Education

Back to School: A talk with Houston’s superintendent

PERRY -- When Mark Scott took his first school superintendent post, he didn’t start with a small job.

Now, he’s wrapping up his first year at the helm of Houston County’s school system, with its 38 schools, more than 28,000 students and about 4,000 full-time employees. Scott said he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I enjoy being in Houston County. I enjoy the community and the support,” he said. “Really, as superintendent jobs go, it’s a dream job. I hope to continue to learn, and hopefully I will continue to get better at it as time goes.”

The key to being a leader in such a large organization, he said, is developing relationships. To do that, educators and administrators have to know that he’s available for conversation, whether that comes in person, over the phone or through email.

“I feel like the thing is to be approachable,” he said. “My personality is that I don’t really meet a stranger, but I hope that the employees and the administrators feel like I’m approachable and that I’m out to support them.”

One person who can relate is former Superintendent Robin Hines, who held the position for four years. Hines retired last year but said he’s still kept tabs on the district.

“It’s difficult at best, and you have to take every opportunity to get out there,” Hines said.

He said he’s noticed Scott’s efforts both with employees and with community leaders. Scott has a “great understanding” of various aspects of the district from his time as an assistant superintendent for human resources, Hines said.

“I think he’s done a great job,” he said. “Mark is an extremely intelligent guy who pays attention to detail, and it shows in his work.”

One area of specific focus for Scott has been gifted education. Through grants and curriculum decisions, he has led the district to offer more classes for students who’ve demonstrated a high degree of intellectual or creative ability or excel academically.

That hasn’t just been to help the county’s top students get even more educational opportunities. Scott said the increased number of both classes and gifted-certified teachers has allowed a wider spectrum of students the chance at next-level learning.

“But to be able to get out and include more kids in our honors programs and our AP courses, to be more inclusive, I think that with the opportunity for more kids in our elementary and middle schools to participate in our gifted program, ... those children have the opportunity to be challenged in a curriculum and being able to then experience success,” he said.

The increased focus on getting teachers certified to teach gifted classes at all levels has affected the curriculum for all students, said Jan Jacobsen, the county’s director of gifted education.

She said having Scott as a supporter of advanced learning was important to the success of those efforts.

“That makes all the difference, and I’m so appreciative,” she said.

WHEN CONTROVERSY HITS

Of course, no school year goes by without incident, and the 2014-15 year in Houston County was no different. The district faced a pair of controversial situations in its high schools that both led to teacher resignations.

A Houston County High School teacher left in the midst of allegations that he’d had inappropriate contact with a student via social media, and a Northside teacher left the district after a fight with a student in his classroom.

Scott said he was pleased with the way the district handled both incidents.

“You learn quickly that it’s less about what happens and more about how you react to it,” he said. “What we always try to do is we try to treat people with respect, you try to be professional, we try to do what’s right for the students.”

Handling those situations without releasing information related to personnel or student discipline matters can cause the district to get “beat up a little bit” in the court of public opinion, he said. Still, he wouldn’t change the internal procedures that he and his administration used to investigate those particular cases.

“I always go back to it’s still about protecting the kids,” he said.

District officials did their best in handling two highly publicized situations, Hines said.

“They’re always uncomfortable, but you’ve got procedures and processes you follow,” he said. “(Scott’s) certainly done that. He’s very good at those type of things because of his background in human resources.”

On another front, Scott took the blame for the controversy surrounding Student Learning Objective testing. Parents were upset in May when it seemed that their children wouldn’t graduate as a result of SLO scores and their weighting in final class grades. Scott said an oversight in the way the results were reported led to the confusion, which resulted in the SLOs’ not affecting student grade-point averages. Essentially, the problem was that teacher evaluations would be based on improvement on the test from the beginning of the school year, not raw score as the district had planned to use for students.

“What we were trying to do is strike a balance between measuring the teachers and measuring the students,” he said. “To me, it was so simple and so obvious that we overlooked it. ... I was angry at myself that I had not seen that.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Going forward, Scott, who turns 49 in August, plans to make Houston County his long-term home. He said he wants to continue to find ways to increase the academic success of all of the county’s students.

That will become increasingly important as districts become increasingly reliant on the College and Career Ready Performance Index and similar scores, even though Scott said he’s hopeful the state becomes less focused on student testing.

“We want to look at, ‘Is there more that we can do?’ We don’t want a cap on our students that are performing at the top. We want to see them continue to improve, and we want to see the students at the bottom continue to improve.”

To contact writer Jeremy Timmerman, call 744-4331 or find him on Twitter @MTJTimm.

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