Back to School: A talk with Bibb's superintendent

Curtis Jones, superintendent of the Bibb County school system, was sworn in April 2. He took the reins from Steve Smith, a former Bibb County principal who returned to the district and served as interim superintendent for 19 months. Now, with the start of Jones’ first full school year at hand, The Telegraph sat down with him to discuss his plans and goals, as well as what he’s learned about the district so far.

Q: You were sworn in almost four months ago and have had a chance to get a lay of the land, so to speak. What has pleased you so far, and where are your main areas of concern?

A: What has pleased me so far has been the attitude and desire of the entire school system and community to move forward. And to see us become better, in whatever definition people have of that. That’s been very exciting and that energy is moving us all forward. I just believe it’s going to help us get a good beginning of the school year and continue that momentum.

What I’m focusing on are going to end up being four areas:

1) Student enrollment, like any good business we need to grow;

2) We’re going to have to continue to look at discipline and what that actual means so school is safe for employees, students and people are comfortable sending their children to us;

3) Reading levels and continuing to look to see where our students are. ... If we can improve reading, we will be able to show that we are moving in the direction that we need to move into; and

4) Attendance. I just overall believe that if we are providing a learning environment that parents value, that students value, discipline ought to improve, attendance ought to improve and then the way you show that is with improved reading levels.

Q: As you’ve gone around the community listening to residents, what have they told you? What are their issues and frustrations?

A: Mostly what I’ve heard is that the frustration is just one of not believing that the school system is providing the quality of education that they think should be provided. In some cases, it’s been for different reasons, more of perception and not really hard data. In some cases, it may be some specific situations with them individually.

What I’ve been able to share is the vision for where we want to go, what we’re attempting to do, and I’ve had several people say, ‘You know, you’ve given me reason to pause to think about where I want my children to go.’ So I think what’s happening is they’re giving us an opportunity. I think this first year is going to be, for a lot of people, let’s just wait and see. What are you going to do? How is it going to work? And is this really going to be better? And I think that’s fair.

Q: You had an entry plan when you started in April. What parts of the plan have you accomplished, and what specific work is left to be done?

A: We did finish all the visits to the schools, have met with most of the internal groups that we wanted to meet with. What’s still left to be done is a retreat with our Board of Education. While I’ve had several board meetings with them, and we’ve had opportunities to meet individually and speak, there’s still work that we as a governing team need to put together.

Q: The agency that accredits school systems has given us demerits recently for school governance. What are you doing to improve that score and that situation?

A: The board president, Dr. Dillard, has asked that the board become what we call a “quality board.” Georgia School Boards Association has ways of actually helping boards improve their performance and their abilities to help lead school districts. I think that’s key. That will be a topic at our board retreat.

We’re also going to take the handbook that the board was working on and continue to flesh that out and talk about the different pieces of it: how does it really get implemented and what does it mean?

I think in some cases it’s just training and clarification among board members. I think those two things are going to help, but then the other piece is that I think the board is going to be very instrumental in helping us move forward with goals for this first year.

We have a SPLOST coming up in November, that’s going to be key for us to pass. Board members are going to be a large part of that.

Q: Changing the culture and perceptions of the school system have been part of your plan as superintendent. Will the community be able to see any changes to schools during this upcoming year?

A: Two things I think will occur, and it’s going to happen over time. The culture of this district is based on the experiences people go through and the beliefs that they have.

And what you will see, I believe, will be a focus on 1) us accepting more accountability for what we do. We will talk about how do you show that you’re actually being more accountable, and we’ll talk a little bit more about that at convocation. Principals will share that with staff. I think that’s going to be a positive tool that you will see in place.

The second thing we will see internally is going to be more focused storytelling: here’s what we’re doing, here’s how it meets the values that we have in place, here’s how we’re now moving forward. I think you’re going to see more focused feedback from principals to teachers and from teachers to students as we accept more accountability as well.

More focused storytelling, more focused feedback, and maybe more focused recognition as well. As people are meeting the values that we have in place, I think you’re going to see that.

Q: You have said the engagement and involvement of parents in their students’ schools is vital to success. In what ways will you seek to increase the participation of parents ?

A: The way we’re going to move forward and the way you see alignment happening is the implementation of our strategic plan. One of the objectives on there is to partner with parents.

Parents are going to partner with us by being more involved in our school councils. I’ve made a focus to get school councils up and operational in all of our schools. School councils will have representatives from businesses, from parents and teachers.

I think secondary to that is going to be PTAs or PTOs and also booster clubs. I think you’re going to see a little bit more of that participation, but what we need to see happen first is going to be an improvement with school councils.

Q: You have an ambitious plan to increase Bibb County’s graduation rate to 90 percent by 2025. What steps are you already taking toward accomplishing that goal?

A: One, you have to be bold and put it out there and say it out loud. Two, I think it’s sharing with our employees and parents the reality of where we are, where the nation is, where Georgia is and what we can do. And then three, I think it’s taking the school improvement plans that we’re putting together at the different schools and being focused on where we go. I think what you will find will be schools looking at what can we do over the next year, over the next three years, to improve. My hope is that you will see technology helping us out a lot more.

So you’re going to see more professional development, especially if we’re able to get the cameras approved in the SPLOST so teachers will become more comfortable with feedback, and we’ll have better instruction provided to our students.

I think you’re going to see, eventually, technology helping us out with our reading levels for our students, teachers becoming more comfortable with helping with reading across the curriculum and more grade levels than just elementary.

What you will eventually see will be increased performance on SAT, ACT, end of course. So, give us an opportunity. What we have to show is that students are learning. I believe that you get to a higher graduation rate when students are more confident. That confidence is going to come with better reading, better test scores and those outside factors.

Graduation really starts in ninth grade and a lot of it depends on who moves forward. The question becomes: are they coming to school, what’s their attendance, what’s their discipline, what’s their reading level? What are you doing to intervene at that level to get ready? The key thing about 2025 is, those students are in third grade now. So, where are they? It becomes a process for everybody to show that we’re improving moving forward.

Here’s the question I asked people the other day: If we’re going to get to 90 percent graduation rate, it means you need to look at that third grade class and say which one (kid out of 10) is not going to graduate.

That’s why were going to get better, because now it becomes personal.

Q: You’ve asked the community at various public appearances to put their faith back into Bibb’s school district and also asked parents who’ve left to re-enroll their children. What is the system doing to attract students? What would you say to these families to try to get them back?

A: We’re trying to provide leadership you can believe in.

That leadership, I believe, is going to provide several things: a safe learning environment for our students, one of the concerns that we heard is that people didn’t feel that they were safe; we have to provide better customer service to parents so that when they call and they have issues they know that we’re responding to them; a quality teacher inside each classroom, as we’re working through human resources, we’re doing our best to make sure the teachers are here, want to be hear, are fully qualified, are the right people at the right time in the right place.

And then I think what you’re going to end up seeing is going to be these individuals coming together as departments, as schools, and putting in place school improvement plans, people are going to say, ‘Wow, this is starting to work.’

If the focus stays on reading, if the focus stays on getting students to be in school and if we do a better job with safety and climate of schools, I think people will see that. That’s what we’re going to count on. It’s easy to say I want you to come back, people are going to say, ‘What’s different?’ and I think it’s going to be word of mouth. I think if parents who are with us are saying ‘this is good’ they will share that with neighbors and then people will give us an opportunity.

Again, I think it’s going to be a wait and see initially, we’re going to have to deliver. So that means being a reliable organization that is able to handle personnel, handle finances, handle safety, handle discipline, handle transportation, handle nutrition. But the grading needs to be done well and parents need to have confidence that teachers are doing the best they can.

Q: The rise of charter schools in Bibb County and across the country has left some people wringing their hands. Are you worried that they’re siphoning off some of the system’s “best and brightest?” What are your feelings about charter schools?

A: There was an article that came out this past weekend. I think it was commissioned by the state charter commission that looked at charter schools in Georgia.

What it basically said is, here in Georgia, charter schools do about the same as public schools. Even though the allegation is that they get the better students, when the charter commission took that into consideration, in some cases charter schools still only did about as good as the public schools or maybe even a little less.

I see charter schools this way: it’s a sign that people are unhappy with the product that they have and they’re looking for something better. That’s what parents do.

What we need to be able to do is be able to say ‘here’s what we can do, here’s what we offer’ and if it’s something they want too, then they’ll come back.

Would I like to see our numbers grow? Yes, that’s why enrollment is a key factor for me. Do I think public education is a key American value and institution? Yes, I do. Do I think charter schools have a place? I think they do. But I don’t want us to get to the point where we’re kind of like Washington, D.C., where you’re half charter and half non-charter. I tend to think when you get to that level then it’s not as healthy. We’re going to have to find the right balance for what we can do. I think the board is aware of that, and I think we’re moving in that direction.

Q: Investing in Educational Excellence is Bibb’s newly chosen organization structure. Will parents and students be able to see any signs of this shift during the upcoming school year?

A: Not during this coming school year. What will happen will be the principals and school leadership teams will learn more about the waivers are that are available. That begins with learning what the state rules are and what can be waived. And then they will look and learn what a waiver actually means.

What we will then do is put together a plan with the Board of Education that we will submit that will be approved. My thought is that our plan will probably be submitted around January, or sometime in second semester, with implementation the following year. This is a planning year for us to figure it out. Several school districts have already submitted plans, so we will go to school on them and see the lessons learned.

I’ll be honest, I don’t always want to be the first one out, but I’m not going to be the last.

Q: If you were not hindered by costs or regulations, what are three things you would do in the next year that you believe would begin to make real, substantial improvements in the public schools here?

A: One, hire more teachers to reduce class sizes so that everything is closer to 15 to one. That is an important aspect. It’s easier to have a smaller class with one teacher who could do that.

The second thing I would do is increase the number of days that we pay teachers. Instead of having a contract for 190 days would probably have a 200-day contract and that would allow them to get additional pay, ... but it’d give us enough time for more professional learning as well.

The third thing I would do is increase the number of days that students come to school with those additional days for teachers. That is because, if you really want to see student learning go up, students need to be in school a little bit longer.

So, if money was not a problem: more days for teachers, more days for students in school and smaller class sizes. So, go make that happen.

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