A weekend interview with Pinellas schools superintendent John Stewart
When the Pinellas County School Board needed stable leadership quickly, it turned to longtime administrator John Stewart to run the show. Board members quickly became so pleased with Stewart's performance that they dropped the interim from his title. Stewart spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about his priorities in moving the district forward during the next year before he retires.
I wanted to take some time, now that you're permanent rather than interim superintendent, to talk about the things that you want to tackle, things that you see as important for the Pinellas County school system.
I am going to continue to work on the things I did when I was interim, because I thought the things I was working on then were important and I want to see them brought to fruition.
What are some of the key initiatives that you have in mind?
I want to continue to have the district continue to focus on learning in the earliest grades possible, primarily aligning our initiatives with the Read Florida. You must master your reading skills and your mathematics skills and be on grade level before you leave second grade. That's primarily important if you're going to be successful in the elementary grades and as you move into middle school and high school. If you don't get the foundation, you're just not going to be successful as you matriculate through the system.
How do you reach down to the younger kids before they get into the grades?
Well, that's interesting. That is something we must pay attention to in society. In order to get society's interest motivated in that direction. You've got David Lawrence, who is the primary spokesperson for childhood movement. ... He speaks with passion and knowledge about what is happening in a child's life, 0 to 3. ... We want to start in the district and we are trying to get some focus on that by bringing social agencies like the juvenile welfare board, the early learning coalition, the Head Start program and all those agencies that have something to say about a child's life before they come to the school system, and try to mold their minds and do something with the learning process. We're calling it the Lew Williams project in honor of our beloved School Board member Lew Williams. We want to start a project with the students that feed into schools like Fairmount Park and Melrose and Campbell Park and Lakewood, the various and sundry schools in the south St. Pete area. We are going to be working with the 1-4 age groups. The t's aren't crossed and the i's aren't dotted in it for me to get into specifics with you other than to tell you that's our desire to work with those age groups and develop a model for others to emulate.
Once you get that started, I know it's going to be a big initiative. How do you do that and stay within the budgets you have to deal with?
That's the exciting piece. We have people from the juvenile welfare board, the early learning coalition, and we're trying to get people from Head Start at the table so they can bring their funding and help have them contribute to the success of working together. Wouldn't that be unique?
Why doesn't that happen more often?
I guess we just haven't had the stars align right.
Are there other things you're looking to do. We hear often that Pinellas is one of the districts that is shrinking some. And we know that money is also hard to come by. Are there other things you have in mind?
Well, you've got to make people put what they have -- it's kind of like the old adage that if I put what I have in the pot, and you put what you've got in the pot, maybe we can make this thing work. We blend it together and give up on some of our 'I've got to do this, and you've got to do that,' we'll all do it together instead.
The graduation rates just came out the other day. Are you pleased with those? Or are there things that need to be done in the high school area?
I've never been one to worry about graduation rates or cut scores or any of those kinds of things. I try and keep the focus on getting students to take the right kind of curriculum and then motivate them to do the very best they can in that curriculum so that they have a salable skill when they graduate. That way they will graduate, if we concentrate on motivation and getting them to do the right kind of things. Which leads me to the second initiative that I was wanting to talk about. That is, instilling discipline and civility in the school system by adding to the three R's. We call it the five R's here -- at least I'm trying to sell the five R's of education respect and responsibility.
Who has to do what for that?
I don't know. That's a good question. But basically we have to continue to try and convince students as early as possible that you have to respect one another. You have to be responsible for your actions. You have to stop before you act, and if you are stimulated in a negative manner, if you respond in a negative manner, (think about) what the consequences will be. Stop and think before you act. We've had school psychologists work for some time with that philosophy. I didn't invent it. It's been around a long time. Making sure that you are responsible for your actions.
Is that something again that you would have to work with other agencies? And with parents?
Well, you've got to work with parents. That's for sure. Other agencies, not so much. It's adjusting what the teachers have to do, spend time doing it, spend time modeling it. Kids pick up on everything. You can preach one message, but if you undo that message with your actions, it's not so good, is it?
That's true. So, do you have to change the teaching day?
I don't think so. I think you just continue to work. There's all kinds of curricula that will support what I'm talking about. And there's all kinds of strategies you can use through staff development to help us with that. Just incorporate respect. You listen to me, I'll listen to you. Let the other person have their say. ... Today we don't even give people the respect in a group meeting to finish a sentence. You know, the talking heads on TV are the best example I can give you. They won't listen to what the other person has to say because they're talking over the top of the other guy.
They've already decided what they are going to say.
When you look at this, I hear what you're saying. I wonder if teachers would hear it as another thing they have to do when they're already nervous and uptight because of evaluations and things that are changing. How do you get people on board and not to be worried that their evaluations are going to be on the line because of this?
I've not talked to a single individual in the education profession, when I talk to them about respect and responsibility, that doesn't endorse it and love it. They know it's the thing to do. They see it in their students firsthand. They see young men in the middle and high school level walking around with bagging pants that they should have pulled up around the waist. They see them not respecting the other youngsters they are with. They know how important that is. We desperately need to get a handle on that in our country.
With the evaluations, are you having any issues with that in the district? Are people going along with the changes? Are people troubled by them? I hear in Pasco ... a lot of teachers are nervous and unhappy.
They wouldn't be normal if they weren't. Yes, our district has the same level of concern and are fearful as everyone else. The principals are concerned about it, too. But you know what? That's just normal reaction to something that's new, and as different as it is. We'll get through it. Yeah, we'll have some bumps in the road. But everybody just has to keep a calm head and move forward in a positive way.
When you look at what the state is doing ... are there things you see as good, or things you wish wouldn't be happening?
Well, I just wish we'd all just stop and listen to what the other person's opinion is before we drive a stake in the ground and say, 'That's no good' and 'I'm not going to do it' and whatever. There's something to be learned from everybody, and you've got to listen to what that other person has got to say before you declare it as no good and not workable. That's part of the respect and responsibility. You have to listen to the other person.
The latest one has been the cut scores, which you said don't bother you so much. A lot of people are really digging their heels in over that one.
It's not worth it. We owe it to every youngster to get them into the courses that will help them be successful, and to get them to the level they need to be. What good is it to graduate a youngster that has no salable skills to take to an employer, or no skills to take to the next level of education and be ready to start school where he has to be remediated once he arrives?
Absolutely none. You're correct. So let's dig in at our level. We're saying as a K-12 educator, send us your children ready to come to school. Well, what's the difference between that and the next level of community college or university saying send us the students prepared to do the work that we have? It's no different. You can pass it down to every level that you want to but let's just get busy and do our work.
So if somebody's setting a number, it's just something you have to target?
That's right. we'll target and we'll work on it. We might have more schools that go into intervene. We might not have as much success as we want to have. So we'll set our sights on getting ourselves to the level we need to be.
If you have schools at that point, where they need changes, how do you decide who's going to lead it and what kind of change it needs to be?
The School Board is the ultimate decision maker when you finally get to that. But it's up to us to provide them with information to make good decisions. Then you find the principal who can give you the kind of leadership at the school that will get you there.
I know the district had a lot of turmoil for a while. Do you feel like the district is headed in the right direction now?
I think there's been a calming atmosphere in the district over the last few months. Certainly the board has given me every ounce of support I need to do the kind of things that we want to see happen in the district. Yes, I think things are moving in a very positive way. The initiatives we are setting out are being accepted by the leaders in the schools. We're going to see some success in the district. It may not be overnight, but we will see success.
How do you define that success?
What kind of results are you looking for, then?
(Laughs) Well, I want to see improvement in achievement scores. I want to see schools move their students. I want to move the students along at grade level, at every grade level. Those are the kinds of results I am talking about. I want to see the district close the achievement gap with the African-American youngsters and the Hispanic youngsters. I want everybody achieving at the highest level that they can.
How long are you going to stick around to make this all happen?
Well, you won't see me anymore after December of 2012 unless you come over to my house in Winter Haven.
Is there anything I haven't asked you about, or something I should be asking?
I did have one more thing. It's almost become a cliche and a word that everybody is using because it's the hot word of the day. But I really do want people to understand what we do. I want everybody to have as much data as they can possibly have. When you do that, you've got to be a transparent person. But I always, being old school, I like to be open so that people know that we're sincere about what we want to do, and you can have as much information as we have available. It's yours. The more people who have the information, the more effective we can be. So we share it. We don't want the fear to be in our system that you talked about in that evaluation. We want every teacher in this district to be successful. And I think every superintendent in this state wants that for their district. You could talk to every one of them. They want the same thing. Every principal you could talk to would want the same thing. So, the fear has to be removed from the system as much as you can. You can't get rid of it all. But that's a major goal I have for this district.
Well, I wish you the best of luck with that.
Yeah. I hear you. I know we will not get rid of all of it. But we want to get as much of it out of the system as we can.