Flagler Schools Superintendent Interviews: Gerald Wilson
FlaglerLive | April 20, 2017
Gerald Wilson, a former superintendent in Maryland and Colorado with four decades’ experience in education mostly in smaller school districts, none in Florida, was next up in today’s interviews. He was poised, answered questions carefully and methodically, dispensing with flash or folksiness and candidly admitting to his limited knowledge of the local district in a couple of regards. In approach and demeanor, he echoed Janet Valentine, the superintendent who preceded Jacob Oliva: not much excitability or charisma, but solid knowledge and deference to process. (Based on notes taken during today’s interviews and acquired when all three were completed, and after this story was initially published, one board member described his body language as “at ease” and “calm demeanor but somewhat uncomfortable.”)
As in the previous interview, Wilson, 63, answered some questions in overly general terms, but he answered more directly and at times surprisingly questions on testing (“I’m a big believer in performance assessments, that’s really where I cut my teeth as a teacher and a curriculum person”), student and community engagement and, to a lesser extent, innovation.
He projected an approach driven especially by academic standards and achievements, his faith in testing contrasting sharply with Florida-based administrators, who often talk of “assessments” as a burden that reflects legislative priorities more than they do classroom priorities—or realities. The difference may have to do with Wilson’s experience in Maryland, a more liberal state where standardized testing has not seduced lawmakers to the extent and in the manner in which it has in Florida.
“What I find favorable about it is that it points out areas that we need to focus on,” Wilson said, referring to favorable changes, federally, that are giving states more flexibility, and noting along the way that he strongly believes in programs that recognize accelerated performance—IB, AP and dual enrollment, programs especially prized locally. (He called himself “a big fan of IB.”)
He dispensed with wholesale indictments of “too much testing” in favor of a more measured analysts, focusing instead on what may be working: He acknowledged that the best form of assessments (or testing) take place in the classroom on a day-to-day basis, but still saw an important place for what in Florida would be referred to as high-stakes testing.
On innovation, the area that brings particular pride to board members, Wilson described fostering a program in Maryland where faculty could apply for innovation-based mini-grants that would secure them “a device” (meaning a computer, a laptop or a means by which they could implement their innovations) and set them loose on their project. The “innovation for excellence program” as Wilson dubbed it, was more faculty-centered rather than systemic, as in Flagler, relying on what interests or backgrounds teachers could bring to their specific projects. Wilson’s motto for that approach: “We have to find ways that we learn with one another.”
He said he was “encouraged” by Flagler County’s Flaglship program, where individual schools focus on a career field, singling out the new fire academy at Flagler Palm Coast High School as “a natural,” and connecting those programs with what he’d talked about earlier in the interview: keeping students engaged. He said that would be one of his priorities locally, as the graduation rate, now below the state average, concerns him—as it did Jeff Umbaugh, who interviewed earlier in the morning. But as with Umbaugh, Wilson did not provide any overarching strategies that might address the graduation rate beyond wanting to look at “the degree of student engagement in the classroom” and ensuring that “high-quality teaching” was taking place. That statement, paired with the falling graduation rate, was fraught with risk, as it could suggest that he was questioning that quality. But Wilson caught himself and said he had no doubt the district was rich in quality teachers.
“I’m a big fan of having a four-year plan, actually a six-year plan. That planning begins in the middle school,” Wilson said, concluding his remarks about student engagement and the graduation rate. “Candidly, I don’t know to what extent we’ve done that here in Flagler.”
As for engaging with the community, Wilson proposes creating what sounded like a sort of superintendent’s council: he would find 100 key voices in the community, speak with those individuals at length and gauge their opinions of the district and what they want to see it be. While that was a slightly more defined approach than Umbaugh’s, it was still the standard promise by potential executives hoping to take a new job to “be perceived as a listener,” to be “a person who’s accessible,” and to hear concerns, phrases Wilson used this morning.
When asked about an experience he might do over, he spoke quite specifically of unhappily going through consolidation—having to close a school. School choice, not falling enrollment, had compelled it. “I might resist that because it was divisive, the board did not end up moving in that direction, it spawned a lot of concern in the school system,” Wilson said. It was an instructive analysis because the Flagler school board has flirted with just such possibilities when it’s looked at the effects of school choice on its enrollment—essentially, the erosion of the student population in traditional public schools to charter schools, combined in Flagler with several years of stagnating overall enrollment. Several of the district’s schools have more seats than they can fill, and board members are exploring rezoning.
As with most questions, there were no follow-ups (though during this interview board member Janet McDonald followed up a couple of times, eliciting clearer answers from Wilson.)
Wilson ended the hour-long interview with a broader statement that acknowledged the obvious: “It’s certainly a stretch to bring a person from Maryland to Florida,” he said. “Thanks for taking a chance with me.” It was the closest thing he came to flattering the board, in contrast with his morning predecessor, who seemed over-eager to flatter and please. “I’m a learner, I’m very passionate about what I do and the opportunity to do this work,” Wilson continued.
But he then said what he had said the evening before at the meet-and-greet at Buddy Taylor Middle School (where he also said that he liked the district’s logo and its mission statement): that one of the reasons he was motivated to move to Flagler was because he is looking to relocate, and to relocate for the final time: “As I think about what do I do and why do I want to come to Flagler County, my wife and I have moved several times, and what she’s expressed to me is, I don’t want to keep moving.” He conceded that to apply for that reason was “a bit unusual.”
His statement had the element of seeking a retirement destination.