Whitaker Assumes JPS Superintendent Role In Difficult Times
(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part conversation with Dr. Kevin Whitaker, who took over as the superintendent of Jamestown Public Schools on July 1. Part Two will run in Tuesday’s edition of The Post-Journal)
In a normal year, a transition between an outgoing and an incoming school superintendent can pose a challenge, according to Jamestown Public Schools superintendent Dr. Kevin Whitaker.
“You have one foot in your old job and one foot in your new job and also, the outgoing superintendent is still the superintendent until the day occurs when you’re the superintendent,” he said. “There’s always the dance of making sure you don’t step on any toes until it’s time for you to take over the position. You don’t want to be rude or anything, but at the same time, you still want to hit the ground running and do the right thing for people and do the right thing for kids.”
But, transitions amid a global pandemic have created unique means in which to conduct that transition — Whitaker had not met any of the district staff in-person, save for the handful who were present for the special meeting announcing his appointment last month, until his first day on July 1.
“All the folks here (at the administration building), I met them all by Zoom but today is actually the first day I meet them in person,” he said during an interview on Thursday, noting that even conversations with his predecessor, Dr. Bret Apthorpe, took place remotely.
“We had a couple of Saturday morning long sessions on Zoom,” Whitaker said. “We had a lot of conversations about everything — wide-ranging topics. Stuff that was emergent, stuff that was long-simmering, stuff that’s kind of out there and we text and talk on a fairly regular basis as well. He’s been great in the transition process. The board of education has also been great in the transition process. I’m just trying to get to know people, sort out the issues and collaborate with folks. I still have lots of people to meet and most aren’t here.”
That includes his colleagues at other districts across Chautauqua County.
“I’ve already spent a lot of time talking to the area superintendents, having conversations about what to expect, what they’ve heard from Albany and whether or not it’s executive action or new law or the conflict between federal and state law,” he said. “Also, there has been discussion around the American Academy of Pediatrics, which came out recently with some COVID recommendations, so that’s fairly new to folks and we’re trying to sort through that.”
With his appointment, Whitaker becomes the 18th superintendent in the district’s 155-year history. Eight of his predecessors are immortalized through the district buildings that are named in their honor including the one named for Deke Kathman in which Whitaker will occupy an office.
Much like transitions, the task of taking over this district in a normal year would be daunting — the task of taking it over with both the reopening and funding of schools still uncertain presents a completely unprecedented scenario for the first-time superintendent. Nevertheless, he is excited to get started.
“The potential trajectory of the district is what excites me,” he said. “We have incredibly talented kids, we have incredibly talented staff, we have a supportive community, we have foundations, the community college and the opportunities those things all allow and bring. It means that the sky is the limit.”
Whitaker has spent three decades in education, serving most recently as assistant superintendent of School Improvement and Accountability at the Geneva City School District under Trina Smith Newton, whose own career began in Jamestown as a science teacher at Washington Middle School.
Together, they helped to re-imagined a district with troubling graduation rates at risk of being taken over by the state into one that now boasts rates of 80 percent, with an 89 percent graduation rate among African American students. And though Geneva is half the size of Jamestown, Whitaker said the demographics are nearly identical.
“The biggest shift that we made in Geneva was viewing students from poverty, especially students of color, and changing the perception of them from ‘problems’ to ‘scholars,'” Whitaker said. “They are kids, just like anybody else, and every kid needs different supports and to make the shift — from we have a group of trouble makers that are going to take our district down to these being the constituents of our district and we need to serve our constituents — was a pretty big lift and it took a while.”
He added, “We just have a special duty to kids and we need to take care of them. Ultimately, we want to educate and graduate them to live lives of consequence. We can’t do that if we put up artificial barriers.”
A large part of that understanding came courtesy of working with Newton, calling her a “transformational leader” that is “simultaneously patient and impatient.”
“She is impatient around, ‘We need to make things right for kids,'” he added. “Whatever it is that’s not working for kids, we had to right that. But then she’s patient and understands that people just can’t turn on a dime and change what they’re doing and so she understands that you have to support people and bring people along throughout the process and help them in whatever way that you can.”
He added, “Once you’ve built relationships that people can trust and they understand that you’re not going to do some heavy-handed thing and make some declaration and ensure that teachers and constituents are involved in the process, then everything else becomes suddenly easier because then you have more hands on deck,” he said.
And, as far as the district’s “system” is concerned, no one provides it more power than teachers — and no more so than in the past several months.
“Teachers are the engine room of a school system,” he said. “They drive the ship … They turned on a dime and all of a sudden it’s online and distance learning. That’s incredible and they’ve gotten a lot of press — deservedly so.”
But, he noted, others who add to the power of that “system” also stepped up in the days and weeks since in-person instruction was suspended — notably food service workers.
“These are folks that already work really hard and they turned what they do into outward-facing community-based support and that’s really impressive,” he said. “There are lots of folks behind the scenes that people don’t even think about that deserve a lot of praise.”
Whitaker’s focus now is on what roles schools will play in the larger “world system,” calling education the “third wave” in the general response to COVID-19.
“The first line of people that really needed to step up at the beginning of this pandemic were the healthcare workers,” he said. “They had to step right into the storm. The next phase was all of the support people and they had to step up and then the third phase is going to be our teaching staff and our aides and our administrators coming back to school … Now, it’s our turn to step up.”
Support, then, will be crucial and Whitaker will look to provide it in whatever way possible.
“You have to take care of your people,” he said. “In the most obvious sense right now, you have to protect people. You have to put precautions in place that make it safe to come to work. But also, you have to protect people and understand that they may not see what you see. You have to provide the environment in which you can thrive so that you can feel safe to risk something new and without relationships and trust, without supporting your staff nothing goes anywhere.”