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.