A “lifer” in the Lee County school district is the top school chief in the state for 2017. Dr. James Evans Jr. received the F.L. Dupree Award for Outstanding Superintendent during KSBA’s annual conference, Feb. 24–26.
Described by one colleague as a leader who “walks what he talks,” Evans has led the district – from which he graduated – since 2008, starting his career there in 1992 as an instructional aide to a special-needs student. He became a full-fledged special education teacher the following year, coached tennis and basketball, and in 1998 became assistant principal of Lee County High School, advancing to the principal post in 2000. Evans moved to the central office in 2007 as transportation director before being named superintendent.
KSBA President Allen Kennedy, left, and KSBA Executive Director Mike Armstrong, right, present the F.L Dupree Award for Outstanding Superintendent to Dr. James Evans Jr. Friday, Feb. 24, during the KSBA’s 81st Annual Conference in Louisville.
“His career path has given him both an insight into the important role each staff member plays in the overall success of a school system, and the knowledge to be a strong leader,” Lee County school board Chairman William Owens wrote in the board’s nomination of Evans for the award, judged by panels of former winners.
Evans told conference attendees he is “very honored and humbled” to receive the award, and praised the Lee County school board for being “committed to excellence in Lee County, and they always do what’s right for kids.” He also gave a shout-out to his fellow superintendents.
“I praise the work that you do each and every day. It’s tough, but you’re doing the right thing for kids and public education. Continue being that superhero,” he said, referencing the conference theme of Be a Superhero for Public Education!
Evans holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from Eastern Kentucky University and a doctorate from Morehead State, where his 2014 doctoral dissertation was a study of the role of superintendents in turning around persistently low-achieving districts. The Lee County district achieved the status of Distinguished District of Distinction in 2015-16 K-PREP testing.
Under Evans’ watch, the district has instituted multiple student career pathways, using both Project Lead the Way and its high-profile partnership with Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program, for which it received KSBA’s PEAK (Public Education Achieves in Kentucky) Award in 2015.
Nancy Hutchison, a former superintendent who now heads the Kentucky Educational Development Corporation, noted in her letter of support that Lee County High school has partnered with several Lexington employers to offer students internships, work-based learning and job experiences. It is one of only 10 in the state that is a U.S. Department of Labor Career Connect High School.
Evans also created a dual-credit teachers cohort and a National Board Certified Teacher cohort in the district, which was recently accepted into the League of Innovative Schools, a national coalition of school systems. The district also received accreditation through AdvancED and is working with Future Ready Schools on digital learning strategies.
“Dr. Evans understands the importance of technology and has aggressively searched for ways to connect Lee County students to the world beyond their community and state,” wrote Amy Scarborough, AT&T’s regional director for external and legislative affairs, in support of his nomination. Scarborough worked with Evans on several AT&T Foundation projects, calling him “a visionary” who is “always thinking of ways to innovate and advocate for the students of Lee County.”
The district’s achievements under Evans’ leadership were made during tough financial times, with declines in student enrollment and revenue, and the consolidation of schools. He fought unsuccessfully for a nickel tax and reached out to the Kentucky Department of Education for an analysis to help the district prioritize spending and allocate funding. The district has also maximized its grant opportunities.
Evans recognizes students and staff members at school board meetings and is a familiar face at student functions. He created a Student Advisory Council and the Future Graduates of Lee County Schools program for incoming kindergartners.
Evans visits schools and classrooms weekly to talk with staff and students. During his tenure the district has established professional learning communities, a staff attendance incentive, personalized professional development and a new teacher mentor program.
Evans laid the groundwork for a District Communication Plan through setting up an internal and external Communication Committee made up of certified and classified staff. The effort is aimed at transparency and better communication with the community. Evans uses Twitter and Facebook to keep the public informed in addition to district publications and website offerings, and attends local civic group meetings.
Beyond the district
Jon Akers, executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, offered further insight into Evans through the superintendent’s work with the center. Evans sits on the agency’s board and for the past nine years has been a volunteer safety assessment coordinator, evaluating the campuses of other school districts to enhance their safety.
“Many times it has been his experience with an issue that has enabled us to discern the prevailing wisdom necessary prior to making an important decision that could impact the services we provide to school districts,” Akers noted.
Owens, Akers and others also praised Evans for his advocacy before the state legislature. In 2015, he received KSBA’s Kids First Award for those efforts (along with Owens) and he currently serves on KSBA’s Legislative Committee, the state Dual Credit Committee and the boards of Forward in the Fifth and two educational cooperatives.
Dr. Jeff Hawkins, executive director of the Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative, listed Evans’ contributions to the region and the state, including a multidistrict pilot program, a statewide Gates Foundation-funded teaching and learning project, and the co-op’s $30 million Race to the Top grant.
“Dr. Evans is a life-long learner and is committed to improving the field of education through the application of research-based best practice and works to influence colleagues to incorporate scholarly work into instructional applications,” Hawkins wrote in support of his nomination. “He has worked to develop curriculum, enhance teacher ability, and provide the necessary levels of support for programs and personnel to excel.”