The Toledo Public Schools (TPS) board of education chose a younger, internal candidate as interim superintendent over a more seasoned educator from suburban Cleveland at a special meeting Monday afternoon, April 8, 2013.
The school board brought back both candidates for a second interview behind closed doors before deciding to enter contract negotiations with TPS Assistant Superintendent Dr. Romules Durant. Public sentiment has been building in recent weeks to give the post to the 37-year old Toledo native, a graduate of Waite High School who earned all three of his college degrees at the University of Toledo.
Dr. Durant beat out Cleveland Heights-University Heights Schools Superintendent Douglas Heuer who has served as superintendent in three Northeast Ohio school districts since his retirement from a suburban Columbus school system in 2003.
In his application for the TPS post, Heuer cited he has led all three school districts to an “Excellent” rating on their district report cards, successfully passed levies, and developed comprehensive facilities plans. Heuer, 63, has spent a total of 40 years as an educator, ten of that as a teacher and the remainder as an administrator. He’s also spent time as an adjunct college professor who taught mathematics.
Brenda Hill, TPS board of education president, stated last week the eventual selection must be a good fit with the district, “someone knowledgeable, with ideas on what we need to do, where we need to go, and how to help us do it.” She also didn’t seem to think age and experience would be much of a factor in the board’s decision-making.
“It’s just the personality of the person, the abilities of the person, the desires of the person, just the plain know-how,” said Ms. Hill after the first round of interviews last week. ”If you’re a leader, you’re a leader no matter how old you are.”
Dr. Durant will learn alongside outgoing TPS Superintendent Dr. Jerome Pecko, then take over once he retires at the end of July. Durant is one of three young school administrators Pecko appointed to cabinet posts, who are credited as being the architects of the district’s transformation plan. Durant’s appointment as Dr. Pecko’s successor virtually ensures that plan will continue to move forward. Funding constraints have slowed the hoped-for implementation timeline.
“We’re recognizing that we have someone among us, who we feel has abilities,” said Ms. Hill at a press conference following the selection of Durant. “I think some people are born with leadership qualities, and we know he has leadership abilities. He’s worked, and he’s shown it, and we believe he would be a good leader for our system.”
“For me to reinvest in the district, to provide the things that we afforded to me—it’s a pleasure, and I’m excited to get it moving and get things started,” said Dr. Durant during the same press conference.
The school board plans to start contract talks as soon as possible. There’s likelihood that Durant will sign a one-year contract as the interim superintendent. The board could approve a contract as soon as the next regular meeting April 22.
Dr. Durant proudly points out he’s a “homegrown” educator—a TPS product who later played outside linebacker on the UT Rocket football team—and credits his athletic career for his interest in examining data and the numbers “for tendencies and statistical probabilities.”
The assistant superintendent may have been dubbed “Dr. Data” by his colleagues as a result, but it’s a nickname he doesn’t seem to mind.
Dry-erase boards adorn the walls of his office at the TPS Administration Building—each one loaded with the statistics of the district’s 24 elementary and six high schools. Every day is spent tracking the attendance, academics, and other metrics used by the district and the Ohio Dept. of Education to measure student performance.
While in college, Dr. Durant turned the football field into a spreadsheet—looking for human tendencies of how an offensive coordinator would call certain plays, then put himself in the right position to make a tackle. He stated the same kind of study of statistical probabilities can be applied to TPS student performance.
“You can develop a statistical probability or a habit that kids do that allow you to prevent an action or provide an intervention to correct. We're ahead in the game because data is being used at various levels,” he said. “At the end of the day, when you can own that process of understanding data and implement strategies to make impact, you're going to have huge rates of return when you're talking about value-added (student) growth.”
Dr. Durant and Scholarships
While Dr. Durant used an athletic scholarship to fund his undergraduate studies, he earned academic scholarships to pay for his master's and doctorate degrees at the University of Toledo. But he didn’t qualify for nearly a dozen different ones when he went to apply-- so instead, he applied for all of them. It took his entire Christmas break—but it paid off in the end.
“I applied for a scholarship for single mothers. I applied for a scholarship for impoverished families. I applied for them all,” he recalled with a laugh. “They were upset that I applied for all of them, even though I didn't qualify. I cut the conversation off and said ‘All you have to do is tell me no. You tell me no before I tell myself no. You guys gave me no option because none of them apply to me.’”
Dr. Durant stated he and the financial aid officer reached an understanding an ended the situation peacefully.
“You know what happened two months later? I got a scholarship,” he said with a grin and a hearty chuckle. “So what did I do the next year? I did it all over again.”
Dr. Durant received a scholarship the following year and UT officials ended up changing their policy to using one application form for multiple scholarships. He now uses that story as a motivational speaker and a lesson to TPS students and current UT football players, among others.
“There are two messages there—don’t tell yourself ‘no’ and be a game-changer. And don’t allow an institution to define you,” he said. “Define yourself and allow the institution to change their description, because you instilled in them something that they didn't see prior to that.”
Dr. Durant is starting to receive praise for an individual initiative to which he has dedicated much of his personal life outside his professional career. He helped to form chapters of the Student African-American Brotherhood (SAAB) and Young Women of Excellence (YWOE) at each of the TPS high schools, advising and mentoring young men and women on how to become successful adults.
The assistant superintendent, who’s still single, admitted SAAB and YWOE “pretty much take up my evenings and weekends.” Some of the students even accompany him when he goes to the gym to work out.
“We have a failure involving the disconnect of our youth engaging in positive interactions and that everything’s always negative. We have to model and provide a venue for them to do these things,” he said.
“Many kids have never worn a tie before or never worn a skirt, because we've never provided them opportunities to do it. We've just assumed they want to wear baggy pants and dress certain ways, so I provided them opportunities. When they wear that uniform, they have a totally different face and a totally different mindset, because they feel this is my business attire and I'm coming to do business.”
“Dr. Durant has taken it to a whole new level with SAAB and YWOE—and that is changing the culture of this district,” said TPS Chief Academic Officer Jim Gault. “You’re taking kids who had a problem in terms of identity, in terms of looking at where they belong, that now are being recognized for doing positive things and having that sense of belonging. It’s powerful stuff. It will continue to grow, because those students will come back and get involved. It’s changing the landscape of Toledo.”
Dr. Durant’s growing reputation as a vocal, local leader and change agent had community sentiment growing for the school board to name him as Dr. Pecko’s successor—even if it is on an interim basis. His status as a Toledo native, TPS graduate, and former UT athlete seemed to only enhance that line of thinking to make him the next school superintendent.
Even long-time TPS critic Warren Woodberry wrote a public letter of support for Dr. Durant, stating that he “cares about the students and has a proven track record in working with them. He understands our community, our state, and the state rules and laws.”