CHRISTIANSBURG – During a closed session Wednesday morning, the Montgomery County School Board chose to hire Brenda Blackburn, current assistant superintendent in the Division of Curriculum and Instruction for Brevard County, Fla., as the County’s new superintendent of schools.
The decision was made less than 24 hours after a public forum at Christiansburg Middle School Tuesday during which finalists for the position answered constituent-supplied questions about their leadership style and goals as the County’s next potential superintendent. Blackburn was chosen from among two other candidates: Dr. Scott Kizner, current superintendent of Martinsville, Va. Public Schools; and Dr. Annie Wimbish, current superintendent of Hattiesburg, Miss. Public Schools.
In her opening statement during Tuesday’s forum, Blackburn said part of her desire to come to Montgomery County springs from her early experiences in teaching, which took place in Danville and Roanoke, Va. She also has family connections to Virginia through her parents, who grew up in North Carolina near the Virginia border, Blackburg said.
“I have good thoughts about Virginia and some fond memories about Virginia,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn received a Bachelor of Arts in Education and a Master of Arts in Counseling from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., according to her professional biography. She then attended the University of South Carolina and completed post graduate work at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla. In addition to teaching experience (mainly in secondary schools), Blackburn has served as a dean, principal, assistant principal, school counselor, and area superintendent before accepting her current position in 2003.
Her current district of Brevard County is the 44th largest school district in the country, and the 10th largest district in Florida. Brevard is comprised of 73,000 students; 9,500 employees, and 5,000 teachers.
“With that size, I’ve had an opportunity to have almost every experience that I think you can have, except snow,” Blackburn said.
Brevard holds the second highest on-time graduation rates in the state and the sixth lowest drop out rate.
Another reason Blackburn gave as to why the open position in Montgomery County interested her was the smaller district size, something which would allow her to get to know more of the students, faculty, staff, and parents on a personal level.
“One of the things that really was exciting to me about Montgomery County is the fact that you are a school district that I think I might be able to really identify with and get to know the administrators and teachers and even the students,” Blackburn said. “Because coming from 73,000 to about 10,000 students, I think it would really give me an opportunity to focus on relationships.”
Blackburn said the strong partnerships between MCPS and the area’s post-secondary institutions such as Virginia Tech, Radford University, and New River Community College also appealed to her. The school systems “students first” approach aligns with her administrative philosophy.
However, although MCPS is progressing in several areas, the system does have some needs that Blackburn said she would be able to help with, including closing the Standards of Learning achievement gaps for specific sub-groups of students such as minorities, economically disadvantaged children, or students with disabilities.
“That’s not uncommon,” Blackburn said. “Those are the same groups that we’re struggling with in the schools system that I’m in now, and I have some experience with working with closing the achievement gap.”
When she becomes superintendent, Blackburn said she will work to close achievement gaps using successful interventions that MCPS has used in the past, but she would also try to introduce some of the methods she has implemented successfully in her past experiences as an administrator. She also said she would work to gain input from other school districts that have made progress in closing achievement gaps for these groups.
SOL’s are necessary to set a focus for curriculum, there are other ways to measure achievement in MCPS, Blackburn said. Academics are important, but there also needs to be strong emphasis on non-SOL programs, such music and the fine arts, she said.
“We just need to have a balance,” Blackburn said. “You have to find standards. You have to have them, and that’s where you start.”
SOL’s and Adequate Yearly Progress are one way to measure student achievement, but there are other ways, which are equally important, Blackburn said. Some of these methods include: retention rates, literacy, success in extra-curricular activities, graduation rates, community response to the school system’s performance, and drop-out rates, Blackburn said.
“I think, with No Child Left Behind, we’ve gotten so tied to the report card that sometimes we forget about all the other things that contribute to a high quality school system,” Blackburn said.
Blackburn described herself as some one who leads through influence, spreading high energy to the rest of the school system. She also described herself as some one who would work to raise the floor and ceiling for student achievement, and an advocate of 21st Century learning who would work to help students relate their experiences in school to those in the real world. Blackburn said she considered herself a versatile leader.
“I can do top-down management, and there times when you have to make a decision, and I can do that,” Blackburn said. “But if I have the the opportunity to have the discussion, to build support for ideas, to listen and to develop a team that will go forth and support what we’ve agreed to do, then that’s my preferred method.”
During her 45-minute response to questions at the forum, Blackburn also touched on her budget philosophy, which puts instruction above all else.
“My philosophy is to spare the classroom,” Blackburn said. “That is the meat and potatoes, so to speak, of what we do.”
Her current system’s budget shrank from $1.1 billion to $850 million in recent years, Blackburn said. In deciding where to make cuts, she first took a “nickel-and-dime” approach, cutting back the scope of certain programs, without comprising the integrity of programs as a whole, Blackburn said. She also cut district needs before those of individual classrooms, and reevaluated and scaled back programs that the system had gotten sufficient mileage out of. In terms of MCPS’s impending $2.8 million budget shortage in the upcoming fiscal year, Blackburn suggested seeking more alternative sources of revenue, such as grants, and getting together with other districts to purchase bulk supplies.
“We’re going to have to be creative,” Blackburn said. “We’re going to have tighten our belt, but the most important thing is the teacher and the classroom, protecting that to the very best of our ability.”
Blackburn has two adult sons, Mark and Chris, according to her professional biography. She said she enjoys traveling, reading mysteries and taking long walks with her dog, Rocko. The biography states Blackburn has a special interest in children with disabilities and has worked to support the efforts of the March of Dimes. When a series of hurricanes hit Brevard County, Blackburn was an “instrumental part of the team that organized fundraisers to provide support to local families and school board employees”, according to her biography.
A news release from MCPS stated Blackburn accepted the contract the Board offered her, with an expected start date of March 1, 2010.
“Additional details will be forthcoming once the contract is finalized,” according to the statement from MCPS.