One Connection at a Time
One of the first things you notice about Gerald Dawkins is his ubiquitous bow tie. The second thing? This superintendent has students with him wherever he goes. Both characteristics shed light on Dawkins' educational passions and priorities. In Saginaw, Mich., and earlier in Grand Rapids, his goal has been simple-to make education as relevant and accessible as possible. "We try to treat every child as ... the most important child around," he says.
In Spartanburg, S.C., young Dawkins learned a more valuable lesson than math or science from William Hamilton and Pearl Wiggins, his fifthand sixth-grade teachers. He saw a new way to look at the world. "They ... taught in a segregated situation without enough resources, but they gave you a sense of the urgency, importance and value of the educational process," Dawkins says. "They focused on what was possible for you rather than what you didn't have." In a daily show of respect for these teachers and their work, Dawkins dons a bow tie- Hamilton's trademark decades ago.
New Man in Town
A focus on the possible was certainly the attitude Dawkins had to take when interviewing for the top job in AdministratorProfile Saginaw in 2001. Leaving the helm was a very popular, long-term leader. "We were basically looking for someone who walked on water," says Michael Manley, a district spokesman.
With 25 years of education experience in Grand Rapids, Dawkins convinced them he was up to the task. But the right entrance would be crucial. So he interviewed his bosses. In fact, he spent several hours with each of the seven board members.
It wasn't just a warm, fuzzy, gettingto- know-you session. Dawkins candidly asked about their greatest successes and failures in the district, and what they would change if they could. In the process, each person's priorities crystalized. "I want to see the work in front of them as they see it," he says.
Meanwhile, during Manley's initial talks with Dawkins, the two discovered a shared love of jazz, particularly Miles Davis. And a sports chat led into a talk about the old Negro leagues. It was the start of a great working relationship. One Connection at a Time Gerald Dawkins, Saginaw (Mich.) Public Schools Dawkins' first school convocation was equally collaborative. Rather than talking at faculty, the leader invited the whole school community, from principals to bus drivers, to meet a handful of children. The staff was told: "This is the face of the school district," and the kids were told: "These are the people who are going to help you succeed." The leader's inclusionary approach extends to his treatment of the first day of school. His "Hop On The Bus" program has local community and political leaders literally riding the school bus that day. Tours and class observations round out the back-to-school experience. Yet that bus ride, Dawkins says, seems to rank tops in their minds.
Dawkins' zest is contagious. When he was seeking tens of millions of dollars to fund a renovation of Saginaw's 31 schools last year, he took groups of students to local senior centers. "By the time he left, these people were excited about the schools and had fallen in love with the kids," Manley says.
The bond was ultimately shot down with a 60/40 split, but Dawkins feels he's laid the groundwork for another campaign to gather funding to repair Saginaw's highest priority schools.
They're schools he knows well. Dawkins regularly attends games, concerts and other school events. In his mind, a day without seeing students in action is a bad day indeed. The leader says, "I am simply driven by one thing-to create a world class school system for children I think are world class and deserve it." DA Steven Scarpa is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Conn.