Sup’t. Barrow sees in Fayette an ‘opportunity to innovate’
Hold on to the good, but be prepared to make some changes, says Fayette County School Superintendent Jody Barrow, six weeks into his tenure as Fayette County’s newest school superintendent.
In an interview with The Citizen, Barrow laid out his vision for “an already good system.”
“I think we need to sustain the really good things that are going on, and there are other things we need to re-align and make some subtle changes in order to improve our practice,” Barrow said.
“In order to do that, we need to be willing to let go of some of our past practices so we can grab on to new, future opportunities,” Barrow said.
“The district and the community have gone through a tough time in the past year or two with the economy, but particularly with the school system over the past six months having to evaluate where it was and make some tough decisions. (The Fayette County Board of Education) dealt with issues that some boards and some superintendents never encounter in an entire career. I think they did an incredible job,” the former Ware County superintendent said.
Barrow noted that while his first official day as superintendent was on July 1, he spent time in the school system beginning at the end of May. He arrived in Fayette by way of the Ware County School System where he served as superintendent since 2006.
“I would like to think that with some of the skill sets we bring to Fayette County it will be a good fit,” Barrow said. “I didn’t bring a magic wand or fairy dust with me. But I do have some thoughts and ideas and I want to be able to work with the board and the community leadership in the possibility of moving the school district forward. We need to take the system where it is and, hopefully, move it forward in a very positive fashion.”
Barrow said he looked at the district from the outside in, noting that Fayette County has had a very good school district that makes it one of the leading districts in the state.
“So it was a good school district already. With all the tough decisions made, I had a number of people ask me if I’d lost my mind in coming here with a $15 million shortfall and losing enrollment and having to close schools,” Barrow said. “I’m a glass half-full kind of guy. Frankly, I think when you have crisis situations occur, you can tuck you tail between your legs and go home or you can look at it as an opportunity to innovate. And that’s what I see here. Part of the thing that intrigued me is that I feel that all the elements are here for us not just to be a very good school system in Georgia, but for us to be able to compete on the global stage. That’s where I hope, in conjunction with the board and the community at-large, to set our target. And I’ve had these conservations internally.”
That Fayette schools score well on standardized tests such as the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) is a given. But from Barrow’s perspective there is more to the story.
“The truth is that the CRCT is a minimum competency test. And for us to just pass that, that’s not good enough for this community. We really need to be looking at the ‘exceeds’ category and how well we’re doing in that and looking at other international benchmarks. That’s where I hope we’ll be able to frame our next steps,” said Barrow. “We’ve been in a comfort zone for a while and we’re certainly very proud of that. But I hope we’re going to look at things from a growth-zone perspective because I think we can become internationally competitive.”
As for how Fayette will become internationally competitive, Barrow said he is listening and learning a lot, trying to immerse himself in the community and getting to know people in his first 90 days. Barrow said a percentage of the initial group of stakeholders he has spoken with include some members of the business community.
“I believe that education and economic development go hand-in-hand,” said Barrow. “Education is a critically important thread in the tapestry of a community.”
Noting the need to work proactively with a variety of stakeholders, Barrow said he wants to work with the cities and county, civic organizations and the chamber of commerce to see what kind of value to can be brought to the community.
“We have to partner with the community. To me, partnering with the community means a handshake not a hand-out,” he said.
As superintendent, it is expected that Barrow will provide significant challenge and direction to school system employees.
“So we’ve got work to do externally and internally in the school system,” said Barrow. “I’ve got concrete ideas, but it’s still a little bit premature to discuss some of those.”
Central to the school system aligning with the things Barrow envisions includes having the school board “rock solid” as a governance team in terms of mission and vision and beliefs, he said. From there the idea is to take those items to the community, Barrow said.
“Some leaders can get so far out front they’re perceived as mavericks and they lose their basis of support,” Barrow said of the challenge of his job. “The idea is to take a group of people from point A to point B and having them enjoy the ride in between. Leadership is tough, but I think our children are worth it. I ultimately answer to five board members, they’re the people who hired me, but my primary motivator is to do what’s right for children. So if we share that common mission and vision and beliefs we’ll know where we want to go when issues and questions come up. Finding that common ground takes time to build for the future.”
Barrow explained that K-12 education is not the ultimate goal. The full goal, he said, includes those things which lie beyond a diploma.
“Getting students through high school is not the end-game,” Barrow said, noting the tie-in with local industry to help plan out and facilitate future career opportunities for Fayette graduates. “It’s the first staging-area to get them ready for some type of post-secondary career opportunities.”
Barrow also noted the significance of small business in any community, questioning if, “we’ve done enough to prepare our kids to be ready for that world.”
“The careers and opportunities for our young people that we need to be preparing them for today, many of them are not even in place yet or have not been invented,” he said. “For my six-year-old twins who will be in first grade this year, what’s the world going to look like when they are in their early or late teens? It’s going to look dramatically different from where we are today, especially with the rate of technological change. We have to prepare our kids for that world so they can be successful in the world economy.”