Q&A: Superintendent of the Year Reflects on Award and Reforms

March 11, 1992 5 min read
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Donald W. Ingwerson, superintendent of the Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Ky., last month was named the 1992 National Superintendent of the Year at the American Association of School Administrators’ annual convention in San Diego.

During Mr. Ingwerson’s 11 years in Jefferson County, the 92,000-student district has become known as one of the most innovative in the country for efforts such as nongraded primary schools, magnet schools, an extended school day and school year, and resource centers that bring social services closer to students and their families. Before coming to Louisville, Mr. Ingwerson spent nine years as superintendent in Orange County, Calif.

Mr. Ingwerson received a $2,000 U.S. Savings Bond, and a $10,000 scholarship in his name will be presented to a high-school student. He discussed the award and the reforms in Jefferson County with Staff Writer Daniel Gursky.

Q. Do you plan to use this honor and the publicity that comes with it to spread any message about education to other educators or to the public?

A. I certainly do. I hope to continue to be constructive and upbeat about what can happen and is happening in the field of educational reform.

My message is that all children can learn. We in education need to become better advocates for young people and become more concerned with their development. Schools in the past have been very much in the judgment-issuing arena, where I think we need to be in the service and the development arena.

Q. One of the things you were cited for by the A.A.S.A. was your district’s “no fail” policy. Will you explain what that is?

A. I’m trying to help everyone understand that failure to learn is unacceptable. In one of our schools, as an example, a team of teachers and a large group of students, 127 or so, had a no-fail policy. Teachers basically saw that the students did the work every day.

If they didn’t do the work, the students stayed with the teacher and didn’t go home until they got their work done. If they didn’t finish the work by the end of the year, then the school year went right on for those who didn’t complete it.

It was amazing how fast things began to get done when the expectations changed and students saw that teachers meant business.

Q. Jefferson County is also known for its school-desegregation policies. Do you think schools can learn from your experience?

A. I don’t know if others can learn from what we’re trying to do here. But I do believe that the equity and quality issues must come together.

We can’t just have equity and not have the quality that parents want. We can’t just have quality without the diversity in the classroom. We’ve had a good balance on that, but we’re going to have to get a lot better and so are a lot of other school districts.

Q. Obviously, it takes talented school staff members to make reforms work. What have you done to take advantage of the strengths of your district’s staff?

A. Professional development of staff is crucial. It will be the thing that makes reform successful or not because it empowers each school, each classroom--the personnel in each of those places--to do their own thinking.

One thing we’ve tried to do is look long haul and to make sure we plan for reform so that we don’t get people excited and then frustrate them because we haven’t thought through how to meet their needs or give them the resources that are needed.

Q. You’ve also tried to set up some programs for people not normally served by schools, such as homeless adults and parolees. Is that the kind of outreach more school leaders should see as an obligation?

A. We want to try to create an environment wherever we can so that all people can be successful. In Louisville, that’s what we’ve done with homeless children and their parents, with literacy programs, and with other people who may be in trouble with the courts.

We’ve tried to respond so that we’re not just dumping people out on the streets, but we’re trying to help take them off the streets and help them obtain the skills and the education they need so they can be productive.

It’s been amazing to us how well people who do not fit a traditional school do when an alternative program is worked out, where they can survive and their needs can be met.

Q. Have your ideas about the superintendency and school administration changed much in the 20 years you’ve been a superintendent?

A. I think the basic principles that I’ve had haven’t changed, but how we accomplish those principles has changed a great deal. I’ve become much more flexible. How you deal with a complex city or society, how you involve people, and how you deal with the legal issues, that’s all changed my management style.

The diversity of the student body, and even the values of our parents and others have changed so much. We have to respond to those in positive ways.

At one time, I think I would have been much more narrow in my view. Today, I recognize to a much greater extent the value of diversity and what it can do to strengthen our schools, our community, and our society in general.

Q. Do you see more changes in coming years?

A. We have just begun in this whole thing. I see great changes coming, but they’re positive changes. I think we’ve got some deep water to go through in trying to improve quality and keep very high standards. But I see that as a challenge, not a hurdle that we can’t get over.

Education in the future is going to have to look and feel different than it has in the past. We’re going to have to deal with what I would term systemic changes, not just piecemeal changes. And that’s going to cause us to rethink the whole environment that we create in our schools.

It’s going to take a different approach, a different style of delivery. And it’s going to call for high use of technology. In the process, we’re going to change how we work with students.

Teachers are going to change. They’re going to have more of the state-of-the-art tools of computers and technology that will help them give work that’s meaningful to students, so that students are more interested, more challenged, and want to achieve.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 1992 edition of Education Week as Q&A: Superintendent of the Year Reflects on Award and Reforms


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