Q&A: New superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III
Published 10:16 pm Tuesday, October 15, 2019
Ahead of his first official day on the job Monday, new Suffolk Public Schools superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III shared a video message to introduce himself and outline his priorities for his tenure.
Gordon said he wants to celebrate the achievements of students and staff, and instructionally, he will seek to close the achievement gap and work to increase the number of students who receive advanced scores on the Standards of Learning assessments.
The key question to ask one another, he said, is “What does a Suffolk Public Schools graduate look like?”
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“We need to ensure that we develop individualized learning plans for every student to include an increase in active engagement in the classroom through more project-based learning, instructional technology and student inquiry,” Gordon said in his message.
He said he is a firm believer in “family, teamwork, transparency and efficiency.”
The Suffolk News-Herald had a chance to speak one-on-one with Gordon after he was sworn in Thursday. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What made this job one that you sought after? As you were doing your research, what made this one that you wanted to pursue?
Gordon: I always take a look at the dynamics of a school system and the dynamics of the school board itself. And I know that Dr. (Deran) Whitney had done a tremendous job. When he decided to retire, Dr. (LaToya) Harrison, actually, we had a lot of connections. I know her cousin went to college with me. As I said (Thursday), meeting that school board at the Virginia School Boards Association hot topic that I spoke at, really let me know how passionate they were about kids. And, when you’re trying to make that next step from assistant superintendent, or chief of schools in my case, to superintendent, the relationship you have with the board is going to be the most important. And I just really felt a strong connection with them, and that’s when I began to do my research.
Q: When you were looking at this school division, what did you see as its strengths, and what will you be looking to learn more about to determine what changes may be needed?
Gordon: I’ve spent a lot of my career in a city setting, in an urban setting. It was five years in the city of Richmond, eight years in the city of Fredericksburg, and Chesterfield County in between both of them, so I really knew, or felt, that I could make a better impact on our students. I think a lot of times it means a lot when they see someone who not only looks like them but understands some of the challenges they may have. And we’re so fortunate with Suffolk being so large that we have such great diversity. I just want to be able to celebrate that. And in the end, we have a great relationship with our local government that I think can always improve because, until we have the needs of all of our kids that are, at least, being taken care of everyday, then it’s always going to be a challenge for us. So, we want to make sure that we continue to collaborate with them, collaborate with our business partners. When I was doing my research, I saw all the volunteer hours. I saw the almost 200 business partners that we have. That lets me know that the people are invested in our schools, and to me, that really means a lot.
Q: As you’ve begun to spend more time around the board and in the city, and making your way around the schools, what kind of energy, what kinds of things are you seeing just in your limited time here?
Gordon: No. 1, the people here are so nice. You can really feel that family atmosphere, and even when I was back in Richmond and in the Chesterfield area, after the announcement came out, I started getting a lot of communication from folks that are from here, they have relatives here, they vacation here, they come through here all the time. They told me about Peanut Fest, they told me about Shrimp Feast. Everyone really talked about how it’s such a great community. When I met the principals (Thursday) morning, they actually inspired me. We have a great group of leaders. Our school administrative office staff does a tremendous job of supporting and serving them. And I’m just a member of the team. Of course, I have to lead, but at the same time, I would be foolish if I didn’t really lean on their institutional knowledge to really learn more about this school division. And to me, that’s what’s really important. My first 90 to 100 days is really learning as many things as I can about this school division, so I can really see how things operate. I’ve been told I have a gift for improving things that are already working and trying to make them better, and I think that’s going to be one of my main focuses. You heard me talk about the transparency, the family atmosphere, the efficiency and the teamwork. Those four pieces fit very well into our strategic plan of building exceptional schools.
Q: You’re going to be going around to schools and sharing your vision for the school division. Can you tease your vision a little bit? What are you thinking about as you take the reins?
Gordon: The only thing I can drop to you is, I think my theme is going to be, “Building the Best SPS,” and that ties directly into building exceptional schools and the strategic plan. And, Ms. (Phyllis) Byrum (School Board chairwoman) kind of hit the nail on the head. I really need to be around the people to really be able to understand that. And so, one of my primary goals is making sure that all of our families, everyone in the city, and most importantly, our kids, know who their superintendent is. And, you’ll see me at games, you’ll see me at chorus concerts. I’m a big believer in extracurricular activities. I’m a big believer in having kids involved. I challenged our staff to go more digital and to use less paper. And I’m really going to take a hard look at the products that our kids are producing when it comes to the uses of instructional technology. And, in the end, I want to be able to have what’s called, I kind of coined the term, an Individualized Learning Plan for every kid, where we know the best way that they learn. We know the best way that they take assessments. We know exactly how to help and remediate and get them to reach their goals and potential.
Q: What did it mean for you to have Dr. (James) Lane (state superintendent for public instruction) here at your swearing-in, with him being somebody that you worked with and hired you in Chesterfield?
Gordon: That means so much. I mean, he sent me the text and confirmed that he was coming, and, we have the state superintendent for public instruction who took time out of his calendar to drive 90 minutes to two hours, to come support a former colleague, but more importantly, a friend. And that was part of the reason why I wanted to recognize him, because he didn’t have to do that. But that’s just the type of guy that James Lane is. And I know that I owe him — if it wasn’t for him hiring me in Chesterfield, I may not have been here today. And so the opportunity he gave me, the platform that he gave me, and he actually gave me a lot of freedom to do what I thought was necessary to help our schools improve. He gave me a lot of credit for making sure that during my tenure in Chesterfield, we had all of our schools accredited as well.
Q: In your cumulative experience, is there anything you take away from all of that that gives you the push to be where you are now?
Gordon: It starts with my mom being a former elementary school principal, math specialist for the city of Richmond. My high school experience was Hermitage High School. I loved school. I always have. I had perfect attendance for 11 out of 13 years, and I want to make sure that our kids have those same memories. I had a great childhood growing up, and when I was coaching basketball, I was successful at it, but at the same time, it helped to keep me young, it helped to keep me around the players. I want to make sure they don’t have to go through some of the same trials and tribulations that I did. I had a great principal in Neal Fletcher that helped to get me into administration. I learned a lot from Dave Sovine, who is also a current superintendent in the state (Dr. David Sovine is superintendent of Frederick County Public Schools), about instructional leadership. And, once I got that principal job at James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg, one of my mentors, (former Fredericksburg city schools superintendent) Dave Melton, was one of the first who told me, ‘One of these days, you’re going to be a superintendent. So it’s my job to help you get there.’ Those four gentlemen right there — Neal Fletcher, Dave Sovine, Dave Melton and James Lane — those are the guys that really helped to start my career off, and I’m just so thankful they’ve been in my life.
Q: Outside of your duties as superintendent, what are you interested in or passionate about?
Gordon: I’m a huge sports fan. I don’t need to lie about that. I’m a Dallas Cowboys (fan), LeBron (James), New York Yankees — those are my teams. I’m a big Star Wars guy. Can’t wait until Episode 9 comes out Dec. 20.