Chris Belcher, outgoing superintendent of Columbia schools, talks about achievements

Monday, January 13, 2014 | 10:36 p.m. CST; updated 4:15 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 14, 2014
Chris Belcher, superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, says his proudest achievement in his five years as superintendent is the reconnection with the Columbia community. "We reconnected and had an open dialogue with the public. … That's kind of been the hallmark," he said.

COLUMBIA — Chris Belcher, superintendent of Columbia Public Schools, announced Wednesday he will retire at the end of the 2013-14 school year to accept a position with MU’s College of Education as an assistant teaching professor of leadership and policy.

On Monday, he talked about his time at the School District, his accomplishments there and his thoughts regarding the future of education in Columbia. 

The following are excerpts from that interview. 

As far as your accomplishments here at Columbia Schools, which ones are you most proud of?

You know, I think if you had to pin it down, I think we’ve really reconnected with the community, and I think we have public support and good public dialogue about our programs. And that’s what I felt was lacking when I came here. Now that doesn’t mean everything is going super great, but I think it means that people see that we’re open, that we have discussions, that we really focus on serving the parents and the students and the community.

It's about going to functions and listening to the needs, about trying to solve complex problems that may not make everyone happy. We’re taking them on, and we’re having public forums for that. I feel like that’s sort of been the hallmark that you’ll hear people say here — that we’ve really engaged with the community, the parents and the students.

When you first came to Columbia, you identified the achievement gap as the biggest problem the district had to solve. Has it improved?

No. I think that’s a disappointment, but Columbia is just a mirror of the national problem.

We have started a lot of initiatives that may be a year or two away from producing some benefit. We spent a lot of time reorganizing the entire secondary structure. We had to build a building. We had to redesign our middle school model. We had to reorganize staff, change boundaries, bus times and start times. But ... because of the change, we now have six middle schools that are smaller learning environments. They have a much more personal feel. Part of the achievement gap is relations with students — that we know how to guide them and gear them toward higher student achievement. 

I think that’s going to pay huge benefits, and we’re already seeing lower discipline issues and a better organized environment for learning. 

Do you think the federal or state government can do anything to improve education?

We as a state have, I think, often abdicated our responsibility for public education. I’ve been here five years. There’s been a decreasing state fund base every year I’ve been here. As a state, we’re in the bottom 10 percent of states in state support for public education, which simply means local has to pick up more of that support. So you get a much broader range of resources in the schools. So what you tend to find is the more wealthier areas — where people can pay more taxes — support schools, the others don’t, and you get disparities.

I think that’s inexcusable. I think we have to say, “It doesn’t matter where you’re born in the state of Missouri. You should get access to a high quality education.”

We’ve put no money behind teacher training and preparation. We’ve talked about it for 30 years. 

If you really want to change the system, you have to do what Finland does, which is invest in the resource of developing teachers. Make it a job with prestige and good compensation, and then you have to build it from the base up.

How do you see your new opportunity at MU as a way to help improve education? 

I’ve had a lot of opportunities, and I’ve taken them. Sometimes it was stressful. I’ve had experiences in rural schools and suburban schools. I’ve worked with personnel and curriculum development. I’ve worked with classroom management. I’ve had this really broad set of experiences, and that’s why I think my last five years have been the most successful. 

I was in a place that needed someone to have that broad overview to get things done.

The idea of starting my second career in preparing school leaders is very exciting. I will take what I have learned and what I have been exposed to to new, young leaders. I know how stressful that is. We talked about the resource issues in Missouri, and training our leaders is really important — to have them go out to be the champions for the kinds of things we’re talking about. It has to be broader than one or two voices in the state; we have to start organizing as an educational body. 

Supervising editor is John Schneller.

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