New superintendent speaks on background, future hopes for district

BY MAC TRAMMELL

Dr. Marlon King recently became Fayette County Schools’ superintendent after having served in both the state office and Haywood County in similar roles. He believes collaboration and building relationships will be key to the success of his plans for Fayette County Schools.

Oakland News: Would you mind telling me a bit about yourself?
MK: Let me give you my leadership story. I am a native of Brownsville, Tenn.—Haywood County. I am the sixth child in my family. Both my parents are still living in Brownsville.

I attended Haywood County Public Schools and while I truly believe I received a great educational experience from the teachers in Haywood County from kindergarten all the way to twelfth grade, as I went through school, I saw what I thought could have been possible concerns because some of my friends were in classes where you could say…it wasn’t very diverse.

That always concerned me, why I didn’t have some of my friends in my classroom. And I think diversity is very important.

But I felt that teachers provided us a top-notch education at that point. Even in high school—I attended a high school that was very unique because we didn’t have doors and walls at all.

ON: Really?
MK: Really. So those are the things that I saw as a student. Keep in mind the teaching and learning was, I thought, phenomenal. We had Latin, French, Spanish. We had so many course offerings, you know, advanced courses.

But I knew that being in a small community, that the power of education and having an education and what it could do for you.

I went to Union University for about three years and later transferred to Lemoyne-Owen College in Memphis where my degree was conferred. Later, I went on to get my masters [in leadership] from Trevecca Nazarene University. And then after Trevecca, I finished my terminal at the University of Mississippi. I received a doctorate in curriculum instruction.

But going back to leaving high school, I finished my degree in elementary education and I started teaching for Shelby County Legacy [Schools]. I started teaching at an elementary school there. I was a second grade teacher and a fifth grade teacher. I was able to do a lot of great things, but my platform was illiteracy and improving outcomes in reading because I just think there’s power in reading and literacy. So from that I was able to be recognized by the district for a lot of student achievement results.

I came and interviewed in Fayette County in 2004, and I was offered a principal-ship at Northwest Elementary School. So, I left the classroom and became a principal. That was a shift, a curve, considering I had never been an assistant principal.

I went to Northwest and had an opportunity to go in and work with the teachers and work with the community because I truly believe in the power of collaboration. And I think when we put our collective efforts together, that’s where the power comes in and improves student outcomes. Working with community, working with teachers, building relationships both identifying ‘what are our priorities, what are our goals’ and, not only that, implementing them. So you’ve built the relationships, then you have to implement.

We were able to implement some neat initiatives out at Northwest, and within about three years, I was called from the White House. It was the craziest call. They started checking all my background. I didn’t know I was going through clearance. I was going through White House clearance because former First Lady Bush wanted to meet me because of the work we had done in Northwest in literacy because her platform was reading and she was a librarian and all that.

So then they offered me an invitation to speak at the National Reading First Conference back in 2008 in front of about 6,000 people. They wanted to know, ‘what is it you all did in your school to have your students’ reading proficiency that high?’ And at that point we were also dedicated as a National Blue Ribbon School.

Well, I felt that once you receive Blue Ribbon status, what else can you do? It’s time for you to leave. So I talked to former Fayette County Superintendent Myles Wilson at that point and said, “I’m ready for the next challenge.”

There was another school in the system that was on corrective action, same situation as Northwest. The academic achievement was not up to par. And so I said I want to take that challenge at a larger school. So I went to Central Elementary.

It’s hard to beat yourself. So I could never beat Northwest, but we got close. We were right there. I mean our scores were neck-and-neck. So I did that.

Then I had an opportunity to go back home to Haywood County to be a superintendent.

Keep in mind the diversity issue I had and the no walls issue. So I had an opportunity to build a team in Haywood County and begin to work with the school board, county commissioners, different businesses, elected officials, and we were able to institute an initiative where our classrooms became more technological savvy and sound, and then diversity.

We changed the structure, the configuration of the classes and how, I felt, learning should be for students in the public schools. Then we were able to pass a bond issue of over $4 million to renovate the high school, which was built in 1970 and had never had any renovation. We were able to put walls and doors in the building. The reason I wanted that was because, how do you institute the modern day technology in classrooms when you don’t have the classrooms that are ready to support that type of learning.

We increased our literacy in Haywood County by double-digits. We moved our graduation rate form the lower 70s to 84 percent before I left. We started doing some incredible work, but keep in mind, this was all through partnerships with everybody…collaboration, relationships.

I think that relationships are the key. Keeping people informed, communicating, transparency. We had a strategic plan and we went by the plan.

The Commissioner of Education called and wanted me to replicate what I had done in Haywood County in the region. Well, I had just signed another four-year contract.

ON: In Haywood County?
MK: Yes, until 2016. Well, [the state] kept saying, “we really, really want you to do this.” So I resigned and said, “this will be an opportunity to learn from 19 other superintendents.”

I stepped out of the superintendency to go to the department to serve in the leadership role of the entire southwest region of the Department of Education.

Working with superintendents through the relationship-building process, we were able to be designated, just last year, as the fastest improving region in the state. And this year we have the most exemplary districts in the state in our region.

So after you do that, what do you do? I said, “OK, I’m ready to go back to the superintendency.” Then I saw this opportunity to return back where I was a principal and be able to share some of the things that I have learned along the way and connect with the talent that’s already within the district, and just add my talent to it in hopes to take Fayette County to a different level.

ON: In the recent past, how did the first day of school go?
MK: First days of school are always going to put you in this uncomfortable state because you’re thinking about bringing all these kids back to school.

My main priority is safety, and then education is second. I want parents to feel comfortable that their children are going to be safe. That’s always been my big thing. I have to keep these children safe. Then we have to educate them.

But the first days of school, I cannot tell you how incredibly excited I was about the opening of schools. I had a chance to visit all of the schools, and also we had the opportunity of having school board members as greeters at our schools this year. I wanted the board members to go out because one of the things in my “100 Day Entry Plan” is for us to build the public confidence about public schools. In order to do that, board members have to be up front and center on stage, ready to be able to serve their constituency. That went over very well Thursday and Friday. We were able to greet the high school students, and they were so excited. A lot of them were my students when they were in kindergarten and first grade. Just to see that type of interaction, it was phenomenal.

We had a great opening. The second day was just as good as the first day. If the start is any type of indication of what the end is going to be, I’m excited.

ON: You’ve hinted at your 100 Day Plan a little bit. What is the first thing you’d like to accomplish as superintendent?
MK: The very first thing that I think is important is getting a budget passed and making certain that our fiscal resources [align] with what we need to support student outcomes. If you don’t have your fiscal house in order, it’s hard to prioritize what you need to improve student achievement.

In doing that, I’m going to revisit the budget and begin to work in that division to make sure that we have the right structures and conditions in place to support what I want this board to come out with, [which] is a five-year strategic plan. That is our road map of where we’re going. But we can’t have a five-year strategic plan if the fiscal house is not where we think it should be.

ON: Well about that five-year strategic plan, I read the letter you sent out to Fayette County students, probably more geared toward their parents. But you mentioned you wanted to hear what they had to say and then you also mentioned the five-year plan. Is there a framework for that plan yet, even without knowing what the budget is going to be, and then, how much involvement have students or parents had in developing that plan?
MK: If you look through the 100 day plan, you’ll see the goals. And mainly what I mention about listening to parents is in my second section — Goal Two — where it talks about continuing to build public confidence and community relations. I’ve already joined Rotary in Somerville. I attended a Chamber luncheon last week. I’ve been to several churches this weekend. I’ve attended the LaGrange/Moscow Back to School Bash. I have a meeting scheduled with the Teachers’ Association.

So if you look through my plan, you’ll see I mention that these are things that I’ll be doing. I’ve spoken with a couple county commissioners and I plan to meet with them. Also, I have scheduled for this week my one-on-ones with board members. That gives me some context of where we want to go. So as I collect this qualitative feedback, I can be able to take that information and marry it to the quantitative feedback which is our student achievement results and figure out what are some of the goals that we want to develop for our five-year strategic plan. Just listening to what’s working and not working is what I want to guide me through the first 100 days of my plan.

ON: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
MK: I realize that I can’t do this work alone, and that I’m going to need everybody. My leadership style is that of a collaborator and also I believe in the power of delegation as well. In order to make this work, you have to collaborate and delegate, but often time people don’t take the time to reflect. So reflection and being a reflective leader is important because you can collaborate and delegate and do. But if you’re not getting a profit on your investment, you’re not reflecting on what’s working/what’s not working. So what’s the need of collaborating? I think through my collaborative style, my shared leadership style and reflective style that it’s going to take everybody in the community to capitalize on the current efforts of the district so that we can become a bright spot in Tennessee.

I look forward to connecting to more people. I’ve been on roller skates since I’ve started, connecting with people, and I want to hear from the people. I have an open door policy, and as I told you, I want to see you face-to-face. I’m not a phone conversation person, I want to be able to build a relationship with you. And that’s what I want the community to know.

I’m so incredibly excited about being back in Fayette County. My wife is excited about being in the community again. We plan to connect even more and be more of a family.

Our motto is “family creates success.” And that is built around the notion that it’s going to take a team to work and that’s part of being a family.