NOTE: This story is the second in a series featuring the two candidates running for the office of St. Clair County Schools superintendent. Both are running as Republicans. Incumbent Superintendent Jenny Seals is not seeking re-election. There is no Democratic opposition.
ODENVILLE – Greg Cobb and Mike Howard have entered the superintendent’s race for St. Clair County Schools. Cobb is the system’s federal programs coordinator, and Howard is the principal of St. Clair County High. Recently, they answered questions at a Meet the Candidates at Legacy Springs event.
Test scores for St. Clair County’s minority students, economically disadvantaged students and students with disability failed to meet the state average in the metrics of academic proficiency, academic growth and graduation rate. Is this a concern, and how will you address it as superintendent?
It is absolutely a concern. I grew up dirt poor and lived in a single-wide trailer. I know what it’s like not to have money and having to go to school hungry every day. I understand all of that. We have to work on teaching all of our students, not just work on the upper echelon to boost our test scores. We have to raise the bar across the board. We have to make those special ed students strive for a higher level. I’m not the guy that’s going to give a student a 100 just to pass them along. They are going to earn their grade. We have to work hard to come up with better strategies to differentiate our instruction to meet the needs of all our students. It’s very difficult for our teachers to accomplish that when there are 35 students in a classroom. Another thing is a virtual classroom, something we are experimenting with at St. Clair County High School (SCCHS). Students can earn credits ahead of time so by their senior year, hopefully, they can exit a half a day early. Those students who are borderline of dropping out, if you give them the incentive their senior year that they do not have to be at school all day, they can leave at noon and go get a job, the reduction in dropout rate would be tremendous.
It’s absolutely a concern because poverty is the root of everything. We have to educate parents. Poverty does not start when kids get to school. It doesn’t start when they get to kindergarten. Poverty starts at birth. You have to educate parents and engage parents from the very beginning and provide them the opportunity to know how to develop the children so they are able to do what they need to do and be ready for school. I am very proud of the work we have done in our Title I schools. When I took over four years ago, I knew that the research back then, that it takes three to five years for any leadership to take hold. Then that leadership sustains itself. We have had an increase of 5 percent in reading in Title I schools, a 12-percent increase in math and a 9-percent increase in science. Our Title I schools have the most disadvantaged students in them. We’re competing with our non-Title I schools in a great way.
At a recent Moody City Council meeting, Howard said that as superintendent, he would initiate an internal audit for the system. Is this necessary? If so, why, and how would you implement it?
My internal audit happens every day. I recently walked through Springville Elementary School. When you do that, you start looking at the data you collect. You start looking at patterns, and then comparing data and patterns to other schools. We’re doing internal audits. Those programs that are in place are programs we purchased two years ago that are not working today. We’ve already done away with those programs. We are not going to spin our wheels using something that is not worthwhile for our students. From the Central Office level, I understand that internal audits happen all the time – whether they are educational audits, academic audits or financial audits. I’m in a financial audit right now. We have auditors right now in our school system. We come out clean every year.
It is absolutely necessary. We are going to evaluate people and evaluate programs. We want to make sure the money that we are spending across our county is benefitting our students. When I first walked into St. Clair County High School, I wanted to know where our deficiencies lie and where our strengths lie. Then I wanted to know where we were sending the money in the school. I wanted to know teacher waste, if there was any, and administrative waste before I got to SCCHS. I wanted to streamline the operation to make sure we knew the purpose of every dime we were spending. We have to be transparent, and people need to know what we’re doing. Until we know what we’re doing as a county across the board, there’s a perception of mistrust. At my school, I want to be as transparent as possible, not only with my teachers, but parents as well. I want them to understand where I’m going, where we come from and what I feel is best suited for our school to be successful. As far as an audit, I want to see the raw data, because the data doesn’t lie. It will tell us exactly what we expect. If it says we have a deficiency in an area, then we need to make hard decisions. Sometimes, the decisions are not going to be pleasant, but that’s where you have to work with your Board of Education members to determine what needs to be done from here to put more funding back in the classroom.
At that same Moody council meeting, Mr. Cobb said he would “make changes” as superintendent. What do you feel are the most pressing changes that need to be made?
I can’t answer for Mr. Cobb because he’s the one who said change, but I will not be disrespectful to Mrs. (Jenny) Seals in any way. Change is a volatile word in a school system. But there has to be necessary adjustments. People have specific jobs to do from the Central Office all the way to anything inside the classroom. Everyone has a job to do and everyone needs to do their job. If you give me a specific job to do, I will do everything I can to get that job done. I feel like that’s the way it needs to be done across the board. People who have a job responsibility should have that responsibility and not branch out into other areas. Then you saturate everything and you become knowledgeable a little bit about everything and not a master of one thing. I want to surround myself with the best and I want to do everything I can. There are a lot of great people at the Central Office, and you will never hear me say the word “cut.” But we have to make sure we are using everybody’s God-given talent and putting them in places that will benefit our school system. If we don’t, then we are putting our students further and further behind. There are people who need to be history teachers, math teachers and Central Office personnel, and then there are people who don’t.
One thing that you will find in my plan is a Comprehensive Communication Plan. I highly respect Mrs. Seals. She has served our district 12 years. But, one thing that I do see that we drastically need to do is communicate with our families. We need to begin bringing our families in and going out and engaging our families. Our parents have a lot to give, and they have a lot of wisdom to offer about their children. I want to bring back community advisory boards. We need to know what the communities want and need. We want to hear from the teachers. My plan has a six-month roll-on/roll-off so more teachers get the opportunity to have voices. To have the chance to sit down with the superintendent and say, “This is something that is really a hindrance to us.” I want to make sure we have a communication plan where when I go to the Board of Education and I ask for something, I can honestly say that I vetted it with the community, school personnel, administrators and executive committee. I’ll know that the communication has been everything that it should be.
Reach Gary Hanner at firstname.lastname@example.org.