Superintendent finalists interviewed for vacant position
By Wes Tomlinson
For the Enquirer
The Hartselle school board interviewed all six finalists for the vacant superintendent position this past week, and it began the process with Arab City Superintendent Johnny Berry, a former principal at Decatur High, and Florence Middle School Principal Kevin Wieseman, a former principal at Huntsville’s Lee High School.
During the first interview this past Monday, Berry, 56, was asked how he viewed the role of external stakeholders in the school system. He said in the three years he has been the Arab City Schools superintendent, he has strengthened relationships between the school district and the city government and he emphasized the need for cities to invest in their school systems.
“We’ve had joint board meetings and city council meetings because we need to be together,” Berry said. “The school system is the flagship and you want any of those external people to be a part of your vision.”
Berry, who became the Arab superintendent in January 2020 after leaving Decatur High, told the board he wanted every student in Hartselle to succeed, from those headed to four-year universities to those bound for junior college or the workforce.
“I want to reach every kid in the district and we don’t want to prepare kids for (jobs) that aren’t there,” Berry said. “With technology, there’s things changing rapidly with the job market, so as a superintendent I have to stay on top of it and talk with these career tech teachers about different jobs.”
After the interview Berry said there is value in virtual instruction, especially in providing advanced educational opportunities to students who live in rural areas, but he worries that the reduced emphasis on in-person instruction in colleges could be a negative in developing teachers.
“In rural (schools) that may not offer AP physics, a kid could take a class online and some teacher might be at Hartselle or Decatur,” Berry said. “I think there’s a place for online learning, but my fear right now is students at the collegiate level that are not going on campus for classes. They’re taking virtual classes and they’re going to come out and be teachers and they haven’t been in a classroom in four years.”
Wieseman, 54, told the school board he relies on data-driven research to evaluate employees and monitor student progress. He said this approach allows him to put every student on a pathway to success, “from your millionaire babies to those who don’t know what they’re going to eat that night.”
“That’s where diagnostic tests and individual testing comes into play,” Wieseman said. “You’ve got to look at individual skills and what it takes to move that child. … As a superintendent, you’ve got to look at data.”
Wieseman said teachers should focus on individualized instruction and use data from each student to construct lesson plans.
“Right now, the problem is not teaching grade-level content but individualized instruction,” Wieseman said. “You’ve got students walking into classrooms, some that are two grades above that grade and some that are two grades below. To be successful, we really need individualized education programs for every student in the district.”
Wieseman, who spent 25 years in Huntsville City Schools before going to Florence, was asked how he would organize the employees to adhere to the district’s strategic plan.
“Our structure is going to be service-minded,” Wieseman said. “I am going to be out in the schools and out in the community looking at things we need to do.”
Wieseman said if hired, he would promote social-emotional learning across the district to help students become more attuned to the outside world after years in pandemic-imposed isolation.
“What concerns me as much as academics right now is the social-emotional state of our kids,” Wieseman said. “Getting kids to learn how to work with each other again and getting those soft skills down are just as important to me as the instructional models we put in front of them.”
Sparkman High Principal Chris Shaw and Hartselle Director of Operations Rocky Smith were also interviewed this past Wednesday by the Hartselle school board for the position.
Shaw, 58, said learning loss resulting from pandemic-induced isolation is one of the biggest issues students currently face.
“There were so many different options (during the pandemic),” Shaw said. “Some teachers did hybrid learning, some did online. The biggest thing is getting back into that traditional routine as far as the day-to-day coming to school and taking tests.”
The nationwide teacher shortage was an issue Shaw brought up a few times during the interview. He said one of his goals as superintendent would be to promote education as a career choice.
“Just getting them excited about going into the profession,” Shaw said. “If not, we’re going to continue with the shortage.”
He said the shortage has especially affected math and special education, forcing an increased reliance by some districts on substitute teachers to fill the gap. Shaw said they should be properly trained before working with special needs students.
“We do that where I’m from. We provide training and professional development,” Shaw said. “We have different types of subs; those who cover the regular classes and those that cover special education.”
Shaw said he works with a group of educators at Sparkman High to help underprivileged students succeed and would also develop a similar plan in Hartselle.
“We have a committee and we develop a portfolio of that student’s strengths and weaknesses and we come up with a plan of how to close that gap,” Shaw said. “So, if it’s math, we’ll give them an extra period of support. They’ll take a math class and then a math support class.”
Shaw said he was impressed with Hartselle’s academic standing statewide and said he believes Hartselle has the potential to test higher than districts like Madison City Schools and Homewood City Schools.
“I think I can make Hartselle the best school system in the state of Alabama,” Shaw said. “It has all the ingredients; it has the support of the mayor and the city council and the school board and the community. I just want to be part of that.”
Smith, 45, has worked in the Hartselle district for four years, serving as the principal of Hartselle Junior High for three of those years before becoming director of operations. He said coming out of the pandemic, it was important to teach or re-teach soft skills to students and to educate them on how to conduct themselves online.
“Everything is so media-driven and accessible that we have to do a good job of educating our students on how to manage information and social media,” Smith said. “Teaching them how to treat people, because most of their interactions are digitally and we have to work on that face-to-face.”
Smith said he wants to continue to learn more about the community and get to know students and their families outside a school setting.
“We approach things from an academic standpoint and we approach things from a personal standpoint,” Smith said. “You can drill down from a data perspective and look at what the data is telling you and then you also look at social concerns in the community, whether it be well-being concerns and how you support those students.”
Smith said if hired as superintendent, he will work to maintain the academic progress of Hartselle City Schools.
“I want to continue the tradition of excellence we’ve had here, and the role I’ll have coming in will be to build the trust and relationships and evaluate the pieces we have in place to see how we can support our staff to grow in the future.”
Smith told the school board he believes the instructional plan for Hartselle City Schools should be data driven and should constantly monitor patterns in students’ learning.
“Being the principal of the junior high, one of the benefits of being there was being between elementary and high school,” Smith said. “Being able to communicate and collaborate with both sides there. Most recently, we’ve put instructional partners in our secondary schools and I’ve brought in a consultant to set up instructional coaching programs in K through 12.”
The last two candidates — James Clemens High Principal Brian Clayton and Hartselle High School Principal Brad Cooper — interviewed for the position on Thursday and had differing opinions on educators in the classroom without traditional certification and said they would work with the school board on their strategic plan while staying within budget.
Clayton, 52, said he believes it is important for a superintendent to be willing to tackle every role in a school system.
“I think the superintendent should be in the trenches (with the teachers),” Clayton said. “I’m not past mopping a floor if that’s what we have to do.”
Clayton said a crucial step in providing adequate instruction to every student is following data-driven research every day.
“A lot of times, if you’re not careful from a data standpoint, you get off track and you’re addressing things your data doesn’t need you to address,” Clayton said.
Clayton said the Hartselle district was impeccable and as superintendent, he would see it stays that way while seeking other opportunities for the district on a balanced budget.
“I think it’s important we try to figure out economically where we’re going to go and what’s needed in this community,” Clayton said.
Clayton touted James Clemens’ cybersecurity program and said Hartselle could benefit from a similar program.
“Our kids are being hired sometimes right out of high school,” Clayton said. “We have kids that are very talented in (cybersecurity), so I think it’s important to find out the needs of the community and the needs of the school system and try your best to pilot or bring in what they need.”
When asked about the effectiveness of educators in the classroom without full teaching certification, Clayton said it was necessary in a time where novice teachers are rapidly leaving classrooms across the nation.
“You know, there’s teachers who have passed the Praxis test and they turned out to be not so great at teaching,” Clayton said. “Alternative certification is really big where I’m at right now. We’ve got math teachers who have straight math degrees and may not have been through the education preparation part. It’s not ideal, but it’s what you have to work with.”
Cooper, 39, disagreed and said it was a disservice to students because teachers without full certification are not providing the best education possible.
“By us watering down the standards and allowing non-qualified teachers to be in the classroom, it just lessens the quality of the teachers we have,” Cooper said. “If we let teachers in the classroom who are not qualified, then to me, that’s lowering the standard of expectations for our school district and for our teachers.”
Cooper said there could be detrimental long-term effects the longer non-certified teachers are in the classroom.
“Ultimately, the students don’t receive the instruction they need,” Cooper said. “Long term, I can see a decline in student achievement because we don’t have certified teachers in the classroom.”
If hired as superintendent, Cooper said he would work to recruit teachers and better broadcast the achievements of the Hartselle district.
“We have to tell our story,” Cooper said. “By telling our story, others across the state and Southeast will be able to hear about that and it will pique their interest. I think we also need to be visible at recruiting fairs and we need to be active with our local colleges.”
Cooper said it was important to him to be able to promote Hartselle educators to administrative roles and to hire teachers for the district who are Hartselle alumni, or as he puts it “growing from within.”
“I think it’s extremely important that we have great people on our staff already and it’s important we give them the opportunities to lead,” Cooper said. “I’m 100% for promoting from within, but we have to do a really good job of making sure we have people who are prepared to take on those new roles when they become open.”
Cooper said Hartselle’s reputation was second to none, but only continued efforts will assure the district maintains that reputation.
“We must continue to push the needle forward,” Cooper said. “We must always stay at the forefront because if we ever stop doing that, it’s easy to fall behind. … We have to be very purposeful and strategic to make sure we grow our kids academically.”
The city school board says it has a competitive group of candidates for Hartselle’s vacant superintendent position.
“I saw six confident people who are ready to take the reins of the role of superintendent in any district but, obviously, we can only pick one,” board President James Joy said.
Vice President Monty Vest said she’s confident the board will find a qualified candidate from its finalists.
“We’ve had one of the strongest candidate pools of any superintendent search in this area in recent history,” Vest said. “We have a tough choice.”