The public received an opportunity to learn more about the background and leadership styles of Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Superintendent finalist Dr. Eric Thomas at La Follette High School last night.
“This community seems to be galvanized to do something special for our kids and I think that’s a great starting point,” he said to the audience.
In his current position, Thomas serves as deputy superintendent and chief turnaround officer for the Georgia State Board of Education in Atlanta. He earned his doctorate in educational leadership from Concordia University in Chicago.
Thomas reminded the public of MMSD’s vision and strategic framework, especially emphasizing the first goal of making sure that every child is on track to graduate ready for college, career and community. He said the worst thing the community could do was begin arguing over which child needs more help.
“I hope we don’t start having too deep of a conversation that we get away from talking about every child and I’m pretty transparent. Every child means every child. Every school means every school,” Thomas said.
He explained his leadership style of empowering staff, including teachers, while cultivating environments geared towards students’ success. For Thomas, this means addressing issues outside of the classroom and helping students navigate problems going on at home that distract them from their learning. Thomas also spoke about his experience working in schools as a social studies teacher and high school principal.
“All those things are those non-academic barriers that we’re trying to address so our teachers can focus on learning style,” he said.
Community members asked him about the behavior plan and he presented his ideas for decreasing traditional disciplinary tactics in favor of more restorative approaches. While Thomas said there might still be 10 to 15 percent of students who still might have to leave the classroom on a temporary basis, he would like to focus on shifting culture.
“I’m an advocate of traditional school and I’m an advocate of ensuring that every school is of high quality,” he said.
Thomas said students should be exposed to college education early on which includes maximizing opportunities for students to earn college credit while in school, but also shaping their expectations.
“I think we’ve got to put kids on college campuses. We’ve got to expose kids to college because that’s a part of the mindset. That’s a part of shifting expectations,” Thomas said.
Throughout the night, he was also questioned about professional development of teachers and retaining quality teachers. He also said the district should be recruiting for teachers for the following year in September. Thomas said that teachers should be a part of the decision making processes of the district and have opportunities to learn from each other.
“I think we could really put forth a strategy around retaining really high-quality teachers that we already have,” he said.
Thomas also addressed disparities and the district’s stated goal of Black Excellence — ensuring African-American children and youth excel in school. He reminded the public of his vision to improve the learning outcomes of every student.
“We could look at data and data will tell us where to intervene and we need to honor that data,” Thomas said.
A lot of Thomas’s answers about improving student outcomes and schools returned to developing strategies and creating cultures that reinforce those strategies. He said he would bring both an organizational business lens and an equity lens. He also said this would have to be a long term plan.
“This is the work that I know how to do. This is the work I’m excited about doing and this is the work this community says needs to be done,” he said.
Video of the entire question and answer session is available on the District’s Facebook page.