Searching for a school superintendent; what a parent learned

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RANGELY I I haven’t been the parent of school-aged children for long. As of this fall, I’ll be the mom of a kindergartner and a first-grader. I’m still negotiating the learning curve to understand what kids and teachers need from me at school.
There are permission slips to remember and snacks to bring. There’s getting into the classroom to support the instructors and show my kids that all of this matters, a lot. There are opportunities to get more involved (like in the PTO—I haven’t, yet) and keep developing relationships with my kids’ staff, future teachers and administrators.
So far, if I had to grade myself as a parent of school-aged children, I’d give myself a B-minus, maybe a C-plus. My performance is only just above average. I’m the one who tends to forget my kid’s snack day, no matter how many times it’s labeled “EVENT” in my phone (capitals as shouting reminders absolutely intended). I get into the classroom to help many weeks but I miss some, too. I have to be reminded to show up for the book fair or allow my child to go on field trips. And my kids haven’t even hit the in-school lunch grades yet.
The odd thing is that, despite these misses on the most superficial of levels, I’ve had no problem assuming that I basically know what’s happening in the schools. Based on the hour or two spent popping open milk containers and building block castles; based on the fact that I’m a teacher myself (let’s face it, folks: teaching college does not equate to understanding the inner workings of K-12 education); based on biannual parent-teacher conferences and keeping up in a casual way with the goings-on in the district, somehow I’ve fooled myself into believing these markers have earned me a golden “All You Need to Know” ticket with which I can pat myself smugly on the back.
The problem is that from there follows an egregious assumption: that what I see on the surface is some sort of absolute reality.
Over the last couple of years, I have seen teachers using best practices but managing large classroom numbers with flagging resources. I’ve seen people come to work smiling and thought that meant job security and satisfaction. I’ve seen programs that have made a dent – but just a dent – in social dysfunction that runs far deeper than the average school day is long.
I’ve also been swayed by the rhetoric we read these days in every magazine, blog rant and Pew poll: that kids these days just don’t care. They report that teachers are underpaid, overworked and burnt out. They report that we’re in the midst of a failing school system that’s not reviving, no matter how much money we pump into it.
The statistics are sobering, and there’s probably some truth to the rhetoric and what I’ve assumed from my blithe flits through the classroom. But looking from the outside in is a far cry from understanding the challenges and triumphs public school teachers, staff and administrators live day to day.
I beheld a glimpse of that truth last week as I sat on an interview committee for the RSD RE-4 superintendent’s position, which was appointed to Matt Scoggins on Friday. The process ripped that golden ticket from my hand and had me saluting my fellow interviewers – and both superintendent candidates — all the way out the door.
Until then, I didn’t get it, and if I’m being honest, I still don’t. But in spending time with these people for a few brief hours, I observed this:
• I saw two candidates whose passion for public education and the purpose it serves was evidenced in their words, their resumes and their eyes.
• I saw staff and teachers who want their administrators to understand, in a deeply empathetic way, their day-to-day struggles and successes.
• I saw educators who approach their vocations with an intensity that leaves them equally exhausted and convinced that doing it well is critical to the health of a future generation and nation.
• I saw people with very real concerns about state mandates looming on the horizon and their desire for a leader who can help guide them through the maze of those requirements.
• I saw teachers who want to be held accountable so they can attain the standards pressing down more insistently with each school year.
• I saw individuals who understand that larger social issues can pull the rug out from best-laid plans and that these issues have to be dealt with more holistically than with detentions and extra worksheets.
• I saw administrators, staff and teachers who have seen superintendents come and go and who have strong beliefs about the traits a superintendent needs to move the district forward.
These glimpses, though enlightening, left me wondering whether I understood the nuances of K-12 education at all. One thing was for certain: the individuals who live it day after day do. They don’t sugar-coat realities or downplay the seriousness of their tasks. They are interested in the kind of vision and leadership that will most benefit our children in years to come.
On Friday, Matt Scoggins was named Rangely’s new superintendent, the fifth individual to fill the position in just over a decade. Scoggins is the owner of Colorado CPA Services, a former Colorado Northwestern Community College business instructor and department chair and a former RE-4 Board of Education member and president.
The other man up for the job, Paul Jebe, had years of experience as a music teacher and in supervisory roles in the private sector. A principal in the East Otero School District for eight years, he was looking to move up in the education system and move nearer to his grown children.
As in any process in which the future of a community’s education and its children is at stake, a decision like this can be a fireball of contention. People want it done one way and it happens another.
People have a favorite candidate and they get their man or woman. Or they don’t. Our committee didn’t vote, but we sent what we saw as the candidates’ strengths and challenges to the school board, as did the other committee.
On Friday, the bottom line was this: the board voted Scoggins in as Rangely’s new superintendent. Some of us got our man and some of us didn’t. And now it’s the board’s vision and Scoggins’ followthrough that either will or will not take this district to a new level and a better place.
Will Scoggins be able to negotiate the learning curve required to make that happen? I certainly hope so. Will he need as much support as possible to do it? You bet.
This week, I return to my old post to look, once again, from the outside in. From there, I will venture this much — that the old saying keeps its potency for a reason: A house divided against itself cannot stand.
Unless the wise faculty, staff and administrators who make up the heart of this district and know its intricacies give Scoggins and the board a fighting chance to get it right – no matter their prior allegiances – that effort will most certainly fail.
The losers then won’t be the group or faction that falls on one side or another of some imaginary dividing line. It’ll be our kids.