Trent North of the Douglas County School System in Georgia is a finalist for the National Superintendent of the Year award from AASA, The School Superintendents Association. The district has 26,000 students, and North has been in the role for six years.
SmartBrief chatted with him about working with students who come from poverty, the school’s police force and navigating polarizing times, among other topics.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and space.
SmartBrief: You grew up poor and lived in public housing. How do you share that background with students so they know you can relate? How has that background shaped any specific conversations with some adults and fostered greater understanding?
North: There is a language that people of poverty, specifically those who grow up in the subsidized homes that we have. When I interact with [these students], if I need to enter into the language I’m accustomed to, I can do that [to let them know] “I get it. I understand. I’ve been where you are. But you can’t stay here.” And I transition back to my formal language to say, “Here’s where you’ve got to go.”
There are a lot of good things that came from growing up in the projects, and only those who lived in government-subsidized projects understand that. The only bad things were those [people] outside assuming that they knew what we wanted, assuming they knew what was best for us, assuming what things we could do and then assuming that because we lived there we knew that we were poor. So those were all the negatives. Once we got back into the confines of the neighborhood, it was good. It made me who I am today.
For my colleagues, I have to help tear down some of their misperceptions on how to support a child like me from the projects. I tell them, “I don’t need you to give me anything. I don’t need you to give me a coat. Sometimes we do, but don’t start with giving. Give me an opportunity to earn it for myself.” We didn’t know we were poor. So we were proud. Some of my colleagues wanted to lower the expectation for the kids in poverty, wanted to create excuses for them. So I spent a lot of time saying, no, that’s definitely not how I want you to interact with us.
SmartBrief: You’ve said: “I think in Douglas County we have learned to agree to agree, and we have learned how to disagree. This shows that we work across a broad range of people in the business community, the religious community and with the media.“ How did you make this happen? How are you keeping this alive in such polarizing times?
North: It starts with the governing structure. The board and I had to be on the same page with the direction we wanted the district to go in. Governance isn’t an individual; it’s a group. So once we got on the same governance page, we had to get the district office staff on the same page. Then principals, then teachers. At the same time, I am reaching out to the chambers, to the development community, the realtors, the city and county governments. I’m hosting town hall meetings. Then I have advisory boards, student advisory boards, parent advisory boards, clergy advisory boards.
We tell them, “We don’t always get it right, but our goal is to get it right. When we don’t, here’s how we want you to communicate that to us so that we can figure out if we didn’t get it right or if it’s just a misunderstanding.
From day one, we’re cascading communication up and down, vertically as well as horizontally.
When I got here, Douglas County was changing. The leadership, the people were changing. There wasn’t a common language. There wasn’t an agreement on what we were doing right and what we were doing wrong. We’re not where we want to be yet, but we are at a place where we can be productive — we can get this thing done and tackle tough issues.
It’s impossible for any superintendent to make it through Covid without having some people who are mad we mandated masks. But because we did so, we never had to close a classroom, never had to close a school. I gave my parents choice; we created a mechanism for their students to learn from home [if they wanted to]. But if you don’t think that masks are right, then you’re still upset about that.
Because of my governing structure, the board is all on the same page. When parents came to us about [critical race theory], I met with them and answered their questions. With banning books, we have a process. We had a process prior to this and we tweaked it a little bit bec of Georgia’s new law. We don’t ban because that’s a fad now, but we don’t keep books just because we have always had that book on the shelf. We do what’s fair, do what’s right for our students.
With social-emotional learning, there were people who were confused with it. We had some people at one of our meetings, and I walked into the middle of the group and say, “Hey, welcome. Can I answer any questions for you?” And I said, “No, no, no. That’s not who we are, what we do. I explained to them who we are and what we do, and then we’re fine. So I tried to educate as much as possible. I don’t have an agenda. My staff doesn’t have an agenda. We do have goals, and our primary goal is to be an advocate to all of our children.
If you have processes, protocols and procedures in place, people can’t really argue about the outcome. Even if your intent was good and your processes, protocols and procedures were not, they’re going to come to you every time with that. Did you codify it so someone else could follow it? Did you go back and revisit it to see what worked and what didn’t? Sometimes it makes you feel like you’re not being friendly, but everybody is being treated the same.
The number one challenge for K-12 public education is how the public view changes by how we are perceived. In my 32 years in public education, it’s never based on what we’re getting right. It’s based upon what we’re getting wrong. If someone comes into a school with a gun, we’re evaluated by safety. If reading scores are low, we’re evaluated by reading scores. The good news is we’re accustomed to that.
Our country is the world’s strongest economy because of the institution that is beat up on the most: K-12 public education. Ninety percent of America’s workforce comes from K-12 public education. If our country is as great as it is, and we have a strong economy, and we’re still leading in inventions and technology, then someone should be saying thank you to K-12. But I get it; they want to keep pushing us and [ensuring we have] high expectations.
SmartBrief: One polarizing issue around the country is the idea of police officers in schools. You’ve helped the district form its own police force and purchase state-of-the-art security equipment. Tell us a little about how you’ve talked to parents and students who may not have wanted this. What one or two features of your security system seem to be especially beneficial?
North: I was not in favor of bringing the police department in-house. I felt like, as a taxpayer, partnering with the local law enforcement was both good for the school system as well as the county. The county decided they felt like they could do it better. When they decided to go in a different direction, then it’s my job to create the best.
What I tell my parents is real simple: My police department isn’t here for my students; they’re here for you. They’re not here to break up fights. We can and do and deal with 98% of the students. It’s what we have always done as administrators. [The police are here for] when you come into our building, and you’re upset because you think something or someone’s done something wrong by the child. When parents are being belligerent, when they don’t respect [us].
I don’t want [students] to see law enforcement as the bad guy. My philosophy is, it is our job to handle those who are mandated to attend school. And I will retire fighting to make sure that we take care of our kids [ourselves] — and that law enforcement [only] takes care of who shouldn’t be on the property.
My two favorite tools: The first is the Centegix badge. It allows anybody to completely lock down the school. Let’s say two kids are fighting, and the teacher needs help. They press the button three times, and the principal knows and goes to the room. If they see someone with a gun or breaking into the building, they press four times, and then every teacher knows that as an emergency. I know. The police department is alerted. The building is immediately locked down, and we go into our emergency lockdown mode, where the doors lock, furniture in front of the door and a computer screen is flashing so we know exactly what room it is.
My second favorite one I call my eyes in the skies. In education, we can take care of what happens in the classroom. All the mischief starts in the parking lot before schools and the halls during transition time. I have cameras from Mobile Pro Systems on all of my high-school campuses, and I pay guys who all they’re doing is watching the cameras going back and forth, panning to make sure kids aren’t in the stairwells or parking lot. In one school I have well over 120 cameras.
We are about to purchase our own drones. They’re going to do my football games and basketball games. But we’re going to get our officers trained on our drones so instead of having a police officer just driving around the parking lot, he or she can be sitting in the building and flying a drone and doing the exact same thing.
SmartBrief: What achievement are you most proud of, and what one important achievement do you hope to be able to add to your list of accomplishments five years from now?
North: When I was hired in Douglas County, I knew that it was a great community, but I knew they were going to be nervous because they have not had a person of color serve as superintendent in well over 30 years. I knew that there were fears and misperceptions about what was going to happen to the district with me being appointed. While I can’t take credit for it by myself, what I’m excited about is what they thought could occur is nowhere near what occurred. It’s actually better, and we’re in a better place and are accomplishing more than what most people felt we could.
I knew that if you gave me an opportunity — whether you were a Democrat or Republican, Black, white or Latino — if your goal was to do right by children, we were going to partner together. We don’t agree on 100%, but we have a good community that speaks positively, overwhelmingly, about our community. We are at a very good place in Douglas County so we can face challenges together.
Five years from now, I want to be able to talk about how we were able to increase the academic performance for our kids of poverty at a very high level, while not disenfranchising the rest of our students. I don’t think one has to lose at the expense of the other.
SmartBrief: What’s your superintendent secret sauce? What do you do that other superintendents around the country might not, but that they might benefit from doing themselves?
North: I tell the community, I try to help them understand, K-12 education is a business. Teaching is what we do. We have to be respected as a business in order to be successful with what we do, and that is teach and provide instruction. For us as superintendents, if we can’t get the business part right, it’s going to have a negative impact on the teaching. I’m talking about having conversations with the chamber, public officials, businesses that are trying to relocate or expand. When we’re sitting across the table from them, we have to understand the economical impact. We’ve gotta understand how to have those business conversations at a CEO level.
I’ve been training my principals to be executive leaders. If you walk and talk like an executive, when parents come in, they’re going to respect you. The business community will partner with you and will respect you as well. I can’t be the only one. It has to be the board. It has to be the superintendent, the principals and the teachers, or [parents and the community are] going to think it’s a show.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.