In summer 2018 Kevin Brown left his 10-year post as Alamo Heights ISD superintendent to take the top position at TASA. How has the transition gone? What’s his perspective on the association’s progress on the TASA Strategic Framework — a long-range plan that lays out TASA’s aspirations and the long-term strategies the association will use to reach them by 2025?
You’ve been in the top job at TASA for a year now. What was the move from superintendent to executive director like?
I loved being a superintendent. I loved my community and my colleagues. Leaving that behind was hard. But it has been an awesome transition, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to visit with people across the state and supporting superintendents. They have such challenging jobs, and I appreciate that because I’ve been there and I know the challenges they face.
You’ve done a lot of traveling in your first year with TASA. What was that like?
I’ve been all across Texas, speaking at service centers, conferences, districts, colleges and at many other events. My main goal has been to be visible for TASA by getting around the state and making sure our members understand that whether they’re in a rural community or small town or an urban or suburban district, everybody has a voice at TASA and an important role to play.
I also want to make sure everyone knows that TASA is accessible to everybody, and that we are not an organization for just a few people. I want TASA members to know me and know that I’m here to help them, but also that the whole TASA staff is, too. It’s important that our members understand how hard
the staff here works for them and how much they care about our schools.
What are some of the highlights from your first year in the executive director’s seat?
I’ve been focused on continuing the trajectory of TASA as a very strong organization and help the association continue to grow. I stepped into the shoes of Johnny Veselka, and that is a tall task.
I’m getting to know the staff really well, building a sense of team with them, and trying to align the work that we do with our TASA Strategic Framework.
We’re starting some new programs. We are partnering with TASBO on a professional learning offering on school finance. It won’t be just for superintendents and CFOs, but also for communications directors and HR directors. It’s a comprehensive program that hopefully makes a difference for school leaders on all aspects of school finance, which is especially important given the passage of HB 3.
With all the professional development opportunities TASA provides, we think about designing experiences we hope will delight our members, impact them, help them be better leaders, and help them change their school systems for the better — to better meet the needs of children.
One of the best examples is TASA’s Future-Ready Superintendent Leadership Network, or FRSLN. It’s different in that it is a superintendent-led group that gathers for events of their own design. For 2019-20, we are expanding FRSLN to include 250 school leaders with four learning experiences they can participate in.
FRSLN is not us delivering information or content; it’s us facilitating a conversation with school superintendents and school leaders across the state so that they can solve real-world problems in their districts. What are we doing to engage students? What are we doing to personalize learning? What are we doing with technology, and how do we incorporate that if and when it’s appropriate? How do we engage our teachers and help them to tap into their creativity and innovation? What kind of innovative programs are out there that we may be interested in as a community?
This to me is the most compelling work that we’re doing, and the most engaging. The superintendents design the experiences themselves, and I think there’s a lot of power in that.
Another focus is our Texas Public Accountability Consortium, TPAC. This group of superintendents and central office staff are working on further developing community-based accountability as an option for our state. We’re in year three now, and I think school leaders across Texas recognize the shortcomings of high-stakes accountability and the need for community-based accountability.
I feel that superintendents should be most accountable to the local community. Developing a community-based accountability system is basically asking, “So, community, what is it that you want us to be accountable for? And how can I report that to you in a way that makes sense — in a way that holds us accountable for all of the work we’re doing, and not just to the results of a standardized test given on a single day?” Community-based accountability is about taking into consideration how a district is doing with innovative programs, citizenship, character, extracurriculars, in core areas, in developing leaders for the 21st century. All of those pieces.
It’s going to look different in each community, but TPAC is developing strands that are common across the state. We have a very committed cadre of about 150 participants who are heavily into the work. I think, ultimately, when A through F campus and district ratings roll out, these school districts will be able to say, “We’re not even going to talk about that. This is what we’re going to talk about.” And it’ll be a much more comprehensive accountability system that is more meaningful to local communities, to realtors, and to parents. I also think it’s something that educators can get excited about. It truly recognizes the work that kids are doing. It also recognizes the areas that need work, but it’s much more transparent about that work.
I’m really excited about the work of TPAC, and about FRSLN, and I think both are instrumental in the work that we’re doing to fulfill our aspirations set out in the TASA Strategic Framework.
This was a legislative year. How was working with the Legislature as an association leader been different than your previous advocacy work as a superintendent?
I was very involved the last 10 years as a superintendent, coming to Austin and testifying either on behalf of TASA or my own district or other organizations. But one of the real draws of the TASA executive director position was that I felt it would allow me to have a bigger impact statewide.
It’s been really rewarding and a huge opportunity to work with our awesome governmental relations team and with so many of our members who came to Austin to advocate on behalf of public schools.
One thing that’s really clear to me is that our public schools need advocates in Austin working for them. It’s also clear to me that TASA has a big impact on the legislative process. We have the ability to be present on a daily basis and develop relationships. So much of this process is creating relationships with our elected leaders. Building trust with them, trying to make sure they know we’re giving them accurate information, that we’re a trusted source, and that they can rely on us for giving them impact on the local community, local district.
Many of our state representatives and senators really care about their schools; they care about their local communities and want to serve them well. Many of them understand public education, but many of them do not. So we spent a lot of time during the session trying to educate folks and trying to explain the impact their decisions have back at home.
I believe very much in democracy. Although there are frustrations that come with the legislative session, and people call it the “sausage-making process,” it’s wonderful to be in a free country where anybody can walk into the Capitol, share with lawmakers what they think, try to influence the process, and have bills pass that, hopefully, do good.
Sometimes that process makes you disappointed. But I do believe most people are there trying to do good in the world. It’s a fascinating process to be a part of, and I feel very compelled to represent public education. That part is easy for me.
Switching gears to talk about the TASA Strategic Framework and the association’s aspirations for 2025. Are there some areas of the framework that are most important to you?
We have three major strategic areas. One is advocacy. Of course, there’s the legislative part of advocacy, but there’s also the part that is being a champion for public schools, sharing the stories of public education, and reminding people why it’s such as important institution in our country. Part of the reason I travel around the state is to be a champion for public education, adding my voice to those of the many Texas school leaders who are out there trying to tell the stories of their local schools better.
Member engagement in TASA is also important to us, so that’s one of the three areas of strategic focus outlined in the framework. Again, we’re trying to serve all members — male or female, and regardless of race, religion, or politics. If you’re a school administrator, you have a place at the table with us. We have a growing number of outstanding female superintendents in the state as well as a growing number of Hispanic and African-American superintendents. Trying to support them is important to us. We strive to be as inclusive as possible and help our members feel welcome. To provide
greater access and opportunity for member engagement, we have added numerous committees and focus groups for 2019-20 that will allow another 100 members to participate as a TASA leader.
The third strategic focus area is professional learning. We’re really trying to create offerings that support individuals on the career pathway to superintendent. We had our largest Aspiring Superintendent Academy ever at the 2019 TASA Midwinter Conference. I think we had 150 aspiring superintendents. That’s a wonderful program that’s grown. We’re also looking at offering professional learning for school leaders who are considering moving into central office positions.
We recently redesigned our First-Time Superintendents Academy. It’s an outstanding learning opportunity. And we’re in the process of redesigning our mentoring program so that every new superintendent has mentors they can go to when they have questions.
Is there one area in which you’ll be putting the most work headed toward 2025 to keep the TASA vision on track?
I think the biggest challenge is to make sure that we just keep doing the work of our visioning document and the TASA Strategic Framework. Each year, we have set up a process where we meet with our officers and Executive Committee in the summer to look at the past year’s work and accomplishments and set our goals for the following year. We also have a committee structure in place to allow more TASA members to provide feedback on each of our strategic areas.
What’s your personal vision for the future of TASA, looking toward 2025?
I want to help ensure that, from the state level, schools are funded appropriately, that school leaders are given discretion to do what they need to do for their local communities, and that they are given the space to actually lead. If we can help our state be less compliance-driven and more about empowering schools, that would be wonderful.
I also hope that school leaders will see TASA as their go-to place for aspirational, inspiring professional development.
Ultimately, with the freedom to lead, appropriate resources and quality professional development, I hope that Texas school leaders can dream and think big, and change our school system to better prepare students for a future that is rapidly changing.
I also hope that we have a renewed sense of the patriotic endeavor that public education is — that people who serve in schools are serving not only individual children, but our communities and our democracy. You can’t have a free society without a strong public school system.
The two go hand in hand, and sometimes I think people forget why public schools exist. I hope we’ll see a renewed energy around that at the state level.
How will the TASA vision and Strategic Framework benefit TASA members and, in turn, benefit Texas children?
Through our professional learning offerings, we’re helping to develop stronger and better leaders who can better serve their students. We can help by engaging our members and offering them supports that help them to be stronger professionals, but also by providing them with a support network. Being a superintendent can be a lonely job. It’s really important for superintendents and all school leaders to have peers around them that create that network. The strength of our organization is in our members. The more we bring them together in meaningful ways, the stronger we become.
One thing I’m really looking forward to is providing a wellness program for our members. Because of the stresses of the job and all the things that school leaders do, they’re often in a fishbowl. They serve a community, they work with students and with parents and with staff and with board members and with TEA, and with state leaders. They get pulled in many different directions.
For them to be the best leaders they can be, they also have to take care of themselves. So we are working on providing them with a wellness program that emphasizes eating right, exercising, dealing with stress management, taking care of all aspects of their lives, and taking time for a fulfilling family life and friendships. That will help develop stronger leaders as well.
I’m excited about where TASA is, and I’m even more excited about what can happen in the future as we pull everybody together and head in the same direction. To me, that’s what the Strategic Framework does. It’s a representation of what our members want, and we are heavily focused on getting it done.