Joseph Davis grew up in rural North Carolina and was part of the first generation in his family to attend college. On July 1, he became the superintendent of the 11,200-student Ferguson-Florissant school district, the second African-American in the district’s history to hold that position.
A year after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, by a white police officer touched off protests that echoed nationwide, Davis spoke with Education Week Staff Writer Denisa R. Superville about his still-developing plans to address inequity and bias in the district.
A condensed version follows.
Since the Michael Brown shooting, there has been this national conversation about race, policing, bias, inequity, and America’s unfinished work dealing with race. What role do you see the district playing in this conversation, and what are your plans as the superintendent to address such issues?
The school has a huge part in this national conversation about race, largely because of the students. They will be the future.
One of the things I think is important is that students need to become self-advocates. They have so much to say, and can really be influential to some of the students who are hard to reach. The school’s role is to give voice to the kids.
In education, my philosophy has been around having great principals in schools. If you have great principals, who are learners themselves, and great teachers in the classrooms—that’s the recipe for success.
I think the gap we have in this world largely comes from lack of education. We have some of the ills in society because kids aren’t getting the kind of education they need. I am able to walk in the life I live because of my education. So how do we get more kids not just getting a high school diploma, but getting a great education so that they can have the ticket to the next station in life? I see my role as superintendent [as] leading that conversation, leading the students and the adults, bringing them together so that they know that [they] really do matter.
What concrete steps have you taken or what action plans do you have to address inequities?
We are going to be doing an equity audit in our district. One of the things that I’m interested in learning is the kind of education that [goes to the] kids who need it most. What kind of education are they getting? Do they have the kinds of teachers in front of them on a daily basis that will fill the gaps? I want to see more students of all races, and, especially, women, in science ... [and] more diversity in our higher-level classes.
It shouldn’t be that kids who come from homes that are poor or [are] first-generation college don’t get access to the kinds of courses that propel them to a bright future or many options. Doing an equity audit will unfold who are the teachers in front of the students who need it most, and how do we make sure that our kids who are underperforming or our kids who are underachieving—because we have a lot of underachievers—are in the kinds of courses that will give them more options when they graduate. [We are] not just looking at students, but looking at teachers, looking at our community, [and] the kinds of resources that are available in our community.
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I’ve met some great people here, but some of these things that are available to this side of the community may not necessarily be available over here. The audit will give us some of that data to be able to engage, not just the people in the school district, but the community at large.
I want to circle back to the discipline rate. Is that something you are still reviewing?
It will be part of our equity audit. I want us to be really clear about these inequities and the rate at which we suspend black boys especially—more than any other group. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just, why? And how do we fix it? How do we fix the why? Maybe it’s that we train our young men differently on some ways of acting in school. How do we give them the tools they need to be more successful in school? Because when you look at any school district across this country, the group that’s at the bottom is always black males.
I think we have to begin having conversations about teachers. It’s just that we have to bridge the gap between what’s going on at home and what’s going on at school. Teachers need to understand what kids of poverty go through, and kids in poverty need to know how to switch codes when they come to school.
How will [your background] inform what you do here?
Growing up in rural North Carolina, it was just stark in terms of the communities. The black community was here; the white community was here. My grandmother used to clean up people’s houses during the day in the white community, then she worked a second-shift job at night. My mother was a teenager when she had me.
I worked on a tobacco farm when I was younger ... for two different farmers: One was black, one was white. Most of the people around me had this mentality that “this is as much as I can do, this is my life.” But my grandmother, at a young age, she put books in my hands, and I read about places I’d never been to before. I wanted to do more than just read about it. I wanted to see it.
She taught me some good lessons: That you can be anybody you want to be. You go to school, you get the education that you need, work hard, and things will pay off.
So for me, when I think about Michael Brown and what happened here, this is an opportunity for me to come and show other children that look like me—or not—the world is yours.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Ferguson’s New Schools Chief Outlines Plans