Leaders Learning from Leaders Series

July 7th, 2023

Episode 1: A Conversation with Dr. Kevin McGowan

2023 NYS and National Superintendent of the Year

Steve Barkley: Welcome to the Leaders Learning from Leaders podcast. Joining us today is Dr. Kevin McGowan. The superintendent of Brighton Central School District in New York State. Dr. McGowan is the current New York State Superintendent of the Year, and he was just recently named the National Superintendent of the Year. Welcome Dr. McGowan. And congratulations.

Dr. Kevin McGowan: Thanks, Steve. So happy to be here and thank you very much for the kind words.

Steve Barkley: I’m wondering for starters, if you’d share with people a little bit about the Brighton Central School District.

Dr. Kevin McGowan: I would love to. We are 3600 Approximately student districts first ring suburb in Rochester New York, which is in upstate New York State, small city and again, we’re first ring suburb to that pretty diverse community. 67% Caucasian students 33% of variety of students from different places and backgrounds, experiences, races colors, Creed’s we have a religiously diverse environment as well. Just a great melting pot of human beings focused on their families focused on education, focused on doing good things and being connected to each other. A 600, staff member vibrant group of people focused on the needs of kids each day really enjoyable community to be a part of.

Steve Barkley: How long have you been there?

Dr. Kevin McGowan: 14 years.

Steve Barkley: Wow. Did you start as a superintendent?

Dr. Kevin McGowan: I did.

Steve Barkley: You did?

Dr. Kevin McGowan: Yep. I was a superintendent, for a previous district for a few years at Warsaw in Wyoming County, New York, and then began my work 14 years ago at Brighton.

Steve Barkley: Terrific, terrific. I know that you’ve based your work and the district’s work around a belief statement of every child every day in every way. I’m wondering if you would share with us a little bit about how you that was arrived at and, and what that caused to happen.

Dr. Kevin McGowan: That was really about us discovering, acknowledging, owning up to the fact that we weren’t about every child every day, every way. I don’t think anybody in the organization at the time this started to develop, was not interested in individual kids or was uncaring about children, or frankly, was purposefully not servicing every child. But our story really began with digging into the idea that achievement wasn’t where it should be for everybody. But achievement really wasn’t for underrepresented students in particular. It was a series of conversations and, you know, kind of a few landmark moments. But really, I began in the district 2009, we started to have a lot of conversations about the achievement of children and what the numbers were telling us and what our experiences were telling us. And we were seeing more and more students struggle in our school environment. And I say struggle in our school environment, it’s really important to point out that Brighton was a traditionally high performing school district for many, many years, a lot of great accolades, it was known as this place where public education was at a very high level. Monroe County in general has been known that way, Monroe County, New York. And you know, our school was a great example that. I said to many people, excuse me when deciding to come to Brighton. For me, it was about the chance to play for the Yankees, which works with most people unless they are Red Socks fans. And for my children to go there. So I have a graduate of the system. I have a senior right now, excuse me, in a current fifth grader that I often point out is my favorite child by far, which is important in this dynamic, our daughter. And, you know, we, we my wife, and I decided we wanted to be there because for us the professional decision, the move to a different district or to a bigger district and different opportunity had a lot to do with wanting for our children. Something extraordinary and searching for that and knowing that where I was going to work and live would be the same place. So we came to a place that was again, traditionally high performing well known and thought to be that. And through the first several years of my experience, we began to discover that that maybe wasn’t the case for all kids and that achievement wasn’t where it should be. And it was covered up by the fact that Still, in the district, many kids were going to great schools, highly competitive colleges, universities, Ivy League schools, there were still accolades for the district and national awards being one. But when you dug a little bit deeper, you saw that our graduation rate wasn’t where you would have expected it for a high performing place. But our graduation rate for kids from underrepresented populations was in a very, very different place. For example, in 2013, our graduation rate was 89%. And in a high performing place, you wouldn’t think that you’d be at that place. But our graduation rate for some groups, particularly African American students, was 55%. Shameful. And it was about really digging into what does that mean? So we’re, although we’re 3600 students, you know, ballpark 250 to 300 graduates per year. That’s small enough, I’d make the argument everywhere small enough, you do it right, where you can dig into the performance of every individual child and say, what is it that went wrong for that child? Where could we have been better what what should we have known predicted? Use predictive analytics to think about where their child might struggle and then avoid that struggle or help them work through a productive struggle and, and overcome that? What we learned about our system was that we had a lot of barriers to break down, we had some obstacles for kids and we really needed to focus much more on each individual child. So that’s where it began, it grew over time through a variety of strategies we’ll probably touch on today. But our mission, vision, core values evolved as well till we reached a point where we looked at each other and said, This is really what we’re about, and what best describes us. And in a very organic way that catchphrase came to be.

Steve Barkley: I’m, as I’m listening to, I’m almost hearing the good to great kind of approach. And I’ve, I’ve always suggested that one of the most difficult places for a school leader to land is in a good school. Because people have a lot of evidence of good around them. And it’s, it’s, it’s difficult at times to get them to think through. Sometimes it means we need to stop doing some of the good things in order to start doing some of the great things. And am I am I okay, on my connection there.

Dr. Kevin McGowan: I think you’re spot on. I think Jim Collins would be proud to see a district say one, maybe we’re not as great as we think we are. Although there’s a great danger when leaders start to express that to their organization. So I, I cautiously would work with people to not ever say that to not ever tell the people who’ve been doing great work for a long time, particularly in their mind, and then their perception, and had what they thought was great success. I think it’s offensive and disrespectful to start to tell people you know, you’re not not quite as great as you are. And I think it’s a huge mistake for a leader but building capacity and pointing out where people’s greatest strengths have been and where they’ve been most successful and really appealing to their inner humanity to say, let’s, can we do that for more kids? What else can we do to grow that? Boy, this is really working well, how do we, how do we expand that. But it’s awfully hard for people to let go of the things that have been going well, for some period of time, maybe not as great as they could be, but some periods, and the thing that they put a lot of effort into growing and innovating and starting maybe 20 years ago, they don’t forget that. So asking somebody to let go that? Well that’s awfully hard. In our district, we talked about pruning, in order to replant or to grow differently, and try and be very respectful of what may have been in place, but move towards something that maybe builds on that as opposed to just replace it.

Steve Barkley: I want to try another line on it to see if it connects. As I listened to that, I’ve described that it’s being able to go to the school board into the community, and celebrate that we’re the best we’ve ever been, and have someplace else we need to go.

Dr. Kevin McGowan: We often talk right now about the fact that the journey is not done and that we’re just one step on that journey. We emphasize that all the time. I mentioned those numbers in 2013. This past year graduation rate was 98%. Our plus or minus gap off of the 98% for marginalized groups of students is just 2%. So some are 100. Some are 96. But I think we’re a very rare place where our students, by the way since that time, we have grown in our diversity we have grown in our economic diversity. So in other words, we’re more diverse and more poor. In our achievements never been better. It has a highest graduation rate in our region in pretty much our half of the state and compares to most schools nationally, the niche rating that just came out we are 64 of 13,000 schools, school districts in the country. So something is working. But the great part about it is we talk all the time about success for some kids is not true success for an organization. It’s not success, unless it’s for all kids accessible to all kids but actually being achieved by all kids. But we say all of the time. We’re still on The Journey and we have worked to go, because until that’s 100%, and 100%, for all children, we haven’t reached that point. And frankly, it’s not even just about that graduation rate. Now for us, it’s about mastery. And what percentage of kids are leaving us with an AP course? It’s 74% Right now, but why isn’t that 100? What is it in particular groups that we could be doing to make sure they’re accessing the full experience engaging in school beyond just academic success and graduation? Are they getting everything they can out of the school experience that K 12 experience? Question, we always ask how do we get to the next level?

Steve Barkley: I listened to a few of the presentations that you’ve made and read a little bit about you in a words kind of popping out as a thread going through that that I want to run by in that. Team. It seems teams important to you. Could you expand on that?

Dr. Kevin Mcgowan: I don’t think it happens without team. You know, the National Award, you mentioned at the beginning, it has been a really wonderful experience and one that I will will never forget and always cherish and appreciate deeply. An individual recognition can be a little bit uncomfortable sometimes. And I’m not feigning humility. I’m proud of the work. I think I’m reasonably good at what I do. And I try hard to get better all the time. I work hard at it. But I also don’t teach Global Studies. I don’t teach kindergarten. I’m not the primary principal. And I’m definitely not a middle school principal or assistant principal for that matter, right. I have a reasonable sense of how our dollars and cents work and our can ask the right questions financially. But our assistant superintendent who handles the finance side and HR side and administration side, a guy by the name of Lou Alonso is a true expert at what he does. Our assistant superintendent for curriculum instruction, woman named Dr. Allison Rio is a true expert in what she does and I don’t know that as well as she does. Our Director of Student Services Support Services Danis Bagnolet, is an expert in the special education and support for students area, our principals are an expert in each of their spaces. And then they also bring a different lens to the work, you know, their leadership tends to be either financial or political or analytical, practical in some cases, and we think about those frames all the time, if everybody is able to maximize their performance, their talent, their their work in their particular area of expertise, and I’m somehow able to conduct that and and be a part of that and, you know, point to the oboe section when we need to into the percussion section when we need to. Boy, it’s a gift. And I can’t do all those things. I’m not an expert, any one of them. I just have absolute good fortune to be the conductor of incredibly talented people who are so committed to kids, and who love working together and are committed to that together. But they’re the ones that are doing it. So so it’s been great, but it’s about all of them frankly.

Steve Barkley: I’d like to drill down on that a little bit more with that. And you use the word conductor. So I wondering if you’d start. If you’re taking a team approach, then how does that affect the way you do your job?

Dr. Kevin McGowan: I think it’s a it’s about both skills and dispositions in thinking about that. So one in terms of dispositions, not having to be the one that decides everything and being comfortable letting go right and recognizing that you don’t being self aware, recognizing that you don’t have the expertise in each area, always knowing that you ultimately have the responsibility to to answer for the decision, and you have to do that. But just being self aware and not having to be in charge all the time not having to control a decision not having to dominate a meeting or hear yourself talk. I mean, I’m doing plenty of talking this morning, but I don’t need to right? In any given meeting, I’m really happy to let other people shine. I often say in our district with a lot of smart people, if you have to be the smartest person in the room. Number one for me, personally, I’m not going to be number two. If I feel that need, it’s likely going to stifle other people and just not be a pleasant work environment for folks. So I think being able to let go, let other people shine, being humble and your leadership modest about that work really makes a big, big difference. Then in terms of skills, just recognizing that they have different skill sets that you can maximize. Going back to the conductor analogy, I recognize that conductors have a tremendous amount of skill and probably play several instruments, but they’re not a virtuoso in each section of the orchestra right. So I think really recognizing that understanding that and then and then trusting in that I look at it to as being a little bit of a keeper of the flame. Right. So bringing the organization back to the strategic plan. Bring us back to what is our what is our focus that every every child every day, every way and asking hard questions. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable. These are people you care about you work closely with. But trying to push them to a place where we’re saying, is that really the best we can do? I mean, this was an opportunity for excellence. Is there a way we can do that better? And it pains me to ask you this question, because I love you. But did you think about how that parent would have would have received that? Because I can tell you how would have felt as a dad, to me or to my wife, as mom and the district. So really having the courage to ask difficult questions and bring people back to where does that fit in our plan? I know, it’s great idea. I love that you’re thinking about that. But strategically, is that going to get us where we want to go?

Steve Barkley: How does that focus on Team impact the way that people in your system then work with each other and carry out their roles?

Dr. Kevin McGowan: Well, I think that when everything depends on one person, it paralyzes people in the organization as well. So I really liked how you asked that, because that is a that is a key where a principal can call an assistant superintendent and get an answer quickly with confidence that that’s going to be the answer, that it’s not going to be well, as is coming in to say something different and and be paralyzed. by that. I mean, there are things that happen all the time, you know, quick example, off the top of my head is a, perhaps a contentious custody situation. And a principal is struggling at the end of the day at dismissal to figure out when somebody shows up to pick up the child that’s not supposed to and how to manage that and work through that. It becomes a legal question, it becomes a liability question and transportation question. If they have to wait for Kevin to weigh in on that it’s going to cause a big problem, right? Because either I may be somewhere else doing something else engage in something else. But also, I’m likely going to rely on the experts around me to help sort through that decision. They know they can call one of the assistant superintendents and get a great answer, a thoughtful answer, and an answer that I’ll support. On a curriculum issue. Our principal may be working with a group of teachers, for example, on a difficult topic, perhaps it’s it’s the use of racist language in literature, how to manage that in the classroom, and a situation arises where a parent is concerned that their child will have a difficult conversation in class. If they need to wait for me to weigh in on that situation, they’re not likely going to do their best work and working with the parent and the child support that. If they can get support from me, Assistant Superintendent, or somebody else, other instructional leaders that we’ve put in place, and they recognize that that answers as good, as good as gold in the organization, they’re likely to be able to operate more efficiently more effectively. Then when we’re all working as a team with that same notion of what our mission vision core values are, and they know ultimately where I would land on the decision. And we were, we’re kind of speaking that same language all the time. It really helps us to be connected in our decision making, and avoid the pitfalls that come with maybe a poor decision that didn’t recognize organizationally, what we would have wanted to do, and now we’ve got to backtrack. And parents are upset. We avoid a lot of those things, I think because we really are all on the same page all the time, and consistent in that work.

Steve Barkley: So maybe hard question, do you think it plays all the way down to teachers and students in classrooms, then?

Dr. Kevin McGowan: I hope so. But I think the challenge right now for teachers is in the current environment relative to scrutiny and criticism and people are people aren’t moderating their opinions very often. And we’re in a very supportive district with with great parents. I think there’s an anxiety level from staff members about some of those decisions. You know, that the instructional decisions that deal with equity in particular, and diversity and how to manage it that people are afraid to be criticized in one way or another, or particularly publicly criticized. I think it gets to that level in the sense that they know they can count on the principal for a good answer, and they can be supported and that the district will support them. I don’t think that they’re, I think they’re concerned about it. But I don’t think that they doubt that I think that we’ve shown time and time again, that even when people make mistakes, mistakes, are learning opportunities to work through. How can we best approach that going forward? How can we learn from the person who was harmed in that situation? We have a very think, productive and positive approach to that. But I think it would be foolish for me to think that everybody all the time is completely comfortable in that space. Sometimes they really do just need that support and backup from another person.

Steve Barkley: You use the word, difficult conversations, controversial Conversations. I’m sure you had to meet many of them along the path that you’ve traveled here. Wondering if you have a couple of suggestions for superintendents and school leaders. When they when they know they have to go in and have those conversations. Are there. Some mindsets you have going in some protocols that you use to guide that?

Dr. Kevin McGowan: I’d say three things jump off the top of my head one is stop talking. Ironically, because I keep talking. Just stop talking. Just listen, spend a lot of time listening to people be vulnerable. The second would be, say to people in that moment, tell me more, instead of jumping to explain why something was done, and we didn’t mean it that way, or I don’t think that’s racist, which is entirely offensive to the person who is saying to you that it is those three words, tell me more, set an entirely different tone for the conversation you are expressing to people, your willingness to be vulnerable, to be open, to be thoughtful and just receptive to the feedback. And to learn, I think every one of these conversations is an opportunity to learn. And then finally, the third piece would be just really focus at the end of the day and keep the meeting focused on what is the need of the child? What can we do to help your child I often ask people, the beginning of some difficult conversations, what is it you’re hoping will come from this conversation? What would you like to accomplish? What is the solution that will have you walking away from this feeling good about where we landed? And I often find by doing that, we’re not far apart from the beginning of the conversation, I can often say, great, I think we can get to that place and again, that changes. Again, the whole tone of the conversation reduces the adversarial nature of some of these conversations. But think just as a human being being thoughtful and vulnerable, and opening that space up for dialogue really helps.

Steve Barkley: I’m wondering if you have some thoughts on districts that are performing at the level that that your district is looking ahead, future oriented? What do you spot as some of the directions that people who are having a high achievement, want to be looking at as a next step work continuous growth for them as a system?

Dr. Kevin Mcgowan: I think one of the most obvious answers and I’d probably echo it is just understanding the potential for artificial intelligence and what that might mean for the workplace. How people can manage that, I’m not afraid of that I think a lot of people are jumping to a lot of conclusions early on about chat, GBT and other platforms that, you know, are going to change everything dramatic. I think at the end of the day, we still need human beings to communicate with each other and work together. Which leads me to what I think is really what we need to be thinking about is how do you help young people develop grit and perseverance, mindfulness? You know, we work a lot on habits of mind in our district, but how do you work with other people? How do you just engage in a way that as a human being can be productive? Not be as fragile as I think, sometimes, particularly in the current environment, you know, as we think about post COVID, how do you help people just persevere and figure it out in the world? I think about it again, from the lens as a as a parent with a 21, 18, and 11 year old and you know, there are moments of disappointment in that world. And that’s okay, we figure it out. Let’s send that person an email. How do you work through that? You know, I see my one, my oldest is, as a college student, I’ll see the Facebook page with parents from his university, which is interesting to me that there’s even a Facebook page just for parents. There are occasionally helpful tidbits about you know, something that’s coming up on the calendar or whatever. But there are also occasionally posts from parents and unfortunately, more often than you, you’d like to think about, you know, this professor didn’t get back to my child is this normal? And I? It just boggles my mind shouldn’t blow me away because of what I do. But I would never post about that. Myself. Personally, I don’t know my wife wouldn’t and our conversation with with our child would be email the professor? Yeah, you know, these are some strategies, right? So we have to give people tools to work through those things. And there are a lot of people trying to solve some of those problems, I think, for their children. And as its educators helping to give people just tools more than anything. Content is important. Learning how content can be used to learn from the past and to engage in society. And you know, how to appreciate and understand literature and how to be aware of history and what that means in our world. Because, you know, I think we’re more productive citizens when we can engage in intelligent ways like that. And we’re not likely to have an inspiring dinner conversation by everybody just Googling an answer. But content is very available. I think focusing more and more on skills and how do you how do you grab that content? How do you absorb that content? How do you use that content as raw material to create more raw material and be productive? I think that’s important. And at the end of the day, I think right now our democracy depends on thinking about how we develop better citizens who are open to each other’s ideas, are willing to meet in the middle somewhere can thoughtfully discuss issues and engages citizens and care about the person next to them.

Steve Barkley: I frequently use this statement that there is no mountain top to education. If you decided education is where you’re going to put your career, you don’t have to worry about reaching mastery prior to retirement. So I’m just wondering if there’s an area that’s been a more recent learning focus of yours, that you might share with us.

Dr. Kevin McGowan: I think the diversity equity inclusion space is one that, you know, I mean, a great example of never reaching the end of the journey or the mountaintop. I mean, it’s, it is the area we have spent the most energy on over the past five to seven years, I’d say for sure, it is directly aligned with this idea of every child every day, every way. I mean, if you’re really thinking about how to support every individual, you need to be thinking about your unconscious bias, your systemic racism and systemic bias, your own cultural responsiveness, both in the work that’s being done with kids, but your own habits and your own approach to work, the way you schedule things in the district, it really permeates everything you’re doing. And it is a constant learning experience, and how to be better at that as a constant learning experience. It’s probably the area that I feel is the biggest growth area for me personally, past, but going forward to the places I need to continue to learn to be an effective leader for our kids.

Steve Barkley: Well, Kevin, it’s been just a pleasure for me to have a conversation with you. And I’m so excited that we’re having this opportunity to share this with other leaders in learning around the country and around the world. I’m wondering as, as we close out, if there’s a thought or two that you might put out there two, up and coming superintendents, maybe two folks who are landing in their first step into that role, or walking into a new district, couple thoughts about where they’d likely put a mindset that will lead them forward.

Dr. Kevin McGowan: Yeah, happy to first of all, thank you for having me too. And the conversation has been wonderful. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I would say to people, stick with it, stick with it, persevere, the work has never been more important. And you’ll get there. Be patient, be kind. At the end of the day, simply treat people the way you would like to be treated and continue to focus on every individual child, work with people in your community, see a day away work with your board of education, I see it that way. And often, when you really get it back to that space. Most people, even the people that disagree with us the most will end up agreeing if we’re focused on individual children, that we’re probably heading in the right direction in that we’re well intentioned in that work. But we’ve never needed great leadership more. I’m thrilled that you’re highlighting these conversations about leadership. I hope I’ve been able to add a tidbit or two for people to pick up on. I just think, rely on the people around you don’t become isolated. It can be a very isolating position, connect with other superintendents, other leaders and constantly think about how do you evolve but how do you just simply be kind, thoughtful, responsive, and keep focusing on individual children? That seems to be something that will get you through the most difficult times.

Steve Barkley: Thank you. And again, congratulations.

Dr. Kevin McGowan: My pleasure.

Episode Summary

Host Steve Barkley speaks with Dr. Kevin McGowan, 2023 NY State & National Superintendent of the Year.

Kevin McGowan, Ed.D., is the Superintendent of the Brighton Central School District, a suburban district in Monroe County, New York. In addition to being highly ranked in New York State and nationally, Brighton schools have been recognized as “Schools to Watch,” Blue Ribbon award winners, and as a 2018 US News and World Report Gold Medal school. Throughout his work in each position, Dr. McGowan has focused on high-quality systems that provide consistency, accountability, and a focus on meeting the needs of all learners. Dr. McGowan established the commitment to “every student, every day, in every way” in leading the Brighton education community. Beyond his district leadership, Dr. McGowan has previously served on many boards, including as the President of the Monroe County Council of School Superintendents, the NYS Council of School Superintendents, and the Leadership for Educational Achievement Foundation. In 2023, Dr. McGowan was named NYS Superintendent of the Year and AASA National Superintendent of the Year. 

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