that's been offered with sensitivity so they won't be stigmatized.

At the same time, she's spearheading the introduction of what's known as MAP (Maximum Achievement Program) to address deficiencies from the third grade on, with counseling aimed at getting students on a path toward higher expectations and achievement.

In everything she says and does, Wright exudes enthusiasm that's infectious with teachers and parents and should be with the community at large (at least it certainly is with me). While she doesn't have experience running a $332 million enterprise that's by far the largest employer and property owner in Knox County, I'd like to believe she can complement herself with good administrators in areas, such as school construction, where Lindsey's management team is widely perceived to have fallen down.

Getting caught up in all of the political infighting and fiscal strains that are afflicting Knox County government leaves Wright hesitant about seeking the superintendent's post. But I very much hope she will. And if even better candidates emerge from what will be a national search, then hopefully she will continue doing what she does so very well.