Photo Credit: Austin Steele
Speaking to an audience of Athens parents, teachers and concerned citizens for the first time, Demond Means, the sole finalist for Clarke County school superintendent, described himself as someone who's committed to social justice, marginalized students and raising his family in Clarke County.
The board is expected to formally appoint Means today after a public forum Monday night.
[UPDATE: The board will vote on Means' appointment at its work session Thursday, according to CCSD spokeswoman Anisa Sullivan Jimenez.]
Although Means has been superintendent of a smaller, largely white and affluent district in suburban Milwaukee for nine years, he was raised in inner-city Milwaukee and graduated from public schools there.
One of the reasons he felt drawn to Clarke County, he said, is the opportunity to help minority and low-income students. (CCSD is 79 percent minority, and more than 80 percent of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches before a USDA grant made them free for everyone.)
"I firmly believe our most marginalized children deserve the most attention," he said. "Those children who don't have an advocate in the superintendent's office or other places are the ones who need us the most."
School board member John Knox told the audience of about 250 at Whitehead Road Elementary School that, in his interview, Means challenged the board to be "all in" on social justice.
"He grew up like me," said board member Ovita Thornton. "I can relate to him. I can relate to his family. He did not always have a silver spoon in his mouth. So he can relate to the kids we are concerned about in Clarke County."
Photo Credit: Austin Steele
In his current job at the Mequon-Thiensville school district, Means led a statewide initative to close the achievement gap in Wisconsin, which has the largest gap of any state.
Locally, he put math and literacy specialists in every school in the district.
He also started a local initiative that brought male African-American students to college campuses and businesses to teach them academic skills and show them successful role models.
In addition, Means briefly led an "Opportunity School District"-style takeover of Milwaukee public schools. Republican state lawmakers mandated that Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele identify poorly performing schools and turn them over to private operators, and Abele tapped Means for the job.
As Means explained it, he refused to bow to pressure to actually turn those schools into charters, and also could not reach an agreement with the Milwaukee school district on a turnaround plan, so he resigned rather than do something to harm public education.
"I walked away from that position when I became aware it wasn't about kids anymore; it was about politics," he said.
"Public education is under attack," school board member Greg Davis said, and Means will defend it.
"I've gotten a sense of true courage, conviction," board member Linda Davis said. "I believe he will stand for children and stand against anyone who comes after him for that."
Means described himself as a collaborative leader, a listener and a motivator who seeks input from all parties before making a decision, and will support teachers while demanding excellence from both staff and students.
"You can only have equity if you have high expectations for every child," he said. "I believe every child can learn at an amazing rate that will surprise their teachers and in some cases even their parents."
"Multiple pathways," not just one assessment tool, should be opened up to select children for gifted-and-talented programs, because they express those gifts in different ways.
Means agreed with a questioner who asked if too many students are "pushed out" of schools and into the Ombudsman program for those with disciplinary problems.
"The more we can keep them all under one roof and serve their diverse needs, the better," he said. "I know it's a real harsh word to use, but you're segregating those kids when you send them to an alternative place."
And he said he would work to produce more "homegrown teachers" as a way to make the district's faculty more diverse.
His answer to a question on technology drew applause. Former superintendent Philip Lanoue's signature "one-to-one" initiative was giving every student a laptop or tablet and transitioning away from textbooks, which has been criticized by some parents. While praising the program, he cautioned that technology is only as good as teachers' training to use it.
"The one-to-one initiative is an amazing use of funds in technology for learning," he said. "I also say, 'Technology is a tool.' It's a tool for learning. If the focus is on technology, we have a problem we need to step away from."
On a personal level, Means sought to allay concerns that, because he's spent his whole life in the Milwaukee area, he might not stay in Georgia for long.
He has a four-year-old in pre-K in the Mequon-Thiensville district, and said she'll become a Southern belle.
"What drew me to Clarke County is this is a place I can raise my daughter," he said.