A New Man In Town

You want to pay new school superintendent Tom  Shelton a compliment?  Just tell him it seems like Stu Silverman is still calling the shots at Fayette County Public Schools.
Shelton, who officially assumed Silberman’s old post on Sept. 1, is accustomed to following “Stu.”

Their paths first crossed at Daviess County schools where Shelton used his business background as the district’s assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

Shelton has degrees in accounting, business administration and educational administration, plus a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Louisville.

When Stu took the Fayette County job seven years ago, Shelton succeeded him in Daviess County and in 2010 was named state Superintendent of the Year.

And here we go again – which seems just fine for all concerned.

Parents, teachers and the district’s 38,000 students can expect a smooth transition, with Shelton casting himself as someone who can take Stu’s defined vision and systematically produce measurable results.

“While Stu and I have different management styles, he and I have the same values and beliefs as it relates to kids – we both believe that all students can learn,” he said.

“That drives everything we do. Stu is like a big brother to me. I won’t hesitate to bounce ideas off of him.

“This is a logical fit for me in Fayette County to continue what Stu started here.”

That made sense to the district Board of Education when it hired the 47-year-old Shelton, who started serving the county this summer before he officially assumed the job.

All summer he maintained two cell phones – one for Daviess and one for Fayette County. He used weekends and his vacation time to work in Lexington and has taken an apartment two blocks from his office.

“If they had a cot in my office, I could have stayed here,” he said with a laugh.

He routinely commuted from Owensboro – before a back-to-school rally on a Saturday morning in August, he arose at 3 a.m. to drive into town from Owensboro.

As he starts his new job, his older daughter Abby, a student at Georgetown College, will be close by, and his wife, Gwen, and younger daughter Audrey will remain in Owensboro while she completes her senior year of high school.

That gives Dad more time to focus on his new job.

“Tom is committed to the district, and his great strength is his analytical skill,” Board Chairman John Price said.

“Stu was a visionary who changed our district. Tom is a methodical implementer. Stu laid the foundation, and Tom is the brick builder.

“We don’t need extreme changes because we’re on the right track.”

Shelton endorses that view but realizes improvement is needed in two major areas – closing the achievement gap for minority and poor students and those with special needs, and addressing overcrowded high schools.

Achievement Gap
Under Silberman, FCPS test scores improved but the achievement gap persists. That’s the biggest challenge the district faces, Shelton said.

“The achievement gaps we have just can’t happen,” he said. “Every student must have the same chance to succeed. We have to change to make that happen.”

Shelton will build on the district’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning program that all new teachers must take.

The program helps teachers better relate to students who come from a variety of socio-economic and cultural backgrounds.

Overcrowded High Schools
Fayette County has some of the largest high schools in the state with four of its five schools larger than 2,000 students.

Even if the district had plans to build a new high school, it would take years to complete.

In the meantime, Shelton plans to introduce a program similar to the Next Generation Learning initiative he oversaw in Daviess County.

In Owensboro, the school district partnered with the University of Kentucky to explore new ways of learning in non-traditional settings that meet the needs of the community.

The program established five academies – health science, technology and engineering, business, the arts, and construction and trades – that accommodated 800 of the district’s 3,400 high school students.

The academies offered experiences beyond the traditional classroom to small groups of like-minded students.

Importantly, the academies matched the business needs of Davies County with the goal of producing graduates who are not only college ready but work ready.

“It was important that these academies were aligned with the work force,” Shelton said. “Our health science students were aligned with the local hospital, and our business students were aligned with local businesses and so on.”

Students were exposed and trained in areas that could lead to employment after high school while still remaining part of the high school experience.

“Students got the same basic academic skills and could participate in sports and extra-curricular activities while having a more customized program.”

No story on an education leader would be complete without mentioning testing.

Shelton acknowledges that because of federal accountability laws – No Child Left Behind – standardized testing is part of the education landscape but rejects the idea of teaching to the test.

“We have to be accountable and keep focused so everyone knows that their tax dollar is spent well,” he said.

“But the assessment that really counts is what happens in the classroom on a daily basis.

“If you are doing the right things in the classroom, that’s what matters.”

Best District in the Country
When he accepted the job in June, Shelton claimed that Fayette County could be the nation’s best school district. He hasn’t changed his mind.

“When I said that I cited two things,” he said. “I was amazed by the support the community gives its schools. The business community has basically said, ‘What can we do to help?’”

“We also have tremendous educational resources in this community with the University of Kentucky, a number of small, private colleges and the community college.

“I really believe we can be the flagship district in Kentucky and the nation.”

What yardstick will he use to judge the district’s progress?

“I think you have to look at the students and what they have done after school,” he said.

“Are our students ready for college and the work force? That’s the real measure.”