School superintendent candidates
participate in forum
|by Audrey Thomasson
KILMARNOCKTwo candidates took the stage last week to answer questions about their qualifications, educational philosophy and more in the district’s first public forum for selection of a superintendent for Lancaster public schools.
Candidates Jack McKinley, principal of Belle Heth Elementary School in Radford, and Steven Parker, principal at Cedar Lee Middle School in Bealeton, came before the forum separately. Each made opening statements before taking questions from school employees, parents and the community.
According to school board chairman Dr. Robert Westbrook, the board will analyze the written feedback from attendees and negotiate a contract with their choice this week. A vote is expected to take place at the May 12 school board meeting.
McKinley said he was raised in a Spanish-speaking community of Los Angeles and spent two years as a missionary in Brazil.
“I’ve seen what poverty can do to limit opportunities for children. But I’ve seen what education can do to change futures,” said McKinley.
He believes children come first. “They are the center of everything we do...We need to enjoy what we’re doing or change it...We work to meet the needs of the studentsnot the benchmarks.”
He said it may sound trite to some people, but all students can learn. Whether students, individuals or employees, what everyone needs to encounter success is to be recognized for their work.
McKinley stressed the importance of setting goals and being results oriented. As principal, he set Standards of Learning (SOL) pass rates for his school that were above state standards and told students if they achieved those goals he would shave his head.
Each year, he noted the students came closer to his goal. At the end of the third year they missed the goal by a slight margin. He decided to reward them anywaynot with a full head shave, but with a mohawk. Of course, the kids were delighted.
“It’s important to celebrate success even if it isn’t at the goal we set. We need to teach our students they need to do more. Set the bar and encourage them to rise to that challenge.”
McKinley said he also believes in letting kids see the human side of adults. “They need to know we have challenges, we have struggles, too.”
Students who have challenges and limitations need to be offered opportunities, he said. “Education is the great equalizer.”
McKinley said when his family visited the county they loved the area. He noted that Lancaster County and its schools have a lot to offer his family of six. “And I believe I have a lot to offer the county,” he said.
While working criminal investigations with the military, he decided it was too late to help those people so he turned his career around to become a high school teacher and football coach, said Parker.
He became principal of a middle school “in dire straits,” one that had never been accredited. Students were moving out to other schools. “We turned it around...and we’ve had eight years of full accreditation and improved student achievement,” he said.
He said the key is effective school leadership.
Parker puts the emphasis on learning. “Teach with a learning focus,” he said. Teaching must be student centered. “What’s best for children is the most important.”
He stressed relationships and collaboration between students, between adults and between students and adults. “We need to have a platform...a venue to share our vision. It’s not my vision. It’s our vision. If you don’t have a shared vision, you have pockets of things happening.”
He also talked about the need to have high expectations. “If we don’t see ourselves as a world-class school division, you won’t get there.”
Parker believes in taking “calculated risks” in order to be on the “cutting edge” of moving forward.
“The yardstick of success is student achievement,” he noted, but added each student must learn in his own way and at his own rate and not to satisfy Standards of Learning tests, which he said put too much pressure on students and teachers.
“In third grade, my son came home from school in tears thinking he wasn’t going to pass SOLs. In third grade!” he repeated.
He noted it is important to meet SOL standards “...to keep people out of our business. SOLs are not the be-all-to-end-all. We will focus on learning...divide the time to meet the students’ individual needsit takes as long as it takes to learn. And eventually, that will lead to (passing) SOLs.
“I hope you’ve sensed my enthusiasm” about this job, he said. “Dialogue and mutual trust are important. I’m very transparent, you’ll never have to guess what I’m thinking. This is not a stepping-stone job for me. I’ve been waiting 22 years to do it. I’m not a flash-in-the-pan. When I make a commitment, I’m in it. I do it.”
Superintendent candidates respond to questions
Ann Jackson, an officer with the local chapter of the NAACP, asked the candidates what they would do to close “the huge disparity” between white and African-American students on SOL passing scores and suspensions.
McKinley acknowledged the problem was not exclusive to Lancaster and that the schools can learn from the achievements of other districts. Acknowledging that kids come from different backgrounds that influence their abilities, McKinley said, “I do not set a lower standard for one based on their backgrounds.” He noted success comes from identifying what is being done right and what can be improved.
“As we change things, these things are going to be addressed,” Parker replied. He said schools must be color blind. “It’s the same for special education students. Some level of support is needed based on need, not color.” Parker added that at his middle school, the suspension rate for students matches the demographic mix.
The Rev. Tom Coye, who heads the district’s mentoring program, asked their views on mentoring.
“I love mentoring programs,” McKinley replied. “I use them and have had great success with them. What I love about them is you have an adult who cares for that child. When they come from the outside, we know they care about us.” He suggested a training program for mentors. “The benefits far outweigh the cons,” McKinley added.
“The strength of this community is the diversity of the folks who live here,” answered Parker. He noted the untapped local talent from retirees and professionals. “I want to see more mentors, coordinated by a single person. We need to make the best of what we have.” Parker said he’s given a lot of thought to this idea, and believes a superintendent’s advisory council should take on this kind of project directly with him. “We need role models, particularly for children from households with no role models in the child’s life, such as a pastor, parent or coach.”
“What are your five-year goals?” McKinley was asked by George Bott.
“We need to work together to establish full state accreditation; work to make salaries current with the region.” He also noted the need to bring up the talent already here as well as bring in new talent in order to “lift the entire system up at the same time.” Fixing the budget won’t happen immediately, it will take time, he said.
Tiffany Pittman asked Parker about his thoughts on the schools’ discipline program, Positive Behavior Intervention Support (PBIS), for dealing with unruly children.
“Until you empower teachers and students in their classrooms, it’s a pipe dream,” Parker replied. He said he uses a time-out control theory. “Children act out because they have no control in their lives and they want to control something.” Parker said he starts a dialogue with the parents, but also has students write down why they acted out, did they get what they wanted, and how could they better accomplish their goals. “Success depends on the child taking responsibility for their behavior.” Using PBIS with tiered intervention, academic support, and meeting the individual’s needs with challenges, his middle school’s in-school referral rate went from 1,260 to 317 in the first year. “We work on tools to change behavior before we suspend them.”
Responding to a question about students learning and reading cursive as part of the curriculum, McKinley replied that teachers tend to teach what they learned and what works for them. While he acknowledged it was a challenge to fit cursive into the curriculum, he said “It’s still alive and well.”
Kenya Moody asked Parker about the diversity gap of 65% African-Americans in the community while less than 50% of local teachers are black.
“Diversity is important,” he replied, acknowledging that the school staff should mirror the community. However, he noted the local percentage of African-Americans is closer to 50%, probably based on a large population of white retirees in the county and a lot of students not attending public schools. “That’s telling. It’s very difficult to find African-American teachers willing to come to a rural community. We need to raise our own. Invest and teach our children to come back to this community.” He suggested developing incentives. His current school district established a teacher-cadet program “to inspire our children to come back” and teach in our schools, he said.
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