Last week marked a changing of the guard for educators in Birmingham as the Birmingham Board of Education named Kelley Castlin-Gacutan as the new superintendent and Birmingham-Southern College announced Edward F. Leonard III as the new president.
Each will have their work cut out for them.
One will become the superintendent of a school system that has struggled throughout the years with low graduation rates and widespread poverty. The other, head of a private liberal arts college still recovering from a crippling financial crisis. The challenges they face will no doubt be different, though both appear prepared to face those challenges head-on.
Changing Perceptions: Kelley Castlin-Gacutan becomes Birmingham schools’ eighth superintendent in 20 years
By Cody Owens
As television reporters shuffled in and out of the third floor conference room at the Birmingham Board of Education building, Castlin-Gacutan sat at the end of the table and flashed a warm, high-wattage smile. She was just happy to be there she said.
Castlin-Gacutan grew up in Hueytown, so this feels more like a homecoming than anything else, she explained. As a graduate of Hueytown High School, Castlin-Gacutan said she is eager to come home to the Birmingham area.
“It’s great, and honestly I had not envisioned this,” Castlin-Gacutan said about returning to the Magic City. “The way it came about is beautiful in and of itself, and is a testament to being able to do the work that you feel you should be doing. I really feel like teaching is at the heart of everything I do.”
When Castlin-Gacutan was in first grade, her teacher instilled in her a desire to become a teacher herself. After school, she would run home and play school in her bedroom. Sometimes, she and her friends would play school until it was time to go to bed. The next morning she would get up and head to school once again.
“There was just something about Mrs. Davis, my teacher, in the way that she pushed me and believed in me. One day I asked her how I could become a teacher. I’ll never forget, she just looked at me and said ‘Just work hard and go to college,’” Castlin-Gacutan said.
This is the kind of inspiration Castlin-Gacutan hopes to provide to the Birmingham City School system. But the first thing, she said, will be changing people’s perception of the inner-city schools.
“You just never know how much impact a teacher can have on a child’s life, Castlin-Gacutan said. “I’m sure everyone can look back and remember a teacher who challenged them and made them a better person.”
If people’s perceptions of Birmingham’s inner-city schools are going to change, it’s got to be an orchestrated effort by every single school employee, from the bus drivers and the cafeteria workers to the teachers and principals, she said. Change, in her view, does not happen with a single event, but through an accumulation of seemingly insignificant acts.
“Let me be frank, it is about teaching and learning,” Castlin-Gacutan said. “That’s why we’re here. I’ve spent the last three years overseeing operations, and I can’t wait until I get into a classroom and get to look over the instructional framework. I want to see what students are doing because that tells me what’s happening with the teachers. I need to see every single student engaged, bell to bell.”
Since 1991, Castlin-Gacutan has been involved in education in one form or another, from teacher to principal. She began teaching English in Kagoshima, Japan. After returning to the states, she became a teacher in Georgia. Eventually, after working her way through the ranks, she became the interim superintendent for Bibb County Schools in Macon, Ga., a position she held until accepting the job in Birmingham.
Upon arriving in Birmingham, Castlin-Gacutan acknowledged there is plenty of work to be done here. “There is an immediate correlation between the success of this community and the success of this school district,” she said. “We don’t have to be concerned about losing students if we are giving them our best every single day.”
Over the last several years, graduation rates in Birmingham have been on the rise. The school system has reported a 12-point graduation increase from the 2012–2013 school year, bringing the rate up to 78 percent. Over the last four years the system has seen a 26-point increase in graduation rates.
There have been eight superintendents serving Birmingham City Schools during the past 20 years. Castlin-Gacutan’s immediate predecessor Craig Witherspoon resigned amid allegations that his administration had misappropriated federal funding.
Witherspoon resigned Oct. 7, 2014 prompting the Birmingham Board of Education to search for a new superintendent. Board president Randall Woodfin explained that the school board realized it had a challenge.
“Perception is a complex issue sometimes,” Woodfin said. “We knew we had a perception problem. A lot of that was rooted in tangible things: poor board governance, bad leadership, micromanagement. All of those things filtered down to the superintendent’s office and it led to a merry-go-round with that position.”
Because of these issues, Woodfin said, there was a culture of uncertainty that surrounded the school system and a level of trepidation among parents who were unsure about sending their children to school in the district.
Recently, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) released findings comparing each individual school district across the state in math and reading proficiencies for grades 3 through 8.
The findings show a disparity between reading and math proficiency levels between students living in poverty and those who do not. For instance, the reading proficiency for 6th graders living in poverty in Birmingham is 21 percent. While the reading proficiencies for 6th graders living in Mountain Brook, just over the seam of Red Mountain, is 84 percent.
The statewide reading proficiency for 6th graders is 60 percent according to the PARCA. For non-poverty 6th grade students in Birmingham, 53 percent of them read at a 6th grade level, seven points behind the state average.
“We exist to provide information that will lead to the improvement of state and local government,” Jim Williams, executive director for PARCA, said about his organization.
According to Williams, this study was important because of the state’s ambitious plan for educational improvement, known as plan 20/20: “A part of that is getting the state’s graduation rate up to 90 percent. We’re not just looking to raise the rate so they graduate, we need to make sure they are ready to succeed at the next level.”
While Williams would not discuss the specific findings, there is without question an educational divide that exists for those students living in poverty. In every category of proficiency, students living in poverty scored roughly 20 percent less than those who live above the poverty line.
This is where Woodfin believes the new superintendent can have an immediate impact.
“I see that Dr. G has already bought into our strategic plan,” Woodfin said. “And I think that says a lot. The main thing that is rooted in is teaching and learning. She already has a firm grasp on what achievement means in an urban setting.”
So how can the BBOE and Castlin-Gacutan begin to bridge this gap for those born into poverty who deserve a quality education? “Well, this is really a national conversation,” he said.
Birmingham leaders should be “looking to other states or other countries to see how they have handled similar issues,” Woodfin said.
There is a correlation between school systems that typically excel, and how much time their students spend in school, Woodfin explained.
“We don’t spend enough time in the classroom,” Woodfin said. “Some of those successful school systems spend 250 days in school. Right now, we’re right at 179 or 180. Say a child comes into the 6th grade and he can’t read at a 6th grade level. They have four nine-week periods and then they have 10 weeks off in the summer. When they come back we expect them to be at a 7th grade level.
“To me, something is morally wrong with that,” Woodfin said. “To me, the answer is simple, we need to spend more time with that child if you want to start to close that achievement gap.”
Woodfin did not say whether or not the Birmingham City Schools plan to lengthen the school year.
After making it through the gauntlet of reporters in the conference room, Castlin-Gacutan made her way down to the BBOE auditorium where a packed room of parents, teachers and students were eagerly waiting to meet her.
“I’m reminded of one of my favorite authors, Warren Bennis, who wrote ‘On Becoming a Leader,’” Castlin-Gacutan said as she stood behind a podium and addressed the crowd gathered tightly into the room. “He said, ‘It is about using all of your gifts, your talents, your energies and becoming the person you are meant to become,’” Castlin-Gacutan continued. “As I reflect on my upbringing and my own experiences in Hueytown, Alabama, I believe my teachers had no idea what impact they would make on my life.”
After graduating high school, Castlin-Gacutan attended Tennessee State University where she received her bachelor’s degree. After that, she went on to Brenau University and Nova Southeastern University where she received her master’s degree and doctorate, respectively.
“So much of who I am today was inspired by teachers,” Castlin-Gacutan said. “I’m sure it’s that way with all of us. Don’t misunderstand me, it’s not just the teachers, it’s all of us as educators. We all have a role to play. The bus driver has a role. That’s who the children see to start their day. I always tell my bus drivers, ‘You can be the start of a wonderful day at school or not.’ We all have to work together, on every level.”
Sydney Warren, a long-serving bus driver with the Birmingham City Schools, said after the address that she was deeply moved by what Castlin-Gacutan said.
“Witherspoon never once mentioned us, much less said anything about the importance of our jobs,” Warren said, as people lined up after the address to meet the new superintendent. “I greatly appreciate what she just said.”
The line eventually made its way out the door. People waited patiently for their chance to introduce themselves to Castlin-Gacutan, who met everyone with a hug and a big smile.
While Castlin-Gacutan said it was a little too early to have any fully developed plans for the road ahead, she did mention that her first goal was to get to know everyone she could before she officially starts on July 1.
Also on her to-do list will be appointing her staff.
“She has an amazing opportunity to build her team from the ground up,” Woodfin said, referring to the roles of chief academic officer and director of human resources that are currently vacant.
“Honestly, I did not learn that until after I accepted the position,” Castlin-Gacutan said about the opportunity to build her team. “For me to be able to have a team of people support the district alongside me and work with our existing staff — it really is about cohesiveness. So being able to work with people from different backgrounds, I think, will really help to bring it all together.”
As a mother of four, she said she expects to enroll her children — the two who are not yet in college — in the Birmingham school system. For now though, Castlin-Gacutan will be making the trips back and forth from Birmingham to Georgia until it is time for her to officially hit the ground running.
Smart Growth: Birmingham-Southern College’s new president hopes to continue the success of his predecessor
By Sam Prickett
On May 13, Birmingham-Southern College’s board of trustees announced it had hired Dr. Edward F. Leonard as the college’s 14th president. Since 2007, Leonard has served as president of Bethany College, a small liberal arts school in Linsborg, Kan. He will take over his new position at Birmingham-Southern following the retirement of the current president, General Charles C. Krulak, on June 1.
Leonard will inherit a very different situation than his predecessor. When Krulak took the job in 2011, Birmingham-Southern was in the midst of a severe financial crisis. That crisis, discovered in 2010, led to the reduction of the college’s budget by $10 million, the elimination of five majors from the college’s course offerings, layoffs of dozens of faculty and staff members and a warning sanction from the accreditation board, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Under Krulak’s leadership, BSC significantly restructured its debt and saw not only the removal of SACS’s sanctions, but also a 10-year renewal of the college’s accreditation. Speaking from his office at Bethany College on Monday, Leonard said that he hopes to continue the college’s positive direction.
“My first goal is that I don’t want to screw up what General Krulak has done,” Leonard said, laughing. “I don’t think that will be difficult, because he’s built a good team. But what I really want to do is build on what he’s done. Birmingham-Southern is a great school. It’s gone through a storm, but it’s coming out of the storm. Let’s let it re-emerge as what it should be.”
Leonard said that his previous successes, most notably in his tenure as Bethany’s president, likely contributed to his hiring. The BSC press release announcing Leonard’s hiring highlights a strong history of fundraising, including a $22 million campaign for Bethany. He was also able to raise the largest single gifts for both Bethany and Wilmington College (where he served as vice president for college advancement from 1998-2007), both of which were over $3 million.
While Leonard says Birmingham-Southern’s finances “are in much better shape,” than they were four years ago, budgeting remains a primary concern. “We’re not in crisis mode by any stretch of the imagination, but we have to be attentive to [finances],” he said. “We also have to look at how enrollment growth and fundraising will help move from a very tight budget to a budget that has some slack in it so that we can begin to invest in new programs or new co-curricular activities that will help to recruit and retain students.”
Leonard’s resumé includes being an accomplished recruiter. He increased Bethany’s enrollment from 537 students to 717 students, according to the BSC press release, including a 47-percent increase in first-year enrollment and an 11-percent increase in first-year retention.
But Leonard is careful to qualify that increasing the size of the college’s student body should not come at the expense of its academic standards. He describes his approach to recruitment as one of “smart growth.”
“That’s the balancing act for colleges like Birmingham-Southern. That’s the real challenge,” he said. “How do you grow, but maintain, or more importantly, improve the quality of the growth? We’ve got to figure out, ‘Where are the students who fit and will be successful at Birmingham-Southern?’ We just need to be smarter about knowing who these young women and men are and how to get them to Birmingham-Southern in increasing numbers.”
“At some point, we will hit that magic point where we probably have grown as big as we want to grow,” he said. “And I think that’s going to be a part of the challenge in the next 12 to 18 months: ‘What is the optimum enrollment at Birmingham-Southern?’ I have no idea what that number is, and I can assure you that different people will come at the answer very differently. Some of it will be driven by quality, some of it will be driven by economics, but we have to reach a consensus on the optimum size. But you don’t want to sacrifice quality.”
Leonard speculates that his consensus-based approach to running the college likely stands in contrast to Krulak’s leadership style.
“When you’re following a retired commandant of the Marine Corps, my guess is that shared governance probably needs to be reinvigorated,” Leonard said. “There was probably a lot of centralized decision-making that needed to happen [under Krulak]. I’m not being apologetic because I probably would have done what the general did, but my guess is there’s an opportunity with a new president, particularly one like myself who believes in shared governance and consensus-seeking, [to] re-energize the faculty, the staff, and the students to really help not just envision the future but put in some sweat equity to figure out how to get us there.”
It’s this style of leadership that will likely determine what the goals of his presidency will eventually become.
“Do I have a vision for Birmingham-Southern today?” he said. “No. Will we a year from now, give or take a few months? Absolutely. But I’m looking forward to listening to the college’s various constituencies, getting folks together in the same room, learning about the history and the heritage of Birmingham-Southern. And through that process, creating a shared vision, one that we all can get excited about and say, ‘Yes, that’s the future that we want to create and build toward, whether it be 10 years from now or 20 years from now.’”
Leonard does have broad ideas for moving Birmingham-Southern forward, particularly academically. “I think it’s time for Birmingham-Southern to step up and start building an international reputation,” he said. “The world is getting flat and you’ve got to prepare college students today for an international world, whether they ever leave the U.S. or not.”
Once there is money in the budget, Leonard says, he thinks that the college will “probably” begin to add in new academic programs. “I think you’ve got to step back and ask yourself, ‘What are the opportunities in the 21st century?’” he said. “‘What are 17- and 18-year-olds looking to major in when they go off to college?’ There are new academic programs out there that didn’t even exist when I was in college 40 years ago. So, what’s new? That’s the beauty of the liberal arts.”
Leonard says his background in the liberal arts is a primary reason he was drawn to Birmingham-Southern, and is likely a reason why Birmingham-Southern was drawn to him. When he first visited the campus in 1981 as a national consultant for the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, which then had an active chapter at the college, he “immediately fell in love with the campus because it reminded me so much of my own college,” he said, referring to his alma mater, William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo. “I resonated with the place.”
“I think [the hiring committee] knew at my core, I know what Birmingham-Southern is all about,” he continued. “I have a Ph.D. in educational administration and an MBA, but my bachelor’s is in philosophy. That’s about as liberal arts as you can get.”
Leonard hopes that his similar background, as well as his diversity of interests, might foster a connection with students. He discusses 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead with the same enthusiasm that he discusses his belief that Captain Kirk is the best Star Trek captain — “I’m a bit of a sci-fi nerd, and I’m not embarrassed to talk about it,” he said. He talks at length about his favorite star of British sci-fi show Doctor Who is (it’s David Tennant, he says, “though I kind of am liking [new star] Peter Capaldi”).
“I’m throwing this out there in the hopes that some of it might resonate with some students, to say, ‘Hey! I like Who, I like Trek, I like Star Wars. I’ve got something in common with the new president.’ So we have something to begin a conversation with other than, ‘I’m the student, you’re the president, what do we talk about next?’”
Leonard also plans to organize games of pick-up water polo on campus, which he says plays into his ambitious nature. “I’m a competitor,” he said. “I was a student athlete, so I like competition. I push myself. I push those around me. I like to dream big, and when I’m told [something] can’t be done, we work our tail ends off and we make it happen.”
That sense of ambition might come to define Leonard’s presidency. “I’ve become a huge Krulak fan,” he said. “[But] I’ve told him and I told the admissions staff, ‘You guys are setting the baseline, because whatever you guys do, we’ve got to do more than that next year.’ Because I’m going to beat the general in the first year.”
“But I don’t think I have anyone cheering me on to be successful [more] than General Krulak and Dr. Berte,” he said, referring to Neal R. Berte, who served as the college’s president from 1976 to 2004. “I’ve told both of them, I’m standing on their shoulders.”