Superlative Superintendents


Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of the Berea College Magazine

Complied by Michael Loruss, ’10, and Patricia Stephens, ’11

A little over a year ago, David N. Cook, ’85, contacted the Berea College Magazine with an idea for a feature on eight Berea alumni employed as superintendents of public education in Kentucky. As a policy advisor for the state Department of Education’s Office of Leadership and School Improvement, David mentioned that of the 174 public school superintendents, Berea College had the distinction of having more Kentucky school superintendents than any other private college.

His comment sparked our feature on Berea College leaders in education. In order to tap into a wealth of rich personal experience, we asked the following superintendents to address current thinking on state and national public education. They are: Roger Marcum, ’74, Marion County Schools (retiring); Larry Woods, ’75, Lincoln County Schools; Brent Holsclaw, ’83, Bardstown Independent Schools; Larry Sparks, ’83, Leslie County Schools; Rob Stafford, ’89, Washington County Schools; Chuck Adams, ’92, Spencer County Schools; Kathy Burkhardt, ’92, Erlanger-Elsmere District Schools (incoming); and Joshua Powell, ’97, Union County Schools. Sadly, Mike Caudill, ’78, superintendent of Madison County Schools, passed away before he could be interviewed.

What educational experiences in your youth, or through Berea College, shaped your personal and professional life?

Roger Marcum: My undergraduate experience at Berea College caused me to understand, appreciate and value the importance of a liberal arts education. I have striven to see that the students under my supervision have opportunities to receive a well-rounded educational experience that inspires and motivates them to high self-expectations.

Larry Sparks: My first labor assignment was at Boone Tavern, where I worked in the kitchen. I was scheduled early, during breakfast. I worked three of four weekends each month. I also played baseball, with practice beginning at 4:00. When you throw in a full class schedule, there wasn’t much time for goofing off. It made me realize that I was capable of doing more than I had ever been challenged to do before, and it gave me the confidence I needed to succeed.

Larry Woods: My K-8 principal and the school coach, Mr. Earl Shaw, showed a lot of interest in me. I was just a little farm boy. He said, “Why don’t you stay and try out for the team?” He took me under his wing and gave me avenues of thought that there was a big world out there and I could do things I thought I never thought I could do. That’s what I try to do as superintendent now. If I can be anything like that with kids and show an interest in them, I think I’ve fulfilled my destiny in life.

Brent Holsclaw: By the time I reached my first real paying job, I had been working through Berea’s labor program for four years and had learned the importance of being on time, doing my best and working as a team member. As young college students, we also often grumbled about the convocations. We didn’t realize at the time that we were seeing and hearing culture and history.

<strong My experiences at Berea enabled me to see the value of education and the importance of lifelong learning. And Berea’s focus on labor is something that I have carried with me in every aspect of my life.

Rob Stafford: I came to Berea College after first attending a state university. I wanted a more personal academic environment and I liked the idea of everyone being equal on campus—no fraternities or sororities. When I graduated, I felt that the opportunity to attend Berea was a valuable experience, and I wanted to give back in some small way. Being active in the Alumni Council is part of that. I enjoy keeping up with what’s happening on campus.

Larry Woods: I was the first in my family to get a college degree. Berea allowed me to challenge myself and receive independence with every accomplishment. Berea exemplifies a community. My work as superintendent is about building a learning community in a public school district. I feel that my decision-making is better because of the awareness of the “community” concept modeled by Berea College.

What do students need to succeed?

Kathy Burkhardt: Everyone at the school should have a common vision and mission in what they believe. A culture of care, compassion and high standards for staff members and students fosters school success. Students have to be actively engaged in their learning and schools must work to design instruction that motivates students to learn by giving them a real-life purpose for their learning.

Rob Stafford: Students have to know that you care about them and have high expectations. Regardless of the students’ abilities, they will work hard for you if you have a good relationship with them.

Roger Marcum: Self-discipline, high expectations for self, a strong work ethic, a determination to succeed and having others who believe in you are all critically important to the academic success of students. Most important, however, is opportunity. Without the opportunities Berea provided me, I could not have overcome the obstacle of poverty and broken that cycle.

What promotes success for educators?

Chuck Adams: Teachers need to have the ability to mold students into problem-solvers and independent thinkers by understanding their individual interests and making content connections based on those interests.

Brent Holsclaw: All students need to be challenged and every teacher needs to have high expectations for all students. One of the most important elements of good teaching is for the teacher to take time to establish a relationship with the child. Once a student knows how much the teacher cares, the rest will take care of itself.

Kathy Burkhardt: Effective leadership and mentorship promote success for educators. Building capacity within schools and districts through job-embedded professional development seems to have the most powerful impact for educator success.

Larry Sparks: You must take pride and ownership in what you are doing. It has been my experience that the teachers who struggle are the ones who view themselves as teachers of a particular subject, rather than as teachers of students. When you find an educator who will embrace every child and every challenge that comes with that child, you’ll have a great educator.

Rob Stafford: No matter how much money you put into a school system, if the educator doesn’t have a passion to teach and give their best in the classroom every day, you’re not going to get an impact.

In your opinion, what does it take for a school to strive?

Roger Marcum: Education must have a culture that is student-centered. The academic success of a school or district is largely determined by the performance of the certified and classified staff who serve the students. Therefore, the two most important factors for school and district success are quality teachers in every classroom and effective leadership, which are a direct reflection of community expectations.

Rob Stafford:Learning to go to school every day is part of learning to be a good employee. It’s important that kids stay in school. It’s a pretty rough world out there, and without an education it becomes harder. From a business standpoint, schools are funded on Average Daily Attendance figures. If our students have good attendance, it can help you in many ways to provide good programs for them.

Joshua Powell: Great schools realize their great responsibility, obligation and opportunity to improve society. The collective power of schools is great. My interest are in doing what is best for kids.

What do you find most rewarding as a teacher and/or superintendent? What challenges you?

Joshua Powell: The most rewarding thing as a teacher is to know that you made a positive impact on a person’s ability to lead others. The most rewarding thing as a superintendent is to see dramatic improvement of a community, using public education as a tool for progress.

Roger Marcum: As a superintendent, you have fewer opportunities to know the students personally, but you have more opportunities to help educators grow professionally so that they are better equipped to meet the needs of students.

Rob Stafford: The most rewarding experience as a superintendent is walking through classrooms and witnessing students excited about learning. The most challenging aspect is dealing with the numerous social, political and economic factors that impacts schools. The lack of funding is having an impact on public education and its ability to provide services to all students.

Larry Woods: I have known that I wanted to be in the teaching profession since junior high school. While in high school, I coached and worked in youth programs and have never stopped. I now have 33 years as an educator and still look forward to each day in working with our youth. I believe that a successful educator, upon retirement, will reflect back to the many students that they have influenced. It is then one can truly measure success.

Brent Holsclaw: I think the most rewarding aspect is when the concept you are teaching is finally understood by your students. It is almost like the “Ah-ha” light comes on. It’s a very positive emotion

Given the renewed emphasis on improving educational standards at both state and general levels, where do you see the field of education going?

Chuck Adams: Both state and federal governments have quite a bit of ground to make up. My hope is for less high-stakes accountability and more individualized assistance so students can be successful in an area of study meaningful to them. The minimum requirement on Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS) does not train students for anything other than college. If we don’t include vocational training in our plans, we are letting our community down. there is a high rate of unemployment resulting from a lack of resources and opportunities for individuals to achieve the vision of work they have.

Larry Sparks: Educators are going to be dealing with a more diversified population and ever-greater challenges. Differentiated instruction will probably go to a whole new level. Educators are going to be challenged as never before to reach every child. I believe we will see the role of technology in the classroom become a more important tool than it is today. I would love to see more money put into vocational and technical education. I spent three years as the principal of our count’s area technology center. During this time I witnessed students who struggled greatly in the traditional high school setting become examples of success when placed in classes such as welding, carpentry and electricity. There is a place for everyone.

Brent Holsclaw: We have a responsibility to create standards that prepare our students to be problem-solvers and provide them with the ability to be critical thinkers. We know that our students are competing for employment on an international level as well as being compared to students across the globe.

Joshua Powell: I think that the answer in Kentucky, as well as in the nation, lies in the improvement of public education. Moreover, when many other states are not placing emphasis on improvement, but instead watering down standards, an opportunity exists for Kentucky to catapult forward to a nationally competitive standing

Kathy Burkhardt: We also have to measure ourselves globally and ask why our students are falling behind the students in other nations. We are preparing students for careers that may not even exists tomorrow. Students have to learn to be creative thinkers, problem solvers and lifelong learners.

What advice would you offer individuals considering a career in public school administration?

Joshua Adams: Only go into teaching if you believe you can improve the world. You actually can.

Chuck Adams: A superintendent has to make 100 decisions a day, and 99 percent of them won’t make everyone happy at the same time. It’s those decisions that matter. It has to be a good decision for the kids.

Rob Stafford: Go in and try to do the best you can do every day, and make the right decisions that will somehow impact the progress of kids. Go in with your eyes wide open and understand that administration is totally different from teaching. Make sure that you’re a good listener and be able to see things from different perspectives before you make decisions. Also, know that you are going to face numerous difficulties, but seeing students achieve and schools progress because of your efforts is very rewarding.

Brent Holsclaw: What you learn in the classroom will only be a small portion of what you will need to meet the demands of the job. Be a good listener. Surround yourself with good people to help make good decisions. Develop a network of advisors and mentors. Be flexible. Have fun, love your job and do not take yourself too seriously.

Categories: News, People
Tags: alumni, Appalachia, education, Education Studies Department

Berea College, the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, focuses on learning, labor and service. The College only admits academically promising students with limited financial resources—primarily from Kentucky and Appalachia—but welcomes students from 40 states and 70 countries. Every Berea student receives a Tuition Promise Scholarship, which means no Berea student pays for tuition. Berea is one of nine federally recognized Work Colleges, so students work 10 hours or more weekly to earn money for books, housing and meals. The College’s motto, “God has made of one blood all peoples of the earth,” speaks to its inclusive Christian character.