A STAFF REPORT
The Arab Tribune
The following are the written responses that Dr. Johnny Berry III gave to the Arab Board of Education to answer questions submitted by the board. It was part of the board’s process in selecting a new superintendent of education.
In the interest of fairness, the Tribune held the responses until all five superintendent candidates had their one-on-one interviews with the Arab BOE.
The principal at Decatur High School since 2016, Berry has also been an adjunct professor at the University of Louisiana at Monroe since 2016.
Question: Please give us a thumbnail sketch of your professional experiences, your pivotal belief on public education, and why you are interested in being our superintendent.
Answer: I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to serve in many different roles as an educator. I began my career as a special education teacher and coach in LaGrange, Georgia.
I also served as a guidance counselor and Director of Athletics while at Hartselle High School. I moved to Decatur and served as a middle school principal and currently serve as principal at Decatur High School. I have been a head basketball and head volleyball coach. I have also served as an assistant football coach and an assistant golf coach.
My pivotal belief in public education is that all students can learn. I am a firm believer in a growth mindset. We want to measure how each student grows as they matriculate through our schools. Effective change comes about when we identify areas of need for our students and formulate a plan to improve those areas.
If we see a consistent gap in a particular area, we must evaluate and find a way to get that corrected. We grow students by ensuring that we have the most rigorous standards and clearly communicate our high expectations.
I am interested in being the superintendent in Arab City because I believe it is one of the best school districts in the state of Alabama. I believe the current administrative team has done a tremendous job in elevating student achievement.
I believe my leadership style and philosophy will allow for even more student growth. I don’t want to be your superintendent for the title. I want to be your superintendent because I believe I can take the great work that has already taken place and expand it and we can grow even more together. We can make a great city and school district the absolute best in the state and make Arab City Schools the destination for families and teachers from across the state.
Question: What kind of leadership role do you think the superintendent should have in the community?
Answer: The superintendent should be actively involved in all areas of the Arab community. I currently serve in several capacities in Decatur. I am on the Board of Directors for the Morgan County Mental Health Association, as well as serve as 1st Vice-President of the Decatur Lions Club.
Being involved indicates to the community that we are part of a team effort. It demonstrates the connection between our schools and all of our stakeholders with the city at large. It also allows our students to see the importance of everyone being a part of such a great city. It is also a means to connect relationships within the city.
I have been blessed to have developed relationships with individuals who have offered to assist with needs at Decatur High School through my work with community organizations. I also believe it is vitally important to become an active member of a local church. I don’t believe you do this for political reasons or to be seen, but it is important for my family to be connected at a local church. I have served as a deacon and a Sunday school teacher.
I do believe these connections (as well as other opportunities) help the superintendent become a strong member of the Arab community.
Question: What do you see as the role of the superintendent as it relates to the school board?
Answer: The superintendent needs to be the educational leader of the district. This encompasses all aspects of the public school system. It is also important for the superintendent to develop and maintain a positive relationship with all board members. This is critical. Board members should feel comfortable having conversations on any topic with their superintendent. Communication between the superintendent and the school board is important. The superintendent must keep board members apprised of any issues by which they are affected, both positive and negative.
That communication works the other way as well. If a board member feels as if he/she needs to speak about an issue, there has to be a level of confidence in place so that genuine conversations may occur. We are on the same team. Our goal is to increase student achievement and be the best school district in the state; the superintendent must be willing to work with board members in order to accomplish this goal.
Question: Describe your management style and the methods you have found to be the most effective in supervision and building rapport with administrators and employees.
Answer: Interpersonal relationships is such a vital component of the success of the superintendent. My management style is very relationship oriented. It is important to me to build trust. I must have the support and confidence of the staff if I am to be successful.
My style is to develop relationships with all of our team. I would spend a lot of time early in my tenure getting to know as many of our team as possible. I believe if you are going to do this, you have to be genuine.
Getting to know people for the sake of relationships is ineffective. I consider one of my greatest strengths to be the building of genuine relationships. I believe people will work harder for someone who cares about their well-being and knows what is occurring in their lives. This occurs by being actively engaged in all areas of our district. Being on all campuses as much as possible.
In regard to our administrative team, I believe in laying out our expectations and allowing them to do their jobs.
There is a measure of accountability, but I am not a micromanager. I believe in creating an environment where our administrative teams are comfortable seeing me in their buildings. This is important to me. We established that at Decatur High School in regard to teachers in their classroom. When we first started visiting classrooms heavily three years ago, teachers were a bit on edge. I now have teachers asking me why I haven’t been in their room lately.
I love the opportunity to work with outstanding people and be around our teachers and students. It will be important early on for me to develop trust in our administrators. They need to believe in me and I feel very confident I can build that within our system.
Question: To what degree do you believe responsibilities can and should be delegated to principals? How would you hold them accountable for accomplishing those responsibilities?
Answer: I have learned as a building principal that I cannot do everything. Some things I have had to delegate to my assistants. This was not easy for me to do because at the end of the day, l am ultimately responsible for what goes on in our school. As the district superintendent, it is even more important to trust our team enough to be able to delegate some duties.
As far as holding people accountable, measures would be in place to ensure that all directives are followed to fidelity. There are several ways to accomplish this, but the easiest may be just being straightforward and asking if the task is complete.
I have a staff meeting as a building principal at the beginning of the day each Monday. I would anticipate having the same process with our district level team if I am selected as your superintendent. If I don’t have administrators I can trust to not just delegate to, but also trust to be innovative, I don’t believe we can be as successful as we need to be. In essence, it is a trust, but verify model.
Question: High performance by students and accountability are priorities for us. How would you assess the current student performance levels in our school system? How would you assess the effectiveness of our teachers and programs?
Answer: We need to evaluate ourselves at all levels. There is a strong history here of very impressive test scores. All schools within the district scored an “A” on the state report card. Obviously, there are a lot of things being done well academically in Arab City Schools.
There is always room for improvement. My goal is that every graduate from Arab City Schools be College and Career Ready. A second goal would be that we would graduate all students in their proper cohort (100% Graduation Rate). These are lofty goals but each can be attained. As far as assessing teachers and programs, it is important to be in the schools as much as possible. I want to be in classrooms as much as I possibly can. Not in a “gotcha” sort of way, but in a way to ensure great teaching is taking place in all areas.
It is difficult to assess teachers and programs without seeing them in action. This will be a priority for me early in my tenure. As I said, there are a lot of great things happening now. My goal would be to continue to strive to be the best in all areas of our school district.
Question: Based on what you know of our school system, what do you think is the greatest potential for improvement?
Answer: Test scores have been really good in the past for Arab City Schools. Student achievement is really strong across the district. We want to continue an upward trajectory in all test scores. Early on in my tenure as your superintendent, I would spend some time analyzing data and identifying specific areas we could improve across the board.
For example, as I read the ACIP for Arab High School, I found that the goal is to raise ACT benchmark scores in all sub-tests by 2%. In 2018, Arab High had over 74% benchmark on the ACT. If we can raise each sub-test by 2%, we will have more students benchmark which could mean an overall increase in our College and Career Ready numbers. Our CCR is currently really strong at 94% and there is no achievement gap between CCR and graduation rate, but my goal is to have every student who graduates from
Arab City Schools be College and Career Ready. Also from a high school perspective, we had great success with AP World History at Decatur High School. It is a great opportunity for students to receive AP credit as freshmen; therefore, this is an avenue to pursue in Arab.
Another area of focus for me would be to ensure that students who are in poverty are represented in advanced level coursework.
That was an issue when I arrived at Decatur High. I discovered that our advanced courses did not look like our student body demographics. We were terribly underrepresented by our students in poverty and our minority populations. In my second year, we had more freshmen sign up for advanced level coursework than were enrolled in grade level.
This was a huge step for us. We also had a school record 45 students on free/reduced lunch pass an AP test in 2018. This was by far the most in school history. Last spring, we had 112 students on free/reduced lunch take an AP test in 2019, which was also a school record.
If there is an underrepresentation in Arab City (as it is in many districts) in regard to students in poverty, then that is an area we will certainly work to improve. Not only will this help us with our test scores, it will provide opportunities for students to continue their post-secondary education. This could change the trajectory of many family trees if we are successful. Very important for us to identify this if it is occurring.
Additionally, I want to make sure we create the best opportunities for our students to excel in all aspects of public school. We want to be great at academics, athletics, fine arts, career tech, etc. We want to build championship programs in everything we do. It is also important that if we say this, we need to be there for them and provide the resources each needs to be successful.
This is tremendous for the community. We need to have pride in everything we do in Arab City Schools.
Again, I would like to do a detailed needs analysis to determine where our district can improve an already strong focus on student achievement.
Question: Describe your experience in developing, implementing, and evaluating curriculum and instructional programs to raise student achievement.
Answer: When I arrived on campus at Decatur High School, DHS was an International Baccalaureate (IB) school. This is a very lofty distinction, but after reviewing, I found out we only had six students who were enrolled in IB.
Our teachers who were involved in this program only had two or three students in each class. I met with our superintendent at the time and suggested we drop IB and become involved with A+ College Ready in an effort to provide more opportunities for all students. I was met with some opposition from board members who pointed out the financial investment they had in IB.
I understood their concerns, but it just wasn’t in the best interest of our students. Since we dropped IB, our AP participation has been higher than at any time in school history. In my first year as principal at Decatur High School, we saw an increase in qualifying AP scores of 12%. Decatur High School saw a dramatic increase in the number of students enrolled in AP level courses. Students passed 44% of their exams taken, which was an increase from 41% the previous year.
In 2016-17, there were 258 enrollment slots for AP courses. In 2017-18, that number increased to 730, a gain of 283%! As I stated earlier, for the first time in school history, more freshmen enrolled in advanced level coursework than those enrolled in grade level coursework.
We have added eight new AP courses since my arrival at OHS, including AP World History to our curriculum for our freshmen in the 2018-19 school year. We had 15 of 23 students pass the AP exam and receive college credit as freshmen! A+ College Ready named Decatur High School as a School of Excellence for our performance on AP tests in the 2018-19 school year.
One additional measure we took at Decatur High (and Decatur City) was the removal of a tri-level academic structure of classes. Our students had options of grade level, honors, and advanced level courses. We changed that structure to grade level and advanced only.
This was significant in that we asked grade level teachers to begin teaching at the honors level, and we asked our advanced level to go deeper into their content and increase their depth of knowledge questioning. This has made a significant different in our culture at Decatur High School.
Question: What do you think is the role of career-technical education?
Answer: This is a vital, yet sometimes overlooked component of secondary schools. I know Arab High has a tremendous Health Science program. As a parent of a daughter who decided to go into nursing because of Health Science, this really excites me.
I believe we should be heavily involved in workforce development as well so that we are preparing our students for opportunities, which may not require a college degree. I believe this is accomplished by working in the community with industry leaders to determine what their needs may be. I also would like to request a waiver from the state to allow us to not teach Career Prep in the ninth grade, but to offer all freshmen an exploratory career tech course.
This early exposure gives students options for continuing to explore their craft in a post-secondary technical school or at worst provides them with some necessary life skills regardless of their profession. Career Tech will be an incredibly large piece of our focus if I am chosen to be your superintendent.
Question: How have you been involved in budget development and ongoing fiscal management in the past? What has been your experience(s) in addressing funding gaps and budget shortfalls?
Answer: I have been heavily involved in the budgeting process, first as a district athletics director in Hartselle and then as a building principal in Decatur. I also teach school finance at the University of Louisiana-Monroe. A large part of this course is teaching principals and superintendents how to prioritize spending so that student achievement is at the forefront of all fiduciary decisions.
As the superintendent, I must know where the money is and what our priorities are as a district. The public trusts us to be fiscally responsible and we will be totally transparent in all we do. I intend to develop (along with the CSFO) a one-year, three-year, and a five-year plan. As I stated earlier, I want to be champions in all we do. We need to ensure that we are providing all of our programs with the resources they need to allow for their success.
Question: What has been your involvement in the creation of a capital improvement plan and its implementation? What has been your experience with new construction?
Answer: I have not developed a capital improvement plan, although I have served on committees to help determine the need for new facilities. While in Hartselle, I created and administered a survey to determine not just if we needed a new high school, but what it should include. I presented the findings of the survey to the city council and the vote was unanimous to propose a property tax to fund the school.
The property tax was subsequently voted down by the community, so the council passed a one cent sales tax to fund the project. I was then heavily involved in the planning phases of the facility, including working closely with the architects to design the athletic and front office facilities. Additionally, my first day on the job at Decatur High School was our groundbreaking ceremony for our new high school facility.
I met with architects on multiple occasions and was involved in almost all areas in the building of our $45 million dollar facility. Also, I coordinated our move from the old facility to the new facility three days before school began for the 2018-19 school year. This was quite challenging, but ultimately we were able to have a relatively seamless transition between facilities.
Question: Describe specific strategies you would use to cultivate positive relationships with community leaders and parents.
Answer: I believe living in the community is the first step. It would be difficult to cultivate any type of relationship if I am not a part of the community. I have a very outgoing personality. I enjoy getting to know people. I intend to be very involved in all things involving Arab City Schools, including athletics, fine arts programs, and academic events.
I believe it also means attending church functions, city council meetings, Chamber of Commerce meetings, etc. The people in the community will know who I am and I will build genuine relationships in this manner. I consider one of my greatest strengths to be my ability to develop meaningful relationships quickly. It is very important to me as a leader to be well known within the community and with parents. As superintendent, I am the CEO of the school district.
I have to take the lead in developing those positive relationships within our city. In an effort to do this at Decatur High, I began offering our facility to different community groups for meetings. We have had board meetings of local banks in our building, One Decatur meetings which included all of our city council members, as well as our mayor and other department heads within our city, city wide drama and orchestra productions, as well as hosted state trainings from A+ College Ready on multiple occasions. By providing access to our facilities, we were able to demonstrate to members of our community that the school system is a vibrant part of what we are trying to do as a city.
As your superintendent, I will work with community and state leaders to ensure that Arab City Schools receives the recognition and support it deserves.
In regard to parents, this is an area in which I excel. I don’t mean to sound boastful at all, but I believe in my ability to build and develop relationships with individuals from all walks of life. I pride myself on being able to hold a meaningful conversation with the governor of the state, as well as with a grandparent who may be raising a child on a fixed income.
This is a skill I received from my parents. My Dad dropped out of school and my Mom dropped out in 10th grade, but they taught me to understand that everyone is important and has a voice, which they want to be heard.
I take great pride in knowing that I am continuing that legacy. My Dad always told me to treat everyone the same because “You are no worse than anyone else, but you are not better than anyone either”. That advice and their teaching has provided me so many opportunities throughout my career because of the relationships I have been able to build.
Question: Tell us about the most difficult parent situation you have had to deal with that required strong communication skills. Tell us how you addressed the situation.
Answer: We had a situation arise in which some sophomore students left class a few minutes early while the teacher was working with some other students during our ACT time, which is set aside daily for 26 minutes to help students with ACT prep. The students who left class were not students who get in trouble, but knew they weren’t supposed to leave class. The teacher identified the students and notified our administrative team that the students were skipping class. Our assistant principals administered the discipline as we have with any instance of skipping.
Some parents who live in my neighborhood attempted to appeal to me to overturn the discipline because “they are good kids and never get in trouble”. I told each parent who contacted me that we have procedures in place to ensure we follow a chain of command.
I asked each parent to meet with the assistant principal who assigned the discipline. Many of them did and accepted the punishment as it was administered. Some appealed to me after meeting with our AP’s and I upheld the punishment.
One actually appealed to Dr. Douglas and it was upheld from there. My point in this exchange is that we were very clear in following a chain of command. It was clearly communicated what the discipline was going to be and we were able to maintain our consistency.
Some parents (particularly those who live in my neighborhood) later approached me and apologized for some of the things they said and their behavior. As I shared with our administrative team, if the students had not left class without permission, we would never have been in a position to issue discipline. I felt this sent a positive message to our students and staff that it doesn’t matter who you are or if you have never been in trouble, we will be consistent in applying discipline.
Question: How have you engaged the community of your district? How have you increased visibility of a school/system and its needs?
Answer: I have utilized social media to my advantage. If we are participating in anything and I can show the world the great things we are doing, I am going to get the word out. I have often heard it said that if we don’t write our own story, someone else will. I believe that to be true.
I control the narrative. This will be my mission as superintendent of Arab City Schools. I will get the positive message out because it is important. If we are going to recruit and retain the best and brightest teachers and administrators, they need to know that ACS is a great place to work and the community is a great place to live.
When I became principal at DHS, there was a lot of negativity surrounding our school. I believe now if you surveyed the community, many would share with you they believe we are on the right track for success.
During my second year, we were featured in a video produced by The College Board. I will share the link with you, not to be braggadocios, but to demonstrate what we believed was a message we needed our community to hear.
I was also asked to present at the Josten’s Renaissance Conference this past year on “Building School Culture in a Diverse School.”
We had a student named a National Student of the Year for Josten’s Renaissance and she received a substantial scholarship for her recognition. My point being that just a few years before, there was almost a cloud hanging over our school and community.
Through a targeted approach, we were able to spotlight all of the outstanding stakeholders on our campus each day. Additionally, as I mentioned earlier, we brought people into our building for community events so they could see who we are and what we are about.
As your superintendent, I believe we can improve an already great reputation into something of which people across the state will want to be a part.