Dr. Luvelle Brown can be described as the heart and soul of education. During his six year tenure as Superintendent of the Ithica School City District, Luvelle has raised graduation rates to an astounding 95 percent, while significantly raising both athletic programs and programs for music and the arts. Luvelle was recently awarded the 2017 New York State’s Superintendent of the Year. In addition, he was recognized by the National School Boards Association as a “20-to-Watch,” received the Center for Digital Education Top 30 Award, and received the 2014 eSchool News Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award. He was selected by the US Department of Education as one of the nation’s top 100 innovative Superintendents.
Perhaps what makes Luvelle Brown so effective is he has never forgotten his roots. He works doggedly to protect the interests of his students and community. Luvelle credits his success to caring educators who kept him on a path of success because many of his schoolmates were not as lucky.
“I was an athlete and a good student at the same time. Folks recognized that in me and I’m only here because I’m an athlete. Many of the young men I grew up with looked like me, they were better athletes and quite frankly they were smarter. But they aren’t here on the planet anymore.”
“I’m here because of some powerful educators, similar to what I’m aspiring to be. They made sure I was thinking, that I was in the right classes, that I was supported to do athletics. Because of all those things, I am here.”
– Dr. Luvelle Brown
Rod Berger: Well, Luvelle, I have to start off. You’ve been named the 2017 New York State Superintendent of the Year due to your work in Ithaca City School District – a big honor. What does that mean personally for you?
Luvelle Brown: It’s an affirmation and validation of six years worth of hard work. It’s been a community-wide effort here and it’s been very exciting. We’ve had our community rally around a mission and a vision. So, it’s been hard work but fun. This award represents the work, commitment and love that exists in our community.
RB: What kind of responsibility do you feel in your position as a district leader when you start getting recognized nationally? According to national publications, your high school is listed in the top 2 percent. What is that like? We hear many stories about the struggles of districts trying to raise the accomplishments of their schools, you are in a position where they’ve been anointed to some degree, right? I would imagine that provides a different level of challenges along with celebration.
LB: What we are learning is that the most success we have, the higher the expectations are. As part of my interview process six years ago, the board was pushing me to get us to – at that time – 85 percent graduation rates. I remember them saying, “If we get to 90 percent, that would be awesome and you’ll be here forever.”
Now we’re talking about 100 percent graduation rate. We’ve gone from 78 percent graduation rates and we’re close to 95 percent right now. Our board and our community are pushing for 100 percent. The conversations have just evolved and the expectations have raised as we continue to achieve.
RB: What do you think is unique about your leadership style? In general, the industry of education is changing rapidly every day. We often get knocked as an industry for moving quite slowly. I see a lot of movement and development – not just technology – but in leadership and staff development. There’s a new group of folks that want to enter into teaching. How do you approach that?
LB: Obviously, it’s very student-centered. Every conversation I’m involved in and I’m facilitating puts young people first. This allows us to not focus so much on the adult issues. Most adult issues are generated by adults.
So, we are really focused on the young people. Our policies, our board meetings, the tough decisions we make are from that place. It’s not always easy to do that for some reason in these leadership roles, but it’s what we have to do and it’s been fun. We’ve cultivated this culture of love we talk about a lot here. One that’s patient, kind, dedicated, forgiving and unselfish. That culture resonates throughout our community and is one that puts young people first.
RB: One of the things that I think is interesting in education and the community of education is the way in which we all learn from each other, or at least we try to, even if it’s from a distance. There are a lot of national storylines going on around public schools and the way in which we fund them or the challenges in education funding – the resources we need, the programs, and the staff. How have you approached this and have you looked at alternative funding to make sure that your district was sufficiently funded?
LB: Yes. In New York State, we are funded more than adequately. While a lot of folks wouldn’t agree with me, we’re spending around $21,000 per student as of now.
With that dollar amount, there are many inefficiencies. But, for me to say that we aren’t funded adequately when I’m one of the folks every day who is struggling to make ends meet and paying tax bills that, in some ways are pretty significant. From my perspective, we’re funded well. Now, it’s up to me and other leaders and the community to figure out how to be more efficient with the funds that we do have.
We have a certain process in place. We look at all of our programs and those that are impacting student achievement. Those that are valued by our community are the ones we protect. For example, co-curricular programs. Things that aren’t meeting student achievement benchmarks and aren’t valued by our community members and technology programs that don’t work so well, we’ve moved away from.
Having a conversation about which is producing achievement and which is valued by our community helps us really focus on protecting quality programs and determine those we have to move away from.
RB: Do you think that you are typical in that way? When you meet other superintendents, do you find that they will say something similar, which is, “You know, despite what you might read in the popular press, we’re doing okay from a budget standpoint?”
LB: No, I am sure that we’re unique. We are always advocating for additional dollars. We’re looking to impact state formulas. We’re looking at ways to bring in more revenue from grant sources.
Right now, as a community member and as a representative of our community, I can’t bring myself to say that we need more funds to do this work well. I know that my community is doing the best it can and it’s up to me as a leader to figure out how to be more efficient. We’ve done so. We’ve had to make some significant shifts, cuts to our budget during my tenure. At the same time, we’ve been able to significantly increase achievement that will put us up there with anyone else in the country. It’s possible, but it’s going to take someone having a hard, uncomfortable conversation like the one we’ve been leading here.
RB: So, Luvelle, what is it like when you’re having that conversation? I’d like to sit at that roundtable with other superintendents. You said your school district is doing what it needs to be doing from a funding perspective. I think it’s easy as adults to get caught up in the narrative that we’re used to which is, “We’re underfunded. We don’t have enough resources” and not even think about it outside that.
LB: It always sparks a conversation. I have colleagues who challenge me, but then I have some, quite frankly, who agree. However, the culture in their communities, the culture among their peers and the folks who are doing the work in the organization won’t allow them to have that tough conversation.
Fortunately, my board and our community are pushing me to think differently and to act and work in this way. Quite frankly, I feel safe in doing so. Not every superintendent has the luxury of being as safe as I and to say things that are very unpopular in their communities.
RB: It seems that you’re very open to and willing to have tough conversations with the student in mind. Let’s talk a little bit about technology and the role it’s playing in helping to assist conversations on a more regular basis between parent or caregiver, student, teacher and school in a way that probably you and I didn’t experience growing up. Unless it was a periodic parent-teacher conversation around a meeting or a report card.
How have you approached that and how does that help to support this feeling of community that you’re building in Ithaca?
LB: We needed to use the technology tools and particularly the social networks that we know our families are tapped into. We know that most families are tapped into Facebook. We know that many are on LinkedIn – one of every three professionals in the world have a LinkedIn account. We know that folks are going to their websites. They all have mobile devices.
This is how folks are communicating and the place they’re going. We need to, as an organization, use those tools to connect. We’ve used Twitter to engage in budget conversations. We’ve used Twitter to engage in a strategic planning process. We have families going to our Facebook page every day to hear and learn about our work, our instructional initiatives.
We’ve had to use our technology tools in ways that our families and young people are using them in order to connect and engage. To engage family is not just about sharing when parent-teacher conferences are this year, to just hear the spelling words or what’s going to happen in class today. To engage a family now is to educate them about what’s possible and how young people need to be prepared to be college and career-ready.
That means they need to understand our curriculum. They need to understand our assessment processes and why we’re assessing this way. That requires some two-way dialogue and the technology that’s available today allows us to do so.
RB: I noticed you were also recognized as a district with regards to music education and a community that supports that. We keep going back to the word ‘community.’ but I can tell that if I were sitting in a staff meeting, that word would probably be used quite a bit.
RB: Let’s put that in the context of the creative arts and the way in which it can integrate into the core subjects because it is a core subject. I think sometimes we lose sight of that. So, tell me what it takes to be recognized in the fashion that you are and your view on music education in the greater district.
LB: We know that young people who participate in co-curricular opportunities do better in classes. Their grades are high, GPAs are higher, they have fewer instances of disciplinary referral. There are a number of indicators that we know – the research proves that co-curricular opportunities enhance or provide for better data for young people.
With that in mind, we’ve supported those programs even in the midst of significant shifts in our budget. We’ve protected our arts programs. Instead of cutting them, we’ve grown them. We’ve enhanced them and we’ve added programs when we see the opportunity to do so. Protecting arts programs in all ways, and also looking to add and enhance. Its resulted in significant academic achievement gains as well, and that’s consistent with the research.
It’s been difficult. We’ve made some tough decisions. We’ve reduced FTE in some areas. We’ve raised class size in some areas to protect the arts and athletic programs. It’s worth it because we know these classes lead to significant achievement gains for our young people. It’s been a research-driven conversation, but one that’s also driven by what our community appreciates and wants to protect.
Significantly more young people are now participating, classes are much more diverse. We want every young person to do something before or after school and hopefully, that’s picking up an instrument.
RB: Let’s talk about when you were a young student. What were you like as a young boy in school. Could you ever have envisioned the role that you have now? I know that you were a teacher and assistant principal. You’ve moved up the ranks in that regard. At what point did you realize that this was an actual goal? Tell me if I’m right or wrong, but I bet people recognized your talent early on and probably helped craft that path for you.
LB: I was an athlete and a good student at the same time. Folks recognized that in me and I’m only here because I’m an athlete. Many of the young men I grew up with looked like me, they were better athletes and quite frankly they were smarter. But they aren’t here on the planet anymore.
I’m here because of some powerful educators, similar to what I’m aspiring to be. They made sure I was thinking, that I was in the right classes, that I was supported to do athletics. Because of all those things, I am here. I did well in school. I became a pretty good leader on the athletic fields and in the music classrooms and that’s translated into me being a leader today.
RB: I would think that you’d take those experiences in your daily life and apply them to the way that you approach and support young people now within the district.
LB: Every day. I know the power of a great public education. I am an example of that. I’ve also seen when public education hasn’t worked so well. I’ve seen policies like young people not being able to take a course because of a prerequisite and that prerequisite is not available to young people of color or who are poor. I’ve seen how it can impact a life. I’ve seen a young person who can’t play a sport because his GPA isn’t high enough, or he didn’t pass the interview of state assessment. I’ve seen how it can impact a life.
I’ve seen everything we fight for now. I’ve seen how it can impact a life, and quite frankly, the lives of some folks I love. And again, I’ve seen the positive nature of education – public education because I am that myself.
RB: Where are we in regard to diversity in school superintendents across the country?
Are we providing an environment of support and identifying those with rich talents to be able to bring to the table. Are we identifying the next Luvelle Brown?
LB: Unfortunately, from my perspective, no. The numbers are getting worse not only at the administrative ranks, but in the teacher ranks as well. There are a number of reasons for that.
The negative rhetoric out there is that education is hard to recruit for and retain. There are fewer and fewer young people of color going into education. Those who do head down the education path normally don’t stay. So, no, it hasn’t gotten better. At the end of the day, it takes the Board of Education taking a chance on any superintendent regardless of color.
What we are finding is that many folks of color aren’t getting that chance taken on them. I was fortunate in that someone took a chance on me, an unproven person from a different state, and it worked out well. But, I know colleagues and I know friends who are as talented or more talented than me and that chance wasn’t taken on them for a number of reasons. From our perspective, my perspective and theirs, there were some biases because of their appearance.
From my perspective, it’s getting worse. I think the data shows that. It’s going to take some changing of hearts in order for us to impact this in a very significant way.
RB: I appreciate you going down that path. I think it’s an important discussion that we can’t, on one hand, say that we’re improving education with all the rhetoric that’s out there. Even not being aware of the individuals, the talents that we are or are not putting in front of young people because they’re going to reflect what we’re putting in front of them, right? I think that’s a daily challenge.
How does that impact you with staff? Just the way in which you motivate them to ignore that rhetoric and to recognize the talents within the classroom?
LB: We talk a lot about culturally responsive teaching practices here. I provide many examples from my own personal upbringing, from what I live with every day.
I want to give folks the freedom and the support and the safety to recognize that this is an issue, but to also inspire them to work on it. I give the example of my son. He’s an African-American male student in our schools. As someone who’s been recognized nationally for work with African-American males, I say to myself all the time, I’m struggling with him.
The way he learns is so different than the way I learned. The culture he’s growing up in is very, very different. He’s an African-American male student. I need to learn how to reach him differently and better every day. The courses that we’re offering now as a school district for this in culturally responsive teaching practices, I’m the first one in there. I’m in the front row trying to learn new things every day and new strategies.
I’m hoping to provide a culture that’s safe to engage in these conversations, but also help folks recognize that it’s something that we all need to work on – we all need to work on it every day.
RB: It’s very clear why you’ve been recognized as the state’s superintendent of the year, even in our short time together. I wish you continued success, Luvelle, and I hope we can catch up in the near future.
LB: Thank you so much for the conversation.
RB: You’re welcome. Once again, I’m Dr. Berger.
Dr. Luvelle Brown is the 2017 New York State Superintendent of the Year. Dr. Luvelle Brown has served as Superintendent of the Ithaca City School District (ICSD) in Ithaca, New York since January 2011. Prior to arriving in Ithaca, Dr. Brown served as a school CIO, Executive Director of the Division of School Improvement, teacher, assistant principal, and principal. Dr. Brown has received multiple national and state recognitions including the 2014 eSchool News Tech-Savvy Superintendent Award, and was recognized by the National School Boards Association as a “20-to-Watch” in 2014. Dr. Brown is the co-author of ThinkTweets: 100 Transformative Tweets for Educators.
In his district, Dr. Brown has done much to build a collaborative culture focused on using student work to make real-time instructional shifts. During his tenure at ICSD the district’s graduation rate has skyrocketed to above 90% (up from 78%), while students are achieving significantly above state and national average on various standardized tests. Dr. Brown has driven several district-wide initiatives based on systems thinking including: integrating thinking skills into every classroom, shifting the organizational design towards a systemic approach, redesign of learning spaces, and numerous technology initiatives such as systems-based visual mapping, game-based learning, innovative uses of social media, and 1:1 mobile device implementation.
Dr. Brown is an an active community member through service on various non-profit boards. He is a proud member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, inc., and was the co-founder for the nationally recognized 100 Black Men of Central Virginia.
Dr. Brown is a highly regarded speaker addressing a range of topics for local, regional, and national audiences. He has published numerous articles and is the co-author of ThinkTweets: 100 Transformative Tweets for Educators.
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