Students express concern on School Superintendent selection process

High school students take to twitter to voice their opinions on the NNPS superintendent selection.

Laura Madler

High school students take to twitter to voice their opinions on the NNPS superintendent selection.

Laura Madler, Editor-in-Chief

On Friday, May 4th, the School Board of Newport News Public Schools made a decision that will come to shape the academic lives and educations of NNPS students for years to come. The issue at hand was the selection of a new school superintendent, with the Board eventually selecting Caroline County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. George Parker III. Parker will move from the Caroline County position (located near Fredericksburg) and assume the NNPS Superintendent position on July 1.

For the past ten years, Newport News Public Schools have been led by Dr. Ashby Kilgore. Since taking the superintendent job in 2007, Kilgore worked on bettering the status of education in this city, notably raising graduation rates by over 20% from 2008 to 2017, and helping to lower the number of students dropping out of school. When she announced her retirement in 2017, Brian J Nichols was appointed to act as interim while the official process of appointing a new superintendent for Newport News Public Schools was underway.

Nichols was previously chief academic officer for NNPS, and he has a total of over 20 years of experience working in the school system. He has previously worked as both a teacher and a principal, personally getting to know NNPS students and how this school system works. All of this experience looks good on a resume, but what made Nichols stand out in the administration was his connection with the Newport News students.

In reality, most students are not very well informed about the NNPS administration or the people who are working to make their education possible- simply because the administrators are removed from the day-to-day functions of schools. Nichols, however, started to bridge this gap and engage with the students through conversation and social media in his position.

Within weeks of his run as interim, Nichols was faced with tough decisions. Not the type involving major conflict, no; he was faced with snow. A rarity on the Peninsula, January of 2018 brought a major blizzard to Newport News. As TVs were turned on to watch for school cancellations and weather updates, students turned to Twitter to watch the news coming from the NNPS account. What came, however, was not what the students expected. There was the standard school cancellation photo with dates and specifications, but with it was some curious commentary. As students replied to the tweets with thanks and creative gif usage, Nichols responded back with approachable ease, offering replies and talking to the gracious high school students directly.

In the passing months, Nichols has cemented his relationship with the NNPS students. Many describe him as approachable and easygoing, specifically citing that they feel he cares about student concerns. As the superintendent search became a topic of hot debate in the Newport News community, so did Nichols’ prospects for the job.

The Newport News School Board stipulated that requirements for the Superintendent position must include a doctoral degree. Nichols’ in-progress phD from William and Mary is set to be completed by May of next year, but because he had not completed it by the time of superintendent selection, he was not eligible to retain the superintendent position. The doctoral criteria was specified in a January School Board meeting, based off reactions in a public survey put out in January.

Reportedly, 42% of responders to the survey marked a doctoral degree as something that should be required for the position. The other 68% leaned towards “prefer” for the degree, but that it was not a strict necessity. The survey was not publicized to NNPS students, and the only way to access the online form was to actively search for it on the NNPS website. As result, there were only slightly over 1,000 responses- mainly from adults in the community.

The Newport News School Board’s decision to make a doctoral degree required thereby cut Nichols out of the running for the position, and NNPS students responded with loud opposition. Across twitter, high school students showed resounding support for the interim superintendent. They cited the fact that the survey had a small number of participants and was targeted mainly towards adults in the community as factors that could be biased in the decision to include the doctorate requirement and prevent Nichols from eligibility. One campaign, spearheaded by Menchville senior Jared Warner, gained popular support within the NNPS student community, spreading so far as to be noticed by both Nichols and Daily Press reporter Jane Hammond. The students called for friendly support and reaching out to school board members about the decision. They recalled fond memories of having Nichols as a teacher and administrator and shared online why they believe that Nichols’s character and connection with the student community should matter more than a phD.

As is clear now, the School Board did not pick Nichols for the job. Though the students’ protests did not help the interim superintendent get the official position, they were thoughtful and vocal in their opinions of the school administration process and how education decisions are made.

Newport News Schools students simply wish for their voices to be heard. Taking the issue further, they feel they deserve to have representation in issues that will directly affect their lives and education more than anyone else in the community over the coming years. The superintendent and school issues are thought over and decided by a room of adults who haven’t been students in the NNPS system for quite some time. These young people, these high school students, continue to urge school officials to listen to what the students are saying about what they want and need in their school administration and education.

On Friday the final decision was made, a new superintendent appointed, and students will go on with their school careers. Upon hearing the news, some were unhappy, some passive, some hopeful for the future and continuing to support Nichols in whatever position he is put in. As Jared Warner announced to followers of his protest on the night before the superintendent selection meeting, “At the end of the day, it’s just a title, no matter what I’m sure Mr. Nichols will remain just as involved in our schools and continue to be a great leader for all of us in NN, even though we might not get as many snow days, I think we’re all just glad he’s been a part of our lives.”