Rob Neu has set some lofty goals for himself as the next superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools.
Academic underachievement — long a district staple — will not be an option for more than 45,000 students enrolled in Oklahoma’s largest school district, Neu proclaimed this week.
“There’s no such thing as student failure. There’s only system failure,” he said. “It’s my job to create the conditions to create 100 percent student success.”
Neu characterized district teachers and administrators as “true life heroes.”
“These people are in every day doing magnificent work for kids. They’re doing the best they can,” he said. “My job is to create the conditions so that they are successful. “We’ve got to ensure that the principals have the skills and the resources to support the teachers in meeting the kids’ needs.”
Neu, 52, is familiar with the challenges facing the Oklahoma City district, having experienced them on a smaller scale during his four years as superintendent of Federal Way Public Schools in suburban Seattle.
Though not as large as Oklahoma City Public Schools, about half of Federal Way students are minorities, including 25 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black and 12 percent Asian. About 60 percent of students live in poverty compared to nearly 100 percent of students in the Oklahoma City school district, Neu said.
“The issues are the same. Kids are hungry. They’re lacking support. They’re lacking whatever it is that they need to be successful in school,” he said. “The key thing about poverty; it’s not a disability.
“We can’t treat it like a disability, but it is certainly an incredible challenge.”
Despite those challenges, attendance in the Federal Way district is up, expulsions are down, and enrollment in the district’s most rigorous courses has grown by 200 percent, Neu said. High school graduation rates have increased by 10 percent among blacks and four percent among Hispanics, he said.
In four years, Neu boosted SAT test participation from 25 percent to 94 percent and implemented an academic acceleration program that identifies high performing students and enrolls them in Advanced Placement courses.
He intends to import programs and policies credited with those improvements. Change, he added, will not be easy.
“Any changes to the system can be very difficult, some more than others,” he said. “Moving forward and working to engage our students is going to require some changes. We can’t keep doing the same things.”
Neu’s track record of success in a district faced with similar obstacles caught the eye of board members, who voted unanimously this past week to make Neu the highest-paid superintendent in district history with a $240,000 annual salary.
Like Neu, the board has high expectations for a district on the upswing after receiving a grade of F from the state Education Department in November. Under the direction of Interim Superintendent Dave Lopez, district leaders have implemented a series of aggressive reforms aimed at improving academic and fiscal accountability.
Board Chairwoman Lynne Hardin was among those representing the district who traveled to Federal Way to speak with current and former school board members about Neu’s character and job performance.
“I think that was very important to understand how the community embraced him and how much he had done in that district to change the academic achievement for all children and his interest in educating the whole child,” Hardin said. “It’s not just about tests, it’s about creating an environment where kids want to learn and they feel like they’re special.”
Board member Ruth Veales said Neu was not the only applicant that impressed her but he was the most well-rounded.
“I was looking for someone that had experience leading an urban-like district and someone who had shown evidence of turning around a failing school district,” she said.
Board member Ron Millican called Neu “a student-centered discussion maker” who thinks of students first.
“That’s what impressed us,” Millican said. “We as a board are confident that we have selected a capable leader.”
Neu, 52, described Oklahoma City as a “forward-thinking community” that has “invested heavily” in its children. He credited the city’s energy, excitement and community support with his decision.
Increased participation among parents and community members will be a key to student success, he said.
“It goes back to knowing every child by name, strength and need, and having an adult attached to that child’s need, so that they don’t slip through the cracks, so that they don’t go hungry on a snow day,” he said.
Neu said his biggest challenge in Oklahoma City will be reaching every student, starting with the district’s “most unsuccessful learners.”
Love will go a long way toward improving student performance, he said.
“They’ve got to feel connected to school,” he said. “They’ve got to know that this is a place where I’m safe, where I’m loved, I’m respected, I’m cared for and they know me.
“We’ve got to know what they like, what their hopes are, what their dreams are, and then we have to attach the curriculum and the experiences that we provide for them, through the content and the curriculum, to those hopes and dreams and help them see the relevance of their education.”
Distance from city ties
Lopez, speaking Thursday at a community gathering in the district’s future headquarters, introduced Neu as “Sonics 2.0.”
“He’s the latest arrival from the Pacific Northwest that’s going to continue to make us not just a Major League city but a model school district, not just for Oklahoma but for the nation,” Lopez said
The Detroit-area native, a former high-school basketball coach and principal in his home state of Michigan did his best to distance himself from Lopez’s comparison to Seattle’s old basketball team.
“The only Sonic I’m aware of is a burger,” Neu said.