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Full interview with Brevard County Schools Superintendent

Desmond Blackburn
By Caroline Glenn
Q: You are starting your second year as superintendent in Brevard. What
is your biggest takeaway from your first year at BPS?
Blackburn: Wow. So many takeaways from my first year. One, that this is a
phenomenal community, a phenomenal school district. Student performance last
year ranked us in a four-way tie for fourth for top highest performance in the entire
state. Thats out of 67 school districts, so were very high-performing school district.
The commitment from the community and teachers is just phenomenal, and they
were very welcoming to me. So its just a phenomenal school district is my greatest
takeaway.
Q: What were the biggest areas of concern for you?
Blackburn: Well Day One, teacher morale and staff employee morale was probably
the No. 1 item that kind of hit me from every angle, from multiple angles. So that
was probably No. 1. And we set out I say we intentionally, the board, the staff,
the senior staff, all of our principals and directors we really set out collaboratively
to change that direction and start to be more empowering, more encouraging, more
collaborative starting with the teachers, starting with the union. We were able to
work really, really hard to pass the highest pay increase last year that Brevard has
seen in many, many years. We were able to eliminate some overbearing
assessments. So we were able to do some things to work toward counteracting
some of the root causes of some of the teacher, staff morale issues.
Q: And have you seen an improvement so far with those morale issues?
Blackburn: So Ive seen a subjective improvement, just based on opinion and
feedback that I get from people. But in addition to the subjective feedback, we
administer an inside survey directly to our teachers where we measure the cultural
index that they really rank and grade each one of our schools. So in 2015, we were
about at a score of 7.7 were still above the national norm but we went from
7.7 up to 8.0. So we did see an objective increase in teacher morale.
Q: You and the other superintendents in the state have had a very public
disagreement with the education commissioner over school grades. What
would you like to see happen in the coming years?
Blackburn: I would love to see our state department of education, our
commissioner be much more collaborative with superintendents and other statecultured groups in the state of Florida. Ive yet to come across a teacher, a principal,
a parent or any other educator, including myself, that is not in full support of being
held accountable toward measureable progress of our students. But thats not what
the rub is. The rub is the inefficiencies of our current system and our current
assessment.

Q: Thinking realistically, do you see this being solved in the near future?
Blackburn: Thats a great question: Do I see it being solved? Heres what I see
right now: I see a loss of confidence in the current system, by teachers, by leaders,
by parents, by children. So the whole notion of having an external accountability
system that people use to change, to rearrange, to improve day-to-day action, that
has all but evaporated. So public confidence in it, I would say, is pretty low. So I
think that if the attempt is to have an external system, that people believe in and
that people use in order to make significant change to our systems at every level,
then I would imagine it has to change.
Q: On the flip side, how would Brevard continue to ensure proficiency and
improvement without these assessments?
Blackburn: In my entire career as an educator and as a student, having tests has
never been a problem. But for me, there are two kinds of tests that are really, really
important for children to take. Test 1 is the kind of assessment where upon
successful completion of that test, there is some credential that the student now
has to be able to go out into the word and improve him or herself. Theres a credit
earned in a class, theres a certificate, theres a score on a national assessment that
guarantees them entry into their college of choice, something like that. That is Test
type 1 thats really important. Test type No. 2 thats really important is the
assessment we put in front of the student that allows the educator to know where
the performance gaps are, so the educator can revise, retool, reshape future
curriculum and instruction. Test. No. 1 the student earns a credential, something
tangible to use. Test type No. 2 the educator understands where the performance
gaps are, they can revise, retool, reshape. Our current FSA doesnt fit in any one of
those categories. Its largely for adult accountability purposes. So I would suggest
that the future of adult accountability purposes isnt so much in a test that a
student takes, and its the only purpose of the test is adult accountability. So right
now the student gets nothing out of that. Its not test type 1 its not test type 2.
Accountability for the adults should be more around our behaviors and our attitudes
toward our children.
Q: And this has been an issue you pinpointed since your first took this
position?
Blackburn: Absolutely. And again, I feel pretty confident in saying I speak for
Brevard I speak for the parents and the leaders and the teachers that we want our
kids to perform well, we want Brevard students to outperform every other district in
the state and across the nation. We take education very, very seriously here in
Brevard. I love being here, particularly for that reason. That said, the current system
does need some significant change.
Q: BPS has obviously had some bad press regarding Principal Sheppard
and the Titusville coaches who were arrested. What are we doing to
ensure we're employing top educators?

Blackburn: Several fronts. Those were all very difficult and unfortunate incidents.
So one with our new deputy superintendent Carol Kent over human resources its
increasing, improving background checks for all of our employees from a criminal
standpoint but also from a performance standpoint. Mr. Sheppard is a great example
where the criminal background check was fine but more emphasis on a performance
background check would have raised a red flag. Lastly, I will tell you, the continued
celebration of our 99.99 percent of employees who are constantly doing the right
thing, leading our kids and are passionate educators. We cannot let a few wayward
souls be the definition of the greatness thats in Brevard. Were a community of
550,000 residents, we educate 75,000 students and we employ 9,000 people
largest employer in Brevard. Unfortunately, someone in Brevard is going to do
something inappropriate. And when youre the largest employer in the region,
sometimes that person is going to be an employee. But hopefully the community
realizes that myself, along with our board, along with our local law enforcement
officials are not going to stand by and allow those one or two bad apples to ruin
what were striving for.
Q: Over the summer, BPS passed a new LGBT policy. Why was its passage
important for our district and what exactly is that going to mean for
teachers, students and parents?
Blackburn: For me its very simple. Its a statement that this board, this district
stand firmly against any kind of practice that is discriminatory in nature. That is
essence of what the policy change means. So we added language in their around
our LGBT community, we added language around pregnancy to ensure people are
not discriminated against because of child bearing issues. And so when you look at
all protected classes in most discriminatory policies, you see that we started in the
late 1700s with all men being created equal, which is an absolutely great foundation
to what this country has become. But weve added groups into that language
because over time weve been a growing nation. We havent always lived up to all
men being equal. That statement, as wonderful and as foundational as it is, it didnt
even include women. So weve had to make changes as a people and I think it was
the right thing to do.
Q: How will the policy affect students and teachers?
So theres a student and an adult component to this, it doesnt matter who you are.
Student or employee, this district, Brevard Public Schools, we stand against any and
all discriminatory acts.
Q: Youve repeatedly determined that BPS finances are sound. The one
obvious exception is the EDR software that was purchased. Whats the
status on that?
Blackburn: Well I tell you, were not as far along a year later as I thought we would
be. The company that purchased the former company, all signs have shown them to
be really committed to solving this, its just taking longer than what they thought or
we thought. Good news: For now over a year, we have not given one red cent to
that company. We put an absolute moratorium on any payments going to the

company while we work on amending and strengthening contract language so were


clear on what we previously paid for, what the outstanding balance is and, if and
when that outstanding balance is paid, what type of product or service we will have
in our possession. So our legal team, their legal team having been working together
for more than a year now to make that happen. So were still waiting for that
amended contract language. The best possible outcome is getting everything that
weve paid for and having what weve paid for be a value add to our system.
Q: How are we making sure something like this doesnt happen again?
Blackburn: That item was recommended and then approved. So were
strengthening our governance around all procurement, all board items. The way
myself as superintendent and my senior staff the way we review, the way we poke
prod and challenge each other around cost benefit to any item that we give to our
board. And then were also giving our board a lot of time to be able to think and
really serve as checks and balances to the superintendent and the staff. Weve
given them board items and been very, very transparent several weeks before we
actually want them to vote on something, that they have an opportunity as our
leaders to do as much fact finding and checking with the superintendent and staff
as humanly possible. Weve also divided our procurement department away from
finances that was a recommendation that came to us from the auditor so we
took that into account and added that in as part of our reorganization. We also are
much more deliberate today in seeking advice from our legal counsel when we do
purchasing and contracts and things like that. So many, many improvements have
been made since then.
Q: On a few occasions, youve mentioned the importance of creating clear
and universal student discipline procedures throughout the school district.
What is being done to achieve this?
Blackburn: First and foremost, a rejuvenated effort on making sure we are fulfilling
social and emotional needs of children. A lot of anti-social behavior is born out of
unfulfilled social and emotional needs in children. So thats step No. 1. rejuvenating
an emphasis on that. Step No. 2 is acknowledging that kids are going to make
mistakes. By their very definition, theyre kids so theyre going to make mistakes.
Doing our level best to turn their mistakes into teaching opportunities, one, and also
if and when disciplinary consequences are handed which Im a believer in firm,
fair, consistent discipline that the discipline is equitable across the entire system,
in that we administer discipline based on a district/community belief system for this
anti-social behavior wherever it happens, from Mims to Palm Bay, the student would
receive a commensurate consequence. So its a commitment to social emotional
support, its a commitment to preventions strategies and then its a commitment to
consistent, equitable discipline across the entire system. Were also committed to
not developing that plan in a vacuum, so were committed to having every voice,
from parent voice, student voice, teacher voice, counselor voice, law enforcement
voice, come to the table and help us determine what that is. We have this year to
create it and then we hope to implement it school year 17/18.
Q: Where are the discipline inconsistences occurring?

Blackburn: The inconsistencies that weve identified are really around three groups
of children: children living in poverty, children who have a disability and AfricanAmerican children. Those three subgroups are suspended and expelled at almost
the twice the percentage of their existence.
Q: What do you think are the biggest barriers in the way of our students
getting a quality education?
Blackburn: Ill reiterate, were sitting in one of the highest-performing districts in
the entire state, and we perform quite well against our peers across the country. I
challenge that we have barriers we havent been able to overcome, we havent
overcome for all, and thats the last lap in our race, if you will, to get all kids to
learn. So I dont really see any barriers. It is having open minds, it is the
commitment to service over self, it is the willingness for adults to grow and develop
ourselves so that we can do our very, very level best for our children. Its a
commitment to collaboration. Its a commitment to an empowered workforce. So
those are the commitments that we need to make to the adults so that they can
feed the children.
Q: What is being done to make sure were serving kids in lower-income
areas?
Blackburn: Poverty. If there were one challenge that is above all else a challenge in
the education space it is economics or poverty. No doubt. So where the children by
and large in higher percentages are living in poverty then we need to leverage our
federal grant dollars in Title Is and other areas in order to close that gap. The
community school concept at Endeavor Elementary School, which is in Cocoa, is a
perfect example of that. Where we know if the home lacks resources or the home
lacks adults who employed in high-skill, high-wage jobs, then we know the students
are lacking health care. We know the students dont eat three square meals a day.
We know that access to high-speed internet may be a challenge. We know those
things. So, back to the community school concept, its a great relationship with
higher ed, the city of Cocoa, its just phenomenal. All of us have to wrap our arms
around what those challenges are and filling those gaps. Yes, where we see
disproportionate social, emotional, economic deficits in our community, we must we
are compelled to react appropriately.
Q: What are your biggest goals going into this school year?
Blackburn: Execution. If you could use two words to define this year, the words
would be process and execution. So process and execution. And the word process
comes from three words Ive used repeatedly since being here. My kind of order of
operations: people, process, performance. My indictment on education is that we
spend too much time on performance matters, we have not spent enough time
discovering what optimal processes lead to performance, and we spend little to no
time understanding and building interpersonal relationships that are really going to
make all that stuff happen. Last year, of the three words people, process,
performance the people piece was really, really huge. We got together, we have a
strategic plan that outlines the road forward, the outlines the priorities. Now year

two its about process. Year one, people came together and we agreed that
consistent discipline was something we needed to fix. Year two, were creating the
process. In all of our other areas, its around process creation and also execution.
Year two, process, execution.