Superintendent hears concerns at second forum

Published 10:02 pm Friday, October 25, 2019

New Suffolk Public Schools superintendent Dr. John B. Gordon III heard concerns from staff and parents while sharing his vision for the division during his second Meet the Superintendent forum Wednesday at Lakeland High School.

Gordon, as he did at the first forum at Nansemond River High School, shared his vision and expectations with those who turned out, and took questions afterward.

“The interesting thing is, we’re hearing different concerns in different parts of the city,” Gordon said after the forum. “And so, I look for commonality, but I also look for, what can we do to solve some of these things.”

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He outlined goals of closing the achievement gap between different student populations, increasing the graduation rate and advanced scores on Standard of Learning tests and having school administrators carrying out daily walkthrough observations of their teachers.

“How can you really tell if good instruction is going on if you only see them twice a year?” Gordon said.

He also told the audience that he doesn’t want a bad teacher to be shuffled around from school to school.

“We want to make sure that we have the best of the best,” Gordon said. “And we’re working on some things to incentivize our teachers, too. And I really want to make sure that we get as many of our graduates to come back and want to teach here.”

Gordon also wants to see more parental involvement in the schools, and noted that the PTA organizations at schools in the northern part of the city are larger than in schools in the southern part.

He also addressed facility needs in the division, saying there is a need to build “some” new schools. Like at the previous forum, he told the audience that there needs to be conversations about mobile classrooms, rezoning and a new high school, which he said could be costly.

He said some new schools will need to be built, but to build them and have them at capacity two years later would not be fiscally responsible. They need to last 50 to 60 years, he said.

Gordon said there needs to be some “courageous conversations” about new schools and funding them.

“I’ve already told our city manager (Patrick Roberts) … that I’m going to ask for a lot,” Gordon said. “We need the money.”

He highlighted the division achieving full accreditation for its schools, but said it can’t be a one-time deal.

“This is now the expectation moving forward,” Gordon said, “and we can’t do this without your support. We can’t do this without you checking your kids’ homework, having two-way communication with their teachers.”

Gordon also pointed out that the class of 2019 earned $24.9 million in college scholarships, with graduates completing nearly 67,000 community service hours. He also cited the national recognition for the Project Lead the Way engineering and biomedical sciences programs, as well as the recognition of Nansemond Parkway Elementary School, John Yeates Middle School and Northern Shores Elementary School for receiving Virginia Distinguished Purple Star School designations for strongly supporting military-connected students.

He also wants to forge stronger ties with businesses in Suffolk, and said the division would start tracking the number of the division’s students who are employed by city businesses.

The subjects of audience questions ranged from adequate pay and benefits for maintenance staff and adequate supplies for teachers, to the location of graduation ceremonies, to bullying, special education and boosting the division’s fine arts programs. After the forums are complete, he said, those questions and answers to them will be posted on the division’s website.

Gordon has kept up a busy pace in the first two weeks as superintendent, having visited all of the division’s 21 schools by Friday and holding numerous meetings with central administrative staff, along with principals and other school division personnel.

He said he would have a better idea of the strengths of the division, along with areas to work on, within his first 100 days on the job. But he also vowed to absorb the wisdom of administrators who have had longer tenures.

“I would be foolish if I didn’t lean on the 925 years of administrative experience in our schools,” Gordon said.

Gordon has also maintained an active presence on Twitter, sharing his thoughts and photos under the Twitter handle @drjbg3 as he makes the rounds across the division. He has vowed to maintain a culture of transparency, and reiterated that any communications to the school division would be responded to within 24 to 48 hours.

Asked about his leadership style, he said he sets high expectations for himself and division staff, and he believes in looking at data to make good decisions to help every student.

“I’m a collaborative leader, I’m not a transformation leader,” Gordon said. “I don’t really believe in coming in and, all of a sudden, making changes. I believe in coming in and seeing what works, make adjustments on things we need to make better (and) I also really believe in getting student input and feedback.”

Gordon will hold a final Meet the Superintendent forum at 7 p.m. Monday at King’s Fork High School, but he plans to continue getting input from all of the division’s stakeholders.

“We are on the upswing,” Gordon said. “I am also really big on celebrating our teachers, our students, our staff, our parents, our business partners. We need everyone to really help us support our kids.”