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Hillsborough’s new school superintendent: ‘Teach like your hair’s on fire.’

Addison Davis is leaving tumultuous Clay County to be superintendent in Hillsborough. He pays attention to detail and preaches urgency.
Addison Davis, the incoming superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools, checks in on fifth-grader Alathia Crosby at Grove Park Elementary in Clay County. Davis brings with him a hands-on style that improved Clay schools, but which some employees have found overbearing.
Addison Davis, the incoming superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools, checks in on fifth-grader Alathia Crosby at Grove Park Elementary in Clay County. Davis brings with him a hands-on style that improved Clay schools, but which some employees have found overbearing. [ MARLENE SOKOL | Times ]
Published Feb. 5, 2020
Updated Feb. 5, 2020

GREEN COVE SPRINGS — A good day for Clay County school superintendent Addison Davis starts with a tour of classrooms, from fourth-grade math to high school welding.

Surrounded by administrators, he listens to the teachers. He questions the students. He peers inside their notebooks, comparing one to another to see if they are doing original work. Then the team steps outside to discuss what they liked and what they delicately refer to as “areas of opportunity.”

“No one knows we’re coming today," Davis confides to a reporter along for the tour. "The expectation is to teach like your hair’s on fire, every minute, every day.”

Davis’ hands-on, metrics-driven, no-time-for-lunch style took some getting used to in Clay, a bedroom community just south of Jacksonville where even evolution is open for debate. But it got results. He is bringing that mindset to Hillsborough County, where, at 43, he is about to take charge of the nation’s seventh-largest school district.

He faces daunting challenges in a district serving neighborhoods of immigrants, urban poverty, country club wealth and everything in between. Too many students read below state standards. Charter schools are luring families by the thousands. And power struggles at every level make decisions more difficult.

That last one is a game Davis knows well.

“I only want to do work for children,” he says. “But for me to survive, I had to understand the political landscape of the work.”

What may be more important as Davis wades into his new job is a completely different quality. Before him, the Hillsborough school system had not hired an outside leader in more than 50 years.

He’s the new guy.

• • •

The third of five siblings, Davis grew up on the west side of Jacksonville. He played football and baseball at Robert E. Lee Senior High School. People thought he would work at his mother’s roofing and construction business. But the teaching bug bit him in college. After graduation, he returned to Lee, beginning as a part-time teacher.

He worked on his master’s while teaching physical education. Then he rose like a rocket through the Duval County school system, which is in many ways a slightly smaller version of Hillsborough. Like a lot of Duval professionals, he made his home on the Clay side of the St. Johns River.

He and his wife, Natalie, who is employed in the insurance industry, got to work raising two children. Everyone in the family is athletic. Their older daughter is a softball pitcher at the University of Central Florida while their younger daughter, who plays travel volleyball, will start high school in the fall.

Davis ran for Clay superintendent, an elected office, in 2016. Backing him was a teacher’s union that had grown weary of superintendent Charlie Van Zant, a political icon. Teachers had not seen raises in years. The union wanted a property tax increase, and Van Zant wouldn’t push for one.

By the union’s description, more than 4,000 voters changed their registration from Democrat to Republican to help Davis win in the primary. Then, in the general election, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats by more than 2-to-1, he cruised to victory.

Davis hired administrators he had worked with in Duval and introduced new concepts to the tradition-bound system. Principals became instructional leaders. Computer-based products such as i-Ready and Achieve-3000 entered the classrooms. He raised teacher pay. He pushed for a property tax increase for schools. He started a school district police department to comply with the new state requirement for armed security.

Addison Davis, the incoming superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools, chats with fourth-grade students Eve King and Jeremiah Bridges-Thomas about their science lesson at Grove Park Elementary in Orange Park. [MARLENE SOKOL  |  Times]
Addison Davis, the incoming superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools, chats with fourth-grade students Eve King and Jeremiah Bridges-Thomas about their science lesson at Grove Park Elementary in Orange Park. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

Across the board, numerical measures showed improvement. Clay’s state ranking and grade improved, its achievement gap shrank and graduation rates climbed.

But the five-member School Board was divided, with some remaining loyal to Van Zant. Not all teachers appreciated the added attention from their supervisors. Not all homeowners appreciated the tax hike.

Van Zant filed in November to run again in 2020, posting videos that blasted Davis’ administration for making Clay look like Duval. Teachers, Van Zant said, felt micromanaged. He said the new team was imposing questionable systems including Eureka Math, which he described as “straight out of New York.”

There was even criticism of the security arrangement for schools. The alternative would have been to hire more deputies from the Clay County Sheriff’s Office at a much higher cost. One possible explanation offered by Chief Academic Officer Terry Connor, a Duval transplant: “In this particular community, pretty much everybody in some way is probably connected to a police officer.”

Davis said it doesn’t bother him too much if people in some pockets of the community question whether he is a true conservative, because “they all have to turn and say, Addison Davis did right by kids.”

• • •

Feb. 1, 2018.

The Clay County School Board is settling in to buy science textbooks. But speakers are lining up to complain that their children are being taught to believe in evolution as fact. The group includes teachers, clergy and students. One teen invokes Adolph Hitler.

Davis, in a statement later lampooned by the Florida Citizens for Science, tells the crowd that evolution might not conform to his personal belief system, but that state law requires public schools to teach “the theory of” evolution.

The textbook adoption passes 3-2 and Betsy Condon, one of the two dissenters on the School Board, wonders if Davis said what he said to appease Christian conservative voters.

In an interview last month, Davis was asked: Do you believe in evolution?

“I am saved,” he answered. “The Lord is my savior.”

But, he said emphatically: “What I believe personally, what is said at my family table, will never be infused into children. My job is to do exactly what the state asks me to do, and that’s to teach within the content limits of the standards every single day."

Culture wars happen in Hillsborough too. Recent years have seen clashes over lessons about Islam and privacy rights for transgender students. Some of the drama surrounding the superintendent search was race-related. And, as happens everywhere, parents revolt when school boundaries come up for change.

In Clay, the attacks can become more personal.

“We have some really, really out there people in Clay County,” said Renna Lee Paiva, president of the teachers union. “I don’t know how else to say it. It’s just a blood sport in Clay County.”

Van Zant said he lost the 2016 election, in part, because of a made-up allegation that he plagiarized a colleague’s work. Condon, after losing her re-election bid in 2018, accused a union teacher of saying her son should have to sit on the floor in school.

Earlier that year, Davis faced criticism about the way he treated a social media critic. A team Davis coached at a softball tournament had to relinquish a championship win because two players were too old to qualify. When Davis called the critic to defend himself, the outreach was taken as a threat.

Condon said she cautioned Davis that he should have let the matter go. She saw it as an example of him trying too hard to protect his reputation.

“Lessons learned,” Davis said in an interview. But, he also said, “I think it’s a strength for me to care about what I do and how I do it. All I have is my word and my action, right?"

Another mistake, in Condon’s opinion, was creating a strategic planning job and giving it to the son of a School Board member. Davis insists the employee, attorney Michael Kerekes, was the best candidate for the job.

Despite their differences, Condon said she appreciates the efforts Davis made to mend fences and establish a professional working relationship with his opponents on the board.

“No one will ever outwork him,” she said.

• • •
By examining students' notebooks, superintendent Addison Davis can tell if they're learning independently or just copying information fed to them by their teachers. He is shown here at Clay County's Discovery Oaks Elementary during one of his daily school tours. [MARLENE SOKOL  |  Times]
By examining students' notebooks, superintendent Addison Davis can tell if they're learning independently or just copying information fed to them by their teachers. He is shown here at Clay County's Discovery Oaks Elementary during one of his daily school tours. [MARLENE SOKOL | Times]

Outside a classroom at Grove Park Elementary, a boy about 10 years old stands with his teacher. The teacher isn’t smiling. The child has his head turned to the wall.

“Oh, we got a learner making choices today,” Davis says, separating himself from the team of administrators. He removes his identification badge and clips it to the child’s t-shirt sleeve.

“How’s it going?” he asks, using a gentle tone but getting little in the way of response. “What is your name? Are you the superintendent of schools today? Can you be the superintendent? What are you learning out here? How many teachers are out here? How many kids can you learn from out here? Should we move all the desks out here?”

He continues the banter for about a minute. Then he wishes the child well before leaving for the next stop on the tour.

Davis’ cabinet members talk affectionately about his quirks. He makes up words. He delivers long PowerPoint presentations, even when the School Board asks him not to. He does not eat lunch, even when he has a lunch guest. He’s too busy, he says. He’ll nibble on a handful of candy instead.

Clay County school superintendent Addison Davis takes questions from reporters Jan. 21 after being chosen as the incoming superintendent of  Hillsborough County Public Schools.
Clay County school superintendent Addison Davis takes questions from reporters Jan. 21 after being chosen as the incoming superintendent of Hillsborough County Public Schools. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

He is obsessively neat. He empties the trash, arranges chairs at community gatherings, runs the vacuum cleaner in the school district office. He peppers his speech with rapid-fire “yes ma’ams,” but those around him say it isn’t an act.

He gets rave reviews from the unions in both Clay and Duval, despite a willingness to make personnel changes without hesitation. In Clay, he found money in the budget for the teachers’ long-awaited pay raise. On both sides of the river, union chiefs said he deals with them honorably and respects the contract.

Kim Bays, his chief of elementary education, picked up on something that happened during the morning of school visits. A substitute teacher stopped him in the hallway of Discovery Oaks Elementary. She had retired from the Navy and asked how she could become a full-time teacher.

Davis thanked her for her military service. He gave her a brief explanation of the state’s certification process. He told her where she could find his email address. And he urged her, twice, to email him that evening. She did, and Davis responded: “We are on it.”

“Not to sound cheesy," Bays said, “but every single person whom he encounters matters to him. Whenever he holds a meeting, whenever he walks into a room, he shakes every person’s hand. He looks them in the eye. And every single person who he meets in the world of education matters to him.”

Addison Davis, center, poses for photos Jan. 21 with Hillsborough County School Board members after they chose him as their next superintendent. He expects to start in March. Pictured from left are Cindy Stuart, Stacy Hahn, Melissa Snively, Davis, Steve Cona, Tamara Shamburger, Karen Perez and Lynn Gray.
Addison Davis, center, poses for photos Jan. 21 with Hillsborough County School Board members after they chose him as their next superintendent. He expects to start in March. Pictured from left are Cindy Stuart, Stacy Hahn, Melissa Snively, Davis, Steve Cona, Tamara Shamburger, Karen Perez and Lynn Gray. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

With plans to start as soon as March, Davis soon will be examining the 25,000-employee district, deciding what programs and departments to reorganize or perhaps dismantle. His Hillsborough salary is expected to be around $300,000.

He’s already discussing ideas like preschool on every lower-income campus and partnerships with hospitals to get first-time parents on board with early childhood education. He wants to find ways to form relationships with families, especially in places where students have crippling stress at home.

He thinks Hillsborough needs money from a property tax increase in addition to the half-cent sales tax hike that voters approved in 2018. He says the district’s reserves could be fatter, as could impact fees, the money from developers that pays for schools in growing communities.

His plans for the workforce remain to be seen. "I love hiring smart people around me that I can learn from, that are better than me and can do great things for kids,” he said. He hinted that some of those he hired away from Duval could wind up in Hillsborough.

As for the existing organization, Davis said, "they don’t know what’s coming. I will not sleep. And I will be in their cookie jar.”