DWIGHT D. JONES – African-American to head nation’s 5th-largest school district: EXPANDED VERSION
In August, Walt Rulffes retired after five years as superintendent of the Clark County School District. After a rigorous search for a new chief of the nation’s fifth-largest public school agency, the Clark County School Board announced in November that it had selected Dwight D. Jones for the post. As he began settling into his new office, the former Colorado commissioner of education granted Las Vegas Black Image an exclusive interview to discuss his approach to the job and what he hopes to accomplish.
How does it feel to be in Las Vegas?
Well, it feels great, and it is nice to finally have boots on the ground. When the School Board of trustees made its decision to appoint me as the new superintendent, there was a period of time that I was wrapping up my affairs in Colorado and my anticipation was high to get started with my job here in Clark County. I feel good this third day on the job.
Tell us about yourself?
One of the things I can say is that I am an educator through and through. I have been an elementary school teacher, a middle school teacher, an elementary school principal, a middle school principal and a high school principal. I have worked as an assistant superintendent, first with the Wichita public schools in Wichita, Kan. After that I became vice president with Edison Learning, formerly Edison Schools. So, I have worked on the private management side of education, which taught me a great deal and was a great experience.
I am certainly a public school educator, and so from there I became an assistant superintendent in a school district just outside Colorado Springs. Eventually, I became the superintendent of that school district. Most recently I have been serving as commissioner of education for the state of Colorado.
I am very proud of some of the bipartisan work that was done around some education reforms that have put us in a better position to get better results from all children. I was happy to have had that experience. There is no job in the school district that I have not been exposed to or served in.
What will you bring to the Clark County School District that does not presently exist?
There are a few things — and it is not to say that they don’t exist, but we might just have to do a better job to do more of these things. I have been very open about implementing a complete analysis on the Clark County schools, and to utilize the information to measure the things we have been doing that maybe we need to stop because we are not getting the results that were anticipated. Equally, the analysis will be used to examine some of the things that we are currently doing and we might need to do more of.
I know there are a lot of positive things that are going on in the schools and around the school district. I want to learn more about those things. I want to bring some things that will certainly be different for the school district, such as a transparent data system that is based on growth data. This will be beneficial to the community and the state, and takes into account where the student starts with their educational process. I think in fairness to the folks working in the building, they might have different demographics and different challenges. So, taking into account where those students start and then holding folks accountable for the growth of those students over time is a much fairer way of assessing performance. I want that data to be very transparent, so every parent in the community will have an easier time viewing how their child’s school compares to other schools that have similar demographics around the state.
I will focus directly on the classroom and effective instruction. This district has really grown fast, and I am not sure whether we have given time and attention to the art of good classroom instruction. I want to bring this to teachers. I think that our teachers might have not gotten some of the support that I want to make sure they receive. These are just some of the things that I would like to bring and hope to do so sooner than later.
How will you build an excitement for education in Clark County so that our children look forward to achieve in the educational process?
I do think we have to have a cultural shift. Let me explain. I have talked to a lot of people in Clark County and I have read everything I could get my hands on about Las Vegas and its industry. And there seems to be a couple of things that are clear.
First, I am not sure, maybe this is an assumption, but some parents didn’t seem as concerned about the education of their children in this community because there were great opportunities for really good paying jobs. I mean if you look at the gaming industry or service industry, people could really get good paying jobs from $40,000 to $60,000 annually without completing their education or continuing on toward college. But, with the economic downturn that the whole country has been dealing with, not only has some of these jobs gone away, I am not sure that they are coming back. So, I think we have to build a whole community excitement around, “We have to have our children ready by exit.” This mean whether they choose to go directly into the workforce or whether they choose post-secondary education, it ought to be a choice. They ought to have the skills necessary to do either. That is why I think a whole grassroots movement has to be implemented. We have to make sure our graduates are post-secondary ready or at least workforce ready. They are interchangeable, because you have to have the same level of skills to do both at a higher level.
Secondly, I would very quickly say that in order to do this, I am going to need partners to join us and in some cases I am going to need folks to demand it. I call it “critical partners,” and some of these critical partners will have to hold us accountable for better graduates and more graduates because our dropout rates are horrendous. We have to change this. Also, if a student chooses to leave the school system and doesn’t pass the exit exam … they get a participation diploma. Well, that participation diploma, in my opinion, is a path to nowhere. Therefore, we have to try to have every child get their official graduation diploma that allows them to go into the military or go into post-secondary education or go into the workforce at a much higher level. It is imperative that we are successful.
Yes, here in Clark County it is called a Diploma of Attendance.
What I understand is that you can’t even join the military with that. The students would almost do better to go get a GED — at least then they can join the military.
Why don’t the schools just let the students take the GED if they are unsuccessful with passing the required proficiency exams?
I do think that those are conversations that we have to have as a community. “What do we want for our children in Nevada? How do we create a system to assure that they get their diplomas?” And that is where, in my opinion, we have to do a better job than we are currently doing.
Many are concerned about black children, and want to see a specific plan to assist them with passing the required proficiency tests in order to get their high school diplomas.
I would certainly agree with that concern, and we ought to be very concerned. As a matter of fact, to that level this will affect me from ever getting a good night’s sleep because I worry about our children and what their futures might hold. There is no magical pill or any special program we can implement. It is just a matter of focusing on what the children are lacking and doing all in our power to make sure they get what they need. This is why I am consistent in my message that the focus is going to be on the classroom because ultimately that is where achievement takes place. It doesn’t take place in the central office where I am housed. It takes place in the schools and in the classroom.
We have to focus on good instruction and raising the rigor. In some cases we have to focus on a level of low expectations. I have always confessed that our students can do a lot more than we are demanding of them. Also, we have to expect a lot more from ourselves, but equally we have to expect more out of our students. Our students know the difference. They know which teacher expects more from them. Some teachers expect them to be prepared when they come to the classroom and have their homework completed. They also know those teachers who don’t expect anything out of them. There has to be a consistency of high expectations and high rigor in the classroom. This is where I am going to need parents to support me and embrace the mindset that our children can do more.
So, are you for the proficiency tests for high school seniors or do you have plans to stop them?
I still think it is good to know where our children rank in the educational process. Are they able to perform academically? If the tests are used the right way, I actually think that some of the assessments are purposeful and helpful. If I had to go on the side of one or the other, I tend to side with the proficiency tests, but only using the data from the tests the right way.
One of the ways is making sure that we can know if our students know the material on the tests, find out what they are missing and/or realign our instruction to make sure they get it. We have to have those kinds of assessments to make those types of determinations. Secondly, I also believe that we ought to know where they are not.
How do you feel about the cutbacks that have affected extracurricular activities such as athletics, music and theater in the schools?
I actually side with those folks who believe we have to teach to the whole child. In some cases, for students, it is those extracurricular activities that get them up and excited about going to school. I actually think we hurt ourselves if we start cutting those programs such as music, athletics and theater. Now, I know we have to make tough decisions, but I hope we don’t cut off our hands in spite of wanting to use it at the end of our arm. I think that children have different talents and schools should be about making sure that every child can express their individual talents. I plan to, where possible, to really try to stay away from making these types of cuts in athletics, music and theater. But, again, we are going to be faced with some tremendous challenges.
How do you see the potential union between the gaming industry and our educational system?
I think we need to partner with the gaming industry. They want to partner with us because they have a lot of employees that have been affected by how their children are being educated in the system. And in some cases, we know we have not done as well as we should. I do expect to have a good working relationship and partnership with the gaming industry. Ultimately, as it pertains to revenue and how it is shared, we certainly want to help influence that discussion. Some of those major decisions will be made by the governor and the legislature. Nevertheless, we want to be at the table and give our recommendations. I look forward to partnering with the business community.
Recently, the principal of Abundant Life Christian Academy said that if he could ask you a question he would ask, “How can you assure that the teachers in the classroom love our children?”
First, there are a lot of things that I can strongly encourage and mandate. What I can’t mandate is that teachers love a child. But, what I can do is make sure that we build a culture around respect and care in a nurturing environment. We will nurture the child and still maintain high expectations for their achievement.
For example, I am old-school and I grew up knowing that my parents loved me, but with a level of tough love. They demanded that I do certain things and I want to build that type of culture that says, “We do need to care and nurture our students, and the best way to accomplish this is to make sure they can read, write, and do math well.” There is no better love than when we send them out of our doors and they are able to compete. It is very competitive in the world, and the best love is to educate all our children and give them the best chance for a prosperous future.