Q&A with Ann Arbor schools' new superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift
Melanie Maxwell | AnnArbor.com
Swift, 55, whose five-year-long contract began Aug. 27 with AAPS, is planning to visit the staff at every school and the community for each building in her first months on the job. On the first day of school Tuesday, Sept. 3, she'll spend her whole day visiting 11 schools.
She comes to Ann Arbor from Colorado Springs District 11, where she's been a part of an administration that's seen eight straight years of budget reductions.
Swift said her recent focus has been on wrapping up business at her former job and making new connections in Ann Arbor throughout the weeks since she was hired by the Board of Education—leaving no time for her to search for a place to live.
“Once the board gave the vote, my full focus has been on wrapping up the work in Colorado Springs and launching the work in Ann Arbor—and it was just not the right time to be distracted by those things,” Swift said.
Until she can find an apartment in the downtown corridor to rent, Swift said she’ll be living in an extended stay hotel. Eventually, Swift said she wants to buy a house in Ann Arbor.
Swift’s husband, John Swift, will join her in Ann Arbor once he is able to wrap up their life in Colorado Springs and retire from his job as a registered nurse. Swift said her husband is looking forward to being a hospice volunteer in Ann Arbor.
The couple does not have any children, but does have two cats and a multitude of nieces and nephews—and of course, Swift noted, about 16,000 children in Ann Arbor to care for.
Swift took about 40 minutes out of her day traveling from Colorado to Michigan Friday to speak with AnnArbor.com:
AnnArbor.com: How did you select Ann Arbor? Did you apply for many other jobs?
Swift: I wanted to go to a community that valued education at its very core. That’s just so essential to providing a quality product. Ann Arbor certainly checks all of those boxes.
Everybody knows, because it was in the media, that I interviewed with Charles County (in Maryland). I had actually only interviewed there a couple of times. Period. I had not done a lot of interviewing, contrary to what some folks believed. Charles County, I was a finalist there, and Ann Arbor, I was a finalist there.
So really, there weren’t many. I didn’t apply for very many jobs. As I said, we kind of had a rubric my husband and I used for some period of years as we were preparing for this next chapter in our lives, and we wanted to select wisely, because it’s the one that we’ll probably live in for the rest of our lives. So I was very particular about where I applied and where I didn’t apply."
Where did you get your start as a teacher?
I began teaching in 1984 in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford School District right outside Fort Worth, Texas. I graduated from the University of Texas-Arlington and that district was nearby the university and I had done my student teaching there, and then got a job and started teaching high school English. And then later, middle school English and Spanish at both middle and high schools.
What was your motivation for getting into education?
I think most of us that choose education choose it for that magic that happens in the classroom—that passion for kids and for that spark when learning occurs. There’s just nothing like that—and for those of us that are wired that way that’s why I made the choice, and really wanting at the end of the day to feel like you’ve made a difference—even in the life of one child, that you’ve made a difference.
How long had you been teaching before you realized you wanted to move from the classroom to more of an administrator role for public schools?
I felt that I didn’t ever want to be an administrator, and then about 10 years in, I began to realize that there was an opportunity there to have a wider sphere of influence. Administrators that did their administrative work really well were able to impact communities, and at the same time those who did not do that work well—that’s kind of devastating to a community. I became inspired to take that step and to see what it would be like to work as an administrator in that leadership role.
This is your first official superintendent position. What is a superintendent’s role, in your opinion?
At it’s core it’s not different—a teacher is in charge of a classroom, and a principal is in charge of a school, and a superintendent has a collection of schools, and yet it is very different that connection with community, that desire and that commitment to serve.
The way that it’s similar with all those other roles in the district is that we’re here to serve, to lead, to advocate for the work that we’re doing in this district. Really, leading from this position is a wonderful opportunity to impact change in the same way that everyone else in the organization hope to impact change in a positive way.
What kind of superintendent do you want to be?
It’s my purpose to serve, and really to extend and enhance the quality for which Ann Arbor is already known. I want to be known as someone who rolls up their sleeves and works as hard or harder than anybody on the team.
It’s my desire to fall in alongside community members and Ann Arbor Public Schools team members. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 25 years, is that it’s about team. Our success is about team. And that’s the thing that gets me so excited. Not coming to say, ‘Oh, Super Swift, what are you going to do?’ I don’t think that’s the way to look at it. It’s, how are we going to join together and put our heads together, and then, I am a courageous leader; I will make courageous decisions. But figuring those out is the job of the collective.
And that’s why the tour of every single school building is to determine what are the collective needs what are those opportunities, what are the challenges, and where are people in terms of how they’re being served and how well we’re doing in Ann Arbor.
During your interview process, you asked what the culture and climate of Ann Arbor is like. Have you gotten a sense for what that is yet?
It’s still really early, but I’ll tell you, I’ve just received the warmest welcome from the folks in Ann Arbor. Cards, emails, people coming up to me at restaurants. So far, I appreciate that the culture seems to be very warm and open, but also very honest, and I’m really excited about that. I know I’ve got a whole lot more to learn about the culture and Ann Arbor.
What are some of your key goals in your first several months on the job?
There are really two primary goals. I’ll be conducting two parallel processes—one is to extend outreach into every school community, every neighborhood, to listen and learn directly from parents and stakeholders what we’re doing well as a district, and what needs our attention, and what do our stakeholders believe are the immediate next steps.
Process number two is that I’ll be conducting a thorough analysis of what I call the back of the house operations to really become deeply knowledgeable in the district, the system and all those components—and I’m not saying I can learn it in six weeks, I know it takes a long time, but certainly get a full status from every department, every division, every area in the district. So, between now and Thanksgiving, that’s our primary focus: those two parallel processes.
When will the engagement schedule with the community be announced?
We’re working right now with the details, but hoping to get the full entry schedule and plan out to the community in a very short time. We’re just finalizing the details now.
From your first impressions of the district, have you seen any issues that you know will come up in your first year of being the superintendent?
I think the main thing that I’m hearing and seeing is a real desire, a real hunger in the community to have those open forums, to be able to have what I call that public dialogue around the current state of our schools and what the needs are. There are issues out there that need to be wrapped in to this idea of having a two-way conversation and open communication and making sure that we’re fully engaged in the community process.
Zero-based budgeting. You’ve said previously it’s not your first choice as a budget approach, though the Board of Education has stated that it will still be pursuing the switch to zero-based budgeting. How do you plan to work through this point of contention in budget approaches?
I know that right away, as would be expected, the board and I will be in deep discussions over early fall as to how this budgeting process for next year will roll out. So, as a result of those conversations, we’ll get a refined and more specific process. I’m a veteran of many years of budget challenges. I’m very well-versed in a number of pathways for that—including zero-based budgeting—so there won’t be any problem. We’ll have discussion, and the board will provide direction, and we’ll move forward aggressively to get our budget process underway at the right time.
The specifics of that, I’m sure, will unfold as we move forward. I can promise that budget process will include full community engagement process as part and parcel of that unfolding of the budget. It’s a little early yet to speak to the specifics of it, but we will come to an understanding of what the process is and we’ll get about that business right away.
Have you had a chance to review the district’s budget process last year? Did you have any comments on how the district achieved its savings?
I really don’t have a comment. I know that people do the very best in the situation that they’re in.
Ann Arbor Public Schools will be seeking a continuation of its sinking fund millage for physical property repair, upkeep and investment on the ballot this November. Do you have an opinion as to whether this is the best idea for the schools to pursue right now?
We will absolutely be 100 percent supportive of continuing to provide a quality product for our children, which includes maintaining facilities. Often times those are things that people may not notice until they’re not there. It’s very important to take care of our facilities. The average age of our schools in our district are getting up there in years and so I absolutely will support those efforts.
How does AAPS compare to the school district you’re coming from in Colorado, in your opinion?
Every community is unique—and that’s why we’re pursuing that listening and learning approach to discover those unique dimensions of Ann Arbor. And certainly, I already see that—the uniqueness of the community. And yet, there are challenges and opportunities that are similar across the two systems.
Colorado Springs is a larger system, but organizations in this day and age, it’s not unusual for systems to have challenges. It doesn’t mean that their solutions will be the same at all because as we say, every community is unique and Ann Arbor has a lot of family community support for public schooling. So discovering those assets and leveraging them is an important part of that process. But there certainly are similarities across districts.
You’ll be walking into a district with relatively low staff morale among teachers: 233 of them received layoff notices at the end of last school year; Michigan’s governor has cut funding to public schools. How important is it to you to approach the morale issue within the organization?
I appreciate you asking the question—and you asked before about similarities. This certainly is a similarity across Michigan and across many states. The priority will be to honor teachers and staff, and to honor the quality work that’s going on in Ann Arbor Public Schools.
And if that quality work continues, even in a setting of declining resources—and to maintain visibility, not only in the Ann Arbor community, but at the state level to advocate and provide that communication so that we are constantly lobbying and advocating. We have to do better by our children and we have to better to fund professionals to educate them. The discouragement that comes with year after year of funding issues and that discouragement and that overall sense of being overwhelmed: addressing that will be a top priority for me.
Now, please understand: I absolutely am not coming in to town with a magic wand; I don’t have a magic wand. But, what I do know, is that if we pull together, and I’ve done it with the people in my former system and I know the people in Ann Arbor have done it - we have to work together and we have to realize that this economic downturn will not last forever, but that it does give us an opportunity to refine our priorities and to determine what is most important and to stick with those priorities and to be more innovative and more creative in a way that’s more efficient.
My focus with teachers will be: we will be in this together. We will ride this storm out together. We are looking ahead to a time, still, I hope, where things are turning better for all of us. In the mean time, I’ll be listening, learning and honoring the staff and the community in the work that we’re doing on behalf of the children.