New Douglas County superintendent 'inspires people to have commitment’

New Superintendent Thomas Tucker sets high goals for the Douglas County School District

Posted 8/14/18

Thomas Tucker’s grandparents, both sharecroppers in rural Arkansas, taught themselves how to read. Then they taught their children to read the Bible. They learned math so they could negotiate the …

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New Douglas County superintendent 'inspires people to have commitment’

New Superintendent Thomas Tucker sets high goals for the Douglas County School District

Posted

Thomas Tucker’s grandparents, both sharecroppers in rural Arkansas, taught themselves how to read. Then they taught their children to read the Bible. They learned math so they could negotiate the best price for their cotton.

That educational drive, the determination to succeed, influenced Tucker to be a teacher.

“Family,” Tucker said, “is everything to me. I’m called to do this job because of family.”

On July 1 — 29 years after he started his career as a teacher — Tucker, 52, became the Douglas County School District’s newest superintendent.

A man who exudes intensity and respect, Tucker lights up as he talks about his experience in public schools. In elementary school, his favorite teacher was Mrs. Babbs. She made sure every student in third grade knew how to count before moving to fourth grade.

“Each teacher was a dream keeper,” paving the way for success, said Tucker, sitting in a conference room of the school district’s administrative building in Castle Rock earlier this month. “There is no greater thing that we can do in our lifetime than to empower others to be successful, to be self-sufficient, to be self-reliant.”

His discussions about education always circle back to one priority: the students.

“Teachers don’t go into education to get rich,” Tucker said. “We go into this profession to make a difference in the lives of young people.”

Becoming a leader in education

Born and raised in Arkansas, Tucker was the youngest of 11 children. His mother and father were farmers.

When it came to education, Tucker’s parents didn’t allow him to make excuses, he said. Failure was not an option. In high school, he excelled in sports, competing in baseball, football, basketball and track.

Tucker graduated first in his class from college, receiving a bachelor’s degree in English education from Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Arkansas. He went on to earn a master’s in educational administration and a doctorate in higher education, student affairs and communication from Ohio State University in Columbus.

Jardine Middle School in Topeka, Kansas, first hired Tucker as a reading and English teacher. He also coached football, basketball and track. From there, he went on to hold positions of assistant principal, principal, director of secondary curriculum and superintendent of three school districts in suburban and inner-city areas of Ohio.

Those districts ranged in size and demographics, from a majority of white students to a majority of black students, to a large percentage of economically disadvantaged students. The largest district he previously led as superintendent was Worthington City School District in Columbus with about 9,900 students.

“I’ve enjoyed all my jobs,” Tucker said, “but being able to work with young people on day-to-day basis and seeing them mature is what really excites me.”

Tucker was the first African-American upper-level administrator in a major central Ohio district. He is the only superintendent in the country to earn both the American Association of School Administrators National Superintendent of the Year Award and the National Alliance of Black School Educators National Superintendent of the Year Award.

Bobby Moore, founder of EPIC Impact Education Group, a national education consulting organization, nominated Tucker for the first honor. The two met more than 10 years ago when they were principals in Ohio school districts. Moore describes Tucker as an advocate for teachers and parents, a man of compassion and empathy, a sports junkie, a great listener.

“Thomas is truly inspiring,” Moore said. “He inspires people to have commitment. He inspires people to be creative. He inspires people to want to work together. He’s the district’s biggest cheerleader.”

In 2015, Tucker was named superintendent of the Princeton City School District, serving 5,633 students in the Cincinnati metro area. DCSD is 12 times that size, Colorado’s third-largest district with 68,000 students.

The challenge doesn’t daunt him.

“Leadership is leadership,” Tucker said. “If you are an effective leader in small or medium district, you can be an effective leader in a large district.”

Looking back

Douglas County School District had been on Tucker’s radar since 2006, when he was director of secondary curriculum at Hilliard City School District in Columbus. He had been looking across the country for school districts with innovative models of learning, he said, when he came across Douglas County.

At the time, he was doing research for his own district.

“This district for a long time didn’t settle with the state’s curriculum,” Tucker said of Douglas County. “People were not afraid to innovate and empower young people to achieve their dreams and successes. They were not afraid to look at curriculum as a starting point.”

That was three years before a school board election in 2009, when Douglas County voters elected a majority of conservative members who introduced new policies that, to many critics, changed the district too severely and too quickly. The former board hired Elizabeth Fagen as superintendent in 2010, then enacted several reforms — including a controversial voucher program and an evaluation-based pay system — that community members say spurred an exodus of teachers. Last year, the district suspended the pay system and rescinded the voucher program.

In 2015, the district saw a shift in direction when voters elected three candidates who opposed the reform policies: David Ray, Wendy Vogel and Anne-Marie Lemieux. The following year, Fagen left the district for a position in the Humble Independent School District in Texas. The district hired Erin Kane, the former executive director at American Academy in Parker, to serve as interim superintendent.

Last November, four candidates who community members referred to as the “anti-reform team” — Anthony Graziano, Chris Schor, Kevin Leung and Krista Holtzmann — were elected to the school board, signaling a change in power. Among their first tasks was finding a permanent superintendent.

On April 5, after a nationwide search, the board unanimously hired Tucker.

“He has already demonstrated his incredible desire to `build bridges’ with everyone who has an investment in the success of our schools,” school board President David Ray said in an email correspondence. “He also brings a great deal of credibility to the position as not only an experienced superintendent, but also one who began his career as a teacher.”

Board members said they selected Tucker because of his leadership style and experience in education. Of the three finalists, he best fit a leadership profile created by the school board, which outlined desired qualifications of a permanent superintendent, including a commitment to a “student first” philosophy, strong communication skills and previous experience that would benefit the district’s financial health.

“Certainly one aspect why Dr. Tucker was selected was for his experience within all facets of education, but even more important to me was his vision and belief of what the Douglas County School District could be,” board member Anthony Graziano said. “He was very impressed with its achievements, but deeply and truly believes we can be an even greater school district.”

Not all community members agreed with the school board’s decision to conduct a national search and hire Tucker.

Smith Young used to work at IBM as a senior executive architect. Now retired, the Parker resident spends his free time following the school district. He would have liked to have seen Kane named permanent superintendent. She applied for the position, but the school board did not select her as a top-three finalist.

“I don’t think it was justified to go spend the time and money or the resources,” Young said of the national search. “But of course, it was political and for a specific purpose.”

That purpose, Young said, is to pass a tax measure, which he would not support. Young also worries about the difference in size of Tucker’s past districts and Douglas County School District.

“To come from such a small school district, realistically, your expectations can only be so high,” Young said.

But others are excited about having Tucker at the helm.

Les Lilly, who has worked at the district for 37 years as a bus driver, is hopeful that under Tucker’s leadership, the district’s unity will be restored. He believes politics has played a part in district and community strife.

“I think I see Dr. Tucker as being able to stand up to some of that political pressure,” Lilly said. “The checks and the balances will be there. It’s not about politics. It’s about kids.”

Mark Caldwell, also a bus driver at the district, spent about six hours with Tucker on one of his visits to Douglas County, driving him to interviews and schools. They ate lunch together a few times.

“He is a wonderful listener,” Caldwell said.

“When you are speaking, he is listening to what you are saying. He’s not reformulating anything.”

Challenges ahead

Besides restoring community trust, another challenge Tucker faces is funding.

The last time Douglas County passed a local bond or mill levy override for additional funding was in 2006, when voters approved a $200 million bond and $5 million mill levy override.

In 2008 and 2011, however, voters rejected bond and mill levy override measures that would have gone toward construction of new schools, teacher pay and technological advances. Neighboring districts, such as Jefferson County Public Schools and Cherry Creek School District, have passed tax measures in the past 10 years.

The increase in funding has allowed those districts to pay teachers a notably higher amount than Douglas County: Jeffco’s average teacher pay for the 2017-18 school year was $57,154, according to the Colorado Department of Education. Cherry Creek’s was $71,711. Douglas County’s was $53,080.

Not only are salaries lagging, but schools are suffering as well, officials say.

According to DCSD’s master capital plan, the district needs between $303 million and $403 million in building repairs. Douglas County High School, for example, requires more than $17 million in repairs to its original plumbing and heating, pipes, carpets and windows.

In his former roles as superintendent, Tucker successfully helped his districts pass every mill levy override and bond measure put on the ballot. He credits community engagement with a focus on student achievement.

“We’ve never failed an MLO (mill levy override) or bond because of engagement, being able to make the case for the need,” he said. “We plan on doing the same thing here.”

At the Aug. 7 school board meeting, Tucker recommended a $250 million bond and a $40 million mill levy override. Board members will vote on the recommendation at an Aug. 21 meeting beginning at 6 p.m. at the district’s administrative building in Castle Rock, 620 Wilcox St.

In upcoming weeks, Thomas plans to visit school buildings and businesses in the county to build rapport with district staff, students and residents.

“We are going to ensure that (teachers) feel like empowered, valued, trusted members of our school community,” Tucker said. “We also need to take care of the financial part to ensure folks can afford to live in Douglas County and won’t have to work two or three jobs to make ends meet.”

Tucker’s presence in the community is refreshing, several teachers said.

Kim Clever, who teaches at Douglas County High School, met Tucker at a meet-and-greet on July 13 at the district’s administrative building. His effort to connect with teachers sets him apart from the last permanent superintendent, she said.

“He is going to be in our buildings,” Clever said.

Room for improvement

When he’s not leading a school district, Tucker enjoys reading, watching sports, playing board games. He plans on joining an Episcopal church.

“He is a man of faith,” his longtime friend, Moore, said. “There is a really soft human side to Thomas. He has always been a person that puts family first.”

Tucker is married with four children, ages 27, 16, 14 and 10. His wife, Janae, is an elementary school teacher. Tucker found a home in Highlands Ranch, but his wife and kids will stay in Ohio until his two middle children graduate from high school. They are being recruited for college academic and athletic opportunities, Tucker said.

It’s important that his kids have a voice in their education, he said.

He takes that belief into his workday: Tucker describes his leadership as collaborative — a team player who listens and respects everyone in the district from students to classified employees to members of his cabinet.

“It’s important that our students know me and that I know as many of our students and staff members as possible,” Tucker said. “It’s important that I have an understanding of what is going on in the classrooms, what is going on in each of my buildings. If I don’t understand, I can’t articulate to parents what is going on.”

He said he recognizes the existing academic challenges: a shortage of funding nationwide, preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, prepping students for success after high school.

“Every student should not feel as if he or she has to attend a two- or four-year college after high school,” he said. “We have a moral and educational obligation to ensure that each student is prepared to go to higher education and to demanding careers without remediation.”

He wants the district’s 90.4 percent graduation rate to reach 100 percent. He foresees more partnerships with local business, colleges and universities. He wants staff to have more professional development opportunities.

Douglas County School District embodies a “culture of excellence” with high student achievement, Tucker said. But, he added, there is always room for improvement.

“Our goal,” Tucker said, “is to get better each year.”

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