Stu Silberman might be a little eccentric. At school events, his favorite pineapple and cream cheese-ball recipe, pilfered years ago from the food services director at Daviess County Schools, is a must. His e-newletters include leadership lessons from Sam, his wired-haired dachshund. And a thing or two (or 10) has been said about his "directional dysfunction." (Former co-worker Tom Shelton calls it an inability to "get himself out of a wet paper bag.")
But these things simply indicate Silberman's sense of humor. It's been pretty necessary in his job as head of Fayette County (Ky.) Public Schools, a diverse system of 54 schools with 33,000 students.
When he took the position this past summer, he became the sixth superintendent since 1994. But he's quick to note in his sweet southern drawl that the turnover wasn't due to his predecessors' failures. Fayette has suffered some hard fiscal knocks--including being labeled a "hold harmless" district, with stagnant state funding since 1992, because it's considered property-rich. The financial situation translated into staff and student programming needs going unfulfilled.
But the tide may turn in the county. Legislators have proposed raising Fayette's funding to FY 1995 dollars--meaning an additional $1.5 million for 2005. In any case, Silberman says he's pledged the next decade to helping move the district's state achievement ranking from 46 to the top 10. A similar goal was achieved in Daviess County, which he led for nine years.
His commitment runneth over
With programs like Graduation 2010, which exposes young children to arts, Daviess County was touted nationally, even by former President Clinton, as a model system. Silberman has long acted on his belief that even impoverished children can achieve. "My whole history has pretty much been as a change agent," he says, recalling stints as a wrestling coach hired to earn a team wins and a middle school teacher hired after an unruly class ran out its original one.
"It's About Kids"
That's its name and student achievement is its game. The Daviess County mission, "It's About Kids," has been adopted by Fayette; banners with the slogan hang on buildings, the central office bears its name and staff say it daily.
The mission translates into efforts such as Silberman's "brain development" kindergarten program featuring activities like the violin and chess, for which the leader has received both praise and flack. Naysayers see it as wasted money. But Silberman isn't afraid to make unpopular decisions for his students.
"He would fire his mother"
No, he didn't actually do it, but that made for a funny quote by a friend in a local newspaper. (On the contrary, Silberman's own mother Teresa taught him much of value--especially how vital it is to fight for equity.) Tom Shelton, now Daviess' interim superintendent, says he has watched Silberman fire employees who didn't jive with his "It's About Kids" vision. But his technique, taking the time to gently explain why it wasn't working out, worked wonders. Shelton says, "He's the only person I've ever seen who fired people, who then thanked him when he was done!"
All in good fun
Despite 14-hour days, working makes Silberman's list of things he does for fun. Each day, he visits as many as four schools, meets with his school board and personally answers some 200 e-mails. What he loves most is hosting the system's monthly television show, "Kids Say the Funniest Things," starring kindergarteners poised on colorful stools. The funniest all-time response to a question? "I asked a little boy what he wanted to do when he grew up, and he said: 'I want your job!'"
Jennifer Elise Chase is a freelance writer based in Boston.