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Tough issues await as Pinellas’ new superintendent prepares to take over

School leader Kevin Hendrick says he’ll be guided by a philosophy that addresses most problems: “Just focus on the kids.”
Kevin Hendrick, currently the Pinellas County school district's chief academic officer, begins his new role as superintendent on July 1.
Kevin Hendrick, currently the Pinellas County school district's chief academic officer, begins his new role as superintendent on July 1. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Jun. 18|Updated Jun. 22

LARGO — Kevin Hendrick won’t officially take charge of the Pinellas County school district until July 1.

Yet Tuesday night’s School Board meeting marked a significant step in the changing of the guard.

After tearfully lauding outgoing leader Mike Grego for his decade of service, board members turned their attention to Hendrick, the district’s chief academic officer, whom they unanimously selected in May to become the next superintendent.

They approved Hendrick’s administrative team, leaving him room to name replacements for himself and for the supervisor of transformation schools, who was not reappointed. They ratified a three-year contract that pays him $290,000 annually plus benefits, with chairperson Eileen Long calling the decision a “very great moment” in district history.

Hendrick also encountered his first controversy, over his scheduled participation at a community meeting on educational equity sponsored by the NAACP. Parent Renee Chiea, speaking on behalf of Moms for Liberty Pinellas, raised pointed questions about the event during public comments.

She also commented on how schools implement equity, saying it’s been used by the “Marxist communist movement” and is “not what is best for children.”

She said she’d hold off calling Hendrick “comrade” until she sees whether he follows through with his pledge to listen to all sides such critical issues.

Hendrick sought to downplay the situation, suggesting that keeping attention on student needs will resolve most concerns.

“It’s simple. You just focus on the kids,” he said in an interview. “When you look at how do the kids win, that’s all you have to worry about.”

Groups from across the spectrum of viewpoints and issues raise their voices all the time, he noted, calling the input “great.” To succeed, he said, it’s critical to cut through the rhetoric and home in on the actual questions coming forward — subjects such as what kids read and how teachers teach — and deal with them.

“I’m concerned about those things, too,” Hendrick said.

As he begins his tenure as superintendent, Hendrick intends to hold several “listen and learn” sessions where community members can offer ideas and opinions on a wide range of topics. From there, he hopes to fashion district efforts to improve what it already has in place.

His initial priority will center on improving school climate, including a renewed emphasis on high expectations for academic achievement and behavior.

Coming out of the deepest part of the pandemic, Hendrick said, schools were thrilled to have children return to campuses. As a result, attendance and discipline often took a back seat as everyone tried to readjust after time away.

But that can’t stand, Hendrick said. The district as a whole — educators, staff, parents, students and others — needs to address how to energize the classroom experience.

For safety reasons, the system intensified its attention on video recording lessons that students can watch at home, then submit work through a portal and get teacher feedback via email. For some, Hendrick said, it raised the questions, “Why do I have to be in school? What’s the value in that?”

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This isn’t about code of conduct rules, he said. Rather, it’s about what can happen in a well-run classroom where teachers have interactive lessons, students can ask questions and learn from one another, and all the other functions that can’t happen online.

As such initiatives advance, community groups want to ensure they don’t get left behind.

Toward that end, the NAACP St. Petersburg chapter invited Hendrick to the educational equity event, billed as a roundtable discussion June 30 at Allendale United Methodist Church. Chapter president Esther Matthews said the group wanted to welcome the incoming superintendent and his staff, so they could talk about closing the achievement gap, expectations for children and avenues for families to raise questions, complaints and concerns.

In education, the concept of equity involves measures such as providing extra resources or adjusting teaching strategies to raise student performance, often in schools with large numbers of children from low-income families.

The event flyer, which featured Hendrick’s photo, raised the ire of the Moms for Liberty Pinellas chapter, whose members have criticized the idea of equity, which they say gives some students benefits they did not earn or deserve. They say schools instead should promote equality by giving every student the same level of services.

Kevin Hendrick will succeed longtime superintendent Mike Grego, seen here at a 2017 teacher job fair at Countryside High. Hendrick officially takes over on July 1.
Kevin Hendrick will succeed longtime superintendent Mike Grego, seen here at a 2017 teacher job fair at Countryside High. Hendrick officially takes over on July 1. [ DIRK SHADD | Times (2017) ]

Chapter president Angela Dubach posted the flyer on the group’s private Facebook page with the line, “Hey Pinellas County, anyone ok with this? Because I AM NOT!!! This will not happen!” Dubach also blasted the location of the forum, stating in an interview that the Allendale church is “disgusting” and suggesting its pastor, Andy Oliver, preaches evil.

The church is known for its support of movements such as Black Lives Matter and its inclusion of LGBTQ families in its membership. Oliver declined to comment, except to say the NAACP is bringing an important matter forward for discussion.

Dubach’s post led at least one parent to send an email to the district decrying “any propaganda being pushed at our children,” and one School Board candidate to announce his opposition to the “bad policy” of equity.

Matthews took the post, which someone shared with her, as a threat and emailed dozens of media and community members to draw attention to the item.

“They stated they are not OK with us hosting this education conversation and their intent is to stop it. They won’t be able to stop it,” Matthews said in an interview. “Anything that relates to people starting on a level platform, anything that wants to encourage and facilitate African Americans to have equity, they seem to have an issue with.”

She said protection will be in place for the forum. Dubach said in an interview she had no intention of trying to physically stop the event, but that her group would make its views known.

Hendrick distanced himself from the feud, saying he accepted an invitation to speak, as he will throughout the county during his time as superintendent.

Grego, who has dealt with his share of conflicts over his decade at the helm, offered nothing but praise for his successor.

“He’s going to do a tremendous job,” Grego told School Board members after they approved Hendrick’s contract, “and he’s worth every penny that you’re paying him, and more.”

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