By Heather Mullinix
Citing a variety of qualified candidates currently involved in other director of schools searches, the Cumberland County Board of Education agreed to accelerate it's search process.
The board will hold a work session and special-called meeting Saturday at 9 a.m. to discuss the six candidates interviewed this past Saturday.
"We've had six excellent candidates and we've had two weeks to look at them," said Richard Janeway, 2nd District representative. "I don't want to wait three weeks and possibly lose quality candidates."
Others agreed; however, there was question if the board would go ahead and hire a candidate, or choose two to bring back for second interviews individually with each board member.
Charles Tollett, 1st District representative, said, "One may be so nearly unanimous it wouldn't make sense to do that."
Josh Stone, 4th District representative, said he had other questions he'd like to ask before making a final decision. He was encouraged to call candidates by phone for further questions. If second interviews were set, he would already have that information and could explore other questions.
The board interviewed Dennis Albright of Sutton, WV; Donald Andrews of Ashboro, NC; Steven Dickerson of North Vernon, IN; James Francis of Spring Hill, TN; Tammy Knipp of Cookeville, TN; and David Roper of Murfreesboro, TN. Each candidate was given five minutes to make an opening statement and one hour to field questions from the board, with five minutes for a conclusion. Questions were submitted by board members in advance and the same questions were posed to all candidates. The candidates were not given the questions prior to the interview. Answers are given according to the order they were interviewed.
Q: What do you know about Cumberland County and what attracted you to apply for the position of director of schools?
Albright said he was attracted to the rural school system because that is his background. He was also impressed with the school system's high performing schools.
Knipp said she was already familiar with the area because she and her husband enjoy the parks and recreational amenities available here. She said she doesn't apply for every director of schools position she comes across but believes she was a good fit for Cumberland County.
Dickerson said he was familiar with this area of Tennessee from his childhood and had always looked forward to possibly relocating to Middle Tennessee at some point. He said Cumberland County had strong academic programs, top schools and a lot of positive aspects. The challenge here would be to make the school system better, and that was the type of challenge he was looking for.
Francis said, "The pillars are in place there to move to a new level of success for the school system." He added he was attracted to the quality of life of the rural community and the respect people across the state have for many of the people in the Cumberland County school system. He was impressed with the number of level 4 and 5 teachers in the system and believes he can help the school system attain success in closing subgroup gaps in annual measurable objectives.
Andrews said he was looking to retire from the North Carolina education system, but felt he still had a lot to offer students and began looking at opportunities outside the state. He believes the Cumberland County is a great place to live and is a top-rate school system, but does face challenges.
Roper said he was impressed with a number of things related to top performing schools in Cumberland County, and his review of data showed there were many things the school system did well. However, he did find some areas for improvement. He also thought the area was beautiful and liked the small town atmosphere.
Q: How have you prepared for this interview and what outstanding traits do you possess which make you the best candidate?
Albright said he was fair and honest, almost fair to a fault. After more than 30 years in education, he said he had the same enthusiasm for the field as when he first walked into a classroom. He said he is decisive and stands by his decisions but is open to input from others. He said he is a team player.
In his current position, he inherited a school system on the brink of state takeover. The school system was over staffed and running annual deficits. That involved difficult decisions, he said, including reducing staffing by about 30 people to be more in line with state funding formulas.
Knipp said she researched the school system's data and found a robust career and technical education program and an impressive graduation rate, but found the school system needing to improve math and reading skills.
"I have experience in that."
Dickerson said he was able to relate to people well and work with all people. He has experience in the service industry and believes in the servant leadership ideal. He said he is a researcher and has the ability to see the big picture, to listen and communicate.
Francis said he grew up through the ranks of public school, first as a teacher then administrator and superintendent. He believes in mentoring leaders and those coming up through the ranks, and also understands well the challenges faced by economically disadvantaged students.
Andrews has 17 years experience as a superintendent of schools. He said he has a compassion for children and school staff and believes in collaboration with all segments of the school system to develop a strategic plan to move forward.
Roper said he was able to bring folks together and was used to working with changing demographics. In the past, he's made concerted efforts to reach out to stakeholders.
Q: Describe your leadership style and elaborate on your philosophy for leadership and delegation of responsibility.
Albright said he believed in a shared leadership vision, with regular meeting of leadership teams to discuss concerns and ideas.
He said he wanted to let principals run their schools, but intercede when needed.
"But, as the head of the school system, the buck stops here," he said.
Knipp said she was not a micromanager, preferring to give administrators and teachers autonomy within a defined scope so that teachers can innovate. As a former coach, she said she knows how to motivate by listening, equipping and empowering employees.
Dickerson said he follows the servant situational leadership model, delegating responsibility when it is called for.
"But eventually, it all falls in my lap," he said.
He wants to foster trust and communication among the staff so that teachers and principals feel free to try new ideas.
Francis believes in leading by example and following the golden rule to inspire and motivate staff. He said he has high expectations and clear expectations, and works to empower employees to meet those expectations. He said he is a creative thinker, looking for new ideas if something is not working.
Andrews said he believes in accountability of staff and inclusion of all staff. He believes in investigating and gathering input and hiring quality people he can trust. He doesn't micromanage, but does evaluate staff on completion of their annual plans.
Roper said he believes in servant leadership and leading by example. He's been pleased to work as a mentor in the past for others ready to take a step forward in their career. He chooses staff based on their capabilities to do the job that needs to be done but doesn't "look over their shoulders," though he's available for guidance and advice when needed.
Q: What is your philosophy on community involvement and how important is that to you as director of schools?
Albright said, "Too often we can't get parents involved."
He said it was important to reach out through civic organizations and other means to reach the community, and he believed school facilities should be open to the community as a way to help foster involvement.
Knipp said the school system needed to determine at what level the community should be involved and how that involvement should take place. She said ways to build involvement were through advisory councils and making sure the invitation to participate was obvious. Also, people are more motivated to be involved in the schools when projects are fun and rewarding, offering an opportunity for collaboration.
Dickerson said parental involvement is a key to student success and that school should be open to the communities because they are paid for by tax dollars. Schools need to offer worthwhile activities for parents and the community to take park in and he mentioned a Partners in Education program that is a partnership with local industries.
Francis said the schools are the community, and the board is an arm of the community. The public needs to be a part of decision making and change in the school system and the school system should reflect the values of the community. He said he would be involved in the community through civic organizations and that school facilities should be open to the community.
Andrews delivers an annual state of the schools address, which he said included, "The good, the bad and the ugly." He thinks everyone in the community shares a love of children, not just the parents, and the community needed to feel welcome in the school system. He has implemented partnerships with local industry and holds community forums and student advisory groups. "The director needs to get out there and let people know they are welcome and promote the school system."
Roper said it was important to communicate this was "our" school system and to ask for input through town-hall meetings, civic organizations and the media to engage the community. Sitting down with leaders to discuss needs and funding and any changes is important, too.
Q: Give examples of methods you use to communicate with individuals, businesses, civic groups and the media to generate support for the school system.
Albright uses face-to-face communication primarily, but also has previously used an "Ask the Superintendent" feature on the school system website and works will with media. He has also held community meetings.
Knipp mentioned interviews with media outlets and speaking to civic groups to spread information about the school system. She would develop a blog and continue the Facebook presence of the school system. But, she said she also believes in more traditional forms of communication, including handwritten notes.
Dickerson said he believed in proper phone etiquette and, when disseminating information to the public, to be careful and conscientious how the school system is presented.
Frances would present an annual state of the school address, taking much of the educational field vocabulary and making it understandable by the community. Technology offers great opportunity for communication, he said, but added talking one-on-one was best for building trust.
Andrews pointed to his involvement with local civic groups, community, student and staff advisory groups and the state of the schools address as ways to communicate. "I want people to give me input on the best way to move the school system forward," he said.
Roper reiterated use of community forums to communicate, working with the media and meeting with civic organizations to communicate the needs of the school system.
Q: How is the best way to use school resource officers?
Albright said he liked to see school resources officers in the schools being preventive and proactive and building relationships with students. He said his community suffers from a methamphetamine epidemic and, many times, children only see law enforcement when family members are being arrested. The SROs provided an opportunity to build a positive image of law enforcement in that child's mind.
Knipp was involved with the SRO program in a previous school system and found the SROs there taught, were role models, acted as liaisons with law enforcement, provided training for teachers, identified areas of concern from a safety standpoint and helped teachers understand community issues, such as gang identification.
Dickerson said each school district should make a decision on how to utilize SROs, and that should be based on input from students, parents and teachers. SROs should have counseling duties, he said, not just acting as armed guards.
Francis said SROS were an important part of the school safety program, but not the only part. Schools needed to be empowered with the resources to do their job of keeping schools safe as effectively as possible.
SROs are about building relationships with students, Andrews said. He takes pride in working with law enforcement in his community and said SROs area about teaching, setting an example and providing security. He added he does not believe in arming teachers.
Roper believes placement of SROs should be on a case-by-case basis, with the decision made based on what is best for the children. The program should be regularly reviewed to make sure it is accomplishing what the school system wants to accomplish.
Q: The director of schools should be knowledgeable in all areas of the school system. Describe your experience and competence regarding the following areas: the budget process from development to presentation to implementation; long range plans for capital building expenses; building support with county commissioners to support the needs of Cumberland County schools; and reviewing staff and making changes if needed.
Albright said he works with a no-frills budget. He's had experience with building projects, with a six-school building program recently completed that involved careful planning and implementation. Schools were renovated but never closed during the construction process. He said he's had good relationships with his county board and state delegates in West Virginia, communicating on educational issues. In personnel issues, Albright said he had extensive experience and pointed to the staffing reductions he had to implement at his current school system.
"Those cuts can be painful, but 86 percent of my budget is personnel," he said.
Knipp said the budget process was a year-long process, looking at revenues, priorities, strategic plans and conversations with principals on building-level needs.
She did not have previous experience with a capital building program, but did administer small grants to assist in establishing a pre-kindergarten program at a previous position. That involved a lot of finance, she said, but no building.
She said a comprehensive needs assessment would help to show county commissioners, the funding body for the county, the needs of the school system. It was important, she said, to show the benefits not only to the school system but the community as a whole.
In staff changes, Knipp said the focus always had to be on what was best for the children. Professional development, training and coaching could be sufficient to help teachers improve to be more effective teachers, but it was important to have the right people in the right place.
"You have to make those tough decisions, but you do it because it's what's best for the children," Knipp said.
Dickerson said a resource plan that allowed the school system to get the most bang for its dollars was important and programs needed to be evaluated to ensure they were effective use of dollars. He's worked in systems where he oversaw building programs as well as re-evaluated a building plan after a reduction in student enrollment following a significant loss of jobs in the community, reallocating space as necessary.
Dickerson said he understood the pressures of county commissioners tasked with funding numerous areas of the community. He said talking with each commissioner and the county mayor and attending meetings to build a relationship was important.
In making staff changes, Dickerson said the new teacher evaluation system offered an opportunity to develop professional growth plans. "We work to help get them there," he said. "If they don't put the work in, we would let them go."
Francis said he believes in a zero-based budget process that is driven by a needs assessment and federal law. He said it was important to track funds and programs to make sure funds are used in the most effective way. Teachers can't be cut out of the process, he said, adding they could help identify priorities in situations where cuts were needed. A long-range capital building plan needs to have input from all segments of the community, he said, to get people committed. He helped to get a referendum passed in Wilson County to increase tax funding for schools.
"That was the first, only and last tax increase passed by referendum there," he said.
Francis has previously served as a county commissioner and said he understands the tough job those individuals face. He said the school system should involve, engage and embrace the county commission and listen to their concerns.
In reviewing staff and making changes, Francis said he understood the many challenges facing school staff, including new evaluations, changes to tenure, the implementation of common core standards and other education reform. He said he believed in evaluating, observing, listening to and talking with teacher and helping them improve, but also looking at the data.
Andrews said needs and expenses should be prioritized according to a strategic plan and he likes to save up a fund balance that can then be used for one-time projects, giving every part of the community a project from those funds. He's had experience in capital building programs, including building two new high schools. An older building program had planned for a third high school in his district, but in evaluating the needs and resources, that was revised to convert a middle school to a part of the high school campus and building a new middle school. A new $118.9 million building plan has been approved to build two elementary schools, two to three middle schools and convert the middle school and renovate a high school.
In working with the county commission, Andrews said, "The bottom line is we've got to remember, they've got the same challenges as us." He said the school system should educate the commissioners on its needs without animosity. And, "Tell the truth," he said, adding it was difficult to rebuild trust once it was broken.
In reviewing staff, Andrews said it was important to hold school employees accountable. "I believe in hiring well and I have no problem with firing well if we do everything we can to help an employee and it's not working."
Roper said it was necessary in the budgeting process to differentiate between urgent needs, things that are necessary and things the school system would like to have. He worked on a capital building program in Alabama, revitalizing a historic school auditorium and the campus. "I wish you could have seen the faces of the community and the pride taken in that auditorium," he said. In any building program, it was important to study what is feasible and the most efficient use of funds.
Building relationships was key to working with local government to move the school system ahead, he said, and not just "show up with our hand out." In staff evaluations and changes, Roper noted he'd been able to mentor a young teacher into moving into an administrative role, helping provide the confidence to take that step. However, that involved removing a principal because it was in the best interests of the students. He said he was impartial and fair in such decisions; however, if he didn't make a change when he knew one was needed, "I am derelict in my duties."
Q: Relate your experience as well as your philosophy on each of the following: academic achievement related to Tennessee's value-added assessments; technology and it's role in education; inclusion as it relates to special education students; vocational education and it's importance; and common core curriculum.
Albright said West Virginia was just starting to implement a value-added assessment to measure student growth. He believes all students can learn, and that measuring that growth can help teachers see their successes. Technology needs to be in the hands of students as a learning tool, he said.
In inclusion, he said, "It's expensive, but it's got to be done for those children."
He said Cumberland county has an excellent vocational education program.
"Not every student will go to college. Expanding vocational offerings is key. We have to look at the market demands so the students will be able to get jobs," Albright said.
For common core curriculum, his system has implemented academic coaches that are key to rolling out the new curriculum and standards so that teachers have embedded support on a daily basis.
Knipp said Cumberland County had excellent marks in academic achievement, but that presented a unique challenge on the student academic growth portion of state assessments. "How to keep them growing is a challenge," she said. That's where differentiated instruction and, implemented correctly, common core standards, could help. Common Core standards focus on a personalized learning path that leads to problem solving skills, and it brings the "imagine" part of education back to the schools.
In technology, Knipp was concerned the school system would be ready to meet the online testing requirements from the state from an infrastructure standpoint. But, technology was not a replacement for good teaching, she said.
She's a fan of inclusion classrooms and, in fact, took an inclusion model school-wide at a pre-K through fifth-grade elementary school, with inclusion built into the schedule so that students weren't separated.
CTE was a "no brainer," Knipp said. "Every bit of research tells us our work must be meaningful in order for us to invest in it."
She was pleased to see the county had a robust CTE program and would like to see the number of students participating increase.
Dickerson said he believed all children can learn more than they are already learning, and the value-added data helped give teachers the opportunity to develop into better teachers and realize successes. He led efforts in 1983 to bring computers labs to his school, which was unheard of at the time, but something he saw coming down the road. He believes technology is a tool that can help teachers and be used to help students gain more knowledge to get ahead.
For inclusion, Dickerson said it can be important for teachers to know at times they will address or assess differently. If inclusion causes unnecessary classroom interruptions, that can be a problem because it takes away from the rest of the class. CTE is vital to the future, Dickerson said, adding only 25 percent of jobs require a four-year college degree, but the vast majority require certifications or two-year training programs in technology. He'd like all students to have the chance to know what opportunities are available in the CTE programs.
In Common Core standards, Dickerson said it was important to make sure we know students are learning what they need to progress and to develop critical thinking skills.
Francis said Cumberland County's challenge in value-added scores was subgroup growth. He said the district should be facilitators and resources for the schools in meeting those challenges. For technology, he said it can revolutionize what, how and when we teach.
Francis said data shows inclusion works for special education students and regular education students, though there are some instances where it's not possible to have inclusion. He would like to study how students are identified in Cumberland County for special education, because the percentage seemed high, he said. CTE programs can be expanded, he said, with partnerships with area universities and students taking on innovative roles in creating new technology or programs. Common Core standards should be embraces to help teachers be the best they can be.
Andrews said Tennessee had done a better job with its growth data than North Carolina, adding it offered teachers a chance to see where they had improved a student's knowledge and understanding, even when they were not able to move them to proficiency. "You take them where you get them and move them forward," Andrews said. Training helped teachers understand different ways of teaching to help students learn.
In technology, Andrews said the cost was a challenge, but was important.
Inclusion was often a balancing act, Andrews said, so that students were not set up for failure.
In CTE, Andrews noted the benefits for students and that not every student would go on to a four-year college after high school, but that CTE offered opportunities for those students and guidance counselors were doing a better job of recognizing the value of those programs. In common core standards, staff development was a key to proper implementation in the state.
Roper said value-added data was good in that it provided more than just a snapshot of how a student is progressing, but care needed to be taken on the correlation between student growth and teacher effectiveness. Technology is a great tool for helping students recover deficiencies and increase learning, but, he added, "It's not an end to itself. It's a means to an end."
Inclusion is important to offer all students a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment, he said, and when inclusion is able to do that, it is a good thing. In CTE, monitoring local business needs to ensure proper courses are taught is key to growing the program so that students are able to find gainful employment after high school.
Common Core standards are a good concept, he said, and when implemented properly help foster an environment of sharing knowledge so that students grow up and share their knowledge. Frequent assessments are necessary to insure intervention is offered as needed.
Q: What is your experience in developing, implementing and evaluating an instructional program that has improved student achievement? How do you insure high achieving students are challenged while meeting low achieving students' needs?
Albright said he'd implemented staff training for use of data and an Institutional Practices Inventory to look at student scores and what can be done to help students improve. He's also implemented intervention programs to help students remediate skills if necessary.
It can be difficult for teachers to differentiate their instruction based on student achievement, but multiple groups help each level, as does formative assessments.
Knipp helped implement a program to align curriculum across grade levels and vertically so that students would learn the skills needed to progress in knowledge. Differentiated instruction and common core standards were part of challenging high achieving students while meeting the needs of low achieving students, she said.
"You have to have high expectations," she said. "You have to know every student can learn and give them equal opportunity, but give them choices."
Dickerson said lesson plans needed to offer engagement for students in learning for challenging students, and that teachers had to look at selves as facilitators, making students a part of their own learning process.
Francis said programs should be evaluated by if they are doing what they were expected to do and if they are worth continued funding. While programs are helpful, Francis said a level 5 teacher with a blackboard will still move student achievement.
Andrews pointed to lead teachers in schools that acted as instructional leaders, offering coaching and collaboration through Professional Learning Communities. Also, programs were implemented to help prevent students from dropping out.
Those professional learning communities were important in helping ensure student needs were met while challenging those high achieving students. Teachers needed high expectations, he said, and must facilitate instruction. Many times, it was a matter of providing student's the confidence to attempt harder courses.
In North Carolina, Roper developed several intervention programs to address at-risk populations, including a graduation coach, online credit recover, a twilight high school operating on a non-traditional schedule for those students who had previously dropped out and to keep other students from dropping out, and a program to help overage middle school students catch up with their peers and reduce the likelihood they would drop out of high school.
In challenging high achieving students and meeting needs of low achieving students, Roper said teachers needed to work together on intervention programs and may need to offer enrichment programs for those in need of additional challenges.
Q: Describe your working relationship with school boards and your perception of the roles of the director and the school board. How would your last school board describe your ethics and work habit?
Albright said he believed the director of schools was the daily chief executive officer of a school system, working with central office staff to make daily decisions.
"If you hire me, I do my job," Albright said. He added he would keep the board informed of what is happening in the schools and the community.
He believes the majority of board members he's worked with would say he works hard. He has a three-year contract renewal in his current system, so the majority of those members are pleased with the job he is doing.
Knipp has not held a director of school position, but said she has had great working relationships with board members, administrators and principals with whom she has worked. She said she hoped previous supervisors or board members would consider her work ethic "exemplary." She works to adhere to board policy.
Dickerson said he was able to work with all people. "I'm not a yes person, but I listen," he said. He said the board and director had to work together and that he had never had his ethics or integrity questioned.
Francis said the relationship between a director and the board of education was, in many ways, like a marriage and needed trust. He said previous boards would describe him as a workaholic, passionate about his work and with strong beliefs.
Andrews said it was likely if he was hired, he and the board would not always agree. But, he said, "I will be loyal to the board and expect the board to be loyal to me."
He said previous boards would describe his ethics as high and that he would never embarrass the board by his behavior.
Roper said he has had lasting relationships with many former board members and worked in difficult situations where some board members worked in opposition to school policy. He said he didn't take that personally. As for his ethics, he believed his former board members would say he "said what I meant, meant what I said and was professional."
Q: Evaluate your skills in dealing with adversity, criticism and controversy.
Albright said he'd experienced adversity, criticism and controversy in his current role due to the situation the school system was facing when he took the job. The school system was in danger of state takeover and a deconsolidation plan had been decided, though as the project to split schools up moved forward, there was discontent in the community. The school system was also overstaffed and facing deficits.
"The silent majority was very pleased," Albright said. "I wouldn't change the decisions I made."
Knipp said she was able to handle criticism and that it drives her to self assess and reflect. If decisions are not improving what is happening in the classroom, she is prepared to rethink decisions.
Dickerson lost his first wife and was left with a small child to raise shortly after becoming an assistant principal. Not long thereafter, the principal of the school passed away, leaving him to act as principal, vice principal and athletic director. He also is able to take criticism as an opportunity to grow but also maintains his emotions should the criticism involve personal insults.
Francis said adversity, criticism and controversy were all inevitable and never pleasant. "I try to do what I believe is in the best interest of the children," he said.
Andres said in his current community, some people love him and some hate him. "And I wouldn't have it any other way. But I stay focused on what is educationally sound for the children," he said.
Roper said this was when things were tough, but at the end of the day, he would look at himself in the mirror and ask, "Did I stand up and be counted or did I knuckle under because it was easier?"
Q: Describe an accomplishment for which you are most proud and give us your plan for the first 90 days.
The turnaround of the school system was an accomplishment Albright was most proud of. His entry plan would include familiarizing himself with the facilities, personnel and community of Cumberland County. He said, "There will be a learning curve, but I'm a quick learner."
He said he would evaluate the system's needs and areas where improvement can be achieved.
Knipp said she took a school that was performing in the bottom third of every academic category to first or second within two years.
"One of the successes was that our school enrolled more eighth graders in high school honors courses than every before," she said. "Part of that was giving the the extra time they needed in subjects."
Knipp would review in-depth data for Cumberland County, if hired, and begin evaluating that the right people were in the right place for maximum effectiveness for students. She would look at programs in schools to see if any needed to be replicated elsewhere to meet student needs and complete a comprehensive needs assessment. She would also be highly visible in the community and available to those wishing to meet with her.
"I want to tap your brains and to critically analyze our plans," she said.
Dickerson said he had used collaboration to bring recognition of schools in his district as Four-Star Schools, the highest level in Indiana, and one was named a National Blue Ribbon School. The system was among the first to institute block scheduling and dual credit enrollment and he started a community school that allowed people in the community to get their college degrees.
In his first 90 days, Dickerson said he's look at contracts to ensure the right people are in the right place, and study the budget to understand the direction the school system is moving.
Francis told of a student he was teaching that had a scholarship to play collegiate football but was having trouble passing a high school exit exam. Previous teachers had given up the student would ever pass. Francis worked with him before and after school and the student passed the exam, went to college and earned his college degree.
In his first 90 days, Francis said he would spend time with the school officials, listening to concerns, ideas and suggestions and get a feel for the schools. He would bring a plan before the board to make Cumberland County a top performing school system.
Andrews pointed to successes in increasing the graduation rate in his school system, but added that was a team effort. His goal, wherever he goes, is to leave the school system in a better place than it was when he arrived.
He has a 90-day program that includes a period of transition with current Director of Schools Aarona VanWinkle and meeting with administrators so that, July 1, he can already know what is going on the in the school system. After that, he would be preparing for the start of school and then would start meeting collectively with staff committees and advisory boards. Throughout he would keep the board informed and would collaborate on an improvement plan.
Roper said he was proudest of the things he had been able to accomplish in a struggling school district where funding wasn't always assured. "I know I left them in a completely different setting and light than I inherited," he said.
If hired, his first 90 days would include conducting a needs assessment that used a community survey and data and develop an action strategy from that.