LORAIN — David Hardy is willing to admit he doesn’t have a full understanding of Lorain Schools, but he wants to before he starts making major changes.
Hardy, who was selected to be the virtually all-powerful CEO of the district just over a week ago, said he wants to “get under the hood” and figure out what’s going on, and he needs the community’s help to do that.
“I’ve been here mostly trying to figure out what’s going on,” he said of his 24-hour visit Monday and Tuesday that involved meeting school board members and the teachers’ union. “I truly believe our school leaders are a big piece of that. But before I run that marathon, I have to be able to put my shoes on. I want to know what’s here, who is here, say hello to as many people as possible and gain an understanding of what’s going on.”
Hardy, who was appointed to his position by the Lorain Academic Distress Commission because of his work transforming the academics of the St. Louis Public Schools as the district’s deputy superintendent, said his key focus on helping the district was focusing on building principals.
“I put a laser-like focus on building our school leaders, our principals,” he said, noting professional development for principals in the district can last for up to two weeks at the beginning of the summer. “Every school is their own little business and organization, and if you don’t have a strong head to each of those individual schools, the body isn’t going to follow.”
Hardy did say he wasn’t alone in getting the St. Louis district fully accredited by the state of Missouri for the first time since 2000 — he was part of a team.
“Basically what we needed to do was increase our academic outcomes for kids in our three through eight testing grades, our graduation rates and our postings after high school,” he said. “So we put a strategy together to address those needs, and so looking back at the past three years, it’s interesting to note all of the people who helped make that possible, who said, ‘We’re no longer going to stand for this status quo. We’re not going to let our kids dwell in mediocrity. We’re going to push on the right initiatives, with the right passion.’ ”
Hardy acknowledged he is the byproduct of a process that sparked some concerns about transparency after four of the five finalists for the CEO position were found to have connections to the search firm that selected them.
“Once I have a firm understanding of the district, we’ll start to ramp up the speed and create a plan, but right now, I’m just saying hello,” he said. “I can’t wait to engage with this community and chart a path that will meet the needs of our kids and face the challenges and maybe even the doubters of what has transpired.”
Concerns were also raised when the other applicants for the position weren’t released by the firm, Atlantic Research Partners, and current superintendent Jeff Graham was not selected as a finalist.
“Granted, the process might not be something everyone loved, and I’m just a byproduct of a process, but hopefully we able to show folks we want to do great things for kids,” Hardy said, noting he wants to work with Graham, who is in the final year of a three-year contract, as the school year approaches.
“We’ve talking about getting ready for the beginning (of the) year and what can I do to make him successful and making sure we have the right people in buildings and making the kids successful for when school starts,” he said. “While Jeff’s running the district we can kind of see what’s going on underneath to bring it all together.”
School board President Tony Dimacchia, who was very open with his criticisms of the selection process, said he was very open with Hardy during their brief conversation Tuesday.
“I’m slightly disappointed, because I feel like it was an unproductive half an hour,” Dimacchia said. “I’m still not sure of the direction he wants to take the district in, and with school starting up soon, that would be nice to know. Otherwise it was fairly uneventful.”
Graham, who recently moved to a smaller office at the schools’ administration building to make room for Hardy, was not available for comment.
Hardy said he has to stay with St. Louis until the end of the month but until then he will be visiting Lorain at least once a week to engage community leaders and get to know what’s going on.
He said he plans to select one of four firms to help guide him in community engagement phase — Burges and Burges, Powerschool, TNTP or the Turnaround Group.
He said he expects by the beginning of next week to have one selected, who will then walk the district through the scope of the work and the timeline for the next phase.
According to state House Bill 70, the law under which Hardy was put in place after the Lorain district failed to meet state testing standards for four years in a row, he has 30 days after his appointment to engage the community and then another 90 days to put a strategic plan together.
After the plan has been submitted to the Academic Distress Commission, there will be 30 days to approve the plan or suggest modifications.
“It’s one of those things where I want to be transparent about who I’m looking to work with,” he said. “It’s about finding out what the community says and get objective view of the district so I can step back with Jeff to see what’s best for the district. I think we’re both comfortable with bringing our minds together, building a relationship and see what’s best. I don’t have an agenda, and I think the beauty is I get to come in with fresh eyes.”
Hardy is a veteran of the Teach for America program, where he taught in the Miami-Dade County school district and ultimately led to him wanting to be a transformative educator.
“I just wanted so much more for kids,” he said. “I worked in a building where kids wanted to be great, but depending on what classroom they walked into, depended on how great they were going to be. There were some teachers that were really great, and there were some that I wouldn’t send my own child to, and I left with a feeling that I needed to do more and find a way to turn it around for these kids.
“I was able to do it for a classroom of kids, but it was about doing it for a school or a district, and I think that really opened my eyes and opened my lenses to what needed to happen. I just didn’t know how yet.”
Hardy said he also spent some time in Los Angeles Schools, particularly in the Watts neighborhood that, according to the Los Angeles Times, has the highest percentage of homes headed by a single parent in the city.
“Fresh out of Colgate University, I had aspirations of continuing to play basketball post-college and was trying out and trying to get overseas, and at the same time I was preparing for the Teach for America Summer Institute, and we did our summer institute in Watts, and that our first introduction was seeing a class and what’s going on,” he said.
Hardy said the dimly lit room was exactly how you would imagine, complete with broken desks.
“And there was a young man who came up to me and handed me his essay and said, ‘I want you to read this, ‘cause I trust you,’” he said. “We had never spoken before, so it was almost like, ‘Here’s my letter, and I want you to be a part of my educational career.’ And from that moment on, I stopped trying to pursue basketball. And yes, my dad’s a teacher, my aunt’s a teacher — so it’s in our family, but it was that moment that showed me it was my purpose.”
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