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New East St. Louis school superintendent moving 'fast and furious' to change culture

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 28, 2011 - When he took over as superintendent of the East St. Louis schools in September, Arthur Culver said he was motivated by a challenge.

So far, he has lots of reasons to be motivated.

"Things are going fast and furious," Culver told the Beacon as the district's winter break approached. "There is just to much to do. But we're making progress, that's for sure."

He had lots of lists for things that need to be done and stages that the district will have to go through as it tries to correct the shortcomings that led to its being taken over by the state in May. Chronic academic and financial problems led to the change.

The former superintendent in Champaign signed a five-year contract to head up the long-troubled District 189. He hopes all of the necessary changes will be part of one big transformation.

"What we're trying to do is create a new culture and climate in the district," he said, "a new normal so to speak. That takes time.

"It's kind of like working on a plane while it's flying," Culver added. "It's difficult, but that is what we are doing because we have to educate kids now and at the same time create plans and a new culture, so we can change the outcomes. If we continue to do same things the same way, we're going to get the same outcome."

He characterized the process as having four stages: forming, storming, norming, then performing.

"People see that we do things differently," Culver said. "We have some expectations that may be somewhat different from what they had in the past."

He listed the top priorities that he said needed to be addressed to help restore the public's pride and trust in East St. Louis schools.

First, he said, the district needs to establish and maintain high academic achievement at all levels, from pre-kindergarten to high school. Then, it needs to achieve the same goal with its finances, which historically have been a problem.

To help win public backing, Culver said, he has made some changes at the top levels of the district's administration -- some new people brought in, some people promoted, others shown the door. The purpose, he said, is emphasizing that East St. Louisans deserve to be treated better than they have been in the past by school employee

"I have encountered many parents who have complained about the way they have been treated by staff members," he said. "We've had to take a real hard stance on how we treat people. I'm trying to establish a culture where everyone -- students, parents and colleagues -- is treated with dignity, respect, courtesy and professionalism. I think that message is starting to sink in."

He said he has high expectations for both students and staff, so everyone in the district is committed to excellence. "Mediocrity and low performance are not acceptable from anyone," Culver said.

He wants staff members to lead the way by setting an example of a strong work ethic -- no excuses, only results.

"As I've encountered different students, parents and staff members," Culver said, "I hear lots of excuses. I tell them we don't want to hear excuses. Excuses don't change things."

At the most basic level, Culver said he wants everyone in the district to be passionate about the work that needs to be done.

"They aren't just coming to a job," he said. "If you have a strong purpose, it gives you a passion, and if you are passionate about what you do, you have power."

Come spring, Culver said staff members will attend retreats to work out details for the changes that have to be made. And students will take state standardized tests that will show how much academic progress, if any, has been made in the superintendent's first school year.

The mandate for change is a broad one, but it's nothing different from what Culver expected, he said.

"I studied the district for quite some time even before being contacted by the state to come down here," he said. "I came in with my eyes wide open."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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