Trimble grad raises achievement in 3 districts in 6 years

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article was published in the September 2012 issue of District Administration, the most widely read publication for K12 district-level school leaders nationwide. It spotlights the work of Josh Powell, a 1993 Trimble County High School graduate who is currently the District Superintendent of Montgomery County (Ky.) schools. Josh is the son of the late Billy Jo Powell and the late Suzanne Graham, both of whom were also TCHS alumni.

By Jennifer Elise Chase

The resounding cry from Joshua Powell supporters, the Kentucky superintendent who in six years turned two underperforming districts into successful ones, is that his method “actually works.”

His first job as superintendent was at Cloverport Independent where led the district from 165th out of 174 state rankings to 10th in three years.  In 2008, Powell accepted his second superintendent job at Union County Public Schools where he replicated his efforts, leading the district from 161st to 52nd in three years.

Powell was named Administrator of the Year in 2007 and 2009 by the Kentucky Association of School Administrators—the only superintendent to earn this accolade twice. His reputation as a turnaround expert, including his model for success that combines rigorous assessment with entreaties to staff to be nice to each other and to focus on students, landed him in Montgomery County in 2011. In the last year, he’s been helping the district to achieve the same success as his previous districts. “We’re trying to be the model for all of Kentucky,” he says of Montgomery County, which was ranked 132nd out of 174 districts when he arrived. “My desire to improve public education in Kentucky and the nation is unparalleled. In the United States, we are in a desperate situation and the fix for our future is, and has always been, public education. My role, as I see it, is to invalidate all of the excuses so that our children get what they truly deserve—the American dream.”  

Step 1: Turnaround needs a roadmap

At the core of Montgomery County’s turnaround—and of Powell’s turnaround approach in general—is Powell’s District Formative Assessment Initiative. It calls for creating a Department of Student Achievement, weekly formative assessments to ensure that kids master what they’re taught (and that teachers are teaching standards-based lesson plans), and probably most important, a timely analysis of data.

Powell hired Lisa Stone to be the district’s director of school improvement, a position he created to oversee the district’s academic achievement. Stone molds teaching strategies, increases professional development opportunities for teachers, and supports the general activities of the initiative. In the five years that she has worked with Powell—before Montgomery she was a consultant at Union County—she has marveled at what she calls his “unwavering, laserlike focus on doing what is necessary to increase student achievement.” Says Stone: “If you’re doing what you should be doing for kids, he makes sure you have the tools you need to do your job.”

Step 2: Turnaround needs leaders

Powell recently earned his Ph.D. and cites his dissertation on workplace incivility as the key focus of his leadership and turnaround success.

“Employee civility is synonymous with culture. Reducing incivil behaviors among employees has a profound impact on culture and, most importantly, performance. I’ve kind of made my living in cleaning up employee behavior.”

Noting the incivility he’s seen among his staffs, as well as a pattern of educators forgetting that what’s best for the students should be at the heart of what they do, during the 2011-2012 school year, he removed or transferred administrators and teachers who weren’t aligned with student success and replaced them with what he calls “the best and the brightest—my school leaders,” right down to the basketball coach.

Powell, who works closely with the Kentucky Education Association, reports that working together with unions has been critical to the success of his districts, as his district received several accolades from KEA.

During the 2011-2012 school year, Powell also did away with teacher choice (a program that previously allowed parents to request the teacher they wished for their child), which forced all teachers across the district to be more accountable for their performance.

“I was really concerned about putting the right leaders in the right spots,” says Powell. “In my view, performance, by itself, is relatively easy to accomplish in a short period of time as the things that are broken in public education are easily identifiable. The difficulty arises from politics, misalignment, and ineffective leadership and processes.”

An unlikely degree

Powell’s master’s degree in clinical psychology often helps him tune into students’ needs. “Going into some classrooms, you’ll figure out real quick why some kids don’t care about learning: it’s boring,” he says. By implementing creative classes and involving students in the turnaround process, Powell has helped Montgomery County find new ways to engage students so they actually want to learn everything they need to graduate. Sometimes that means hiding facts and figures in some fun.

There’s nothing complicated about Powell’s approach: “Being a psychologist, to me it’s so clear and so simple: Connect with kids, have a high expectation for every single kid, and make people be nice to each other.”

Jennifer E. Chase is a contributing writer for District Administration.