When the search for the next superintendent of Baton Rouge schools began more than a year ago, no one could have predicted we’d be where we are now: in the midst of a global pandemic, with learning loss mounting for our highest-need kids and a public health and economic crisis devastating many of our communities. And unfortunately, due to additional circumstances no one could predict – and some help from our School Board – we are still without a permanent leader for our school system despite more than a year of searching.
While it’s tempting to spend time on where the Board missed opportunities in the original search process, it’s not worth re-litigating the past. A new set of candidates has been presented for consideration. Though some of the most talented leaders from the previous finalist pool have withdrawn, it’s vital that we identify a candidate from the current pool who will boldly transform our school system to serve all families equitably. A status quo superintendent wasn’t acceptable when we started the search a year ago, and the need for urgent change has only become more pronounced during the pandemic.
The school board has hosted a series of town halls and interviews over the last week that you can review here, and we are pleased that Interim Superintendent Adam Smith is able to resume his interview and town hall Thursday evening. But how should we evaluate this new batch of candidates?
We should start by prioritizing candidates with a proven track record of transforming school systems to deliver equitable outcomes to our highest need students. During the pandemic, hundreds, if not thousands, of families have struggled with food insecurity, at times risking their health to go to work and provide for their families. Meanwhile, remote learning has been a poor substitute for in-person education, especially when hundreds of children are still without access to reliable wifi and internet devices. National research has shown that the “COVID slide” has been significant. It’s going to take a herculean effort to get children back up to their grade level, and we need a superintendent who is prepared to roll up their sleeves and get to work right away.
Second, in order to get to equity as quickly as possible, we need a superintendent who will bring a big-tent approach to public education. We need to expand excellent school opportunities that are accessible to all students, not just those from families with the means, knowledge and resources to navigate complex enrollment processes. We can’t allow politics to get in the way of supporting and scaling the best public schools in our Parish – whether those are district or charter schools. Our next superintendent should see charter school operators as allies in the work, not adversaries, and work to make as many quality options available to families as possible.
Third, our next superintendent can’t be afraid to take innovative and bold action to turn around our lowest performing schools. We need a system that holds every school accountable for delivering high-quality education for its students. While the current state of education in Baton Rouge may be rooted in historical inequalities, we can begin to help move our city forward by providing more quality and access.
Finally, we need a superintendent that can attract top talent and build bridges, both within the central office and beyond, in communities across the Parish. Change is hard, and it takes buy in from stakeholders of diverse backgrounds and experiences to make lasting progress. A leader who prioritizes the needs of our students and inspires confidence is the change our city needs.
The Board has its work cut-out for them as we begin a new interview process. While no one wanted the Parish to still be searching for a full-time leader into 2021, there is still time for the Board to select a candidate with all of these characteristics. Our sincere hope is that they do right by Baton Rouge families by moving swiftly to select the transformational superintendent we need.