PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

John Covington 2010 HONOREE

Superintendent of Schools, Kansas City, Mo.

Superintendent of the Kansas City Missouri School District Dr. John Covington

Read more of the extended Q&A with John Covington.

Schools in Kansas City, Mo., have been suffering for years. The district is only provisionally accredited and meets just four of the state's 14 standards for academic performance. Only a quarter of its students score at the proficient level on state exams. The system has been hemorrhaging students: Enrollment has fallen by half in the past 10 years. And by 2009, the district faced a $50 million deficit.

What the system needed was nothing short of a complete overhaul. Fortunately, it had John Covington.

Covington was brought on as the district superintendent last year, and he knew he needed to make some drastic decisions. And he wanted to make them fast. "While we're waiting -- you know, three years, five years -- to implement reform initiatives, we can lose a generation of children in the process."

So this summer, Covington essentially rebuilt the school system from the ground up. He closed nearly half of the city's 61 schools, ended more than 5,000 vendor contracts and cut the workforce by nearly a third. He rewrote curriculums and shifted the seventh and eighth grades out of elementary schools and into high schools.

On top of that, Covington is pioneering an innovative "standards-based" approach at five elementary schools in the city. The new method does away with traditional letter grades. And it eliminates grade levels altogether, grouping students instead by what they've learned.

No other school district in the country has made such wholesale reforms, and cities everywhere are watching to see if Covington's bold experiment pays off. Missouri education officials say they're encouraged by Kansas City's progress so far. For Covington, though, the decision was clear: Go big and do it now. "[We have to] move with all deliberate speed and continue to make those decisions that we know are going to be in the best interest of children," he says. "Why wait?"

— Tina Trenkner
Photo by Steve Puppe