Montgomery County State's Attorney John McCarthy discusses his efforts to address gang violence. Plus, D.C. Councilmember Trayon White joins us to recap the "grocery march" protesting food deserts east of the Anacostia River.
After more than two decades, Virginia’s wealthiest and fastest-growing county has a new superintendent. Dr. Eric Williams takes over the Loudoun County school system at a time when rapid growth in the 70,000-plus student system is demanding bigger budgets and tougher compromises. With technology as a top priority for his school system, Williams will also weigh how to deliver more devices to Loudoun’s classrooms, as well as who should foot the bill. Kojo sits down with Williams to talk about the issues facing one of the area’s top school systems.
- Eric Williams Superintendent, Loudoun County Public Schools
Featured Video Clip
The new superintendent for Loudoun County Public Schools says Virginia school systems need more flexibility in setting their own academic calendars, including when school years begin and how long summer vacations run. Eric Williams responded to a caller’s proposal to divide the existing 12-week summer break into multiple 2-week breaks. “We need to think creatively in terms of how we’re using our time,” he said. Right now, Virginia school districts must get an exemption in order to start school before Labor Day. Williams said school leaders need more flexibility as they approach classtime in general. “In terms of innovation, if a student doesn’t need 140 hours to master the content of a course, why are we having that seat time requirement?”
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MR. KOJO NNAMDIImagine taking over a new job where your predecessor had been in the position for more than two decades. Add in the pressure to be innovative, responsive and assertive. Then imagine that you answer to two of the toughest crowds on the planet, children, more than 70,000 of them, and their parents, who happen to populate one of the richest counties in the country. That's Eric Williams' job in a nutshell. He's Loudoun County's new school superintendent.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd he comes to Loudoun with an accomplished resume from school systems in Virginia, Florida, Massachusetts and beyond. But the challenges he faces in Virginia's fastest growing county are numerous, with questions over test scores, new technology, a growing budget and even football helmets on his plate. There's no time to ease into this particular job. That's why we're thankful that Eric Williams joins us in studio today. He's the superintendent, as we mentioned earlier, of Loudoun County Public Schools. Thank you for joining us.
MR. ERIC WILLIAMSGood afternoon.
NNAMDIIf you have questions or comments for the superintendent, give us a call at 800-433-8850. You had some pretty big shoes to fill when you started in Loudoun County in July. Your predecessor, Edgar Hatrick, was at the helm of the schools for 23 years, a period in which the school system quintupled in size. With all this growth, plus hot-button issues like testing, technology and of course, the budget, how do you determine your focus and your priorities going into a job like this?
WILLIAMSWell, I'm honored to come to Loudoun with such a strong tradition of excellence. And specifically to follow in the footsteps of Ed Hatrick. Although, I will say my wife told me I was crazy to follow such a long-serving superintendent. Although, I have experience with that because I served as superintendent in York County previously.
WILLIAMSAnd my predecessor there retired after 17 years. And there was only one superintendent longer serving in the same division and that was Ed Hatrick. So actually…
NNAMDISo you are now the traditional go-to guy in the event of replacing a long-standing superintendent.
WILLIAMSThat's right. And you're absolutely right in terms of the challenge that faces me, is really taking the lay of the land. And the question that I've phrased in order to do that is how should we sustain and build on the excellence of our schools. And both of those words in that phrase, sustain and build on, are important. In terms of sustain, part of it is not messing up.
WILLIAMSNot messing up the wonderful things. I remember when I became superintendent in York County over six years ago, my daughter who was entering the ninth grade, when I was telling her what a wonderful school system it was, she looked at me and said, "Dad, don't mess it up." And so that -- I tell that story because it is so true. So part of the challenge in Loudoun is saying to the community, saying to staff, board members, parents, students, "What's working well? What do we need to not mess up?" But then, "How can we build on that?"
NNAMDIYou recently presented a plan called Vision 20/20, that lays the groundwork for a new strategic plan for the school system in Loudoun County. It calls for more public input into the system's goals. How is this approach different from what's already been happening in Loudoun?
WILLIAMSSo previously, the school board has articulated goals, but the school board had said, "Hey, we really want to take a comprehensive look at where we want to go as a division." What does an ideal graduate look like? What skills and competencies would that graduate have? And so the school board has said, let's ask that question.
WILLIAMSLet's identify a handful of key strategies, not 15, 20, 30, but like literally a handful, up to five big ideas for how we can produce this type of ideal graduate. And so it's really about getting back to answering that question, how can we sustain and build on that excellence.
NNAMDIYou're well known for being a big proponent of technology in the classroom. As superintendent of York County Schools in Southeastern Virginia, you led several initiatives to get personal devices and even social media into the classroom. What are your tech plans for Loudoun County?
WILLIAMSSo I'm thrilled that Loudoun has extensive interest in saying, hey, how can we effectively use technology to support student achievement. And last year in Loudoun there were questions about what -- to what extent should there be school-owned devices? In other words, should there be a one-to-one initiative in which the district is buying devices and giving it to kids? Or to what extent should we just allow students to bring in their own devices?
WILLIAMSAnd I suspect that the answer really lies in a combination of both of those. And so that's one of the things I'm going to be working with the board and the community on this year, is what might a technology initiative look like? The important thing I would say though, is not getting caught up in the device itself. Alan November, who's an author, refers to the -- computers as being the $1,000 pencil. So if you do nothing differently, you've not changed anything except spent more money.
WILLIAMSAnd so really, as we consider an additional investment in technology, we need to say how is this going to change teaching and learning. And the short answer is that technology can improve the quality and amplify the impact of student work.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. And speaking of devices and technology, if you've got your device with you, you're carrying a live videostream of this conversation with Eric Williams, superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Watch that live videostream or ask questions or make comments. You can also do that by calling 800-433-8850. Or sending email to email@example.com. Where are Loudoun Schools now in terms of their wireless capacity? And what kinds of funds do you need to achieve your technology goals?
WILLIAMSSo Loudoun has invested substantially in increasing bandwidth. And really that's just the pipes or the technological capacity to access the internet appropriately. And so the vision has also invested in recent years in additional school-owned devices for student use. And what we're going to be looking at is different options. So rather than rolling out an all or nothing, this is the price tag of a technology initiative.
WILLIAMSI want to have conversations with the board this fall, prior to the release of the superintendent's proposed budget in January, and say, "Hey, here are different options, at different levels of cost." And "What's the level of commitment that we want to make?"
NNAMDIA lot of parents might wonder how Skype, Twitter and social media can serve as learning tools, rather than learning distractions for students and teachers. Can you elaborate a little on how you think students and teachers can benefit from these programs?
WILLIAMSSure. And that is an excellent question in terms of, hey, are students going to use social media and other digital tools in an appropriate manner. And some schools adopt a lockdown approach. And by that I mean they try to -- they set up their networks, they try to shutdown access to those, and they also tell students, absolutely not. You cannot bring your high-powered computer that you have in the form of a phone to school. So that's the ban or the lockdown approach.
WILLIAMSAnd really what I would say -- what I would propose is a student driver approach. And what I mean by that is to put students behind the wheel of using digital tools as part of their learning, but with -- just as they're a student driver, they have the guidance from their teachers in terms of how to appropriately use them. And they're going to make mistakes on the road, as they're learning to drive. But there's going to be an instructor to teach them proper digital citizenship.
WILLIAMSAnd to get to the point of how it changes things, I think we need to give students learning experiences that connect to the real world. Give them problems to solve. And when you solve…
NNAMDIBut this is something you also did in York County with students using Twitter and Skype and blog posts to connect with people around the world. Tell us about that.
WILLIAMSSure. I'll use one example to illustrate how students can use tools. So for example, some third grade teachers said to their students, "Some parents have donated some money and we have a job. We need to decide how to improve the soil quality in a village of a developing nation." And so they had a real world problem, because they needed to decide how to invest this money that parents had donated. So these students researched -- excuse me -- they created their own scientific experiment to conduct experiments.
WILLIAMSHey, is -- are manure or worms going to be a better approach? So they designed their experiences (sic), then they Skyped with other students because they were working with students in multiple schools to make this decision. And they needed to make their pitch, in terms of saying, hey, we should use manure or we should use worms. And here's my -- here's the data from my scientific experience -- experiments. And so in this particular case, the Skyping was an example of using digital technology to make a real world decision.
WILLIAMSAnd I'll tell you, on the state test, the Virginia Standards of Learning Test, there's information on soil quality, there's also information on how you conduct research. But it wasn't taking a worksheet to prepare for that. It was solving a real problem. And in solving other problems, students might connect with experts, whether it be email, Skype, Twitter, in order to access their technology or in order to try and influence an audience. So I've also seen students post tutorials on math or what's the meaning behind the Fourth of July?
WILLIAMSThere were students at one elementary school in Yorktown who interviewed people on the street, and they had no idea the significance of Fourth of July, other than, hey, let's have a family cookout. And students said, "We need to change that. Let's post videos about the historical significance of July 4th and Yorktown's role in that on YouTube." And so, again, that access to technology makes a difference. So now fast-forwarding to Loudoun, that's the same question that we need to ask, is how can we co-op the power of digital tools to get kids excited about solving real problems.
WILLIAMSBecause I'll tell you, when I asked -- when I go and talk to students and parents and staff members and say, "What do you want from a graduate?" The first answer isn't content about memorization of facts. In fact, I had a CEO tell me yesterday is "I -- what do I want from graduates? I want them to be able to think." So yes, content is important, but we want students to be able to work with, apply content to solve problems. And digital tools can be an important part of that.
NNAMDIOur guest is Eric Williams, superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools. On the matter of social media, David, in Reston, Va., wants to talk about that. David, your turn.
DAVIDWell, as far as keeping students attentive to those issues in the classroom, I'm a PhD student and we do -- we are usually teaching assistants. And one of the methods that we've started to use is to invited students to use Twitter during the lecture to post questions to the professor, to the teaching assistant. And those questions will then be answered during lecture. And we've found that that's a really good way to keep students attention and keep him involved with how the lecture is progressing.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. Eric Williams, I know that you're active on Twitter. How has social media helped you as an educator and administrator?
WILLIAMSA key help for me is really just learning. So I'm able to learn from teachers, principals and superintendents. It's really about, you know, being a connected learner, having conversations with folks and even though Twitter is short -- 144 characters -- you can share a ton of information and insights and links. And so part of my job as superintendent is to model that, you know, be -- model my -- the learning that I do myself on the sleeve -- on my sleeve. And so Twitter is great way to do that and have conversations with people across roles and break through organizational hierarchy. And have those conversations.
WILLIAMSIt also can be a key role in leadership. And so when you have conversations with people across social media, you can help forge a sense of a shared vision by giving shout-outs to the exciting things that are happening in schools. So it's not only about learning, it's about leadership.
NNAMDIWe've spent some time on this show talking about the national push to get programming and computer science skills into our schools as a fundamental part of the curriculum. With your emphasis on technology, how is Loudoun addressing computer sciences in its curriculum?
WILLIAMSI'm absolutely thrilled that Loudoun has placed a renewed emphasis on coding, on computer programming in recent years. They -- through the support of a -- of the TEALS Initiative, which is a partnership with Microsoft, we -- Loudoun has brought in experts from the field alongside high school teachers to help high school teachers expand their knowledge of computer programming, in order to beef up and increase the number of kids enrolled in computer science courses in Loudoun County. But we need to start earlier, so I'm thrilled that we had middle school teachers this summer in Loudoun County creating curriculum for middle school courses relating to -- relating to coding. And so, we need to take that -- we have a huge shortage of computer programmers and coders, and so we need to be proactive in generating student interest and providing learning experiences in this area.
NNAMDIEric Williams, he is tweeting at @ewilliams65, he also has a blog called Promoting Student Engagement. He is the superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools and a guest in our studio this hour. We're going to take a short break, but you can still call us with your comments or questions at 800-433-8850. Watch our live video stream at kojoshow.org and join the conversation there or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Eric Williams. He is superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools, inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. How can teachers and administrators bring the joy of learning back to classrooms amid so much testing pressure. Give us a call, 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there and watch the live video stream.
NNAMDIWe got an email from David, "Just wondering if Mr. Williams would support splitting up the existing 12-week summer break into multiple two-week breaks even on a voluntary basis for family. There are rumors that Fairfax County has or had such an offering, thereby reducing the effect on students of so much time away from the classroom all at once."
WILLIAMSSo that's a really interesting question in terms of breaking up -- dividing up that summer time. And I do -- I don't know in terms of that specific suggestion. I will say we need to think creatively in terms of how we're using our time. School divisions across the state of Virginia have advocated for greater flexibility and local control over setting the school calendar. And, you know, right now, we're not able to start school unless there's specific exemption reasons that you can start before Labor Day.
WILLIAMSWe'd love to have that flexibility. And so, this really relates to the question of, hey, should we be splitting up the -- splitting up that summer break? Let's have a more flexible approach to time. The other thing I would say is in terms of time requirements, the state says in order to give a high school, you need to have 140 credit hours. And I would say, in terms of innovation, is -- if a student doesn't need 140 hours to master the content of a course, why are we having that seat time requirement? And have we lived past -- has the usefulness of that requirement expired at this point?
NNAMDIHere now is -- speaking of the use of time -- Kevin in Loudoun County. Kevin, you're on the air, go ahead please.
KEVINHi, thanks for having me.
KEVINSo I'd like to ask about whole day kindergarten. So, the parent of a young child in Loudoun County, I mean, I find it unacceptable that, you know, the richest county or one of the richest counties in the country that we don't offer what I feel is the gold standard for early education that Loudoun County only offers half day kindergarten except for a few select schools that may have been deemed disadvantaged.
KEVINSo for many parents, especially in families with two working parents, I find it, one, to be highly disruptive and, two, you know, kindergarten I think nowadays are becoming less preparatory and more actual education taking place than we've got where young kids are only getting half of that education and then having the day disrupted because they had to be transitioned out of that into a child care setting. So it disrupts the family, disruptive to the child's education. I know there are physical facility issues with having...
NNAMDIBut your bottom line question is why can't we have full-day kindergarten in Loudoun County?
KEVINMy full-day -- my question is, I find it unacceptable what's Loudoun County's plan to have full-day kindergarten across the whole county? And, you know, I know it can't happen tomorrow. But is there a plan to start step one so that someday in the near-term future there will be full-day kindergarten?
WILLIAMSAnd I will say, my thinking about this issue -- and I've got homework assignment as new superintendent is need to learn more about this issue. But my thinking is definitely connected to one of the last comments you made and that's that if we were to move towards a greater of full-day kindergarten offerings within our division, what would that progression look like? Because uniformly, I hear from community members, parents, school board members, staff members about how much people value kindergarten.
WILLIAMSSo then the question becomes, okay, well, what are the barriers and how can we be solution-oriented to try to overcome those barriers? And you've mentioned the space limitations. Obviously there are financial implications as well. But really I think you've posed a good question in terms of if we were to move forward -- move more towards full-day kindergarten, what would that progression look like an how might we roll that out.
NNAMDIKevin, thank you very much for your call. Last year, nine schools in Loudoun County failed to meet the basic academic threshold set by the state compared with just two in 2012. But last week, Loudoun received good news that eight of those troubled schools are now fully accredited, bringing Loudoun to an 89 percent accreditation rate in a state where accredited schools are slipping and testing is becoming more challenging. How do you close that accreditation gap at the same time as getting kids to both master content and, one of your priorities, enjoy the learning process?
WILLIAMSAnd, so first of all, I'll say I'm absolutely proud of the students and staff of our schools that were previously identified as focus schools or accredited with warning and now have moved themselves out of that status. They did incredible work over the last couple of years to improve student achievement. And I think it's important, though, that the lesson learned isn't that we need to have a test prep mentality.
WILLIAMSAnd by that I mean where we're really just trying to pour a bunch of facts into kids' head -- kids' heads and -- and race through the content just so we can check it off and say, hey, yeah, we covered that because, I would say, how often does a kid run off this -- the bus at the end of the day and say to mom, look at this scantron sheet, look at all the bubbles I filled in. Aren't you proud of me? No.
WILLIAMSWhat they're going to be -- what they're going to have joy of learning from their part is were they able to really dive into the learning and when the activities are not only their learning facts and concepts and their wrestling with those, but it's also motivating them to want to learn more. I walked through a building the other -- two weeks ago and it was some fourth graders and they were gathered around the teacher and they were together looking at a butterfly that they had had at school and they were going to release it the next day.
WILLIAMSAnd you talk about learning about the life cycle and the joy. And another classroom shared a video of their butterfly release and the kids were literally oohing and aahing. And one kid said, this is a lifetime experience to one of their peers. And so the point I would make is -- the message that I want to give to teachers is don't set aside the lessons that you know are effective.
WILLIAMSToo often, teachers set aside lessons that they know are the effective ones for teaching deep, long-lasting learning in order to just engage in test prep. And so, we'll get good results and perform well on the tests if we're focusing on capturing the joy of teaching and learning.
NNAMDICan't go wrong with butterflies. Parents really get a taste of the testing frenzy starting in third grade in Virginia when kids are tested multiple times in reading, math, social studies and science. Do you support reducing the number of standardized tests for students? How is this -- how is all of this testing also affecting your teachers?
WILLIAMSSo the -- we're proud that Delegate Tag Greason in Loudoun played a key role statewide in convincing the state to rollback the number of state exams. And so, for example, at the third grade level this year, instead of third graders taking standardized tests at the end of the year in four content areas, they're taking it in two. Now, the tests -- the content areas that aren't tested in third grade with a state exam this year are social studies and science.
WILLIAMSNow only will they be tested in future years, though, it's still a focus for third grade teachers. And really the effect of those standardized tests, too often, is to lead teachers, as I was mentioning before, to set aside that activity that's going -- that's going to stick with that kid and they're going to remember it forever and remember the concept. And so, by reducing the number of tests, it can free teachers to focus on activities that are going to deeper, longer-lasting learning and the kid getting off the bus with work that he's proud to show his parents at the end of the day.
NNAMDIOn to the budget. Loudoun is the second wealthiest county in the state, depending on what month of the year they're doing it. Sometimes it's the wealthiest and in the country according to Forbes. Yet Loudoun School Board and its Board of Supervisors have had some very public disputes about how to fund your growing budget. One frustrated Leesburg resident said in April that, quoting here, "It's unconscionable that one of the wealthiest counties in the nation is not fully funding the budget."
NNAMDIHow do you plan to work with your school board and your Board of Supervisors to get the funds that you obviously need for the goals you have this coming year?
WILLIAMSWell, I set forth three principles after consultation with the school board and -- because they've helped me articulate three principles to guide the development of our budget. And so shared these three principles with staff last week. And number one, it's about having a success mentally. Number two, it's about being strategic. And number three, it's about being transparent.
WILLIAMSSo in terms of success, we don't want to just survive difficult budget times, we want to continue to improve. So that's number one. We're not going to just, hey, let's do the cuts that can minimize the damage. But no, what do we need to do to sustain and build on our excellence. So number one is having a success mentality. Number two is being strategic. And so by that I mean, yes, we can look at potential new expenditures, what new investments will help us build on our excellence?
WILLIAMSBut we need to have -- be strategic in terms of having clear and compelling data to justify those new expenditures. And to be strategic, we also need to look at our existing expenditures. Are there opportunities for greater efficiencies that exist? Are there greater benefits that might be provided if we spend our money differently? So we may be spending our program -- our money on one program or initiative that, yes, is yielding benefits, but if we shift those dollars to another purpose, they yield even more. And the final principle is transparency.
WILLIAMSSo we need to be really clear about how we're spending our money and about any proposed changes with the community, because that's going to do two things. It's going to build an awareness of our needs, but number two, it's going to build an awareness of the fact that we're good stewards of taxpayer funds. And so all of those three principles are going to be important to develop a budget that's going to help me in our needs and is likely -- more likely to generate support from the Board of Supervisors and the community at large.
NNAMDIOn to Phil in Loudoun County. Phil, you wanted to talk budget. You're on the air, go ahead please.
PHILThank you, Kojo. And welcome Dr. Williams. I'm a longtime resident of Loudoun, attended Loudoun schools in the '70s. One of the problems we have in Loudoun is we have a lot of parents that are advocates of the schools and school budget. However, our constituents are, let's just say, reliable voters. They vote in presidential elections, they vote every other year. But they don't reliably vote when that Board of Supervisors and school board needed to get elected.
PHILSo as a partnership, we as parents and certainly the teachers, educators, we've got to work together to inform folks about the issues that come up in election. Now, next year is the big election, but this year we have a small election. And one of the things we do is we distribute literature at back-to-school nights to let the parents know on some of the educations issues. However, the school policy -- the schools have had a policy, which doesn't allow people to hand out campaign literature on back-to-school night within 40 feet of an entrance.
PHILI know where that comes from. It certainly appropriate on election day, because it's a precinct location. But on back-to-school night, it is a public facility. I would like to ask you the most softball questions here but I'd like to ask you why are we denying giving this information to some parents because some schools they can't really hand the information to the parents unless you are within 40 feet? Some schools it's not a problem, you can be 100 feet away, that's no problem.
WILLIAMSSo, I would say we need to be consistent in terms of the expectations that we have for schools in terms of distribution of materials. And so, yes, the primary focus, for example, back-to-school nights is people want to go meet their kids' teachers, hear from them, get some -- get some information. So, yes, that's a primary focus as opposed to us as a school division wanting to educate about some of the budget issues or even other folks wanting to share political information.
WILLIAMSAnd so, within the -- with the recognition of what the primary purpose is of those evenings, we need to have clear and consistent standards -- standards relating to that, because there is a rule for distribution of information and let's be consistent about it.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time. Very quickly about the firing of the Loudoun Valley Football Vikings coach Danny McGrath made headlines after he spoke up about the number of injuries his players endure because they're pitted against much larger schools. Wanted his players to wear sensors on their helmets to monitor head injuries. School system said the devices weren't approved and put an end to it.
NNAMDIObviously his firing is a personal human resources issue that you can't discuss. Can you discuss the next step about sports and head injuries in Loudoun County as this controversy continues to leave some parents a little unsettled?
WILLIAMSSure. It is very important that we be proactive in terms of dealing with concussions. And so, Loudoun does have a very proactive approach. All coaches are required to engage in and take a course every year actually on concussions and really the -- our goals are -- we want to -- if students -- our student athletes the same concussions, we want to make sure they're properly diagnosed, that they're given adequate time to heal and that they're supported until they're symptom-free.
WILLIAMSAnd so, we want to continue our comprehensive approach to this. And as properly validated practices and equipment -- devices become available, we want to make use of them.
NNAMDIYou love soccer. You've been coaching your children's soccer teams since they were three years old, what's the policy that you have in terms of heading the ball, at what age?
WILLIAMSThat's a wonderful question. And I will say one time when my daughter had a cut on her head, every time it was like, okay, the doctor told you not to -- no headers the next two games. So that was -- so from that parent perspective, I certainly understand parent interest in this issue.
NNAMDIDo you consider yourself a good coach?
WILLIAMSI absolutely love coaching. Yes, I consider myself a good coach. So...
NNAMDIEric Williams, he's the superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools. Jury is still out on how good a soccer coach he is. We'll find out. Thank you very much for joining us.
WILLIAMSMy pleasure, thanks.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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