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In Conversation With ... Thomas Woods-Tucker

Thomas Woods-Tucker

Kentucky School Advocate
February 2021

In Conversation With features an interview between a leader or figure involved in public education and a representative of the Kentucky School Advocate.

Thomas Woods-Tucker started his new job as the first chief equity officer at the Kentucky Department of Education in November. He was most recently superintendent of Douglas County Schools in Colorado. He has also served in district leadership positions in Ohio, where he was named the 2016 American Association of School Administrators National Superintendent of the Year and the Buckeye Association of School Administrators State Superintendent of the Year. In 2013, he earned the National Alliance of Black School Educators National Superintendent of the Year award.

Q. You are KDE’s first chief equity officer. Can you explain what the role entails?

A. 
Primarily, my responsibility is to ensure processes are in place to reform the practice, policies and procedures at the state, district and school levels to support fairness and inclusion so that every child has the teachers, resources, high quality instructional resource materials and supports and interventions they need to be successful.

Q. You moved from Colorado to Kentucky to take on the role. What appealed to you about this opportunity?

A.
I had been a superintendent for 12 years; Commissioner Glass and I were superintendents in neighboring districts. When he offered me this job in July it was an easy ‘yes’ for me. A driver for me is to be a positive influence and improve the lives of as many students and staff as possible. By moving to the state level I could play a greater role in doing so and fight for something I hold dear and have been a standard bearer for all my life. I was born right at the end of Jim Crow. I attended a quasi-segregated school system even in 1971. I did my student teaching in Little Rock at Paul Laurence Dunbar Junior High right down the street from Central High School. So this is in my DNA. As a superintendent we were able to knock down barriers and open more doors for female students in STEM courses and with a national sponsor, offer additional technology classes. Before that I received the Ohio State University distinguished affirmative action award for opening more doors for poor white Appalachian nursing students as well as inner-city African American students in the College of Nursing. This has been a lived experience. Of course, I have more questions than answers. And, I want people to know I’m inspired by the work of Kentucky.  

Q. One thing that you say has inspired you is the Kentucky Board of Education’s adoption last summer of the resolution affirming its commitment to racial equity in Kentucky Public Schools. In it, the KBE challenged all local school boards to “break down the barriers that stand between students of color and the equitable education they deserve.” Talk about that.

A. 
The resolution affirmed the commitment to racial equity in our public schools. Not too many state boards of education have passed a resolution that states that every voice deserves to be heard and should be valued in the public school system. It calls on educators and others to commit and listen to those seeking to be heard, especially students of color and other marginalized students.

Q. As our members take up that challenge, can you point them to any districts here or across the nation that they could examine for best practices?

A. 
Here in Kentucky several districts are doing a very good job – Jefferson County, Frankfort Independent, Owensboro. There are also superintendents in districts that have very little diversity, but who are still very open to this work. I receive calls and emails from superintendents who want to engage in this kind of work, and I am learning from them. We must remember too that equity is much larger than ethnic diversity. It covers sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic status, ethnic and racial status.

Q. You have initiated a statewide equity and inclusion scan. Can you explain what the scan is and what you will do with the information you gather?  

Thomas Woods-Tucker (right) and Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass were superintendents in neighboring districts in Colorado. Woods-Tuckers says he didn't hesitate to come to Kentucky to work with Glass. (Provided by KDE)

 

A.
It began as part of my asset framing: Do I look at it as a fixer or do I look at it as a builder? So, I am a builder, an aspirational person. I know there are some great practices going on here. So what can we do to improve practices?  

I created the scan with KDE, in collaboration. I first started to ask our superintendents what equitable practices they had in place in their school districts, whether they had equity inclusion plans and equity in strategic plans and what could we do to aid their system. Then it went to Commissioner Glass’s student advisory group and our teacher advisory group. Now we have expanded the scan to all staff in the Commonwealth, asking what are some of the equitable practices that they observe in their districts, and if they have equity in their teaching plan and how the department can support them.

Results are pending. It was a qualitative way to get an idea of what’s happening here regarding equity, diversity and inclusion. The scan will help us build an effective equity toolkit.

Q. Can you explain what the equity toolkit is?

A. 
We are building a repository of information and resources, an online equity toolkit, and all school districts will be able to access that through the department of education. It will help our educators learn how to begin critical conversations about race, especially when we affirm in the resolution that we are going to become an antiracist organization and school system and knock down the walls of bias and implicit bias. The toolkit will have examples of strategic plans that address equity best practices and provide training resources.

Q. In addition to being KDE’s chief equity officer, you are also the associate commissioner in charge of the Office of Teaching and Learning. Tell us more about the work that office does, and what projects you plan to undertake in that area?

A.
The greatest way to ensure kids have equitable access to education opportunities is to ensure they have access to high quality standards, standards that are aligned with curriculum and high quality instructional resources. I strongly believe that standards, curriculum and high quality instructional resources are equity issues.

Q. How so?

A. 
An equitable instructional program ensures that all students have equitable access to the educational opportunities needed to succeed. In the early ‘80s, the Nation at Risk Report, which began the standards movement that is still in place today, said all children in America were not receiving the same type of education and that the standards were inconsistent across the country. The standards movement said in order to level the playing field, let’s create strong state standards. This is very deliberate action to ensure there is equitable learning across the Commonwealth.

Q. Do you have specific projects underway?

A.
We have several. We are part of the Chief Council of State School Officers’ (CCSSO) high quality instructional resource professional development network. We are part of a 13-state project vetting high quality instructional resources. The goal is to equip and empower local schools in evaluating, selecting and providing educators with high quality instructional resources. It is also important to ensure professional learning opportunities. We have secured a $220,000 grant so staff will be prepared to better support all students with their learning needs. Another thing I’m excited about is our work with a Multitiered System of Support (MTSS), which is a cross agency project. It expands the Response To Intervention. We will have our own MTSS, and its framework will provide guidance and support to help schools provide equitable services, instruction and intervention practices. This expands our response beyond academic and behavior issues to also meet the social and emotional needs of children. The MTSS is being refined now.

Q. You have worked in many roles and districts. From your experience, what can local boards and superintendents do to reignite our advancement and improve student learning?

A. 
Many local boards are on the right track by helping ensure students and staff are actively engaged and that when they come to the table they feel safe. Those districts where students will be successful will be school districts that value all students, where students can see themselves in the curriculum and there is a serious commitment to diversify the workforce so students can see role models and see themselves achieving greater levels of success than they thought. This country still has the greatest public education system, despite the negative rhetoric. Can we improve? Yes, we can. We need a greater emphasis on building, on looking at the worthiness of the education system and it starts by looking at the worthiness of each student and our staff members. I always remember Dr. King’s quote “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” I’m appreciative that folks here in Kentucky are no longer silent about things that matter, especially a child’s education.

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