Q&A with the Unit 4 superintendent finalists

Q&A with the Unit 4 superintendent finalists

The News-Gazette sent questions to the four finalists for the open superintendent's job. Here are their responses.

Darryl Taylor, superintendent, Lincoln Elementary School District 156, Calumet City

What is your experience with diversity, and how will you apply it in the Champaign school district?

I have been fortunate enough to have worked in a small, rural agricultural school district for seven years, two different urban districts for a total of 13 years and a suburban Cook County school district for five years. The demographics of these districts have ranged from student populations of 1 percent to 98 percent minorities and 25 percent to 90 percent poverty.

It has been my experience that diversity within the school district helps to expand student awareness and acceptance to different view points. Teaching practices not only focus on different learning styles but also different experiences students utilize to provide resolutions to learning challenges.

I plan to work with the Champaign community to ensure that the school district acknowledges not only the diversity that exists within, but also the importance of how diversity helps to shape and improve our community for everyone. It is important that this information is intertwined into daily lessons, throughout all subject areas and grades.

Celebrations that occur monthly or according to state-mandated timelines only create tolerance and not a true appreciation of diversity.

What is your approach to No Child Left Behind as the benchmarks get more stringent?

The No Child Left Behind Legislation requires school districts to consider the impact their educational programs and teaching strategies have on different subgroups of students. The review of data as a means for developing teaching practices and processes allow us to address increasing standards of learning for not only the 10 identified subgroups of students but for all students.

Data allows school districts to determine professional development needs for staff, gaps in learning for groups of students and curriculum changes that are needed. It is important that schools districts utilize multiple means of assessing student achievement throughout the year. Even though reading and math are the two subjects that comprise AYP, literacy and numeracy have to be stressed in the fine arts and vocational areas, as these subjects are important as well in preparing productive citizens.

What do you think the superintendent's role is in the community, beyond the schools?

The superintendent is expected to be active in the community. I have served on boards and committees within every community where I have worked. My community involvement includes at least two years service on: Coles County Board of Health — Reshaping Coles; Eastern Illinois University — Advisory Committee; Calumet City Lions Club — Second Vice President; Rock Island Milan Mental Health — Advisory Board; and Augustana College — Diversity Advisory Committee. My focus for being active on these committees was to ensure that I understood the needs of the community and that I shared the successes of the school district.

In your opinion, what role should technology take in the district?

Technology is needed to supplement the teaching and learning process throughout the district. Technology provides students with and opportunity to utilize higher order thinking skills by putting learning theory into practice. Illinois has technology learning standards for all students that are addressed within all subject areas. Students of today are digital natives. Their world revolves around communicating beyond face to face interactions. We must be able to use these mediums of communication within the classroom if we truly want to adequately assess student achievement. We also need to continue to foster face-to-face communication skills for students as well.

Technology has to be a medium used by the district to determine community needs and articulate and store data. We are expected to gather community feedback on multiple issues and keep the community aware of progress towards meeting goals. Technology is a viable means for meeting both of these expectations. Providing parents with access to these systems includes providing workshops and ongoing assistance. School districts are required to store data on every student throughout their educational training, Cradle to Careers. The use of the Student Information System data created by the state provides a means for identifying students throughout their educational careers. School districts now must have the technological infrastructure to be able to operate these systems.

One ongoing conversation within the district addresses improving the high school, middle school and the oldest elementary schools. Do you have experience with locating and building new schools? If so, what has been your strategy in the past, and how do you expect to handle this topic within the Champaign school district?

My experience with school construction is limited to renovations. I have been involved in two renovation projects where I have taken the lead. During this process I have worked with our architect or an energy performance contractor to complete an overhaul of our HVAC units, update to our lighting needs, and the total remodeling of a playground. I believe that I am capable of continuing with the projects that are planned for Champaign school district. My strategy to complete these projects would be to first assess the current status of each plan and the finances that are available. I would work closely with the project manager to ensure that work is progressing as scheduled without any change orders. I would also share updates with stakeholders based on an agreed-upon timeline.

Johnnie Thomas, associate superintendent for student services at Township High School District 214, Arlington Heights

What's your experience with diversity, and how will you apply it in the Champaign School District?

During my tenure with the Chicago Public Schools, Valley View School District and Township High School District 214, I have worked hard to teach the importance of embracing and fostering diverse educational environments. As an African-American educator, it is important that I serve as a role model and inspiration for all children, but I have an aspiration to be a beacon of hope for children of color.

Working to create a diverse environment, we must make sure that we have a district staff that is representative of the community, families, and most importantly, the children we serve. One of Champaign Unit 4 school district's strengths is its diverse student body. We must work hard to tap into that strength by recruiting, hiring and supporting a culturally diverse staff that will motivate every learner to reach their full potential.

The district has to provide opportunities for all learners in a way that inspires students to excel in their educational endeavors. Our children must see how their culture has helped to develop the community and world in which they live and is brought to life by a talented teaching staff and a culturally relevant curriculum.

Teachers, in working with our students on 21st-century skills, must educate our students on how to appreciate cultural diversity and help them understand that effective citizenship requires participation in the democratic process. Our school doors have to be open to the community to foster collaborative community and school partnerships, which will be vital for teaching all of us how to respect and appreciate our diversity.

What is your approach to No Child Left Behind, as the benchmarks get more stringent?

The State of Illinois soon will apply for a waiver from the stringent benchmarks associated with No Child Left Behind, but we do not know the alternate form of accountability the state will use to monitor student progress. We assume that accountability will take the shape of a system where there will be some arbitrary benchmarks for monitoring student growth.

Teaming in a collaborative way with teachers, parents and other stakeholders, we must establish data points that show our success. Staff should have a clear understanding of our district goals and must be encouraged to develop plans that will help us meet high rigorous standards.

As a district, we must establish a system that monitors the individual growth of our students and use that data to be proactive in creating learning plans that allow us to adjust the educational trajectory of our students. The district should not count on the federal government to define our success. We should have our own rigorous standards that ensure the success of all our students.

What do you think the superintendent's role is in the community, beyond the schools?

The superintendent needs to be an active, supportive and visible part of the community. He is a creative leader who opens doors of opportunity for all students by understanding the unique needs of the community. The superintendent should actively listen to community members, while working to build trust, and valuing their input.

He should work also to find ways to connect stakeholders to the overall mission of the school district by inspiring people to become involved in education, and seeking to form partnerships that will maximize not only district resources but also our students' potential.

Champaign Unit 4 school district has a tremendous amount of community resources, such as, but not limited to, the University of Illinois, Parkland College, Champaign Center Partnership and The Champaign County Chamber of Commerce, which should be actively involved with the district's mission. The superintendent should serve as an ambassador to the community, finding ways to improve the lives not only of students but of everyone associated with Champaign Unit 4 school district.

In your opinion, what role should technology take in the district?

Technology helps to level the educational field for all learners. Technology has to be utilized within our instructional practices. Teachers should be given the tools available that will allow them to actively engage learners. Professional development for all staff in the area integrating technology into our instructional practices should be a priority.

Students should have the technological competencies to meet the demands of a rapidly changing world. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics should be implemented and aligned across all grade levels in all our schools, giving students the greatest opportunity to be college and career ready.

Equal access to these tools must be ensured, and teachers should be inspired to use technology in innovative ways to connect with all students.

One ongoing conversation within the district addresses improving the high school, middle schools and the oldest elementary schools. Do you have experience with locating and building new schools? If so, what has been your strategy in the past, and how do you expect to handle this topic within the Champaign school district?

In Valley View School District 365 U, I had the opportunity to be a part of the leadership team that built Bolingbrook High School in 2004. The high school was one of the largest high school construction projects in the United States that year and cost about $135 million to build.

One of the first steps to determining the project's scale was working with the community and design teams to determine what we, as a community, were seeking in an educational facility. Hosting open forums for public comments and getting community members involved in the process were vital. We had to determine the price and scope of the project based on data collected from various sources. In taking on this type project, you want to try to find ways to maximize funds and space.

The district should build a facility that can be easily adjusted based on changes in school district enrollment over time. The school has to have adequate space for parking and plan for any outdoor extra-curricular activities. The available land space to build the school could determine where it would be located.

The district attendance boundaries and access to the facility also play a role. Determining who gets access to this facility should be a part of the study conducted by the district, and it should be done in a way that supports all learners. I also would look to partnerships to help alleviate some of the cost, i.e., partnering with the public library or community college for usage of space after-school hours.

Transitioning students into a new school also would be a factor, along with helping to establish building climate and culture while respecting the diversity of the district.

Judy Wiegand, soon-to-be interim superintendent and current assistant superintendent for achievement and pupil services for Champaign school district.

What's your experience with diversity, and how will you apply it in the Champaign school district?

I have had the privilege of working in a racially, ethnically, and economically diverse community for the past 25 years of my career here in Champaign. The wealth of diversity found within our schools is definitely an asset.

During my tenure here in Champaign, I have had the privilege of working closely on the consent decree. This experience was life-altering and positively changed the way I view my responsibility and role in public education. I continue to address issues related to access and outcomes for all students, but especially those that have been historically underserved. This is done through my work on the Advance Placement/Honors Task Force, the Education, Equity, and Excellence Committee and by providing staff development opportunities to faculty and staff such as Culturally Proficient Coaching. It is critical that we maintain focus on issues related to social justice and I am committed to prioritizing issues of access and equity to ensure our district promotes the highest academic achievement for all students.

What is your approach to No Child Left Behind, as the benchmarks get more stringent?

As student achievement benchmarks continue to become more stringent under No Child Left Behind, our focus needs to be on student learning and reasonable measures of academic growth.

As a district leader, it is important to collaboratively set clear learning goals, have a common vision of effective instruction and provide the necessary guidance and support for schools to meet those goals.

A growth-based accountability model for student achievement can provide the necessary focus on student achievement for all students. This model focuses on student achievement from year to year toward established standards.

Close attention should still be paid to how different student groups are achieving and maximizing student progress over time. High standards need to be maintained and through the use of normative data, student progress can be more effectively monitored.

Although the standards set in Illinois for No Child Left Behind have resulted in more and more schools being labeled as failing, it is important to remember the purpose behind the law. Schools must pay attention to the academic achievement of all students and work diligently to close achievement gaps. Through frequent monitoring of student progress and timely intervention, student achievement goals can successfully be met.

What do you think the superintendent's role is in the community, beyond the schools?

Every community wants the best for its students and expects the schools to provide the highest quality of education. The superintendent must work to create and maintain schools that support the community's values and beliefs.

To achieve this, the superintendent must build partnerships with a variety of community stakeholders. She should seek out representatives from all segments of the community, including business and civic leaders, and stay informed of the perceptions the public has of the schools and respond when necessary to questions and concerns.

This also includes having an active role in the community through participation in civic and service organizations. The superintendent is the public face of the district and needs to serve as a strong advocate for the students, faculty/staff and community that she serves.

In your opinion, what role should technology take in the district?

We live in an ever-changing world and our students deserve to be exposed to current technologies and provided instruction on how to best use them. There must be a well-developed plan though that indicates how the technology will be used in the classroom keeping specific goals and objectives in mind. The curriculum should drive the technology.

Technology used appropriately can greatly enhance a student's learning experience and at times, serve as that "hook" to engage a reluctant learner. It can improve a teacher's knowledge and use of creative and innovative teaching strategies.

Technology can support the development of problem-solving skills, increase communication and provide real-world connections. There is no question that our students and teachers need to have access to technology in today's schools. It is important, though, to be strategic in how technology is infused throughout the curriculum and ensure appropriate use.

One ongoing conversation within the district addresses improving the high schools, middle schools and the oldest elementary schools. Do you have experience with locating and building new schools? If so, what has been your strategy in the past, and how do you expect to handle this topic within the Champaign school district?

With my experience of 25 years in the Champaign school district, I am in an unique position to comment upon the last part of the question above, "How do you expect to handle this topic within the Champaign school district?"

Since the sales tax increase was approved by the voters in April 2009, the district has done an excellent job of moving forward quickly on the Garden Hills, B.T. Washington and the new school in Savoy.

In addition, over the next three years, we will see substantial improvements and additions to Westview, Bottenfield, Kenwood and Robeson Elementary Schools.

However, since the passage of the sales tax increase there has been limited progress in developing a facility master plan for the remaining schools that must also be improved which include Dr. Howard, South Side, Edison, Franklin, Jefferson, Centennial and of course Central.

In order to move the planning forward, the district must work collaboratively with all affected parties. Major decisions must be made and a significant amount of priorities must be established to keep any future property tax referendum affordable to our taxpayers. This process must be handled with the utmost care so as to build momentum and not allow for a fracturing of the community. These are major decisions that will affect our school district for many years to come.

The district is fortunate to have positioned itself financially well for the future and has been able to build significant support as it proved it could manage the $82 million in sales tax bonds that have allowed for the improvements discussed above.

It is time to utilize a portion of our resources to move the decision-making process forward. Included in that process will be a genuine effort to garner the input of every patron who has students in the district, or will have students in the district, or who pay taxes to support the school district.

This is a very exciting time for the school district. I believe I possess the knowledge of the Champaign school district and the support of many parents and faculty members which will aid me as I move the district forward with its facility master plan.

We have one chance to get it right and I value greatly the opportunity to work with the board of education and the community in ensuring that we get it right. I also pledge that public resources will be utilized efficiently and effectively to complete the facility plan for the school district that will serve it well throughout the 21st century.

Steven Cobb, chief academic officer at Fort Wayne Community Schools in Indiana.

What's your experience with diversity, and how will you apply it in the Champaign school district?

My 35 years in public education has provided me the opportunities to work and educate in all learning environments from inner-city Newport News, Va., and Phoenix, Ariz., to currently, Fort Wayne, Ind.

My personal belief is that all students can and must learn from 21st-century training to further them personally and us as a school district.

I strongly believe that diversity is one of many strengths of the Champaign school district as we prepare all students for success in college and the work force for a competitive global economy. We should embrace, appreciate and consider this diversity when making decisions for Champaign 4. I have high expectations for all students and believe in equity with excellence in education.

What is your approach to No Child Left Behind, as the benchmarks get more stringent?

Currently, Congress has been unable to pass reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Illinois will apply for a waiver to the law and is developing a proposal that will provide flexibility to districts. We will continue to be accountable for growth and individual student progress along with preparing every student for success in college and careers, raising the bar for all students and closing the achievement gaps. We will maintain a high standard of accountability offering rigorous courses while continuing work on the implementation of a new evaluation system for teachers and principals. In addition, we need to celebrate our successes thus far and reward educators for the improvements.

What do you think the superintendent's role is in the community, beyond the schools?

A superintendent needs to be extremely visible in the community participating in activities that champion the Champaign 4 school district. The superintendent must meet with city officials, university representatives, business community organizations, parents, educators and students to fully understand and grasp what the district must consider when moving forward. Being a member of community decisions, since education is at the forefront, is of the utmost importance. I would be this leader and more by being visible throughout the school district meeting with teachers, staff and building leaders as we move forward with student achievement.

In your opinion, what role should technology take in the district?

Champaign currently has a technology integration plan through 2012. To further prepare students with 21st-century skills, I fully support the role of technology in our schools. We have to compete in a global market and prepare our students for this new world. The major challenge for school districts will continue to be available funding with daily technology advances to meet the needs of our student population. Our students are exposed to forms of technology every day and we need to provide them full support as they prepare for life. The increased availability of technology for students must also be accompanied by professional development for our teaching staff.

One ongoing conversation within the district addresses improving the high schools, middle schools and the oldest elementary schools. Do you have experience with locating and building new schools? If so, what has been your strategy in the past, and how do you expect to handle this topic within the Champaign school district?

My experiences with new construction, planning, design, staff hiring and implementation of curriculum have been extensive. During my 35 years, I have been involved in all phases of new facility development with three elementary sites and two major renovations in addition to closing buildings.

My past strategy involved the "Three Cs," communication, communication, communication. The Champaign school district would be transparent in the need for new buildings or improvements to existing facilities.

Additionally, we need to plan for buildings to meet the future needs of students and not simply build for today. The education world of yesterday has changed dramatically and we need to prepare students for the demand of a global economic environment.

Update: Steven Cobb withdrew from consideration for personal reasons.

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45solte wrote on December 11, 2011 at 5:12 pm

There has been a notable shift in the demographic profile of Unit 4.  Is Ms. Wiegand or any of the other candidates interested in engaging the community 'stakeholders' who have withdrawn their children from Unit 4? The Culver administration seemingly exhibited a strong aversion to do so.  With all this talk of 'community' it would perhaps be appropriate, or, at the very least,  nice, to try and include back in to the Unit 4 community 'conversation' the voices of those who have been alienated by it.  Not just in a survey here or a focus group there.  But, rather, on an ongoing basis, as is the case with other 'community groups.'


It's a rather fine line to walk to promote 'social justice' theory in public schools.  I think public schools should be in the business of teaching students, not indoctrinating them.  Quite frankly, in terms of legal challenge, I am not certain application of disparate impact theory-related practices in public schools could withstand an equal protection challenge.  Unfortunately Unit 4 seems steadfast on a path that might eventually invite such a legal challenge.  The Seattle public schools contact with the Supreme Court should serve as a social justice cautionary example instead of a model to emulate. (See footnotes 14 & 30 http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/05-908.ZC.html).