Setting the Course to Become America’s Best Urban Public School District

I am honored that my colleagues elected me Chair of the Jefferson County Board of Education last night, and look forward to continuing the board’s work on behalf of enhancing student learning.  Here’s the rough text of remarks I delivered at last night’s board meeting:

I want to thank my fellow board members for their trust and support. As I take on this role, I am keenly aware that as a School Board we have a major responsibility to the public.  Simply put, the governance this body provides, the expectations we set, and the priorities we pursue set the tone for the system as a whole and create the conditions under which our superintendent, principals, and teachers can ensure that all students learn.

Our newly constituted board finds itself at a real inflection point.  The District in some ways is hitting its stride, with annual gains in student achievement moving us from Kentucky’s 6th percentile in 2010 to the 51st percentile last year.  These increases in academic success are historic, and very unusual nationally for big urban districts.  We also inherit from our predecessor board a strong, positive relationship of partnership and candor with Dr. Hargens, our Superintendent.  I thank our colleague Diane Porter and our former colleagues for these crucial elements of strength on which this board can build.

Yet every member of this board sought election because we know we must do better.  We know that even with improvement spelled out in state accountability tests, less than half our students are proficient in reading and math.  We know that at each board meeting we sit in front of this reminder that JCPS is “Shaping the Future.”  And we know that, as the Superintendent was told by a community leader when she arrived, “as JCPS goes, so goes Louisville” –if our students don’t thrive, our community cannot prosper in the years ahead.

The Superintendent and board have driven progress to date by executing a strategy called “Vision 2015.”  During our new member orientation sessions following the November election, Dr. Hargens made two things very clear: First, we are in the midst of the “execution phase” of Vision 2015, where performance on the strategy’s basic elements should drive further improvement.  And second, “doing what we’ve done to get us here won’t get us where we want to go from here.”  That is, new strategies and tactics are needed to achieve our vision of every student graduating prepared for life, or to get us to our broad goal of becoming the best urban district in America.  Dr. Hargens has called on the board to work with her, starting immediately, in building a new “Vision 2020.”

From conversation with each of you, I know that the sense of the board is that we are up for this, and we intend not only to ask for the District to change as necessary to bring students to higher levels of learning, but to change our own practices as needed.

In accepting the position as Chair, I commit to you, my colleagues, that I have heard, loud and clear, the sense of the board that we must improve the way we do our business so that we can do well in all three of the essential elements of governing a big organization through change:  monitoring operational improvement, driving strategic vision and goal-setting, and assuring compliance.  In conversation, I have learned that all of us are determined to do more than sit in headquarters and monitor compliance.  We know we need to find time to question and learn so that we are adequately prepared for the decisions that lie ahead, and to create the accountability that will empower the change agents in our schools and management team who reach our students.

So here are three structural changes I will work to see us implement to ensure the board’s time is aligned with what we are seeking from the District:

First, we will change the location of our meetings to bring us into the schools at least once per month — starting with our next meeting, which I propose take place at Valley High School on January 26.  This change of venue has several goals:  To enliven and broaden the board’s contact with the community, to highlight the strengths and challenges of our schools, and to create shared experiences in the schools that will strengthen board understanding and decision-making.

Second, we will form ourselves into project-based teams to work with the Superintendent and senior leadership to dive deeper into key issues and help us create deeper board understanding around critical strategic drivers.  In JCPS parlance, think of these as board “professional learning communities.”  Initial teams are:

  • Finance:  What data does the board require to be effective at setting and intelligently monitoring progress toward reallocating dollars to the programmatic and instructional practices that accord with our goal?
  • Technology Utilization: What new competencies must the District build to serve 21st Century stakeholders, and how can the board set goals and measure progress as these competencies are built?  Possible examples include how the board can ensure that the District is moving effectively and rapidly, in this digital age, to modernize customer service and to empower constituents with clear information and e-commerce capabilities that make choosing schools and scheduling services more accessible to all our families.
  • Policy and pedagogy:  With our policy manual largely up to Kentucky standards, what new policy issues must the District confront, and how can the board ensure that we adopt the best framework for today’s learners?   For example, do we need to be looking beyond test scores to assess deeper learning, and if so, how? Is JCPS teacher training up to the task of helping teachers grapple with new technologies and social realities invest in modernizing professional development?

The third change relates to the quality of our work together as board and management. The board learned last February from an audit of board time that, compared to high performing school boards, we spend too much time on “management inquiry” and not enough on “goal monitoring.”  This board is determined to change that – but we need support from our colleagues in management.  To help us avoid deep dives into micromanagement, we must ask you to enhance both the quality and the candor of your presentations.  We need your reporting to focus on clear analysis of progress toward JCPS’ goals.  Don’t just share data with us:  tell us what it means and what you recommend we should do about it.  Know that we will have read your submissions ahead of time, through our wonderful board portal, so don’t read your slides to us:  share additional insights, or just summarize and invite questions.

In closing, I am confident that JCPS has a great year ahead.  I thank each of my colleagues for your service on this board and your confidence in me as chair, and I express the board’s excitement about working with the wonderful leadership and people of JCPS as we move forward to execute on the basics; to fix or eliminate what’s not working or no longer relevant; and to celebrate, learn from and proliferate what’s working well!

3 thoughts on “Setting the Course to Become America’s Best Urban Public School District

  1. Good points, David. But to assure true transparency for the public in your meetings, you need to make the same documents the board receives through its “board portal” available to the public. And, sufficiently in advance of the board meeting so your constituents/customers can fully understand the topic and ensuing discussion.

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