Kentucky’s first black superintendent reflects on her journey and ‘mastery for every child’ education philosophy

Feb 27, 2018 by

Elaine Farris went from P.E. teacher to the highest office in the district

Elaine Farris worked her way from an elementary school P.E. teacher to being Kentucky’s first black superintendent and now serves as chairwoman of the board of Kentucky State University. And the great distance of her career trajectory says as much about her tenacity and determination as it does her commitment to standing with those she loves and standing up for the things she believes in.

If 100 Watts is the standard bearer for a brilliant, warming smile, the woman who is as comfortable being called Dr. Farris as Ms. Elaine wears one at least 200 Watts strong. There is nowhere in the state of Kentucky she can go these days without being recognized, and those who work closely with her would describe her as a politician without pretense: one who is very aware of the actions and motives of those around her but who is not consumed or preoccupied by them.

The same woman whom some would describe as tough and austere and ambitious and strong, cried during winter commencement this past December when the mother of a Kentucky State student who was posthumously being awarded his degree spoke about his life and her continuing efforts to complete his unfinished work.

We caught up with Elaine Farris recently to talk about her path to the superintendent’s office from the physical education department and her ongoing commitment to the success of Kentucky’s students.

EDUCATION DIVE: Can you talk about your path to becoming Kentucky’s first black superintendent?

ELAINE FARRIS: I’ve always been pretty assertive and ambitious, so moving through the ranks as a teacher, I’ve always been giving the opportunity to do other things. I went back to school to be a principal, not really seeking to be a principal at that time, but really just wanting the certification [because] many of my colleagues who were principals started to say, “You should start thinking about getting your principalship.”

I was touted by my superintendent to become an assistant principal at my high school. [Then] I was an elementary director at the county next to me … I had a larger arena to lead, and so I was able to sort of see the connection of schools. [I began to think about] rather than pockets of excellence, how do you move that into a [broader effort] to have success in all the schools in the district.

My first superintendency, I did not get selected with a unanimous vote. Two of the board members voted against me, so I got my first job on a 3-2 vote. And when I knew that that’s how the vote was going to be, I called my mentor and said I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go in on a 3-2 vote [because it already meant I wouldn’t have the level of support I would have liked], and my mentor said to me, “That’s why you went through this internship, you have to take the job.”

How did you approach the work of boosting outcomes around student success to really move the needle for all students, and how do you scale that from a “pocket of excellence” in one school to a whole district?

FARRIS: As I tell the principals I work with [now as a leadership consultant], it really happens one student at a time. And I know that sounds pretty trite, but what I say to principals is this: You have to know who are the students who are not getting there [in terms of progress]. Once you identify who those students are, then you have to look at the data on a daily basis. You’re teaching this particular curriculum every day, so what are the deficits that they’re not mastering?

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. So you look at these kids, and if you have 500 kids in a school building, all 500 of them are not where they need to be, so then you have to divide that up and then you surround those students with the support systems that they need, and that’s how you move it to scale. And that’s in a school, whether it’s in 10 schools, or whether it’s in a district.

It’s really not rocket science. It’s really about teaching and learning — I taught it, did they learn it?

Let’s look at it 30-60-90, because it’s doable. So these 30 days, here’s what we’re going to do, here’s your pacing guide, this is what’s going to be taught in these 30 days. After the first 5 days, you’re going to informally formatively assess. It can be an exit slip to see if the students got it that day, so if you have 20 students in your class and 15 in your class got it and five didn’t, that’s when you need to be talking about professional learning communities.

It’s all about thinking differently about how you’re going to do what we know to do. You can’t make more time, but you can take more time. If you have a six-hour day, you might not be able to add 30 minutes to it, but you can re-purpose some of those teachers in that building for those six hours. You may have to add another additional 10 minutes somewhere that day or at the end of that week where they can catch up on that core content.

We’ve got to teach for mastery. We can’t teach and say ‘well, they didn’t get it,’ and move on. That doesn’t mean re-teaching and just saying it louder. We’ve got to understand what skill deficits there are and we’ve got to teach to those skill deficits.

How do you get to the core of teaching for mastery when you may have students in the room who are at vastly different levels, and when there’s pressure to teach to the test, especially with so many places looking to tie teacher pay to student performance on standardized tests?

FARRIS: Teaching is so much different now than it was when I started in 1982. I know for certain, in 1982, teachers could teach kids, and if they didn’t get it, guess what, they just didn’t get it. Nobody knew.

We really do teach to mastery. We have the content and we have the standards that the kids have to master. Our conversations are different. The test prep was really big 15 years ago, but now we have very strict guidelines [in Kentucky that say] you can’t test prep all school year. If students master the standards, the test takes care of itself. The summative assessment is an autopsy.

What was it like being the only black woman at the table in many of the superintendents’ meetings?

FARRIS: It was interesting. It was a challenge, and I will say that I thank God that he made me like he made me, because I am a person who will stand up and speak up for what’s right. I’ve never been one who shied in the background and saw things and didn’t say if they were right or they were wrong, so I was able in this state to sit at the table with the guys because I didn’t let them get away with anything.

And there would be some times that I would push back on some things that they would say and do. I’ll never forget … my first conference as a superintendent, the president of the association said to all the female superintendents “We want you all to read this book, and you can have your own strand’ [of meetings at the conference].” And I said, “Do you think I’ve been through all the trouble I’ve been through to get a seat at the table for you to tell me I can’t eat. No, we [aren’t] going to do that.” That took care of that, [and it] was never brought up again.

I can’t say that I felt like there were actual things that happened and I wasn’t included because of my race, because I would not allow that to happen. If I sensed that it was, they already knew that I was going to speak out about it. I had to push in a lot of times, but I think that was also because I was a female.

I watched a video recently with black educators who were informally talking about how their experiences with the educational system beginning when they were students discouraged them from returning to the classroom or the administrative offices. What advice do you have for those who are coming behind you and would like to make a difference as administrators?

FARRIS: Just to understand that if you want to be an administrator, you’ve got to understand instruction. You’ve got to be an instructional leader first, you’ve got to understand teaching and learning. That’s where you have to hang your hat. That’s where you get your credibility with teachers.

Be politically astute. Know the community where you are leading. Every community has its own culture. Understand that all politics is local politics. And be above reproach — you’ve got to stand on integrity and honesty and do what’s right, because it’s right.

Source: Kentucky’s first black superintendent reflects on her journey and ‘mastery for every child’ education philosophy | Education Dive

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