Podcast: Every Child, Every Day, Every Way - Steve Barkley

Podcast: Every Child, Every Day, Every Way

Every Child, Every Day, Every Way

Dr. Kevin McGowan, the National Superintendent of the year, shares how the Brighton Central School District in New York State made substantial increases in student success by focusing on every student, every day, in every way. He examines the roles of everyone connected to the school questioning their actions around the “every student” focus. Their teamwork has illuminated an achievement gap.

Learn more about Dr. McGowan here.

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[00:00:01.560] – Steve
Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud Podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.

[00:00:30.290] – Steve
Every child, every day, every way. I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Kevin McGowan, the Superintendent in Brighton Central School District in New York State and the current New York State and National Superintendent of the Year. Dr. McGowan detailed how the district obtained substantial increases in student success by focusing on a vision of every child, every day, every way. As you listen, consider the impact of that focus over a too often practice in many schools and districts of most children, most days, some ways.

[00:01:19.960] – Steve
Welcome, Dr. McGowan and congratulations.

[00:01:22.800] – Dr. McGowan
Thanks Steve. So happy to be here and thank you very much for the kind words.

[00:01:26.270] – Steve
I’m wondering for starters, if you’d share with people a little bit about the Brighton Central School District.

[00:01:32.210] – Dr. McGowan
Oh, I’d love to. We are a 3,600 approximately student district first ring suburb, Rochester, New York, which is a upstate New York State, a small city. And again, we’re a first ring suburb to that pretty diverse community. 67%Caucasian students, 33% a variety of students from different places and backgrounds, experiences, races, colors, creeds–we have a religiously diverse environment as well. Just a great melting pot of human beings focused on their families, focused on education, focused on doing good things, and being connected to each other. A 600 staff member, vibrant group of people focused on the needs of kids each day. A really enjoyable community to be a part of.

[00:02:19.710] – Steve
How long have you been there Kevin?

[00:02:21.080] – Dr. McGowan
14 years.

[00:02:22.070] – Steve

[00:02:22.690] – Dr. McGowan
Yeah, quite a long time.

[00:02:23.980] – Steve
Start as superintendent?

[00:02:25.250] – Dr. McGowan
I did.

[00:02:25.860] – Steve
You did?

[00:02:26.270] – Dr. McGowan
Yes. I was superintendent at a previous district for a few years. Warsaw in Wyoming County New York. And then, began my work 14years ago in Brighton.

[00:02:33.840] – Steve
Terrific, terrific. I know that you’ve based your work and the district’s work around a belief statement of “Every child,Every day and Every way.” And I’m wondering if you’d share with us a little bit about how that was arrived at and what that caused to happen.

[00:02:55.980] – Dr. McGowan
That was really about us discovering, acknowledging, owning up to the fact that we weren’t about “Every child,Every day, every way.” I don’t think anybody in the organization at the time this started to develop was not interested in individual kids or was uncaring about children or frankly, was purposefully not servicing every child. But our story really began with digging into the idea that achievement wasn’t where it should be for everybody but achievement really wasn’t for underrepresented students in particular. It was a series of conversations and kind of a few landmark moments. But really, I began in the district 2009. We started to have a lot of conversations about the achievement of children and what the numbers were telling us and what our experiences were telling us. And we were seeing more and more students struggle in our school environment. And I say struggle in our school environment, it’s really important to point out that Brighton was a traditionally high-performing school district for many, many years. A lot of great accolades. It was known as this place where public education was at a very high level.

[00:04:07.530] – Dr. McGowan
Monroe County in general has been known that way.

[00:04:09.850] – Dr. McGowan
Monroe County in New York. And our school was a great example of that. I said to many people when deciding to come to Brighton, for me, it was about the chance to play for the Yankees, which works with most people unless they’re a Red Sox fan, right? And for my children to go there. So I have a graduate of the system. I have a senior right now and a current fifth grader that I often point out is my favorite child by far, which is important in this dynamic, our daughter. And we, my wife and I, decided we wanted to be there. Because for us, the professional decision, the move to a different district or to a bigger district and different opportunity had a lot to do with wanting for our children something extraordinary and searching for that. And knowing that where I was going to work and live would be the same place. So we came to a place that was– again, traditionally high performing, well known, and thought to be that.

[00:05:04.020] – Dr. McGowan
And through the first several years of my experience, we began to discover that maybe wasn’t the case for all kids and that achievement wasn’t where it should be.

[00:05:13.520] – Dr. McGowan
And it was covered up by the fact that still in the district, many kids were going to great schools, highly competitive colleges, universities, Ivy League schools, there were still accolades for the district and national awards being won. But when you dug a little bit deeper, you saw that our graduation rate wasn’t where you would have expected it for a high-performing place. But our graduation rate for kids from underrepresented populations was in a very, very different place. For example, in 2013 our graduation rate was 89%. And in a high-performing place, you wouldn’t think that you’d be at that place. But our graduation rate for some groups, particularly, African-American students was 55%, shameful. And it was about really digging into, what does that mean? So although we’re 3,600 students, ballpark 250 to 300 graduates per year, that’s small enough. I’d make the argument everywhere, it’s small enough if you do it right where you can dig into the performance of every individual child and say, what is it that went wrong for that child?

[00:06:08.040] – Dr. McGowan
Where could we have been better? What should we have known, predicted– used predictive analytics to think about where that child might struggle? And then, avoid that struggle or help them work through a productive struggle and overcome that.

[00:06:23.040] – Dr. McGowan
What we learned about our system was that we had a lot of barriers to break down. We had some obstacles for kids. And we really needed to focus much more on each individual child. So that’s where it began.It grew over time through a variety of strategies we’ll probably touch on today. But our mission, vision, core values evolved as well until we reached a point where we looked at each other and said, this is really what we’re about and what best describes us. And in a very organic way that catchphrase came to be.

[00:06:53.370] – Steve
As I’m listening to you, I’m almost hearing the good to great kind of approach. And I’ve always suggested that one of the most difficult places for a school leader to land is in a good school because people have a lot of evidence of good around them. And it’s difficult at times to get them to think through. Sometimes it means we need to stop doing some of the good things in order to start doing some of the great things. Am I okay on my connection there?

[00:07:34.750] – Dr. McGowan
Oh, I think you’re spot on. I think Jim Collins would be proud to see a district say, one, maybe we’re not as great as we think we are. Although, there’s a great danger when leaders start to express that to their organization. So I cautiously would work with people to not ever say that, to not ever tell the people who have been doing great work fora long time, in particularly, in their mind and in their perception and had what they thought was great success, I think it’s offensive and disrespectful to start to tell people you’re not quite as great as you are. And I think it’s a huge mistake for a leader. But building capacity and pointing out where people’s greatest strengths have been and where they’ve been most successful and really appealing to their inner humanity to say, can we do that for more kids? What else can we do to grow that? Boy, this is really working well, how do we expand that? But it’s awfully hard for people to let go of the things that have been going well for some period of time.

[00:08:27.110] – Dr. McGowan
And the thing that they put a lot of effort into growing and innovating and starting maybe 20 years ago, they don’t forget that. So asking somebody to let go of that, boy, that’s awfully hard. In our district, we talk about pruning in order to replant or to grow differently. And try and be very respectful of what may have been in place, but move towards something that maybe builds on that as opposed to just replaces it.

[00:08:50.230] – Steve
I want to try another line on you to see if it connects as I listen to that. I’ve described that it’s being able to go to the school board and to the community and celebrate that we’re the best we’ve ever been and have someplace else we need to go.

[00:09:11.050] – Dr. McGowan
We often talk right now about the fact that the journey is not done and that we’re just one step on that journey. We emphasize that all the time.I mentioned those numbers in 2013. This past year, our graduation rate was 98%. And our plus or minus gap off of the 98% for marginalized groups of students is just 2%. So some were a hundred, some were 96 but I think we’re a very rare place where our students–by the way, since that time, we have grown in our diversity. We have grown in our economic diversity. So in other words, we’re more diverse and more poor yet our achievements never been better. It is the highest graduation rate in our region, in pretty much our half of the state, and compares to most schools nationally, the niche rating that just came out, we were 64 of 13,000 school districts in the country. So something is working but the great part about it is we talk all the time about success for some kids is not true success for an organization.

[00:10:08.760] – Dr. McGowan
It’s not success unless it’s for all kids, accessible to all kids but actually being achieved by all kids.

[00:10:13.590] – Dr. McGowan
But we say all of the time, we’re still on the journey and we have work to go. Because until that’s 100%. And 100% for all children, we haven’t reached that point. And frankly, it’s not even just about that graduation rate. Now for us, it’s about mastery. And what percentage of kids are leaving us with an AP course? It’s 74% right now but why isn’t that 100? What is it in particular groups that we could be doing to make sure they’re accessing the full experience engaging in school? Beyond just academic success and graduation, are they getting everything they can out of the school experience, that k-12 experience? The question we always ask, how do we get to the next level?

[00:10:48.780] – Steve
I listened to a few of the presentations that you’ve made and read a little bit about you and a words kind of popping out as a thread going through that that I want to run by you. And that’s a team. It seems team is important to you. Could you expand on that?

[00:11:07.630] – Dr. McGowan
I don’t think it happens without team. The National Award you mentioned at the beginning has been a really wonderful experience and one thatI will never forget and always cherish and appreciate deeply. An individual recognition can be a little bit uncomfortable sometimes. And I’m not feigning humility. I’m proud of the work I think I’m reasonably good at what I do and I try hard to get better all the time. I worked hard at it but I also don’t teach global studies. I don’t teach kindergarten. I’m not the primary principal. And I’m definitely not the middle school principal or assistant principal for that matter, right? I have a reasonable sense of how our dollars and cents work and can ask the right questions financially but our assistant superintendent who handles the finance side and HR side and administration side, a guy by the name of Lou Alaimo is a true expert at what he does. Our AssistantSuperintendent for Curriculum Instruction, a woman named Dr. Allison Rios is a true expert in what she does. And I don’t know that as well as she does.

[00:12:12.420] – Dr. McGowan
Our director of Student Services, Support Services, Deanna Spagnola is an expert in the special education and support for student area.

[00:12:19.540] – Dr. McGowan
Our principals are an expert in each of their spaces. And then they also bring a different lens to the work. Their leadership tends to be either financial or political or analytical, practical in some cases. And we think about those frames all of the time. If everybody is able to maximize their performance, their talent, their work in their particular area of expertise, and I’m somehow able to conduct that and be a part of that and point to the oboe section when we need, and to the percussion section when we need to, boy, it’s a gift. And I can’t do all those things. I’m not an expert at any one of them. I just have absolute good fortune to be the conductor of incredibly talented people who are so committed to kids and who love working together and are committed to that together but they’re the ones that are doing it.So it’s been great but it’s about all of them, frankly.

[00:13:13.480] – Steve
I’d like to drill down a little bit more with that. And you use the word conductor, so I’m wondering if you’d start–if you’re taking a team approach, then how does that affect the way you do your job?

[00:13:28.040] – Dr. McGowan
Well, I think it’s about both skills and dispositions and thinking about that. So one, in terms of dispositions, not having to be the one that decides everything and being comfortable letting go and recognizing that you don’t–being self-aware or recognizing that you don’t have the expertise in each area. Always knowing that you ultimately have the responsibility to answer for the decision and you have to do that. But just being self-aware and not having to be in charge all the time, not having to control a decision, not having to dominate a meeting or hear yourself talk, I mean, I’m doing plenty of talking this morning but I don’t need to, right? In any given meeting, I’m really happy to let other people shine. I often say in our district, with a lot of smart people, if you have to be the smartest person in the room, number one for me personally, I’m not going to be. Number two, if I feel that need, it’s likely going to stifle other people and just not be a pleasant work environment for folks.

[00:14:32.640] – Dr. McGowan
So I think dispositionally, being able to let go, let other people shine, being humble in your leadership, modest about that work, really makes a big, big difference.

[00:14:40.910] – Dr. McGowan
And then in terms of skills, just recognizing that they have different skill sets that you can maximize. Going back to the conductor analogy. I recognize that conductors have a tremendous amount of skill and probably play several instruments, but they’re not a virtuoso in each section of the orchestra, right? So I think really recognizing that, understanding that, and then trusting in that, I look at it too as being a little bit of the keeper of the flame. So bringing the organization back to the strategic plan. Bringing us back to what is our focus. That “Every child, Every day, Every way.” And asking hard questions. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. These are people you care about, you work closely with.But trying to push them to a place where we’re saying, is that really the best we can do?I mean, this was an opportunity for excellence. Is there a way we can do that better? And it pains me to ask you this question because I love you. But did you think about how that parent would have received that?

[00:15:37.680] – Dr. McGowan
Because I can tell you how it would have felt as a dad, to me or to my wife as a mom in the district.

[00:15:41.920] – Dr. McGowan
So really having the courage to ask difficult questions and bring people back to where does that fit in our plan? I know it’s a great idea. I love that you’re thinking about that. But strategically, is that going to get us where we want to go?

[00:15:54.860] – Steve
How does that focus on team impact the way the people in your system then work with each other and carry out their roles?

[00:16:05.300] – Dr. McGowan
Well, I think that when everything depends on one person it paralyzes people in the organization as well. So I really like how you asked that because that is a key, where a principal can call an assistant superintendent and get an answer quickly, with confidence that that’s going to be the answer. That it’s not going to be, well, is Kevin going to say something different? And be paralyzed by that. I mean, there are things that happen all of the time. A quick example off the top of my head is perhaps a contentious custody situation. And a principal is struggling at the end of the day at dismissal to figure out when somebody shows up to pick up their child that’s not supposed to and how to manage that and work through that. And it becomes a legal question. It becomes a liability question, a transportation question. If they have to wait for Kevin to weigh in on that, it’s going to cause a big problem, right? Because either I may be somewhere else, doing something else, engaged in something else, but also, I’m likely going to rely on the experts around me to help sort through that decision.

[00:17:01.590] – Dr. McGowan
They know they can call one of the assistant superintendents and get a great answer, a thoughtful answer, and an answer that I’ll support.On a curriculum issue, our principal may be working with a group of teachers. For example, on a difficult topic. Perhaps, it’s the use of racist language in literature, how to manage that in the classroom, and a situation arises where a parent is concerned that their child will have a difficult conversation in class. If they need to wait for me to weigh in on that situation, they’re not likely going to do their best work in working with the parent and the child to support them.But if they can get support from the assistant superintendent or somebody else, other instructional leaders that we’ve put in place, and they recognize that answer is as good as gold in the organization, they’re likely to be able to operate more efficiently and more effectively.And then when we’re all working as a team with that same notion of what our mission, vision, core values are.

[00:17:53.190] – Dr. McGowan
And they know ultimately where I would land on the decision and we’re speaking that same language all the time, it really helps us to be connected in our decision-making. And avoid the pitfalls that come with maybe a poor decision that didn’t recognize organizationally what we would have wanted to do.

[00:18:08.990] – Dr. McGowan
And now we’ve got to backtrack and parents are upset, we avoid a lot of those things, I think, because we really are all on the same page all the time and consistent in that work.

[00:18:19.370] – Steve
So maybe hard question, do you think it plays all the way down to teachers and students in classrooms then?

[00:18:25.840] – Dr. McGowan
I hope so. But I think the challenge right now for teachers is in the current environment relative to scrutiny and criticism and people are people aren’t moderating their opinions very often. And we’re in a very supportive district with great parents. I think there’s an anxiety level from staff members about some of those decisions. The instructional decisions that deal with equity in particular and diversity and how to manage that people are afraid to be criticized in one way or another or particularly, publicly criticized. I think it gets to that level in the sense that they know they can count on their principal for a good answer and they can be supported and that the district will support them. I don’t think that they’re– I think they’re concerned about it butI don’t think that they doubt that. I think that we’ve shown time and time again that even when people make mistakes, mistakes are learning opportunities to work through how can we best approach that going forward? How can we learn from the person who was harmed in that situation? And we have a very, I think, productive and positive approach to that.

[00:19:26.010] – Dr. McGowan
But I think it would be foolish for me to think that everybody all the time is completely comfortable in that space.

[00:19:31.840] – Dr. McGowan
Sometimes they really just do need that support and the backup from another person.

[00:19:37.300] – Steve
You use the word difficult conversations, controversial conversations. I’m sure you had to meet many of them along the path that you’ve traveled here. I’m wondering if you have a couple of suggestions for superintendents and school leaders when they know they have to go in and have those conversations. Are there some mindsets you have going in, some protocols that you use to guide that?

[00:20:09.770] – Dr. McGowan
I’d say three things jump off the top of my head. One is, stop talking.Ironically because I keep talking but stop talking. Just listen. Spend a lot of time listening to people. Be vulnerable. The second would be, say to people in that moment, tell me more. Instead of jumping to explain why something was done and we didn’t mean it that way or geez, I don’t think that’s racist, which is entirely offensive to the person who is saying to you that it is. Those three words, tell me more, set an entirely different tone for the conversation. You are expressing to people your willingness to be vulnerable, to be open, to be thoughtful and just receptive to the feedback and to learn. I think every one of these conversations is an opportunity to learn. And then finally, the third piece would be just really focus at the end of the day and keep the meeting focused on what is the need of the child. What can we do to help your child? I often ask people at the beginning of some difficult conversations, what is it you’re hoping will come from this conversation?

[00:21:12.330] – Dr. McGowan
What would you like to accomplish?

[00:21:14.290] – Dr. McGowan
What is the solution that will have you walking away from this feeling good about where we landed? And I often find by doing that, we’re not far apart from the beginning of the conversation. I can often say, great, I think we can get to that place. Let’s talk through it. And that changes, again, the whole tone of the conversation, reduces the adversarial nature of some of these conversations. But I think just as a human being, thoughtful and vulnerable and opening that space up for dialogue really helps.

[00:21:38.930] – Steve
I’m wondering if you have some thoughts on districts that are performing at the level that your district is. Looking ahead, future-oriented, what do you spot as some of the directions that people who are having a high achievement want to be looking at as a next step or continuous growth for them as a system?

[00:22:05.200] – Dr. McGowan
I think one of the most obvious answers and I’d probably echo it is just understanding the potential for artificial intelligence and what that might mean for the workplace. How people can manage. I’m not afraid of that. And I think a lot of people are jumping to a lot of conclusions early on about ChatGPT and other platforms that are going to change everything dramatically. I think at the end of the day, we still need human beings to communicate with each other and work together, which leads me to what I think was really what we need to be thinking about is how do you help young people develop grit and perseverance, mindfulness?We work a lot on habits of the mind in our district but how do you work with other people? How do you just engage in a way that as a human being can be productive? Not be as fragile as I think sometimes, particularly in the current environment, as we think about post-COVID, how do you help people just persevere and figure it out in the world? I think about it, again, from the lens as a parent with a 21 and 18 and 11-year-old and there are moments of disappointment in the world and that’s okay.We figure it out.

[00:23:15.370] – Dr. McGowan
Let’s send that person an email. How do you work through that? I see my one, my oldest is–as a college student, I’ll see the Facebook page with parents from his University, which is interesting to me that there’s even a Facebook page just for parents. But there are occasionally helpful tidbits about something that’s coming up on the calendar or whatever. But there are also occasionally posts from parents. And unfortunately, more often than you you’d like to think about, you know, this professor didn’t get back to my child, is this normal, et cetera? And it just boggles my–it shouldn’t blow me away because of what I do. But I would never post about that. Myself personally, I know my wife wouldn’t. And our conversation with our child would be email the professor. These are some strategies, right? So we have to give people tools to work through those things. And there are a lot of people trying to solve some of those problems I think for their children.

[00:24:13.870] – Dr. McGowan
And as educators helping to give people just tools more than anything, content is important. Learning how content can be used to learn from the past and to engage in society. And how to appreciate and understand literature and how to be aware of history and what that means in our world.

[00:24:34.950] – Dr. McGowan
Because I think we’re more productive citizens when we can engage in intelligent ways like that. And we’re not likely to have an inspiring dinner conversation by everybody just googling an answer but content is very available. I think focusing more and more on skills and how do you how do you grab that content, how do you absorb that content, how do you use that content as raw material to create more raw material and be productive. I think that’s important. And at the end of the day, I think right now our democracy depends on thinking about how we develop better citizens who are open to each other’s ideas, are willing to meet in the middle somewhere, can thoughtfully discuss issues, and engage as citizens and care about the person next to them.

[00:25:15.300] – Steve
I frequently use a statement that there is no mountain top to education.If you decided education is where you’re going to put your career, you don’t have to worry about reaching mastery prior to retirement. So I’m just wondering if there’s an area that’s been a more recent learning focus of yours that you might share with us.

[00:25:41.250] – Dr. McGowan
I think the diversity, equity, inclusion space is one that isa great example of never reaching the end of the journey or the mountaintop. I mean, it is the area we have spent the most energy on over the past five to seven years, I’d say for sure. It is directly aligned with this idea of every child, every day, every way. I mean, if you really thinking about how to support every individual, you need to be thinking about your unconscious bias, your systemic racism, and systemic bias. Your own cultural responsiveness, both in the work that’s being done with kids, but your own habits and your own approach to work, the way you schedule things in the district, it really permeates everything you’re doing and it is a constant learning experience. And how to be better at that as a constant learning experience. It’s probably the area that I feel is the biggest growth area for me personally, past but going forward too in the places I need to continue to learn to be an effective leader for all kids.

[00:26:35.460] – Steve
Well, Kevin, it’s been just a pleasure for me to have a conversation with you. And I’m so excited that we’re having this opportunity to share this with other leaders in learning around the country and around the world.I’m wondering as we close out if there’s a thought or two that you might put out there to up-and-coming superintendents, maybe to folks who are landing in their first step into that role or walking into a new district. A couple of thoughts about where they’d like to– where they’d like to put a mindset that will lead them forward.

[00:27:16.170] – Dr. McGowan
I’d be happy to. First of all, thank you for having me too and the conversation has been wonderful. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I would say to people, stick with it. Stick with it, persevere. The work has never been more important. And you’ll get there. Be patient. Be kind. At the end of the day, simply treat people the way you would like to be treated and continue to focus on every individual child. Work with people in your community who see it that way. Work with your board of education who see it that way. And often, when you really get it back to that space, most people, even the people that disagree with us the most, will end up agreeing if we’re focused on individual children, that we’re probably heading in the right direction, and that we’re well-intentioned in that work. But we’ve never needed great leadership more. I’m thrilled that you’re highlighting these conversations about leadership. I’ve hope I’ve been able to add a tidbit or two for people to pick up on.

[00:28:04.770] – Dr. McGowan
I just think, rely on the people around you. Don’t become isolated. It can be a very isolating position. Connect with other superintendents, other leaders, and constantly think about how do you evolve. But how do you just simply be kind, thoughtful, responsive, and keep focusing onindividual children.

[00:28:23.020] – Dr. McGowan
That seems to be something that will get you through the most difficult times.

[00:28:27.810] – Steve
Thank you. And again, congratulations.

[00:28:30.740] – Dr. McGowan
My pleasure.

[00:28:32.880] – Steve
I hope that Dr. McGowan’s insights and practices have sparked you to consider all of our work being focused on every child, every day, every way. Thanks for listening.

[00:28:51.110] – Steve
Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.

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