It’s been nearly four years since Dr. Steven Parker took over the reins of the Lancaster County Public School District. When he arrived, he faced failing schools, students at all levels who could not read, a declining student population, a declining budget, an angry divide between the school board and supervisors, and a revolving door of administrators, teachers and, yes, superintendents.
The district was a hot mess. But he wasn’t fazed.
“We want this division to be the best in the country,” Parker said in August 2014, the beginning of his first year as a superintendent. “Change is a process. It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s like pushing a boulder uphill. It requires focus.”
When he discovered kids of all ages couldn’t read, he implemented a new reading program at the primary school. The non-profit organization Kids First had already started two 3-year old classes for at-risk children. Additionally, the school has four classes for 4-year olds and an expanded volunteer tutoring program at all three schools—all working to chip away at closing the achievement gap that leads to failing Standards of Learning (SOL) scores.
The programs are working. Kids are reading—which means they can now read benchmark and SOL tests. In many cases, students have met their grade level. Others are exceeding them. Some are nearly there.
One of his first priorities was to change the environment in schools, starting with respecting each other “to the person” and modeling a good work ethic of integrity.
Parker’s personal work ethic is evident in the long hours he puts in every school day. His day begins at 4:30 a.m. I accompanied him on Thursday, April 19. The day ended about 9:40 p.m.
4:30 a.m., An early riser, Parker does a few chores around the house, like unloading the dishwasher. He reads the newspaper. After wife, Dr. Karen Parker, leaves for her teaching job at Northumberland High School around 6:50 a.m., he spends the next half hour reading books or playing puzzles with his 3-year-old grandson, Colton, before taking him to daycare.
7:30 a.m., He arrives at the school board office and begins gathering up the materials he’ll need that day.
7:45 a.m., I meet up with him just in time to jump in a school vehicle and head for Tappahannock for the monthly gathering of Region III school superintendents.
8 a.m., While we are driving, school employees are receiving Parker’s Thursday newsletter which he set up for automatic email delivery. In it, the superintendent brings them up to speed on the school budget process, mentions the Saturday art show at the middle school and the ceremony for the high school basketball team at Town Centre Park. He mentions the passing of two teachers’ family members and those celebrating birthdays that week. He ends with a quote from Barbara Bush, who had just passed away: “If human beings are perceived as potentials rather than problems, as possessing strengths instead of weaknesses, as unlimited rather that dull and unresponsive, then they thrive and grow to their capabilities.”
8:30 a.m., Arriving at the Essex school board office, Parker is one of nine members of the superintendent’s steering committee in attendance. A consultant gives a presentation on research done at the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School that articulates the rolls of education and business in economic development. A discussion follows on the challenges of the school and students, such as attendance, low participation by children living in poverty, class rigor.
9:30 a.m., King George superintendent Rob Benson opens the Region III superintendent’s monthly meeting which consists of 17 districts from Stafford to Gloucester counties. Members get updates on education, budget and new quality standards for dual enrollment legislation before the General Assembly, the latest federal mandates and a report from Ken Dickey with the Virginia Department of Education. A presentation by representatives of K-12 Insights gives the benefits of “climate surveys,” followed by a discussion on equity for rural school divisions and teacher retention. It’s pretty dry stuff. During the three hour session, Parker replies to text messages and exits for a couple of phone calls.
11:35 a.m., We hit the road for LHS. During the drive, Parker explains that when he’s not attending the regional meeting, a typical day involves “spending a great deal of time reviewing literature to keep abreast of topics concerning education. I visit schools and classrooms often; pour over the dozens of emails I receive; talk to parents and staff members; review policy and legislation; spend a great deal of time meeting with folks in the community. I work on legislative matters as a representative of Virginia Association of School Superintendents for Region III. I’m chairman of the community policy and management team.” He also attends many school sporting events. Finding time to take care of his health is a challenge. He’s started working out at the YMCA. “I rarely leave before the buses all call in after having completed their routes.”
12:25 p.m., Parker signs in to tutor at LHS. He stops to chat with several people in the front offices and guidance department on his way to meet up with his student. Testing is going on in the media center, so the two pick an empty classroom to work.
1:15 p.m., He comes out of the tutoring session elated that his student excelled that day, even caught Parker in a mistake. He ducks into principal Butch Gross’s office to be briefed on some student issues from the previous day. The door closes.
1:25 p.m., The door opens and we’re off again, headed for LPS. There is no time for lunch as we pull into the school parking lot.
1:30 p.m., We head to vice principal Mary Catherine Jones’ office to review new curriculum for the early childhood development program. Already seated at the conference table are principal Mike Daddario, school nurse and parent Kelly Kellum, reading and history instructional coordinator and Title III coordinator, Anna Kellum, special education/resource specialist Ann Kelly, pre-K teacher Amanda Gordon and instructional assistant Omelia Jones. They divide into three groups and head to the cafeteria where they read through the teaching manuals from different companies, rotating every 15 minutes so that they can preview each.
“We’re looking for the materials that best meet the standards,” Parker explains. Back together again, they discuss the pros and cons of the materials and select a favorite—a unanimous pick which will be posted for parents’ view and comments before a final decision.
“This is exciting. This is fun stuff. It’s instructional leadership that I don’t get to do often,” said Parker.
“When we taught them to read first—not to take tests—it worked. It’s slow, but it’s sustainable,” said Anna Kellum.
“Forget about the tests,” said Parker. “The older they are, the harder it is to catch up.”
Before we leave, he makes a beeline for the pre-K classes. The children seem to invigorate him.
3:10 p.m., We are back in the car, headed to the school board office.
4 p.m., Parker gets a call. The board of supervisors is discussing the proposed school budget at the beginning of their work session today at 5:30 p.m. He sends school board members an email notifying them of the last minute change.
4:15 p.m., He picks up a salad for lunch. It is his only meal of the day. Dinner with his wife only happens two or three nights a week. This night, he will miss dinner altogether.
5:15 p.m., Parker and the school board members assemble in the board meeting room of the County Administration Building.
5:30 p.m., District 4 member and board chairman Bill Lee announced that District 2 supervisor Ernest Palin has been studying the proposed budget and will give his thoughts. Palin picked at a few numbers, then introduced a final total that is some $415,000 less than the school board request. Parker and finance director Whitney Barrack justify the numbers to supervisors during a lengthy discussion. The meeting ends after 7 p.m. without a vote.
Parker’s high school son and another student attended the meeting for government class. “They were not disappointed,” Parker said. In fact, they “were quite honestly dismayed at what they heard.”
7:10 p.m., That meeting rolls into the next as Parker and school board members remain for the planning commission’s public hearing on requests for the capital improvement budget. At risk is the school board’s request for $9.3 million to buy 156.5 acres and begin engineering studies, soil testing, road and utility work and architectural designs for school replacement. Planners rank the item #2 on their list of requests, behind a $25,000 match application for a state school security grant of $100,000. They vote to forward the list to supervisors.
9 p.m., The meeting ends, but several citizens stay behind to talk to Parker and the school board about the meetings.
9:15 p.m., Parker leaves for home, arriving at 9:40 p.m. There is no time for the day’s workout.
“I love my job,” he says. “There is nothing in the world I would rather be doing at this stage of my life. Days like today can be frustrating and exhausting, but … all I have to do is remind myself that all the frustrations are worth it—to spend time with children can make it all worthwhile.”