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In Riverview Gardens, superintendent candidates offer similar visions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 11, 2013 - As the Riverview Gardens School District continues its quest to regain state accreditation, it is likely to be led by a new superintendent who professes to be collaborative and inclusive, with high expectations and a dedication to accountability, using a heavy emphasis on data to make decisions and draw up priorities.

Those were the qualities stressed by each of the district’s two finalists for the job -- Shelly Mills-Walker, assistant superintendent of student services in the Ritenour School District, and Scott Spurgeon, former superintendent of schools in the Belleville Township High School – during a public forum Wednesday night at Westview Middle School.

The district’s three-member Special Administrative Board expects to choose the successor to Clive Coleman by the end of next week.

Coleman, who was brought in to lead the district in 2010 when it lapsed and was put under state control, announced in September he was leaving Riverview Gardens at the end of the current school year to seek a position closer to his family in his native New Orleans.

To help with the transition to the new superintendent, the state Board of Education voted in November to extend the term of the SAB for another three years, through June 2016. Before the vote, the terms of members of the SAB had been set to expire this June.

The north St. Louis County district, which has 6,000 students, has made little headway in its state evaluations since it lost accreditation in 2007; on its most recent report, it met only four of the 14 possible standards, with a minimum of seven required for provisional accreditation.

With members of the SAB – Lynn Beckwith Jr., Veronica Morrow-Reel and Mark Tranel -- sitting in the front row, Brent Underwood, a former school superintendent who was engaged to lead the search for the next person who would head Riverview Gardens, introduced them.

He told the crowd that had come to ask questions and judge the answers from the finalists that choosing Coleman’s replacement would be “without question the most important decision these individuals will make.”

Underwood said that the choice came down to Spurgeon and Mills-Walker after a process that included an electronic survey, focus groups and lengthy interviews. An initial field of 16 candidates was winnowed to five, then three, then the two finalists.

Asked right off how they would lead Riverview Gardens back to accreditation, the candidates emphasized their experience and areas of expertise.

Spurgeon said he would concentrate on developing relationships with staff and students, helping to build their confidence that they can get the job done.

“If we don’t believe we can do what we have to do,” he said, “it will never happen…. If the kids don’t believe they can, they won’t.”

Mills-Walker stressed her experience and understanding of the intricacies of the new Missouri system of evaluating schools that takes effect this year and talked of “harvesting points” anywhere the district can.

She said she has no doubt the district can regain accreditation, “but you need leadership that understands how it’s calculated.”

For the 20-plus questions asked by Underwood, then by members of the audience, both Mills-Walker and Spurgeon gave answers that generally were similar and, to a large degree, predictable for anyone who has spent much time reading and hearing education jargon and buzzwords: low-hanging fruit, high expectations, accountability, effective leadership, clarity of purpose, safe environment, knowing your community, collaboration, organization, data, integrated curriculum, career and college readiness.

A few comments did stand out.

One questioner who cited what he called the “distressingly short” tenure of some recent superintendents in Riverview Gardens asked Spurgeon why he lasted only a year and a half as head of the Belleville Township High School district. He replied that he was in the midst of a divorce and the job took him too far away from his children too often, so he “wanted to go in a different direction.” The answer brought appreciation for his candor.

In her closing statement, Mills-Walker, who is African-American, injected race into the discussion about who should lead the district in which more than 98 percent of the student body is black. She said she is the better candidate for the job because students need to see people in authority who look like them.

After the two-hour event, Beckwith and his colleagues on the SAB said the questions and answers had helped clarify their thinking on who should become the next superintendent, though they did not want to reveal their preference.

“It helped us to see how they performed and how they answered questions from non-educators,” he said.

Added Tranel:

“It reinforced that we have two qualified candidates.”

Prior to his current work as an education consultant and his tenure in Belleville, Spurgeon served in administrative positions in the Rockwood, Northwest R-1 and Joplin school districts, among others. He played baseball briefly in the Houston Astros organization.

Before joining Ritenour, Mills-Walker held positions as a teacher and principal in the Pattonville schools.

Here is how Mills-Walker and Spurgeon responded to some of the questions posed during the forum.

How would you help students succeed despite less-then-ideal conditions?

Spurgeon: Know who your students are and what baggage they bring, and toot the schools’ horn when they do something right.

“Everyone in the organization has to pull in the same direction, and they have to know what direction they’re pulling in.”

Mills-Walker: Students need to know they are learning in a safe environment, so they can focus on the task at hand.

“Our children cannot look over their shoulders and worry about what’s happening around them.”

How will you work with teachers to involve them in decision-making?

Mills-Walker: Using a collaborative model, stakeholders will all have a significant role, but once everyone has given opinions, decisions have to be made that won’t always please everyone.

Spurgeon: Let people know it’s impossible to reach goals without them. “It’s amazing how much you know, and if we don’t ask, we’ll never know.”

What role will administrators play?

Spurgeon: “As superintendent, I don’t teach kids, so my job is to be a resource so you can do your jobs.”

Mills-Walker: The superintendent needs to assess what administrators need so they can achieve their goals, then provide that support.

How will you address discipline issues?

Spurgeon: Kids need structure, and they have to realize there are consequences for bad behavior. Role models need to be available to show them the way to behave. “There needs to be a clear separation between their school behavior and their home behavior.”

Mills-Walker: This issue is “one of my major passions.” By connecting with families, and gaining a deeper understanding of the issues they face, you can help students feel they are being respected.

What three skills would you bring to the job?

Mills-Walker: Integrity, problem-solving, accountability.

Spurgeon: Transparency, communication, data.

How can you help restore pride to Riverview Gardens?

Spurgeon: At Belleville, he helped identify the kids who were leaders and wrote letters to students and their families celebrating positive achievement.

“If you want to change a culture, you have to recognize accomplishments.”

Mills-Walker: Make sure students take part in events that they care about, so they can proudly, “I go to Riverview,” not just mumble with their heads down, “I go to Riverview.”

How can Riverview Gardens work to raise the spirits of the communities it serves?

Mills-Walker: Engage people by example, so they pay attention not just to what you say but to what you do.

“People begin to believe that this is possible, we can do this…. People are going to know Riverview in a whole different way.”

Spurgeon: You have to build confidence and give students the opportunities for a series of small successes, to raise their hopes.

“If we truly believe we can’t do any more than we are doing now, nothing will ever change."

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