New superintendent outlines vision

Published 9:35 pm Wednesday, October 16, 2019

During the first of his three Meet the Superintendent forums Tuesday, new Suffolk Public Schools superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III shared his vision for the school division and said it must work to close the achievement gap while providing all students with individualized learning plans.

“This is a promise that I’m going to make to you all,” Gordon told a group of about 60 people in the Nansemond River High School auditorium. “We’re going to close the achievement gap. Knowledge, mastery, content, instruction does not know color. So what is the difference? Why do we have the achievement gaps between our African American and our (white) students? … Why is it there?”

Across the board, he said, those gaps need to be closed, and he called for upper-level classes to represent the student body. He also pledged to engage more with students to get their feedback and give them more ownership over their learning. Gordon also said there should be culturally responsive instruction.

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“We’ve got to bring them into the process,” Gordon said of students.

He said the goal of “Building the Best SPS” is directly tied to the division’s strategic plan of building exceptional schools.

“One of the things I really promised to the (School) Board was making sure that we were going to do some things to really open up a new branding and marketing plan for Suffolk,” Gordon said. “I really, honestly believe this is one of the best school divisions in the country. But I think part of the challenge is that not a lot of people know about it.”

He applauded the efforts across the school division to reach full accreditation and said it would be the expectation going forward.

“It is not just going to be making sure that we have to have three-year waivers, or different things that actually allow us to be accredited,” Gordon said. “We want to make sure that every one of our report groups are being successful.”

To do that, he wants each student to have an individualized learning plan so that their teachers know how best to teach them.

“I don’t want our teachers to work independently in silos anymore,” Gordon said.

Among the other goals Gordon outlined:

  • Keep all students safe.
  • Increase efforts for students to be actively engaged in learning through project-based learning, instructional technology and student inquiry.
  • Increase the graduation rate.
  • Increase advanced scores on the Standards of Learning tests.
  • Increase the presence of administrators in classrooms and have them do three to five walk-through evaluations in classrooms per day.
  • Increase two-way communication between those in the school division and families.

He said the graduation rate isn’t something to be concerned with just in high school. The process of increasing it starts much earlier.

“Graduation rate … is not just a Lakeland, King’s Fork, Nansemond River issue,” Gordon said. “This starts in third grade.”

He said that reading and math test scores at that point can help identify potential dropouts that early, and said poor attendance and not participating in activities can also tie into the graduation rate.

In his previous job, Gordon conducted an audit of Chesterfield County elementary schools and found that just 20 of 39 had afterschool activities. He said those 20 had higher attendance rates than the other schools that did not have afterschool activities.

“We have to make sure that we have clubs and activities that allow our kids to feel like they are a part of the school,” Gordon said.

He said the school division will, along with their parents, do all they can to support students, and he hopes to foster a close relationship between the School Board and City Council, and continue to work and expand community partnerships. He also has set a goal of developing a positive, collaborative and trusting relationship with the board.

He said he is aware of the need to rebuild some of the city’s schools, and has heard of the need for another high school.

“We know we have some schools that need to be rebuilt,” Gordon said.

Gordon also vowed that the school division would be transparent in its actions, and that it will respond to anyone who calls or emails within 24 to 48 hours with answers to their questions.

He took questions from parents about the quality of special education, overcrowded schools and capacity issues, as well as busing delays.

Gordon will hold two more Meet the Superintendent events — Oct. 23 at Lakeland High School and Oct. 28 at King’s Fork High School. Both start at 7 p.m.

“We’re going to get some things done,” Gordon said. “And I’ll be honest, the first couple of months, yes, I’m going to be doing more watching and learning, as I lean on that … institutional knowledge that people have. But if something’s wrong, you better believe we’re going to change it. I don’t really believe in waiting a long period of time. I’m going to have input from several different people, we’re going to look at the data, and then make a decision. We don’t need to get caught up in other things.”