When you were first elected to the superintendency in 2016, Putnam County’s graduation rate had stalled at around 55%. Under your leadership, Putnam County Schools' graduation rate had soared to 90% in 2020, representing one of the highest growth rates in the state.
To what do you attribute this significant accomplishment?
When I was elected, the district was beginning to implement a five-year graduation initiative. This initiative outlined goals and strategies for tackling systemic challenges in the district. The lessons we learned and our successes throughout implementation of our graduation initiative can be grouped into four themes:
1. High Expectations for ALL
2. Principal and School Ownership of Success
3. Access to Pathways of Choice
4. Systems of Support
As Superintendent, I also invited business and community organizations to partner with us on improving our graduation rates because I recognize that strong public schools are important to the vitality and economic growth of our community.
Additionally, 11 of the 18 schools had received Ds and Fs in state grading in 2016, saddling all of those schools with “turnaround” designations. Today, the number of schools receiving Ds and Fs has been reduced significantly during your tenure. What strategies did you/your district implement to close the achievement gap and ultimately improve school grades?
Schools with turnaround designations require a combination of strong leadership, strategic support, and improved school-wide systems. Each turnaround situation is unique and often requires multiple strategies. The following strategies have proven successful in improving school grades in our district:
- Focus on core instruction
- Build organizational capacity
- Hold leaders and teachers accountable with data
- Emphasize high expectations for student growth or Challenge mindsets?
- Develop systems of support
- Utilize outside expertise
What led you to pursue becoming a public school superintendent?
I chose to become a public school superintendent when I felt a higher calling to support the students in Putnam County. I had retired in the Spring of 2016 after 38 years of public education experience with 22 years as a school level leader. I felt confident as a leader that I could lead our district to a future that would benefit all students, including my own grandchildren.
What do you feel is the most challenging barrier at this time in meeting the educational needs of students in your district?
The most challenging barrier to meeting the educational needs of students in my district is recruiting and retaining a highly effective workforce. The changing landscape in our labor force and economy has created a higher demand for both instructional and non-instructional employees in our district as well as surrounding districts.
What do you feel is the most pressing issue facing public education as a whole?
The most pressing issue facing public education as a whole is to provide a highly skilled workforce to meet the future needs of our communities. Our district has implemented a K-12 Systemic STEM Initiative to prepare graduates for careers that may not exist until years from now.
If you had the ability to change one thing in the realm of public education – what would that be?
If I had the ability to change one thing in the realm of education it would be to instill more trust between the K-12 school districts and our local and state communities. Rather than saddling districts with overwhelming mandates in the name of accountability, implement a model similar to the system in Finland. The Finnish Education system trusts educators similar to the way we in America trust doctors. I will be traveling to Finland in January of 2022 to learn more about education in their nation.
During your tenure as a superintendent, is there an individual(s) that has served as a mentor to you and/or you admire for their positive impact on you?
During my tenure as superintendent, I have two individuals whom have mentored me and had a positive impact on my leadership:
- My brother, Dr. Jim Surrency, has been a role model for me during my entire professional career. As a life-long educator and a newly elected Superintendent in Gilchrist County, Jim taught me the importance of being a man of integrity. His love of family, strong sense of character and high level of trust has been an inspiration to me as I serve the citizens of Putnam County.
My other mentor has been Dr. Patrick Wnek, Executive Director of the North East Florida Educational Consortium (NEFEC). Patrick has been a valuable colleague in advising me on instructional, operational, and financial challenges that our district has faced. I have served as chairman of the NEFEC Board of Directors for the past 5 years, and I work closely with Patrick on issues facing all member districts.
Outside of being a superintendent, what is something that your colleagues may not know about you that you would like to share.
One thing that I would want my colleagues to know about me outside of being a superintendent is that my wife and I have 10 wonderful grandchildren. They range in ages from 14 to 3 years old.
Any additional comments & thoughts you would like to share?
I am an avid reader and believe it is extremely important for leaders to learn as much about their craft as possible through reading the literature. I also challenge my staff to read as well. We have completed several book studies during my time in office. I feel that if we all study and improve together, we can develop a common language of improvement and success. As the saying goes, “high tides lift all boats.”