Q&A: John Covington
John Covington (full profile) is superintendent of the Kansas City, Mo., school district. Governing Staff Writer Tina Trenkner spoke with Covington near the beginning of the school year to ask the Alabama native what made him want to become an urban school superintendent. Here is an abridged and edited version of the interview:
What factors made you decide you wanted to become an educator?
When I was growing up in Enterprise (Ala.), basically most of the role models in Enterprise at the time were teachers. And I decided about the eighth grade I wanted to become a teacher.
Was there a particular teacher that influenced you in eighth grade?
No, it's just from the time I started school in '60 ... '62, '63, up until 1969, the public schools in Enterprise were basically segregated. Forced integration didn't come until 1969, '70. I think it was '70, '71, at which point schools were integrated. So when I was actually going through elementary school, I always toyed with the notion of one day ... becoming a teacher and I really decided on that in eighth grade.
School started three weeks ago, how's everything been going?
Right now, everything is going extremely, extremely well. In fact, we opened school on Aug. 30, and our first day as well as our first week exceeded my expectations. I was really worried about it. Anytime you close half your schools and three additional call centers for a total of approximately 30 facilities -- that's a lot of work to do over the course of the summer. You're talking about drawing new school attendance boundaries, new attendance zones, moving materials supplies and equipment from 26 closed schools to the schools that will be remaining open, slashing our employee pool by approximately a thousand employees, making sure that teachers are appropriately assigned to schools, making sure that notices are being sent from the district office to parents so that they'll know exactly which schools they are to report to on the first day of school…. It's really a monumental task. And as a result of having an exceptional leadership team that the school board allowed me to bring in at the inception of my tenure, we were able to really open school on Aug. 30 with minor problems.
Because of so many changes in the school district that you previously outlined, how did you lead through all those logistical challenges?
I realized if we're going to be successful everyone had to put forth a concerted effort to make it happen. So in terms of leadership, I made sure all the appropriate stakeholders were brought to the table. We looked at insurmountable amounts of data to make our case. I then took our arguments for the necessity of shutting down half the schools to the community, the City Council, the NAACP, the churches, various community groups, elected officials....
Of course, the board had to be a key player in all of this, and then we had to do our due diligence in giving members of the community an opportunity to vent. Anytime you talk about closing one school, that certainly evokes a very, very passionate argument, so you can imagine what it was like when I made the announcement that I would be recommending to the school board that we close 26 schools and 3 or 4 additional call centers.
It really took the community by surprise. I think it was shocking. It was a very painful process, but I just knew that I had to be in the forefront giving various parents and other community stakeholders who were against the closure of so many schools an opportunity to vent and have their say.
What did you do to get the support from the different stakeholders like the school board, the teachers and the parents, and how did you show that you took their concerns under consideration while moving quickly to action?
Well, we primarily used the data to make our argument. First of all, Kansas City has less than 18,000 students and we were operating about 66 schools. When I was in Pueblo [County, Colo.], we had more students in Pueblo than we have here in Kansas City. Pueblo had more than 18,000 students, and for 18,000 students we had 32 schools and not all of them were full. So even when I interviewed for the job, I knew that the Kansas City, Mo., school district, from a financial standpoint, had a very, very strained budget.
When I was able to finally get my leadership team together, we really began to look at all facets of school district operation and realized early on that the budget was so strained, or strained to the point that we were looking at approximately a $50 million shortfall. If we had not done what we did, we would have found ourselves looking at intervention from the state. We had Susan Montee, who was the state [auditor] give a report to the community ... and she reported the exact same thing I'm reporting to you.
That was one case we made. The second case we made was: When you look at measurable student academic achievement, we only had 25 percent of the children in the school district who were scoring at the proficient level on the state test. When you look at the manner in which we were operating -- greatly living beyond our finances and maintaining an employee pool of approximately 3,900 employees which resulted in a 14-to-1 student-teacher ratio -- yet still only 25 percent of the children in the district scoring at the proficient level on the state test? There is something terribly wrong with that picture. I mean, that is almost criminal.
And then the third thing is: By the time we were going through school closures I think we had over 6,000 contracts. When did an analysis of those contracts, we found that many of them added no educational value to the school district. So we reduced contracts from over 6,000 to around maybe 925 with the understanding that we would then take any revenue that we were saving, and put that revenue back into teaching and learning across the district. If you are operating less schools, that gives you a greater ability to then spread your resources over fewer schools to help achieve the goals, objectives and certainly the mission of the school district.
Can you outline what your typical day on the job has been for you?
Oh my god. That'll be pretty difficult. I meet a lot, I go through tons of mail, answer a large amount of phone calls... One of the primary things that I do however is look at the work of the various divisions that make up the Kansas City, Mo., school district. I watch this very, very closely to make sure that our various divisions are staying on target and that they are meeting established benchmarks for achieving the goals and objectives that those respective divisions have outlined in our school district's transformation plan. That's very, very critical.
Members of my staff and I on a regular basis work in excess of 13- to 14-hours-a-day. Last year we were going through the right-sizing initiative, and it was not uncommon for us to put in anywhere from 16- to 18-hours-a-day. It takes that kind of work in a school district like Kansas City where there is so much to be done to get the school district back on the right course of looking like and behaving like an effective school district. The problems we have in Kansas City should never be considered to be germane to Kansas City. The problems we have here are certainly the same as most urban school districts experience throughout the country, including Detroit, Washington D.C., Birmingham and other similar school districts.
I wanted to ask you about standards-based education. Can you explain what this is and why you are piloting this type of education in five schools?
I really believe that those of us in public education throughout the country are continuing to hold on to an outdated system of providing educational programs and services to children enrolled in the nation's public schools which should have long since abandoned. When you walk through the corridors of most high schools throughout the country, and elementary schools as well, they will mirror exactly what we were doing in the '50s, '40s, '30s, '20s and even the last part of the last century. When we talk about making sure that our nation remains economically strong and certainly globally competitive, we're not going to be able to do that if we don't make sure that children enrolled in the nation's public schools become assets in achieving that goal, rather than liabilities. We're unable to make that kind of assurance when we're consistently trying to provide them with an outdated model and outdated structure [of education]. Standards-based, in my mind, is the best way to do that.
So in other words, rather than saying to a child you have to do nine months in the first grade and then you're promoted to the second grade.... Well, in the standards-based system, children are able to move through various levels at their own pace and you give children that which they need individually rather than trying to teach to the entire group and holding all children to the same set of standards. Standards-based eliminates grade levels as well as A, B, C, D and F grades. It places the focus on allowing children to move through levels based on their ability to demonstrate that they have mastered the skills, and they're also able to demonstrate [what] they can do as a result of what is they know. They become, the student becomes, the center and the focus of the teaching and the learning experience.
Is standards-based education on track to be expanded throughout the school system or to be implemented slowly?
Well, that is our goal. However, because of the summer of changes we had throughout the school district our first year, we didn't want to do too much too quickly. We identified five schools where we would pioneer or pilot the standards-based program. We want to do that so that we can work out all the bugs and the kinks before expanding the standards-based model to other schools. So we monitor it on a daily and weekly basis, working out any problems that we didn't anticipate to be assured it is working before we expand to other schools within the district.
One of the problems with education reform is that often changes are made very slowly. Yet you developed this reputation for decisiveness and quick action. What factors have helped you implement change so quickly and what sort of advice do you have for other education leaders that are trying to implement reforms?
One of the primary drivers for me in moving quickly is because while we toy with the idea of educational reform, we have to consider the impact that those decisions are going to have on the lives of children. While we're waiting you know, three years, five years to implement reform initiatives that we really believe can work, we can lose a generation of children in the process.
I think when we move forward with all deliberate speed and continue to make those decisions that we know are going to be in the best interest of children, why wait?
How does it feel to know that representatives from the U.S. Department of Education and other education policy researchers are watching what you're doing with Kansas City?
To some extent, Tina, that's somewhat flattering but that's not our motive and we really don't -- my senior leadership team and I -- focus on that. While it is good to be recognized, our primary focus has to be on the work of Kansas City and it has to be focused on not only the work but making sure that we're doing what we do well, so it can have positive outcomes for children. I guess the biggest recognition of our work is to have what we're doing in Kansas City be replicated by others so that children in other school districts throughout this country can have the same kind of opportunities that we're trying to afford the children in Kansas City.
Photo by Steve Puppe