Q&A with Dr. John William Covington

Dr. John William Covington heads the new Education Achievement Authority

Growing up in an impoverished Alabama community and the product of a broken home, Dr. John William Covington could have seen his life follow a downward trajectory.

Instead, the new Chancellor of Michigan’s Educational Achievement Authority (EAA) worked hard to beat the odds and to earn numerous postgraduate degrees while building a successful career as a school administrator.

He credits a high school government and economics teacher and his high school principal with driving home for him what it means to bring out the best in a child and how to arm a student for success regardless of circumstances.

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Sizing up the task now before him, Covington acknowledges his role as overseer of a new public school system, charged with transforming the state’s lowest performing schools, will be his biggest professional challenge to date but one he looks forward to taking on.

You came from Kansas City (Mo.) where you were superintendent of schools. What compelled you to consider taking on the EAA role?

Initially, I didn’t consider it. I was approached three times by a search firm. I assumed it was for the role of superintendent of Detroit schools. I wasn’t interested in doing that at the time; my plate was already full as superintendent of Kansas City schools.

But then I got a fourth call, this one from Tim Quinn, a Detroit native and a known educator. He explained what the EAA was all about. When he talked about the paradigm shift of how we would deliver instructional services to children under the EAA, I got hyped.

What will that paradigm shift look like?

Under the EAA, we will replace the old public school system with a new one allowing kids to develop to their full potential. The EAA has the flexibility and autonomy to transition the state’s lowest performing schools from a 170-plus day school year to a 210-day school year putting them on par with countries like Japan, China and Singapore.

In addition, we’ll be providing principals and teachers at these schools with the autonomy to move away from a model of education that should have been abandoned long ago to one that embraces student-centered learning.

Your bio states that you have a track record of success in urban schools. Tell us about that record.

When I took on the role of superintendent of Kansas City schools, the school district had adopted a $356 million budget but only had $306 million in available revenue. The district was operating 64 schools for 17,500 kids. I balanced the budget by shutting down half the schools in that first year.

We also realized we were doing business with 6,000-plus vendors. Why a school district needs that many vendors is beyond me. I got the vendor list down to fewer than 800 saving us $35 million. We put that savings back into the schools.

During my time as superintendent of the Pueblo (Colo.) School District, the state recognized 38 of the 178 school districts for consistently doing an admirable job of closing the achievement gap. Seventeen of those 38 schools were from my district.

Prior to that, I spent six years as superintendent of the Lowndes (Ala.) County public schools. When I arrived there in 2000, not one school in the district was accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. By the time I left, all of them were.

Who were some of the educators influential in your own life?

Myra Riley was my government and economics teacher at Enterprise (Ala.) High School. She had a reputation for being very difficult. I attempted to get around having her as a teacher by taking summer school classes, but on the first day of class, we learned our original teacher wouldn’t be able to fulfill her summer school obligation.

Instead, Mrs. Riley would be our teacher. My heart stopped when I heard this. Yet, I soon came to realize that while her expectations were always extremely high, she had the ability to pull out the best in students. She wouldn’t tolerate mediocrity. Her manner of holding kids accountable, but with the support to make them successful, inspired me to major in political science.

Thad Morgan, our principal at Enterprise, believed in his students. He operated that high school in a way where no one would ever feel left out, particularly if they had a desire to be a viable contributor. He purchased my class ring for me when he found out I had no money to do so on my own. Many other activities he made possible for students by paying for them out of his own pocket.

The day after I delivered my dissertation defense, I got a call at my office. It was from Thad. When I picked up the line, he said, ‘good morning Dr. Covington.’ He wanted to be among the first to say ‘Dr. Covington.’ I hadn’t spoken to him in 15 years at that point. I asked him how he knew I had earned my doctorate. His response was, ‘I keep up with my kids.’ I remember beaming with pride.

What preconceived notions about Detroit did you have before moving here? Have they been confirmed?

A: When I told people I was moving to Detroit, they asked me if I had lost my mind. From the outside looking in, the only thing people know about Detroit is what they see in the paper and through broadcast media. There may be some truth to what they see, but often the reports aren’t totally correct.

The state and the city of Detroit certainly have their share of problems, but Detroit is not what people make it out to be. People on the outside don’t think good things about the city, but sadly people on the inside often don’t either and say so. That goes much further than anything people see on the news.

Outsiders see this person who lives in the city saying negative things about Detroit and assume they ought to know. I have found Detroit to be a great place. There is no doubt in my mind that at some point Detroit will experience a rebirth unlike anything the country has ever seen. Part of that rebirth will be the reinvention of Detroit Public Schools.

As a new homeowner in Detroit, what are some of the things you hope to experience in and around the city?

My wife and I purchased a townhouse on Woodward Avenue. Unfortunately, since moving here, I’ve been so busy that I haven’t been able to take advantage of as many things as I would like to in Detroit. I am a 60s buff and love the Motown sound. I want to see the Motown Museum. I have driven by the African American history museum and look forward to experiencing that. I was able to attend the North American International Auto Show earlier this year, and it was absolutely amazing.

What, in your opinion, are the crucial elements for success in education?

We need to change the fundamental structure of our educational system, one that was developed years ago for a farming culture. We need to move away from the notion of a highly qualified teacher. By that, I don’t mean hiring unqualified teachers. We place a lot of emphasis on highly qualified teachers when the emphasis should be on highly effective teachers.

In addition, we need to change the length of the school year so kids spend more time in school. We need to give our schools autonomy and flexibility to make decisions closest to where students are, not downtown at a district office. We need to be better stewards of taxpayer dollars. And lastly, we need to repair the bridge between home and school. Parents are the first teachers.

JACQUIE GOETZ BLUETHMANN IS A FREELANCE WRITER FROM BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP AND OWNER OF JGB COMMUNICATIONS.

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