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Fulton County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa on Leadership, Personalized Learning, and Lasagna

Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you're missing him, you might try to catch him while he's out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick's gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Becca Bracy Knight, executive director for the Broad Center for the Management of School Systems.

Superintendent Robert Avossa brought his cage-busting leadership to the 95,000-student Fulton County Schools in metro Atlanta in June 2011. Over the past 18 months, he has assembled a top-notch team, rolled out a strategic plan, and secured the approval of "charter district" status from the Georgia Department of Education. Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to talk with Dr. Avossa about his entry into Fulton County, his vision of a great school system, what a "charter district" is, his personal sources of inspiration and motivation, and his culinary skills.

Becca Bracy Knight: Tell me about how you approached your first days as superintendent of Fulton County Schools. What did you do to learn about the district and community? Who did you talk with to assess the particular strengths and needs of the district?

Robert Avossa: I began by asking my school board members--as the elected representatives of the community--for guidance on the community and its various groups and voices. I asked each board member to give me a list of people they felt were important community leaders and activists. I wanted to talk with parents, political leaders, teachers, and principals. I then met with those folks and asked them each to recommend 1-2 people for me to speak with. And so the circles of people expanded until I had spoken to hundreds of people. I met with groups of principals in small numbers so we could actually have real conversations. During my first year, before I rolled out any plan, I visited all 101 schools and all maintenance facilities. With all of this information and feedback, our district created a strategic plan. Some people do it more quickly, but for me I had to balance the need for change with being thoughtful about the pace and cadence of that change.

ΒΒΚ: What is your vision of a great school system?

RA: I believe that a terrific school system is set up to support teachers in meeting individual student needs. We have kids who perform academically in the top 10 percent in the world and we have kids who really struggle. For a district as large as ours--close to 95,000 students--we have to be able to address an incredibly wide range of needs. We have to create schools, classrooms, and experiences that are tailored to the needs of each student.

BBK: What stands in the way of being able to provide the level of personalized learning that typifies your vision of a great school system?

RA: The way that our central office used to be set up did not allow us to support teachers in personalizing learning for students. And for a lot of people in central offices who are used to being held back by the bureaucracy, it's hard to now have the superintendent saying "do what you want" and make major changes in how you interact with schools. For many people there is a feeling of comfort when everything is the same, and they can hide behind procedures rather than find a way to confront problems head-on. But now we have moved to a decentralized structure and moved decision-making closer to the school, with area superintendents who have a staff specifically equipped to support the needs of each community. We are asking people to think differently about the services we provide to schools. And in this process, we've found leaders within the central office and within schools who can pioneer us in this new direction.

BBK: The Fulton County district was recently granted approval by the Georgia Department of Education to become a "charter district." We are seeing some other urban districts becoming "charter districts" across the country, such as in New Orleans, Tennessee, and Detroit. What exactly is a charter district?

RA: To clarify, moving to a charter district does not mean turning every district school into a charter school. Charter districts empower educators in a school district with the same autonomy and flexibility given to charter schools. The central office has more autonomy to set its own policies and standards. For example, we don't have to have the same pay scale or certification requirements that most traditional districts have. In Georgia, most traditional school districts are subject to something called "Title 20" -- about 700-plus pages of statewide rules and regulations. Now, we have the authority to determine everything from the way we purchase materials to the kinds of textbooks we select to the way funds are distributed to schools.

We became a charter system in 2012, after Georgia allowed school districts to choose from three options for how they would structure the management of their schools in 2008. Every school system in Georgia decides whether it will become an IE2 (Investing in Excellence in Education) system, which can ask for one waiver at a time from the state, a charter system, which has the ability to waive all "Title 20" state sanctions, or publicly acknowledge it is content with its current status of operation under the rules, processes and practices of the Georgia Department of Education. Our district community felt that the charter system model was the best fit for Fulton County Schools because our teachers, parents, and community members wanted governance councils to bring decision making to the school-level.

BBK: What will this mean for parents, students, and teachers in your system? How will this contribute to improving student learning?

RA: Parents will have a lot more say in their child's education. Parents will now sit on school governance councils and have the authority to make decisions. These are not just advisory councils; they have a lot more power. For example, they can make decisions about things like a school's investment in technology.

We'll have new flexibility. For example, schools can opt to waive the physical education requirement for athletes on sports teams. That gives these students the freedom to take an extra math class, a remedial reading class if they're struggling, or join the orchestra.

We'll also have flexibility with "seat time." All teachers have students who have mastered certain curriculum but are still required to sit in a class for an entire year. We can now allow them to test out of the class. Rather than spend a whole year in a class covering information they have already mastered, they can take a semester of the class, pass the year-end test, and move on to other classes.

ΒΒΚ: When you think back on your own experiences as a K-12 student, did you have a teacher who had a big impact on you?

RA: I had an amazing high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Beal. He was also my soccer coach. He helped me connect the importance of a strong education to the reality of my future. He motivated me through my connection to sports. He knew how passionate I was about sports. He was always steadfast. He retired from the military, was a non-traditional teacher, and he cared deeply about schools and kids. And he was an older teacher--not the young, cool, hip teacher you may be picturing--this was really his second career. But he made a big difference in my life.

BBK: Can you share an example of a student in your district who has inspired you?

RA: There are so many. A student at Langston Hughes High School wrote me a passionate letter about how he wanted to make sure I'd find a great principal for his school. It was so moving that I wound up asking him to sit on the hiring committee. Later, I asked him to introduce me at the strategic plan rollout at Atlanta's Fox Theater in front of a huge crowd. After that, knowing that cooking is one of my passions, he invited me to come and cook for his home economics class. I cooked a meal for him and his class as a way to thank him for being so engaged.

BBK: That's great. But inquiring minds want to know... what did you cook?

RA: I made a homemade lasagna, garlic bread, and salad. And, of course, we're in the South so we had sweet tea and lemonade to go with it.

BBK: You've got a difficult job and your work is never done. What keeps you motivated?

RA: I'm motivated by the successes we're already beginning to see. We've seen four of our five lowest-performing schools make good gains, suspensions have decreased, and test scores have increased. Beyond what the data tells us, I also hold a quarterly meeting with high school students to get a better sense of their experiences. It's gratifying to know we are making their experiences better.

And because I'm in schools all the time - watching great teaching keeps me motivated. One message we sometimes don't say enough is that we've got some of the most dedicated, passionate, knowledgeable teachers in our schools. Sometimes we don't lift them up enough. At the end of the day, I'm doing everything I can to keep and sustain our excellent teachers.

Note: Superintendent Avossa is a 2011 graduate of The Broad Superintendents Academy.

-- Becca Bracy Knight

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