This week I’d like to deviate from my usual approach writing my blog to talk about something personal. Yesterday as I was reading the Washington Post with my morning coffee, my eyes caught a headline in the local section that a former superintendent had died. As a 30-year veteran of the largest local school system and a follower of local districts, I was naturally drawn to the article to see who it was.
As I read I was saddened to see it was a superintendent I had worked for. His name was Bud Spillane, and he served as superintendent of Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) for 12 years (1985-1997), which is an incredibly long tenure for a superintendent. FCPS was and still is a very large school system. At the time I think it was the 10th largest school district in the country with a population of about 150,000 students. Today it has over 180,000. It’s also become extremely diverse. One in every six students qualifies for free and reduced meals and the same percentage are second language learners. That translates into over 30,000 students in each category, with a great deal of overlap. The county is now about 50% minority with students from over 100 nations speaking as many languages.
During Bud’s tenure, this diversity really accelerated. Bud was about addressing not only the issue of equality, but of equity as well. He initiated two very important programs, which dealt head on with the equity issue. The first was providing additional funding and staffing for schools impacted by the increasing diversity and poverty. This initiative directly impacted the schools with which I worked, as I was the Title I coordinator, which served 34 of our elementary and middle schools. Once implemented and funded locally, federal law could not pay for them with Title I funds, so this demonstrated a long-term commitment he was making. The second initiative was to reduce the student-teacher ratio to 15:1 in first and second grades in these identified schools. Although Title I funds could be used in schoolwide programs to accomplish this goal, Bud decided the system would also make this long-term commitment. And he supported the professional development necessary to help teachers take advantage of the reduced ratio. This was no small feat because the political pressures from parents and community was to serve all the students, particularly those of high-powered and influential families. But Bud believed that the system needed to provide additional resources for students who did not have the benefits of their more advantaged peers.
How he implemented the Reduced-Ratio program speaks to two important lessons Bud taught all of us who worked for him and that’s really the reason I chose to write this blog. The first was that sometimes it’s better to apologize than seek permission. He lived by this motto and encouraged us to do so as well, even if it if sometimes raised his ire. One way in which this played out was when he announced the Reduced Ratio program during his August welcome back to the school year speech (carried via closed circuit TV in those days). He had given no warning to the school board or to his closest advisors. I worked for the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction, Nancy Sprague, who was watching his welcome with us. When he announced that not only would we implement this program, but that it would begin immediately, we all looked at Nancy, incredulous, realizing the facilities, personnel, and professional development implications of his announcement. Well, he was talked out of the decision to implement immediately, but held fast to beginning the program in January, still a monumental task. His decision was certainly not popular in all circles and although he didn’t quite have to apologize, he didn't ask permission. The program still persists in highly impacted schools.
The second and more important lesson, was pretty well stated in the Post’s article in this way:
“What he saw as his job was to keep the school system focused on the children, the teachers and the classroom,” longtime Fairfax school board member Jane Strauss said. “And he did that.
And Bud real did this. His approach was synthesized into these words, “Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing.” Now I know Stephen Covey is credited with creating this mantra, but I’d like to think Bud Spillane was one of the first to realize it’s power and to use it so effectively. However, when he began using it at meetings and speeches, we rolled our eyes because it sounded so cliché. But he really meant it. He meant it for teachers and school administrators. But he also meant it for us in Instructional Services who wrote the curriculum and provided the professional development. He also meant it for facilities planners, food service providers, and bus drivers. At his leadership team meetings, when they would discuss any issue, Bud would ask how it affected student learning? He always brought the discussion and the decision back to this fundamental point – The Main Thing.
Years later I find myself still asking this question when working with education groups to help refocus discussions that sometimes can veer off the main thing. I’d like to think this helps keep the main thing the main thing, which is still and always will be student learning.