This inquiry is guided by the need for new transformative narratives that provide inspired reasons for public education. It is our intention to study and learn, through the eyes of the top leadership and thought partners in public education, positive actions we can take to move forward this transformation at local, state, and national levels.
The interview was conducted by John Mann and Leonard C. Burrello on March 7, 2016, on the first anniversary of Mr. Eakins role as superintendent of school district of Hillsborough County.
District Context: The School District of Hillsborough County (SDHC) is the 8th largest school district in the nation with over 212,000 students in 270 schools with more than 25,000 staff and a budget of over 3 billion dollars. The district is organized into 8 areas of about 25 elementary through high schools. The district has a 62% free and reduced lunch count and is fairly equally distributed demographically – 34% Caucasian – 33% Hispanic and Latino – 21% Black – 9% Asian and Multi-racial make up the student body. The district has a highly developed choice program, which includes 47 Charter schools with 13.6% of students in exceptional educational programs.
The Center for Appreciative Organizing in Education sat down with Mr. Eakins to discuss how he has negotiated such a large and diverse district while in his first year as superintendent.
What would you identify as an example of a positive strength of SDHC?
In response, Mr. Eakins discussed the historic stability of the school district – and the surrounding turmoil of the last two years. He discussed regaining the trust of the community and dealing with the noise within the system that had been building over a period of time with the Board and Superintendent Elia’s separation from the district. Superintendent Elia left on March 6, and Mr. Eakins was appointed Superintendent after two years serving as her deputy and ten years as the Director of Federal Programs. Mr. Eakins also served as a principal of a Title One school for five years.
“On March 6, 2015, Mary Ellen leaves the district and am I appointed Acting Superintendent and then over the summer I became the Superintendent. From April through December, I worked to re-focus the district stakeholders on a common purpose and set of values and our culture. I deliberately started with the Board, my three deputies, and my cabinet and then moved to the community at large. We created an octagon image of what we do for kids and how we do it – I wanted a clear message that dovetailed with our strategic plan and the accompanying metrics –that essentially focused on the question: why do we exist? We agreed on a vision of “preparing students for life” and a mission statement that says, “to provide an education and the supports that enable students to excel as successful and responsible citizens.” Our five values are: to be proactive, relational, integrity, safety, and motivation.”
Our Four Strategic Priorities served as the core of the 2015-2020 Strategic Plan:
(1)Increase Graduation Rates
(2)Communicating with Stakeholders
(3)Building Strong Culture and Relationships
(4)Foundation of Financial Stewardship
SDHC has inverted the traditional organizational structure so that students and families served are at the top. Support from every level of the organization will be directed to students and school staff. This culture shift is key and arises from our belief in servant leadership. Servant leadership puts the needs of others first and focuses on helping them reach their potential. SDHC’s goal of putting students and families at the top of the organizational structure ensures that every student’s needs are met.”
Mr. Eakins also noted that the new plan now covers a five-year timeframe in contrast to our previous annual planning document. He explained that the district has significant budget issues facing them. They are facing a 100 million dollar projected short fall for the next year. What is relevant to how the two relate to one another – the strategic plan and the budget challenge – is how it helps us focus the district leadership and its offices to the area leadership and offices to individual school development, support, and operations.
What role did you play in shifting the focus of the district during this period of rapid transition?
“With the Board, we came together around a common agenda and spoke with one voice. The first retreat was with the board and superintendent. The second retreat was with the board and the superintendent’s executive team. The third retreat board was with the entire superintendent’s staff. We had goals on getting the staff and the Board to come together around a common agenda and speak with one voice. The purpose was to assist all people to understand the purpose, values, and strategic plan. We need to become a much leaner and focused district staff supporting all staff to believe in themselves and act in the best interest of our students.
“So as a shepherd with the Board, I was also a facilitator with the central staff, and finally the chief messenger, re-building our culture by building trust in them and them in us. As the chief messenger, I was reaching out to all internal employment groups and all community groups –describing our purpose and values related to what brings us all together to improve student learning while we re-build the budget, improve our culture, and cut out 100 million dollars.
“Key elements in our Strategic Plan are highlighted in an octagon display of eight imperatives surrounding the basic value and commitment to building a strong school culture including: Mission and Vision; Procedures and Routines; Behavioral Plans; Mentoring; Promoting and Modeling Great Character; Conflict Resolution; Service Learning; and Student Leadership.”
What are the guiding values in the budget alignment process?
“We hired a consulting group to help us consider what the cuts ought to be and we continue to ask, ‘what is the compelling “why” in what we are doing and how does it relate to the values that emerged?’ How do our resources tie to school support, student learning, and teaching? The net result is a reduced district administrative staff in divisions that were aligned with an older paradigm of staffing. Budgeting historically was a matter of adding or maintaining one year to the next year, assuming that we are doing the same basic things.”
What historically have been the strengths of the district?
“Our key strength has been to be a step ahead of the Florida legislature and DOE regulations. We got on board on the Florida Standards and developing a talent pipeline. We realized that with teacher and school leaders leaving the district we must do something. Now we are pre-occupied with promoting, attracting, and retaining the talent we have because they are being recruited from outside of education. They have more opportunity than ever and we cannot wait for teachers to emerge and us to believe that we will have an on-going steady stream of aspiring leaders.”
What have you learned through your partnership with the Gates Foundation?
“There were challenges with culture throughout the implementation that needed to be addressed, to ensure teachers were getting the very best support possible.”
School to District: How capacity gets built?
When we were talking about district capacities, we entered a discussion with Mr. Eakins about assessment, particularly formative assessment and end of course assessments of which SDHC has been a state leader. He shared that as a principal for five years at a historically difficult school that had fluctuated between an F and C grade, according to the Florida DOE, his school became an A school in two years. When asked how he helped make that happen, he said, “I do not know exactly how it happened.”
At about the same time, the district invited Gerald Anderson from the Brazosport Independent School District in Texas to come and offer in-service training to SDHC district and school leaders. Mr. Eakins and his staff began to develop the formative assessments tied to state standards, instructional calendars, and tutorials to support individual student needs. At the same time, the district leveraged its investments in this process and started to initiate district assessments as well.
Mr. Eakins noted that due to state external accountability pressures and the Gates focus on teacher evaluation rather than teacher development, the district was led to standardize the assessment process and teaching and learning may have unintentionally become secondary. In his words, “we were out of balance, too much focus on assessment and not on teaching got us off the right path.” He told a story of a teacher who recently approached him at the start of the school year in 2016, and she complained that her students were subjected to multiple assessments and that the teaching time had been reduced significantly.
He believes, as a principal, his school worked because his teachers organically built their own assessments and used them across the board. Customization of assessments to school contexts and cultures, differentiation of curriculum, and use of local resources and supports he believes must come first. “We simply got out of balance and we lost our teaching focus and trust in our teachers.”
He ended this discussion with a profound statement; “we want our teachers to be fulfilled, and the way we believe they are fulfilled is the way that meets student needs.”
Mr. Eakins’s relational capital
When John asked Jeff about his relational capital, he said,” I think, given our situation and budget demands, I have used up twenty-seven years of capital in the first year on the job, but it’s been worth it because we have now been able to prioritize our dollars and resources to better support teachers and students.”
We closed the interview with that challenge and thinking how will he re-gain it.