Data fuels Durant’s mission to lead TPSWritten by John P. McCartney | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Toledo Public Schools (TPS) interim superintendent Romules L. Durant’s office is typical of most professional educators, with books, journals and files tucked away in every nook and cranny. But two things immediately grab a visitor’s attention — the football locker room white board that covers most of the east wall and the four wall hangings of President Barack Obama above that white board.
Durant, who describes himself as a passionate man, said his love of football was the ticket to and much of the motivation behind his education and professional career. And the white board he uses to display the data documenting individual school building’s as well as TPS’s overall performance does not come from anything he learned in the classroom between 1982, when he was enrolled in first grade at Holy Rosary Elementary school and 2007, when he was awarded a doctorate in education in administration from the University of Toledo.
In the four-plus years he has worked as one of two TPS assistant superintendents, Durant said he has earned a moniker he considers a compliment.
“I have my data always at hand,” Durant said. “They don’t call me Dr. Data for nothing.
“And when they call me Dr. Data, it’s because I’m always about statistics. I’m a true believer of probability of human behavior. Every one of us has a behavior that we naturally do. You can quantify it.”
Durant said he enjoys telling colleagues, parents and students that his use of the white board doesn’t have anything to do with his experiences in any classroom.
“I picked this up in football,” Durant said. “This is what they trained us and taught us to do in football. In other words, if we’re playing football, there’s an offensive coordinator sitting up in the press box calling plays. That person has a habit of doing things during certain courses of the game at certain points on the field. When you study them and study their habits when you’re a player, you’re able to predict and have a high probability of [determining] what that person will call and put yourself in a position to make plays.
“When you talk about a person being a student of the game, like Peyton Manning, they do so much studying that they have a good indication of probability of those who have an impact on what’s called on the field. You’re able to participate much better than other people that are not students of the game.
“That’s the same way with education. The more you’re able to study the habit of a child, or a common habit of children, the better you can anticipate, intervene and change certain outcomes. That’s the whole idea of what intervention truly is.”
‘A great leader’
Durant said the four wall hangings above the white board, featuring 68 different portraits and miniature magazine covers of Obama, are testimony to his deep admiration of the U.S. president.
“He’s an example of a great leader in my eyes,” Durant said. “He exemplifies leadership as a game changer. He’s the first African-American president. And it so happens he’s the 44th president and my football number is 44.
“It’s definitely the whole family image of his wife and kids and his humbling experience coming up. Michelle said he had holes in his vehicle and lived in a simple apartment that had caught on fire, and he still lived in it.
“He is someone who lived so modestly, but at the same time, he was so highly educated he could do anything. He could have went to any law firm. It’s the same way with Michelle Obama.
“It shows his heart was to serve the underserved. And that’s kind of one of my mantras. You’re designed to serve the underserved. He kind of lived that.”
The game changers
Durant said the first and most important game-changers in his life were his parents, Benjamin and Carolynne Durant.
The second of three children, Durant said he attributes his work ethic to his father.
“We had somewhat of a strict upbringing in regards to waking up early, running miles, working out,” Durant said. “As children, my father had us run around Collins Park. People in the neighborhood would look out the windows and see these little kids all running around the park. My father always had us jogging.
“To this day, when I go into schools, [the conversations about my childhood] will be with kids who are children of those parents. ‘Me and my dad,’ they’ll say. ‘He’s always talking about you guys trucking around the park.’”
Durant said his father taught his three children to hold themselves to high expectations and that no one can expect more of them than what they should expect of themselves.
“He realized, in some sense, that we needed some discipline in order to be successful,” Durant said. “I tell people that he had a recipe for what I considered to be perfection. And I’ve said, ‘It wasn’t me who earned my doctorate degree.’ I’ve said, ‘My father earned his doctorate degree despite dropping out of high school.’
“At some point, he acquired a GED. The fact of the matter is that he dropped out of high school a young man. My brother is only 11 months younger than me. My sister is only a year older than me. So you’re talking about kids all around the same age. Trying to take care of three kids as a young person and then being involved for some period of time in gangs. He found himself the victim of being shot.
“He just wanted better for us than he had, and he was willing to do whatever it took.”
‘A throwback mentality’
Durant’s football career started in the junior league with the East Side Raiders, where he was known as ‘Hit Man,’ a name he picked up from watching Jack Tatum, a former Ohio State free safety, play the game.
“He was notorious for being a big hitter,” Durant said. “We always watched football, and so I used him as a role model. I always modeled myself being a ‘Hit Man.’
“On the football field, we wore jerseys, and mine read ‘Hit Man.’ At Friday games, people only knew me as ‘Hit Man.’ Everybody wanted to know who ‘Hit Man’ was. They couldn’t see me under the helmet, but you had this kid running all over the field, hitting people pretty hard. I had an old, throwback mentality about football. That [nickname] just kind of came with it.”
As a high school freshman, Durant caught the eye of Dave Pitsenbarger, who coached him in freshman football and freshman and junior varsity basketball.
“I first noticed him when he arrived for summer workouts.” Pitsenbarger said. “He stood out above everybody with his intensity, his workout. You could tell he wanted to be the best that he could. It didn’t matter if it was 90 degrees out or if it was 70, he was going at it, giving it 100 percent.”
Pitsenbarger said Durant’s unique eye contact convinced him that Durant was headed for greatness in whatever he decided to do with his life.
“Prior to games, and even in practices, when the coach would stand up and speak to the team or try to motivate them prior to the game, it was his eye contact — he was so intent on taking in every detail, every word that the coach had to say. I can still remember the eye contact and him kind of rocking back and forth with intensity and taking in every word.
“He was just motivated, ready to hit the field. He was ready to be the leader, to conquer whatever he needed to conquer. You could see he wanted to succeed, and he was going to take in every word that he could that would help him [reach] that level.”
Pitsenbarger said that throughout the years, he has invited Durant to speak at basketball clinics.
“In basketball, you could see his intensity and doing whatever it took to win,” Pitsenbarger said. “He wasn’t the greatest basketball player but he did what he could to help the team succeed. At times it looked like he was playing football on the basketball court. He would leave his feet, even dive into the stands. He’d do whatever he could do to get that loose ball. He always wanted to succeed. He’s a hard worker.”
Durant describes himself as a focused high school student.
“In high school, honestly, I was all about school and athletics,” he said. “On senior skip day, I was the only senior that went to school.
“I didn’t go to no parties. I never went out. I didn’t go to dances. It was just school and football and everything that came with it. It became a lifestyle, with working out. Schoolwork and athletics became my priorities in life.”
Durant, who graduated from Waite High School in 1994, attended UT on a football scholarship.
Tom Amstutz, Durant’s linebacker coach who later became UT’s head football coach, said he knew from the day he met Durant that he would always get his very best effort.
“He was a quiet leader, and he had a super intensity on the football field,” Amstutz said. “Off the football field, he was, No. 1, pursuing excellence. He was an excellent student. I expected him to earn mostly A’s, and he did. He was excellent in the classroom. He was an excellent leader. And he did have a special intensity on the field. He was a very tenacious guy.”
More than 15 years after a scrimmage, Amstutz said he has a crystal clear memory of a kickoff play that illustrates Durant’s character and passion for life.
“Coaches don’t really want the most intense hits during a scrimmage,” Amstutz said. “It’s your team against your team. You want some sort of control. But there was a very loud and fierce hit. And I said, ‘Oh, no.’ I looked up, and I saw a player jump up and howl like a wolf. And it was Romules. He was full-go in this, and since it was such a great hit, he got up and just howled like a wolf. I just laughed. The whole team started laughing.
“You can’t slow him down. He’s always going to go hard and that just represents what he’s done as an administrator in the City of Toledo. He’s really like a hometown hero to me.”
After his 1998 graduation from UT with a bachelor’s in education, Durant immediately went to work for TPS as a fourth-grade teacher at Nathan Hale Elementary.
Willie Ward, principal of Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy for Boys, worked with Durant in those early years.
“He was a master at orchestrating systems of discipline and of curriculum,” Ward said. “It was wonderful to see him work. He would command the whole cafeteria. The boys and girls had to walk a certain way. They had to follow specific procedural ways of doing things.
“He has structure. He has an innate sense of what needs to be to make things tight, to make sure that they’re organized, succinct and very educational. It’s just how he lets people know what the outcome would be.
“That’s why I think he has such a natural feel for the data and how we’re using data within our school buildings.”
Ward said Durant’s incorporation of the Student African American Brotherhood (SAAB) organization was “a blessing that transformed the culture and climate of TPS.”
“In implementing the core principles of accountability, proactive leadership, intellectual development and self-discipline — particularly in African-American males — Dr. Durant has helped to give students the things they need.
“Given our demographics, there are some specific things that need to be in place, particularly a culture and climate that gives students a reason and a purpose for what they’re doing — to think futuristically about why it’s important to dress in business attire, be on time, understand your data and make sure to keep your record and your urine clean.”
Ward said Durant will be a “huge asset” to the district.
“He has the organizational, people and business skills, and the connections with organizations outside of Toledo, including the national SAAB office,” Ward said. “He’s a highly, highly sought-after individual. He’s approachable. He’s well-versed in school operations, financial and people management and building networks within a community where the sustainability will take care of itself given his endorsement. The community and the district really have an asset in Dr. Durant.”
Twila Page, secretary of the African-American Parents Association, said she has a few reservations about the Board of Education’s choice of Durant as interim superintendent.
“Basically, I didn’t think they had too much of a choice because Dr. Durant, [Jim] Gault, [Brian] Murphy and [James] Gant have basically been running the district. Dr. Pecko gave them wide latitude to run the district, which they have been doing.
“For the board to bring in someone from outside when they have someone inside would have been a death knell. For one thing, they will be trying to get a levy [passed]. To go out and do a superintendent search would not have been very prudent.”
Page said TPS may have too many long-term problems for anyone to succeed as an interim superintendent.
“Their systemic, historical memory — the way they do things —they have to go past that,” Page said. “And although Dr. Durant’s new and young, he still is going to have to make changes as a young man and reject that old thinking of, ‘Because we did it this way 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, that’s the way it’s going to be done — just because it’s always been that way.’
“I think he’s going to have a hard row to hoe. He’s got the teacher contracts coming up. The district’s being investigated by the federal Department of Education and the Justice Department. And although they say things are changing in the discipline, I don’t really see it.”
Page said that as long as Durant, Gant, Gault and Murphy work as a team, they “might have a chance” to succeed.
“I don’t see it happening, though,” Page said. “They’re going to have to fight the unions. And in the paper, the unions have already started to fight back.
“And in order to get that performance audit, with those 169 recommendations, implemented, it’s going to take some strength. And it’s not going to come from just the superintendent. It’s going to have to come from his cabinet.”
Credit where credit is due
Durant was unanimously chosen to be TPS’s interim superintendent on April 8. He is careful to point out that Pecko is the TPS superintendent and that he is only in contract negotiations with BOE president Brenda Hill and TPS legal counsel Keith Wilkowski for the interim position.
The earliest the BOE might vote to accept his contract is April 23, at the regularly schedule business meeting. And if his contract is accepted and he officially becomes the interim superintendent, Durant emphasized that Pecko will remain the acting superintendent until he leaves the position July 31.
Durant said he gives Pecko credit for much of what he has accomplished in the past few years.
“He allowed his administrative team to do what they needed to do and operate,” Durant said. “Many companies would not have allowed their lower executives to pretty much change an entire organization through a transformation plan.
“We devised the Transformation Plan and went to a K-8 model. You’re talking about transitioning 50 buildings to the complexity of changing to a K-8 concept. You’re talking about multiple student, staff and community impacts with boundary lines. That was a huge overtaking.”
Because taxpayers will face a renewal levy on the ballot in either August or November, Durant wants citizens to feel confident that under his leadership, TPS will invest money wisely.
“No. 1, the district is going to be much more outcome-based-driven to provide taxpayers some sort of return in regard to the investment,” Durant said.
“No. 2, I want parents to understand that we’re trying to provide a variety of choices for their child. No child is born into one-box-fits-all. We’re providing them with a transformation of choices. They’re allowed to have a child who identifies certain strengths and are able to find [someone or something] in the school system to be able to maximize their potential passion and skill set.
“When you find something you’re passionate about, you never work a day in your life. And I think when we begin to identify those things early on — that’s the whole cradle-to-career concept — that you’re able to identify much more in detail certain strengths and weaknesses of children to where they can start to begin to [make] clear college or career tech [choices] earlier than what you see now.
“In essence, the district is going to look at the [performance] audit and implement the best suggestions of the audit while providing quality. The main thing is, all decisions are going to be student-driven in the best interest of children.”
Teacher, staff concerns
Durant said he’s confident that all TPS employees know that as their interim superintendent, “I’m going to give them 110 percent.
“This job and what I do — I live this. I sacrifice a big portion of all my personal life and time to do this, and that I’m always going to work in the best interest of the children, the best interest of the people.
“At the same time, no one works for me. As my dad said, ‘No one’s above you, but you stand above no man or woman.’
“No one in this district works for me, but more importantly works with me in regards to a plan for a mission to allow our kids to be well-balanced and to be career- and college-ready. It’s going to take a collaborative of all of us in regards to working together to make these things happen. And I will go through all means and will support them in all regards. If they haven’t seen it thus far, they will see it.
“There’s going to be a mindset of us coming to them as opposed to them having to come to us.”
Duran said he wants all TPS students and potential TPS students to know “they’re at the heart” of everything TPS does and “that all decisions are made in their best interest.
“There’s going to be a continued effort to provide them leadership opportunities. They will begin to own the mission and vision of Toledo Public Schools and the understanding that, yes, they will be well-balanced in life. They will be career- and college-ready based on the quality programs provided here.
“But more importantly, it’s going to take effort among them to continue to be part of leadership groups, to be part of some support network, whether it’s the ones we provide or outside of that.
“They have a moral and social responsibility to each other, and more importantly, to themselves. That’s going to be the culture and mindset of the district — high expectations for each and every person, always giving 110 percent. Every day is your ‘A’ day.”
7 of Durant’s educational philosophies
Use the Strive model
Romules L. Durant is an advocate of the Strive model, based in downtown Cincinnati, which helps schools leverage an area’s resources into improvements in education.
“Toledo has an abundance of resources. The Strive model can leverage these resources as a whole city so we’re not duplicating services. We’re allowing ourselves to operate much more efficiently as a city collectively, as opposed to doing the same work in the same area. How can we work together as partners to where I’m leveraging your resources and you’re leveraging my capacity and making this better?”
Durant cites the Boys and Girls Clubs at Sherman, East Broadway and Marshall elementary schools as examples of how the Strive model can work in TPS.
Own your data
Durant tells students and teachers that the purpose of data is to motivate them and show the impact and rate of return of their work.
“We sometimes have to talk about being on probation,” Durant said. “So I tell the schools, ‘Here’s where you’re at now. What’s your goal for third quarter? Where’s your PI (Performance Index) goal for third quarter?’
“Because now we’re seeing goals should be set at a building level. And I’ve developed a calculator that you can program it all in. So at the grade level, you set a goal. But who’s more important when you set the goal within the teacher’s classroom? The students.
“So we call it, ‘What’s your story?’ The student says, ‘Here’s my scale score. My scale score was 363 which put me on a proficient level. I want my scale score for the next bench mark period to be 370.’
“That’s when the teacher says, ‘What are you doing to get there? Here’s what you’re weak at. If you improve some in this area, you can see some growth in your scale score.’
“However, that’s the child owning the data. We’re talking about a system schoolwide and getting to the level where it’s in the child’s hands. Then you really have a good culture and system going because when a child owns it, now they’re motivated and intrinsically moving to improve as opposed to just being pushed along where the teacher says, ‘You’ve got to do better.’
“However, when the child owns the data, the child says, ‘I’m setting a goal to do better and this is how I’m going to do it.’”
Be the LeBron of what you do
Durant teaches students that being outcome-based, bench mark-based and data-driven are the key attributes to being a successful organizational leader.
“If you have no bench marks and no goals, what are you working toward?” Durant asked. “I learned that early on. I always appreciated my father. Ultimately, I don’t know where I would probably have ended up without having his presence. By being fortunate to have that, I try to provide that for students.
“I’m passionate about that. Any of the kids will tell you, ‘Durant is passionate about what he does.’ So I kind of consider myself the Ray Lewis of education or the LeBron James of education. I tell kids, ‘Be the LeBron of what you do.’ No matter what it is in life, if you always be the LeBron of what you do, you will have that same status but in the field that you choose. More and more, they adhere to that.
“We have this model. I say, ‘We walk into a room.’ They respond, ‘We own the room’, meaning there’s a power presence of yourself. You own what you do, and people will see it and see a glow about you they want to be around.
“That’s how you develop a positive group. Three hundred kids just didn’t come together in SAAB just to be coming together. They came together because there’s a positivity growing around others. There was a self-righteousness and a business look that the kids are attracted to.
“One of the things I tell kids is, ‘Be a game changer about things that you do.’ If you do it to a certain level of perfection, people realize that they have to change the ways they go about achieving certain things.”
Justify a renewal levy
Durant said passing a renewal levy will require at least six well-developed strategies:
- Continuing to build community trust.
- Developing the energy behind TPS.
- Establishing and nourishing community partnerships.
- Acknowledging those things the district has been doing differently.
- Focusing on what future taxpayers can expect from TPS.
- Devising a strategic plan for “getting out the word” about the best practices in TPS.
“There are a lot of great things going on in the district that are unknown,” Durant said. “There’s the aviation center. Toledo Technology Academy is in the top 10 percent of high schools ranked by U.S. News & World Report. There’s the Early College where our students earn 60 credit hours toward a college degree coming right out of high school. We have close to 60 career tech [programs] within the district.”
Durant said few people are aware of the array of programs TPS students can pursue.
“You seldom say that you’re doing well in the district,” he said. “You have to brand it. It’s about always putting our best foot forward, announcing these things and always mentioning the positive things going on in Toledo Public Schools.
“And safety is our priority, No. 1. We’re the ninth safest school district in country (as reported in the March, 2013 issue of Urban Educator). How many people realize that?
“It goes back to if people don’t know that, [then they ask themselves] what is it that they are investing in and getting a return on.”
Acknowledge the critics
Durant acknowledged that some critics questioned his suitability as interim superintendent because they mistakenly believe his entire professional educational experience has been limited to TPS and Toledo. Durant suggests a careful study of his resume will alleviate any of those concerns.
“It’s not about where you reside,” he said. “It’s about where you’re willing to go to collect information. I go to professional development [across the country], picking up best practices. That’s the diversity. Superintendents have a tendency to bounce all over the place. That diversity doesn’t necessarily bring anything unless there’s a success record based on the trail that you left.
“In any organization, your best and most successful attributes are those you’re able to train within you. Because if the person underneath you isn’t good enough to run the organization, what does that tell you about you as a leader?
“When I talk about football, some of the best coaches in the NFL have played under [New England Head Coach Bill] Belichick. And they begin to see that there’s a certain level of coaching when you’re able to produce assistant coaches who end up becoming head coaches elsewhere. That probably means there’s something about your leadership that has impacted them that they become recognizable amongst the league.
“If you’re not able to produce leaders underneath you, then you have to question your own leadership.
“Organizations are sustained based on having leadership in place. In other words, there are all these individuals coming through. You’re recruiting and providing the means to educate them in a way that is competent to the district. Surrounding districts may recruit your administrators, but if you always have a pool [of administrators to choose from], the day doesn’t stop. You still have individuals to put in.”
Encourage reciprocal teaching
Durant says he supports the reciprocal teaching model because it teaches students how to think.
“In reading, students are taught to use four guided practices when they read. First, they predict. Second, they question. Third, they clarify. And fourth, they summarize.”
In a classroom where reciprocal teaching is used, Durant said, students work in a cooperative learning group.
“The kids are in a group being led by a student who watched a teacher model it over the course of weeks. Now, the student becomes the instructor in reading a passage and asking, ‘Who has a question?’
“The questions that are driven are modeled by a teacher. So the students begin to have the good sense of asking, ‘What questions should I be asking when I read something?’
“And at the same time, that predictability becomes a transferrable skill to science. Science is all about prediction, research questions, your findings and your conclusion, which is the same as prediction, questioning, clarifying and summarizing in reading.
“Kids begin to make that transferrable connection, realizing I can predict my outcome of research in science. I can ask myself guided questions to get to a particular outcome.’
“I tell people, when you can integrate reading and science and predict why chairs roll, let’s read it. Let’s ask ourselves some questions.
“So now you’re challenging kids to develop a thinking mechanism within themselves, to think how to think when they read certain things. It will eventually become the skill that they naturally do after they’ve been trained so often in doing it.
“When they begin to transfer that to any other situation, that’s the whole idea of execution of education. You may have all the knowledge base, but if you’re not able to transfer it to life, it becomes wasted stored knowledge.”
Durant said he’s a believer of top-down, pluralistic leadership.
“You invest in others what you’re passionate about, making certain things are in your agenda that others are able to lead. And you allow them to lead in that capacity,” Durant said.
“But my main thing is being the driving force of a mission. The mission is only as good as those who are part of it and own it. So when it gets down to the very core of students, you have to truly imbed your mission in the minds of those you serve.
“That’s the whole idea [behind] the groups that I work with. I have to be grounded with those I serve, meaning those youths of today. I need to be within their grasp of understanding, and that means being around them at different times.
“When they own the process, that’s when school districts or organizations are invested. When kids own their data and own their learning, that’s when you’re talking about transferrable skills for jobs and career-readiness. They weren’t just rote. They weren’t just picking up and acquiring certain knowledge. They’ve picked up a certain strategy that allows them to transfer what’s in the career and college world.
“Those are the things that are very important. It starts with the mission. It starts with the vision, and then it goes through the execution in regards to how to connect from cradle-to-career in addressing important indications of certain skills, like reading and math. Those things become very important.
“I’m very big about cognitive theory in developing a meta-cognition for students to begin to own those processes. Ultimately, that’s what creates a successful person.
“It’s not about the GPA. You see a lot of kids with 4.0s, but are they able to transfer certain levels of skills to make them successful within the workplace? I think it’s that process in teaching them how they go about [reaching] a level of comprehension.
“I’m a big fan of reciprocal teaching as well as being more student-led in the reciprocal teaching, which actually brings about that. When students begin to lead their instruction based on the modeling of the teacher, you have true learning going on. You also have peer-to-peer learning, which is always the best [way] to leave an impact on learning.”
Tags: Brenda Hill, Brian Murphy, Dave Pitsenbarger, Jack Tatum, James Gant, Jerome Pecko, Jim Gault, Keith Wilkowski, Romules Durant, Toledo Public Schools, Tom Amstutz, Twila Page, University of Toledo