Forum showcases Columbia schools superintendent candidates

Tuesday, March 11, 2014 | 11:13 p.m. CDT; updated 10:40 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Columbia Public Schools superintendent finalist Peter Stiepleman, who is the district's assistant superintendent for elementary education, talks during a public forum Tuesday at the Neil C. Aslin District Administration Building.

*UPDATE: This article has been updated to include the questions asked of the superintendent candidates.

COLUMBIA —  About 100 seats were filled and many more people stood for a forum Tuesday evening featuring the two finalists for Columbia Public Schools superintendent.

The community submitted questions, and Bob Watkins of the Missouri School Boards' Association, head of the superintendent selection committee, narrowed more than 200 questions down to the same five for each candidate. *The questions were:.

  • Why do you want to become the next superintendent of schools in Columbia, and what is your vision for the district?
  • In your opinion, how important is it for the superintendent to be visible in the community and the school district?
  • What is your plan to raise academic standards for all children, including academically talented as well as those who are struggling?
  • Do you support the Common Core standards, and what is your experience in implementing the standards?
  • Are you familiar with collective bargaining and working with teachers' groups?

Peter Stiepleman, assistant superintendent for elementary education in Columbia Public Schools, went first at the forum in the Aslin Administration Building. Dred Scott, deputy superintendent for the Independence School District just east of Kansas City, followed after a five-minute break.

Each candidate was given about 10 minutes for an introductory statement, about three minutes for each of the five questions and about five minutes for a closing statement. After the forum, candidates and community members spent about 15 minutes with each finalist in the meet-and-greet session.

Jim Ritter, a former Columbia schools superintendent, moderated the event.

The Columbia School Board will meet on Thursday evening to talk about the candidates and take a vote. Board President Christine King said at the board meeting on Monday evening that she didn't know when they would announce who would be hired to succeed Chris Belcher as superintendent.

Reading day attracted Stiepleman

Stiepleman, 38, began by briefly naming a few issues he thinks are important to the district now, such as the percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches — a measure of poverty at home — and the increasing number of English Language Learners in the schools.

Stiepleman’s interest in the educational world began when he was working as an insurance agent in California, he said. One day, he received a yellow postcard inviting him to participate in "Drop Everything and Read Day" at a local elementary school.

He decided to volunteer to read a story to the school children, and the experience changed his life.

"I’d never felt more energized than I did then," Stiepleman said.

Wants arts, language expansion 

Stiepleman said he wants to make sure that students of all ability levels are challenged in school. He would like to expand programs in areas such as foreign language, especially Spanish and Mandarin Chinese, as well as music and art.

"Every kid should be able to take a foreign language, a musical instrument, because that’s what will enrich them," Stiepleman said.

Stiepleman also wants to address issues regarding cultural and racial diversity.

"It’s not OK when a child is nine to 11 times more likely to be suspended when they are African-American," he said.

Stiepleman said he hopes to address the opportunity gap he believes is present in the district.

'You have to be visible'

As assistant superintendent of elementary education, Stiepleman has had the opportunity to be visible in the Columbia schools, he said, especially by visiting district classrooms. He considers this important, he said.

"You have to be in buildings," Stiepleman said. "You have to be visible."

He said he is rooted in the Columbia community as well as the schools. He listed several of his community positions, including serving as a commissioner on the Columbia Housing Authority, a member of the Columbia Chamber of Commerce, a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and a member of the Rotary Club.

Stiepleman said he loves being involved in the Columbia community and is "here for the long term."

Raising academic standards

Stiepleman said he wants to challenge students of all abilities — high achievers, low achievers and those in between.

"I don’t want us to lose sight of those middle performers," Stiepleman said.

The way to close the academic achievement gap among students is to work to raise the performance of low-achieving students, not to bring down the high-achieving students, he said.

He said that as superintendent, he would hire good principals, who would in turn hire good teachers.

"The single most important thing is your teachers," Stiepleman said. "You have to not only recruit, but also retain the best teachers."

Stiepleman said he will work with the Response to Intervention model to respond to what a child needs. He believes that communication and collaboration are important in this process.

Supports Common Core

Stiepleman said he is a "huge supporter" of the Common Core State Standards.

Missouri and Massachusetts have the highest standardized test standards in the country, Stiepleman said. This can make it seem as though Missouri students are performing worse than students in other states, when actually, students are just measured by different cut-off scores.

"It (Common Core) makes the playing field the same," Stiepleman said.

Stiepleman said he likes that the Common Core curriculum respects teachers. Although the curriculum is set, the teachers still decide how to teach the subjects covered in the curriculum, he said.

"From my perspective, it doesn’t take away local control, but it does give us some guidelines," Stiepleman said.

Understands collective bargaining

Stiepleman said he is familiar with collective bargaining and working with teachers’ groups, and he thinks these practices bring advantages.

"In the past … we weren’t totally sure exactly what the priorities were for our teacher groups," Stiepleman said. Collective bargaining helps teacher groups communicate their priorities to administrators more effectively, he said.

Stiepleman said he loves working together with the teachers to see what they want.

"Collective bargaining is here, it’s part of the way we do our work, and it’s OK," he said.

Invested in community

Stiepleman concluded his segment of the forum by saying he wants to continue being engaged with the community if he is hired as superintendent.

"I want to get on the dance floor and dance with you," Stiepleman said.

He described an incident last year in which his wife, Elizabeth Chang, was struck and injured by a vehicle in front of their home. His neighbors’ kind responses solidified his love for the community, he said.

"She (Elizabeth) wasn’t alone, and we weren’t alone — we were in an amazing community," Stiepleman said. "Whether I get this job or not, I am glued to this community."

Scott credits mother, educators

Scott, 39, began his introduction by answering questions he said he frequently gets:  "I am named after Dred Scott, but I am not related to him. I’m 6 foot 4 inches tall, but no, I did not play college basketball."

Scott then shared more about his history and background.

"I grew up on the rough side of the tracks," he said. "I grew up in poverty."

He said he was one of those students that most people would consider at-risk. He attended five schools in his six years of elementary school and had low self-esteem from a facial scar left by a bad case of chicken pox.

He attributed his success to his mother and the educators he had in school.

"Both my mother and those educators instilled within me a will to do the absolute best that I could," Scott said. "Because of that belief, I was able to succeed."

Scott said that as a leader, he wants to make all students believe they can learn and achieve at high levels.

"Our mission is never accomplished until we are absolutely sure we’re doing everything we can to support all students," Scott said.

Independence, Columbia similar

Scott said he was impressed with Columbia’s community and school district.

"The words that come to me are ‘progressive’ and ‘active,’" Scott said.

He said there are several parallels between Columbia Public Schools and the Independence School District. Each district has the same number of elementary schools, comparable demographics and size, and is challenged by similar issues such as increasing poverty among students.

"I believe I have the skill set to step in and become a part of the community and help the district move forward," Scott said.

Plans strategy of visibility 

Scott said he thinks it is important to be visible in the schools and said he would be strategic about visiting schools and getting out into the community. He said he would want to get intimately acquainted with the district schools, students and staff.

"The only way that I can do that is by being out in the buildings and being accessible," Scott said.

Shared belief system needed

Scott said he has extensive experience with improving schools, particularly failing schools, and has developed a recipe for school improvement.

That includes a shared mission, values and goals and resources that line up with them. He also said a viable curriculum and data to inform decisions are necessary.

"If we want our students to grow, we have to have the correct belief system to make sure that the people that are touching and influencing students in our classrooms — that they believe that the students can learn at high levels," Scott said.

Supports Common Core

Scott said he supports the Common Core State Standards because they increase academic rigor.

"It sets the bar for where students need to operate," he said.

In Independence, Scott is in charge of anything that involves curriculum and assessment.

"I believe in the Common Core," he said, "and I have experience in making sure that curriculum is aligned."

Has negotiating experience

Scott said that the Independence School District has three employee organizations and that he has been the chief negotiator with these groups there.

"So, for the past five years, I have sat across the table from those groups," he said. "We’ve had some very hard conversations."

He believes that through honest communication they have been able to reach agreements every year.

"I have really deep experience and first-hand knowledge of negotiating with employees," Scott said.

Saving starfish, one at a time

During Scott’s responses, it began to rain and thunder heavily outside.

"I’m going to get you out of here before the tornado comes," Scott joked during his closing statement.

He told the story of a young boy throwing starfish that were stranded on the beach back into the water before the sun came up. The boy was approached by a man who told him there was no way he could save all the starfish before the sun rose. The boy threw another starfish into the ocean and said that the man might be right — but he could make a difference for that one.

Scott concluded by saying that if he is chosen as superintendent, he will work to "save as many starfish as we can."

Overall response: both strong

People who attended and were willing to speak with reporters said both were strong candidates.

Susan McClintic, a fifth-grade teacher at Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary School and president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association, said she has worked on several projects with Stiepleman. One of his strengths is his dedication and familiarity with the district and community, she said.

"Whether he gets the job or not, he’s committed to the community," McClintic said. "I think that’s really important based on the history I’ve seen with past superintendent success."

In an email Wednesday morning, McClintic said she found Scott "very professional and formal in his presentational style. He has a great deal of experience in the KC-area schools and shared his passion for wanting to learn about CPS."

Community member Regina Beidleman drew a parallel between Scott’s educational background and former Columbia educator Eliot Battle. The Columbia School Board recently voted to name a new elementary school after Battle.

"My view is Dr. Scott could continue the legacy of Eliot Battle," Beidleman said. Battle, along with his wife, Muriel Williams Battle, was involved with integrating the public schools.

May Ling Butterfield, an English Language Learner instructor at the Adult Learning Center at the Columbia Area Career Center, said she appreciated Stiepleman’s mention of the increase in the number of English Language Learners in the district in recent years.

She brought refugee and immigrant students from her classes to the event to talk with Scott and Stiepleman about how they would address the strained budget for English Language Learners programs.

"It’s a great competition between them both," said community member De’Ante Vincent, who has a child at Grant Montessori Preschool. "We need someone who can bring in more teachers that want to teach."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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