Culver ready to move on after nearly nine years running Champaign schools

Culver ready to move on after nearly nine years running Champaign schools

CHAMPAIGN -- Champaign school Superintendent Arthur Culver was brought here in 2002 from a superintendent job in Longview, Texas, with the mandate to close the achievement gap between black and white students and shepherd the district through a federal consent decree aimed at eliminating inequities in the education of black and white students.

He brought in educators from Texas for his administrative team and reassigned many principals -- moves that ruffled feathers.

He's worked with 20 different school board members in his nearly nine years in the district.

The consent decree ended in 2009.

And now Culver is a finalist for a superintendent job in the DeKalb County School System, in metropolitan Atlanta, a district with more than 100,000 students and 143 schools and centers.

He talked with The News-Gazette recently about his search for a new job and his tenure in the Champaign school district.

NG: What can you tell us about the Georgia job?

AC: It (the interview process) was a wonderful experience. It gave me a chance to think about a lot of things I haven't reflected on recently. It allowed me to reflect on the last nine years where we were back in 2002 and where we've come in the last nine years.

I'm a very confident person. Confident in my abilities and skills, and in my expertise and my knowledge. Some people see that confidence as arrogance. ... (In Georgia) I didn't want to come across as being too aggressive, too confident, too arrogant. (If I had it to do again), I would have been more relaxed in who I am. If I come across as arrogant, so be it.

I'm looking for opportunities right now. I came here with the goal of completing the consent decree. I'm at the point now, I need another challenge. I'm one of those guys driven by challenge. I feel it's a golden opportunity to make a difference in the lives of children.

NG: When you came here, the expectation was that you would close the achievement gap and get the district through the consent decree. How long did you expect to be here, and did you expect to be looking for another position once the consent decree ended?

AC: I didn't come here with the idea that I'd retire here and this is where I'd spend the rest of my life. I didn't have a time frame (for moving on). I knew I was committed to be here until the consent decree was lifted. ...

When I look at DeKalb, there are challenges. Student achievement is one of those. Their test scores are below the state average, and below the regional average. I've looked at their finances. Finances were a big challenge here too.

I know I have the background to successfully guide them out of the challenges they're faced with right now student achievement, finances, public mistrust, restructuring the schools.

What was really intriguing to me was the opportunity to help so many students. The opportunity to have an impact on so many students is really exhilarating and exciting.

NG: Now that you're looking for another position, the expectation is you won't be here after this school year.

AC: I'm just looking for a new challenge. I'm not sure when that's going to take place. As long as I'm here, I'll give the community and the district 100 percent effort. I feel some time in the near future I'll be exploring a new challenge.

The average tenure for a superintendent in a district with 5,000 or more students is 2.8 years. I'm in my ninth year. I know for sure this district is in much better shape than when I came, in a lot of areas.

NG: What type of situation best suits your style a district with a lot of challenges or one where things are running fairly smoothly?

AC: My style is more in line with districts that have problems. My whole career has been spent with districts in difficult situations high populations of minority kids and low-income students. My teaching experience that spans 10 years was with emotionally disturbed children. I was certified to teach regular education, but I liked the challenge.

NG: The school district in Georgia is facing a lot of issues, including a superintendent indicted for racketeering and theft, a recent controversial redistricting, and public mistrust. How do you feel about going into a school district with those sorts of issues?

AC: I feel extremely confident. My whole career has been beating the odds, taking on big challenges. I'm not intimidated by a challenge. I see a challenge as an opportunity.

I'm not worried about whether I can make a positive difference in DeKalb. I know I can.

It will take a board and a superintendent having a united front one voice, one message. I'm going in with my eyes wide open. But I'm not worried about any of those challenges. The only thing I'm concerned about is who's going to be on the bus when we achieve success.

NG: You've had your share of mistrust or resistance from the public here.

AC: Yes. This is something I've experienced here and other places. As an area superintendent (in Fort Bend, Texas), I changed a lot of building principals. I did the same thing in Longview. It's just part of the process. I have the wherewithal to do it.

NG: How has your perspective about the district and the community changed during your tenure?

AC: I think people seem to be more engaged now than when I first got here. Now, all aspects of the community want to be part of decision-making. They want their voices to be heard. I didn't sense that when I first got here.

Also, there was more skepticism as to whether our lower-achieving students could perform much better. When I first came, folks would blame the families and the kids. I don't hear that nearly as much as I used to. I think people believe, whether there is parental involvement or not, if we work together, we can make a profound difference and kids can achieve at a higher level. I see a community that seems to care more.

NG: In what areas has the district been successful during your tenure?

AC: We've been successful in student achievement, strategic planning. Certainly our facilities are in much better shape. We have a 10-year capital improvement plan. This summer we'll finish a long-range facilities plan. In the area of finance, we're in much better shape than we were.

Also, I think we've changed the culture of the district. The climate is a lot more positive for our students.

Our community partnerships are much stronger and we have many more of them. We have partnerships with the city, with the university, with the park district, with United Way.

NG: In what areas did things not work as well as you would have liked?

AC: Discipline would be the one area where I wish we could be further along. It pains me to have to have a meeting to expel kids. That has been the biggest challenge.

NG: What about the confidence of the community in you?

AC: There will always be some criticism. That's part of being a superintendent. You get credit for some of the good things, but you get the blame for all the bad things. But data can tell a different story. ...

I've learned to put those kinds of criticisms in the right perspective. I think there are a lot more staff members and community members that are satisfied than are displeased. But that's what happens when you have to come in and make a lot of changes.

I didn't get in this business to be popular and make a lot of friends. At the end of the day, I'll be held accountable for how I've impacted the lives of kids.

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Commonsenseman wrote on April 10, 2011 at 12:04 pm

Please move on and take your cronies with you. You addressed the achievement gap by chasing white students out of the public school system, the inequities and lack of discipline created the racial tension that generated the Polar Bear hunters and you solved the building issues by getting the taxes here raised even higher.

RetiringTeacherUnit4 wrote on April 10, 2011 at 3:04 pm
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I agree with much of what Mr. Culver has to say in the article--especially those comments about people being resistant to change. As one who has watched this administration up close for the past nine years, I observed both the good and not-so-good. There have been some changes that have been helpful to all, like more accountability on the part of teachers and administrators, but there have been other changes, like this administration's failure to really get to know this community, that have not necessarily benefited all.

I think that the thing that is probably most frustrating to those of us who work within the system is this administration's "failure" to take what was working and try to improve upon that instead of coming in and making such wholesale changes without any input from those of us who have been with the district for years. I agree with Commensenseman that many whites have moved out of the public schools and much of it is due to the failure with discipline in the schools, which Mr. Culver acknowledged. Although the schools could have done more, this is also a societal problem and we see a decline in social norms in every setting across the board. Parents need to be more supportive of teachers and we need school administrators who know what they're doing!

After nine years at the helm of any job, especially in a town that is as political as Champaign, it is probably time to move on, whether Mr. Culver is offered the job in DeKalb or not. Tensions are running high in this town and in this district and I think one of the reasons is because we're putting band-aids on problems that require major surgery. And, until we're ready to acknowledge that it takes "an entire village," anyone taking over the system will continue to experience similar reactions. I wish Mr. Culver well in his future job search, but more importantly, I think that anyone coming in to tackle the problems of Unit 4 had better come in with some "thick skin" because he/she will need it. I'm glad that my days (in the district--hopefully, not life) are numbered!

IU1977 wrote on April 10, 2011 at 5:04 pm

Always interesting to see the exponential growth in Tolono, Fisher, Mahomet and St. Joe while Champaign remains stagnant in terms of school population. Countyside adds on to its building and its bursting at the seams, as are the other private schools,. Champaign had better not get school vouchers or else there will be NO ONE but the poor in the schools. yes Mr. Culver, it is time for you and the "texas mafia" to move on and wreck havoc someplace else.

UrbanaElite wrote on April 11, 2011 at 10:04 am

People like Culver are precisely the reason why my children do not attend public school. These people whip into town with an agenda, turn everything upside down and then bolt. It's all about furthering their own careers. We need school administrators with local roots who understand the challenges of our local communitites. Culver can say what he wants but most of the people I know who have children in Unit 4 do not feel the district is any better off now than before his tenure. School of choice is a complete joke and slaps a good percentage of our citizens in the face. A shiny new school building is not the answer. The achievement gap will be closed when parents get involved, discipline is restored and students want to learn. Please go, Mr. Culver, and the sooner the better.

auntsonyas wrote on April 11, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Every unit 4 employee knows that Culver was told months ago that he wouldn't have a job here next year because of the poor performance from him and his team. Why does the News-Gazette pretend that's not the case? What's in it for them? Do we have to turn to one of the online "alternative" newspapers in this town just to read the simple truth?

Jodi Heckel wrote on April 12, 2011 at 6:04 pm
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If Arthur Culver leaves the district, The News-Gazette will have that story and it will be based on facts, not rumors.
I spoke with Dave Tomlinson, school board president, this evening. This is his response to your comment: "I speak for the district, and that’s not true. District employees have not been told anything about the superintendent."