120 Days of School Board Service

120 Days of School Board Service

Nate Hogan – Vice Chair – KCPS School Board of Directors

Just over 120 days ago I was sworn in as the sub-district 2
school board director and elected by my peers to the officer role of
Vice-Chair. April 10th was an incredibly humbling day for me and one
that I’ve tried not to take for granted. After all, being trusted to make
important decisions that can shape the lives of so many young people and by
extension the future of our city, is an awesome responsibility. A responsibility I don’t take lightly! It’s with this responsibility in mind that
I would like to share a few observations from my first four months, but first a
few caveats.

I don’t profess to be an expert as a public-school board
director, nor do I believe I have all the answers. I also understand that all
my observations are based on my limited experience on the board and my own
personal biases. This list is from my perspective, and mine alone and
additional context could always be added to provide a more complete picture of
what is happening or not happening in Kansas City Public Schools.

Now that I’ve gotten the disclaimers out of the way, let’s look,
through my eyes at a few items of note…

Fulfillment

People frequently ask me how things are going or what I
think about serving on the school board and the first thing that comes to mind
is how it makes me feel. It’s by far the most fulfilling professional endeavor
of my life. This is not to minimize any of my other professional work. I’ve
been blessed to work in great industries doing important work that helps people
(healthcare most notably), but this is much more personal for me as I see
myself in every kid who bounces from home to home and school to school,
searching for their purpose and a reason to care about their academics or make
lasting friendships.

The interesting thing about this experience if it’s fully
embraced is that you can directly see the impact your decisions have on the
lives of some incredible young people. To fully embrace it, you must spend time
in the schools, attend various events and conferences, and find one on one time
with the superintendent and your fellow board members, administrators, teachers
and in a mentoring setting with our kids. Only then, in my opinion, can one fully
appreciate the gravity of the many decisions we make and find true fulfillment
in the work.

The Real
Deal

Prior to the election, I had heard great things about Dr. Mark Bedell, our superintendent. I met and chatted briefly with him at the many board meetings I observed as I was collecting signatures to appear on the ballot. He seemed nice enough, but I place a tremendous amount of value on one on one engagement and relationship building, so I withheld judgment until I had a chance to see him in action.

Shortly before the election, I asked to meet with Dr.
Bedell. Since I was appointed due to lack of competition (a blog for another
day) in my sub-district, I was granted this request. It was amazing how many
parallels there were in our life stories and his passion for improving the
educational opportunities and experiences for EVERY kid in the school district
was palpable. But, even after that encounter, I didn’t have enough information
to really form more than an emotional opinion.

Several weeks later I made a request to visit several schools with Dr. Bedell and his deputy superintendent, Dr. Marla Sheppard. It was at this meeting that I was initially sold! Watching Dr. Bedell interact with administrators, teachers and kids was incredible. I could tell that he was in his element and the pure love he showed for the people and the processes required to create a learning environment that is safe and equitable was something incredible to watch. Combine this experience with watching him work as a leader through additional one on one conversations, in board meetings and in officers’ meetings, and it’s clear that Dr. Bedell is the real deal! https://www.kcpublicschools.org/Page/5676

Leadership
is Pervasive

It doesn’t take an organizational leadership guru to understand that leadership starts at the top and establishes the culture by which everyone below them on the org chart follows, and KCPS is no different in this regard. My primary observation here relates to the work ethic and passion of the leaders across the organization. Watching Dr. Bedell’s cabinet (direct reports), the next layer down, school level administrators (principals and assistant principals), teachers, nutrition employees, etc. has been incredible!

All sorts of leadership books have been written about why
this is, but Dr. Bedell’s passion and work ethic are contagious and it has
caught on at the district. This is not to say that these incredible educators
didn’t have passion or work ethic before him, but it’s obvious they’ve found a
leader that gives them the leadership, tools, resources and inspiration needed
to tap into what they already had inside.

Think about the effect this higher level of passion and
dedication to their profession has on our kids. It’s no wonder we scored 82.9
on the last state APR!

Accreditation,
Accreditation, Accreditation!

I won’t attempt to explain the “magic” that goes into
getting accreditation. It would not only bore you, but I guarantee that it
would confuse and frustrate you as well. Let’s just say that it’s complex and a
moving target from year to year, which makes it even more challenging in an
environment like ours where there’s a significant population of kids who are
mobile and/or homeless and who come from challenging living situations and
staying engaged is hard enough without the state changing the requirements for
meeting state standards every two years or so.

Accreditation is an interesting thing. It’s one way to
measure whether a district is providing kids with the skills they need to
either go on to college or pickup a trade/career skill needed to be successful
in life. On the surface, that appears to be a good thing. Who can argue with
wanting a layer of accountability for tax funded education? Enter politics!
Sadly, education is not immune to politics and indeed, in Missouri, politics
plays a huge role in the standards that are developed and the political makeup
of the majority in Jeff City is not kind to urban districts like Kansas City
and St. Louis. I’ll need an entire blog on the local, state and national
politics of education, so stay tuned for that.

Will KCPS get full accreditation this year? Given the above,
it wouldn’t be smart to bet on it, but I do think we have a chance. Early
indicators point to that conclusion, but I’m way too cautious to make that
prediction yet. Maybe the bigger question is, if we get full accreditation,
then what?

Accreditation should definitely be celebrated! Too many
people have poured too much heart and soul into getting us to that point.
However, we should celebrate in a hurry and move on as accreditation is the
meets minimum. We must continue to raise the bar for our students, teachers,
administrators, parents, stakeholders, AND our communities across the city
(there’s another post idea – OUR COMMUNITY NEEDS TO ENGAGE MORE MEANINGFULLY)!

Business
vs. Academia

My closing observation is one that I believe needs some
thoughtful attention. If you’ve had the opportunity to work in both a business
and academic setting, this will likely resonate with you. If you’ve only worked
in business, you’ll likely agree but will miss the opening operative word
(thoughtful). If you’ve only worked in academia, you may view business in an
unfriendly light and miss the opportunity for these two sectors to bring about
the most powerful change possible in our kids lives and our communities.

Think about the pros of both sectors (understanding that
there’s a level of generalization here, but the themes are generally true).
Business is generally good at finding/creating efficiencies, working across
functional areas, innovating, and developing and monitoring strategic
relationships. Academia is generally good at research, innovating with the
whole person (product in this context) in mind, curriculum design, being
deliberate.

Now, consider the cons. Business is generally not very good
at considering the human element, doing what’s right when there’s no financial
incentive to do so, and investing in communities. Academia is generally not
very good at building efficient systems/processes, building AND monitoring
strategic relationships, and designing organizational structures that are
nimble.

What would it look like if KCPS were to take all the good
things from business and work to eliminate some of the challenging areas within
the district? Could we create an organizational structure that is strong enough
to deal with the natural ebbs and flows of public education in Missouri, but
also nimble enough to flex when the unexpected happens? Could we put the past
in its proper context and allow ourselves to build relationships with
influential stakeholders that can be powerful advocates for the district for
generations to come? Could we build processes that are both efficient and
robust? The possibilities are endless! It just takes a willingness to dream
big!

In closing, I’ll reiterate an earlier point. Our kids
deserve access to a quality educational opportunities and experiences! We are
on the right track in KCPS, but more work needs to be done. We have the right
board, the right superintendent and team and the right city to do this work in.
Now we must step up and get it done!