Five Finalists Named In Search For New Missouri Schools Commissioner | St. Louis Public Radio

Five Finalists Named In Search For New Missouri Schools Commissioner

Dec 8, 2014

(Updated with interviews from all candidates.)

The Missouri state board of education has narrowed to five the field of candidates seeking to become the state’s next commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

After reviewing 12 applications in closed session Friday, the board announced Monday that it would interview:

  • Margie Vandeven, currently the state's deputy commissioner for learning services
  • Norman Ridder, interim superintendent of Mehlville and former superintendent in Springfield
  • Terry Adams, former superintendent in Rockwood and Wentzville
  • Charles Huff, superintendent in Joplin
  • Douglas Hayter, superintendent in Branson

The board plans to interview the finalists in Jefferson City next week, then choose a successor to Commissioner Chris Nicastro, who announced in September she would retire at the end of December after five and a half years on the job.

Credit St. Louis Public Schools

Peter Herschend of Branson, president of the state board, said in a statement: "The State Board members are looking for the person who can make Missouri a top 10 state for education by 2020. We believe we have a strong list of finalists, and we will find the right person to lead us there."

More than 40 people were nominated for the post of commissioner last month. The board ended up getting 15 applications; three would-be candidates withdrew before board members reviewed applications on Friday.

In an interview last week, Herschend said the main question he would ask all of the finalists is: “What would you do to put Missouri in the top 10 by ’20.”

A detailed list of the qualities sought in the next commissioner is posted on the website of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Herschend originally had hoped to choose the next commissioner in October, but education groups and others complained that the timeline was too compressed. He agreed to open the process, with nominations due in late November and completed applications due last Monday.

Asked last week if he felt that the new timeline had resulted in a better crop of candidates, Herschend said it had.

We asked the finalists some general questions about the job and their strengths. Here's what they had to say.

Terry Adams

Terry Adams
Credit Rockwood School District

Why do you want to be commissioner of education?

I think I might be able to help. I have a lot of experience in education. And since the job is open, I thought I would have something to offer.

Is it a realistic goal for Missouri to be in the top 10 nationally in education by the year 2020?

It’s a great goal. You need to aim high. I think that it’s a good thing to have goals that cause you to reach and stretch. That goal certainly would do that, and I would do whatever I could to get to that point.

What could you do to help struggling districts like Normandy and Riverview Gardens?

I would do my best to work for all of the children of the state of Missouri. Certainly I would try to address the issues in the districts that you mentioned, but I probably would wish to share those views with the state board of education first rather than in the media.

What personal qualities would you bring to the job that make you the best candidate?

There are five outstanding candidates. The best candidate will be judged by the state board of education. I think over the years I’ve learned some things about leadership, and I welcome the opportunity to use what I’ve learned to help the state of Missouri move forward.

Douglas Hayter

Douglas Hayter
Credit Branson school district

Why do you want to be commissioner of education?

I had a lot of encouragement from lot of people across the state. I’m completing my 31st year in public education. Looking ahead, I was trying to answer the question what else is out there that could expand beyond the boundaries of my current school district and help children across the state.

Is it a realistic goal for Missouri to be in the top 10 nationally in education by the year 2020?

I don’t think there’s any question that rigor is an important part of where we’re headed. As we move toward the top 10 by 20, we can make progress and move forward and get students ready for 21st century learning. Is anything impossible? No. I just want us to be realistic. Our goal would be to get there. I certainly think it is a high goal, and we should have high goals. I want us to temper that with realism along the way.

What could you do to help struggling districts like Normandy and Riverview Gardens?

I have 31 years of experience in public schools and have been in a variety of districts, from those that are fairly small to those that are fairly large overall. I have learned about what works in schools. It’s about building systems to help those districts to succeed. It’s going to take a lot of hard work among everyone to make that happen.

What personal qualities would you bring to the job that make you the best candidate?

I hope that those people who have worked with me would say I could bring a collaborative leadership style, character and integrity and high expectations. I think districts I have worked in have shown success, not because of Doug Hayter but because of the people I have worked with.

C.J. Huff

C.J. Huff
Credit Joplin schools

Why do you want to be commissioner of education?

I really think it’s an opportunity. I have a passion for kids and really see it as a position I would be excited to be a part of. In Joplin particularly, I have learned a lot in the last three years. I am trying to think of what is the best way I can give back to the state that has given us so much since our disaster, and I see this as an opportunity to give back. I really want to be a part of that, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than serve the children of Missouri and push Missouri toward the top 10 by 2020.

Is it a realistic goal for Missouri to be in the top 10 nationally in education by the year 2020?

There are some things that can be done to push toward that goal in the short term. We’re a little more than five years out from trying to hit that goal. I believe there are several pieces of the puzzle that need to be attacked aggressively from all sides. Helping children in poverty is a passion of mine. What can we do to get over the obstacles for kids to help those kids to learn? Also, I want to make sure we have a high-quality teacher education program and standards to grow the next generation of educators. It’s very possible to reach the top 10 by 20, but we have to stay very focused.

What could you do to help struggling districts like Normandy and Riverview Gardens?

Districts across the state are struggling. One of the things we have to do as a state is to own up to the fact that we are one of the most impoverished states in the country. We need to come up with ways to work with the legislature to support our children and families to make sure those kids come to school every day ready to learn. We also need high expectations and believe that every kid has the ability to learn at high levels.

What personal qualities would you bring to the job that make you the best candidate?

I’m pretty passionate about kids and what we do in education. I think very strategically and systematically in everything I do and how I approach problems. I’m very tenacious. I don’t give up easily. And I love having conversations about how to improve quality of education. I really believe there are no bad ideas.

Norman Ridder

Norman Ridder
Credit Mehlville school district

Why do you want to be commissioner of education?

I’ve been invited by my peers, and I think I’m ready for this. I bring an understanding of what it means to get better. I think I have the diversity – a rural background, and urban background, a background in working at a children’s home. I think it would be a good challenge.

Is it a realistic goal for Missouri to be in the top 10 nationally in education by the year 2020?

I think it is. It has to be defined, what it means to be in the top 10 by 2020. I think Chris Nicastro has done a good job of setting the foundation for that, and the current board understands that. I think it is something we can really target. It may take longer than six years, but I think we can do that.

What could you do to help struggling districts like Normandy and Riverview Gardens?

I would work real hard to understand the community and their children. I have worked in a boys home environment, which is very similar. I’ve had pretty good experience like that. Using quality, using an understanding of what works, and what a community and families need, can help make things happen very quickly.

What personal qualities would you bring to the job that make you the best candidate?

I come from a family of 12, raised in northeast Nebraska. Also I was raised and nurtured in the Catholic system. I come in with a pretty rich background and a pretty good understanding of what it takes for children. Education is something I’ve been working with. I have always done a lot with children and had a desire to help people get better.

Margie Vandeven

Margie Vandeven
Credit Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Why do you want to be commissioner of education?

I deeply care about the future of the 900,000-plus students in Missouri public schools. Top 10 by 20 is about giving them the skills that they need for the future. It’s all about keeping the focus on their skills and their success.

Is it a realistic goal for Missouri to be in the top 10 nationally in education by the year 2020?

I do think that’s a realistic goal. I think our students deserve that. Missouri could certainly be one of the top performing states, but we need to get a lot of people behind that.

What could you do to help struggling districts like Normandy and Riverview Gardens?

At a time when there are so many external forces on the educational process, we need to stay focused on the success of every individual child. We need to establish high expectations for every child and the supports that are needed to help them reach those expectations. There have been a lot of discussion about standards. I would focus on supports, but we also need to have the same high expectations for all students so they have the opportunity to reach those goals. I believe real change will only occur when conditions are right to support it. The community and parents need to be behind it. A lot of discussions need to occur by all players who are involved in the process.

What personal qualities would you bring to the job that make you the best candidate?

I think that my demonstrated work in the department for the past nine years makes me stand out from the rest of the candidates. I believe I have developed trust and have shown that I am very committed to doing what is right for kids. I believe I have a strong track record and look forward to working with others on priorities to move the state forward. I do have experience in the classroom. I consider myself an educator at heart, someone who is very focused on children.