New school superintendent Chris Belcher answers questions from community

Wednesday, July 1, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:11 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 2, 2009
Newly elected Columbia Public Schools superintendent Chris Belcher answers questions about his plans for the school district on Tuesday. "The thing that excited me about Columbia is that I want to close the achievement gap," said Belcher who starts his job on Wednesday.

COLUMBIA — He's a blues music enthusiast, an avid biker and a man who loves a challenge. Chris Belcher begins his career as the Columbia School District superintendent Wednesday armed with personality, experience and a commitment to his new position.

"I want to end my career feeling like I've done something valuable," said Belcher, 48.

Belcher bio

Hometown: Kearney, Mo.

Family: wife, Jackie; daughter Alexandria, who will attend MU this fall

Highest level of education: Doctoral degree of education, educational leadership, MU, 1992

Former employment: Superintendent, Kearney R-I School District, 2005-2009

Why Columbia: "After the first interview, I began to think that this was the kind of challenge I was ready to take," he said.

More from this interview: For the full version of this interview, please visit our SchoolHouse Talk blog.

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Tuesday morning, the day before his first day as superintendent, Belcher visited with the Missourian. Each question Belcher answered was provided by   members of Columbia's education community. This story was edited for length.For the full version of this interview, please visit our SchoolHouse Talk blog.

Q: Did you play an instrument or participate in sports in your school career? — Kim Weber, Columbia Council PTA president

A: I played football, basketball and track in high school, and I played in band until my ninth-grade year, when I figured out that I wasn’t very good. I played the trumpet. The band instructor told me, “You know, Chris, not everyone is meant to be a musician,” and he was right. I love music, but I didn’t have the skills. I was the student council president my senior year, the different clubs, that kind of stuff.

Q: Do you have any sports-related experience that has helped prepare you to meet the challenges of being a superintendent? Jim Whitt, School Board member

A: I have a pretty extensive sports background. I wouldn’t say I could coach again because it’s been so long. I probably don’t even know what you should coach, but I have a pretty good feel for the relationship that exists between a coach and a parent, and a coach and an athlete. Those oftentimes are your most politically divisive issues going on in the school district.

Q: What kind of value did your family place on education while you were growing up? Kim Stonecipher-Fisher, Columbia Public Schools Foundation president

A: I think my dad put a value that he wanted me to do something different than what he did. When they saw that I liked school and was successful, they gave me a lot of support, you know, “You need to go to college.” But it wasn’t intense. It was sort of like, “You make the decision, but you can choose the life you live.”

Q: What ideas do you have to help close the achievement gap? Kathy Ritter, Rock Bridge High School principal

A: I think we have to identify the most important words that all kids should know at certain grade levels, and there’s all sorts of research out there on that, and we need to just bust everything we can to get all kids to have those vocabularies.

Some will have to learn more words, some will already have it, but if you want to level the playing field and give everyone equal opportunity and access, we have to start with vocabulary.

The second thing is, you really support the successful programs, (such as) the MAC Scholars, that are working to bring a collaborative sense to the school. The third thing is, you’ve got to start having some courageous discussions about that there are differences.

We are treating students of color differently, probably. We are probably treating males and females differently in certain situations, and we have to become aware of that before we can even think about providing an environment that is more equal.

Q: How do you plan on extending opportunities for advanced students in elementary and middle school studies? Christine Roberson, Columbia Area Career Center Laboratory Technology Program teacher

A: I think our gifted program is very strong. And realize I would love to expand that, but the financial realities that we deal with in Columbia are that we’re going to have to deal with the same funding that we’ve been dealing with.

I think you also start to look to support the after-school clubs that are academically based. I think those probably vary from building to building, teacher to teacher with who happens to have that interest in that building. I think at the upper level we continue to expand and push the AP program. I’m a big believer in AP, in that it’s a rigorous program. I think the more kids we get in that, the better.

Q: What kind of planning do you think can be done to operate the salary schedule for teachers next year? Terry Alexander, Douglass High School government teacher

A: My intent is to turn over every rock and to see what we can do that doesn’t harm students or the educational program and operate that salary schedule. Two years being on a frozen salary is just unacceptable.

Q: What is the biggest challenge you think you’re going to face during next year? Michael Corey-Yares, Hickman High School Student Council president

A: It is likely that we will be looking at bonding for a third high school in the spring. That’s certainly going to be a challenge to line up all the information and get the information public.

Q: What are your goals for your first 100 days in office? Susan McClintic, Columbia Missouri National Education Association president

A: I think one is to start the strategic planning process and to establish strong district goals within the first 100 days. No. 2, to visit every building and talk with every staff in a face-to-face meeting.

Three is to outline a list of programs that need to be examined at a critical level because, if we’re going to look at redirecting funds, we have to look at the programs to see which ones are successful and which ones aren’t. Four, establish some strong relationships with the board of education, and we have a July 7 retreat where we’re going to start to do that.

And to become well-known in this community within 100 days. I’ll be at every event. I’ll be there whenever I can so that people know who I am, they have an understanding of my style and personality and that I’m accessible. I think this city needs a superintendent that is visible and that people feel like they know and can relate to.

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