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'Dream the impossible dream:' new Akron superintendent Michael Robinson has big hopes for schools

Akron Public Schools Superintendent C. Michael Robinson Jr. stands in his office in downtown Akron, in front of cards wishing him well from staff and students at his former school district in Louisiana.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Akron Public Schools Superintendent C. Michael Robinson stands in his office in downtown Akron, in front of cards wishing him well from staff and students at his former school district in Louisiana.

C. Michael Robinson Jr., Akron Public Schools' new superintendent, is a dreamer, and he wants to help Akron's students - and the city itself - learn to dream up a positive future for all.

Robinson sat down for an interview with Ideastream Public Media on Monday, roughly two and a half months into his tenure in Akron. The former chief academic officer at the East Baton Rouge Parish school system noted that at various points in his life he's wanted to be a civil rights attorney, an actor and a writer. He has self-published a book about teaching Black boys how to read but isn't sure if, or when, he'll ever get around to the two other careers.

In addition to his daily responsibilities as superintendent, Robinson has spent his first few months visiting churches and meeting parents and leaders in the community, and often has his dog London-Shane with him (the "Shane" is a nod to the name the dog was given at the shelter Robinson adopted him from). He's also working on a new series of kids' books, named after London-Shane, meant to take on different topics like adoption and being raised by a single father.

Robinson will face challenging headwinds in his position, which he says is not a "stepping stone" to a job elsewhere. The district's board of education has said the district will need voter support for a levy soon, on top of cuts to ensure a healthy financial future. The district also continues to contend with declining enrollment. And many students are struggling academically, and some have other problems they face outside of school, like homelessness and hunger.

Monday's conversation with Robinson has been edited for length and clarity.

How have you been getting acclimated to Akron?

I actually love Akron. It is a very interesting and phenomenal "big little city." And I say that jokingly, but it's true. It gives you a big city feel, but yet you still have this small intimacy of a very small city. I really love it.

Talk a bit more about yourself and take us through your journey as an educator, too.

I started off as an elementary teacher, teaching everything, which I definitely would not want to do that ever again. That's why I am a proponent of departmentalization, all the way down to kindergarten, because I don't think that any one of us does everything exceptionally well, although we do have rock stars in the profession. I'm not specifically speaking about Akron, but I understand teaching every subject and planning that is a lot for teachers.

I went on to become a (full-time teacher), where I looped with my students, which meant that I taught them in fifth, I taught them again in six, I taught them again in seventh. And then I left, I went to Texas. I was a teacher there but due to certification, I moved to Georgia. And then I became an assistant principal of a high school and later became an elementary school turnaround principal (focused on improving lower-performing schools).

And then I moved to Prince George's County (Maryland), where we had 131,000 scholars and 215 schools and centers at that time. And I was a middle school transformational turnaround principal. I then became the director of priority and turnaround schools and then became a superintendent of schools in Arkansas. I had a three-year contract, and I left that after the second year. It was a beautiful experience, but I'm all about kids. So I left and became a consultant. I knew that I wanted to be a superintendent again, but I did some consultancy work, took some time for myself. I went back to work full-time and I was the CAO, chief academic officer, in East Baton Rouge Parish School System, which is my home, Louisiana is my home.

I'm now here in Akron as the superintendent. It's important for people to know, and I say it with all honesty and sincerity, that I didn't come here for a resumé builder. I didn't come here to be a drive-by superintendent. I'd like for this to be my last stop and be here for a while. There is so much potential for excellence and greatness here in Akron Public Schools. We have a lot of talented people here, and I would love the opportunity to develop some of them and to grow them and to really see our school system thriving.

My goal is for us to be the beacon of light in the state of Ohio, in the U.S., around education. And so I know that's going to take some time. That's going to take a lot of work. But this is a system that (has) untapped potential. And there is just so much that can be done here. Every weekend I am out visiting churches and meeting pastors, but I'm not just meeting pastors. I'm meeting the people that I work for, that I serve in the community. And that's why you often hear me say, “I'm a servant leader.” Yeah, I'm the superintendent, but that's my title. But my work is servant work. I'm called to do this in the larger scheme of life.

What are some of those opportunity areas that you see so far as you've been getting used to the city and the scholars and the work?

Akron Superintendent C. Michael Robinson sits at a table in an office with a bookshelf behind him.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Akron Superintendent C. Michael Robinson speaking in his office in downtown Akron. Robinson has been on the job full-time since Aug. 1.

When it comes to our college and career academies, my dissertation is in college and career and smaller learning communities. And so even in East Baton Rouge Parish, I did a lot of this work. We called it “Pathways to Bright Futures,” which was the superintendent’s initiative. And so I was an executor of that initiative.

I also fostered some of this work when I was a superintendent in Arkansas. At the time, Governor Hutchinson had money that he was providing to school districts around coding. And if you were willing to implement this, then your school district would receive the funding. I just knew that I wanted to connect with industry and build opportunities for our kids to be able to do internships, and to be able to provide the opportunity for them to learn in school so that they could graduate, you know, and actually go on to college a little earlier by getting the credits, which were what we called dual-enrollment courses and AP course.

So, this is not new to me. But what I do want to do is build upon the phenomenal work that has already been done here. And I really want to take it to an even greater level. I was over at Buchtel CLC last week and I was just blown away by what I saw with our masonry scholars and our culinary arts scholars. The teachers themselves are professionals in their fields outside of the profession of education. They bring an even different level of expertise to these kids, to our scholars. I had the opportunity to meet some of our former scholars who are now in their late 20s and early 30s. And they shared with me that the work that they did in high school at Buchtel is why they are successful today. The teacher who was there was the one that taught them and actually groomed them for that.

I want to do more of that with our College and Career Academies. I want us to be the hub who produces the scholars that are ready to walk right into jobs because many of our kids are not going to go to college. And that's okay. I think that we need to stop forcing college down the throats of kids who don't want it, but we do need to provide opportunities for what they will want to do once they leave high school. They're either going to go to college, to the armed forces or they're going to go into the workforce. We need to do more around building a stronger workforce.

What are some challenges facing the district that you’ve recognized in your first few months?

Like any other school district, over the next five years, we are going to have to address budgetary concerns. As of today, we are not in a situation where we're going to fall off the financial cliff. But if you're going to be good stewards of the funding and the resources and the capital that we have, then we are going to have to right-size the district. We will have to make cuts appropriately in certain areas more than in others perhaps. But those cuts will happen over time. I'm not just going to walk in here and cut. I mean, as it has been already put out there, that we're looking at $15 million (in cuts). But that doesn't mean that we're going to do $15 million all in one year. But over a two-year span of time, we will have to make these cuts.

The five-year forecast was done before I got here. So I'm inheriting some things that I may not necessarily be able to change, but we are looking at building a new Pfeiffer and a new Miller South. The board had already voted on those things before I got here. We also are facing the concerns around North High School and what are we going to do with that? So my goal, is, number one, I need to connect with the community. And I've been doing that every week, every weekend since I have been here, because I need to build their trust in me as a leader.

But I also need to build relationships with people as I have been doing, because it's going to be important when it's time for us to discuss a levy, which we are not going to be able to avoid doing. I'm going to need the support of our entire community, our city, our city council, our legislators, our everyday, average citizens.

If I had my way, if I could wave a magic wand, given the fact that I've already inherited that the board was going to build Pfeiffer and Miller South, I would want to build North along with that. If we could do it all at the same time, I think that we would garner more support. Regardless, I believe that it is going to be a tremendously financial heavy lift for the district.

If we don't do it right, if we do not engage and galvanize the community in such a way that we really build partnerships with them through this process, we're not going to be successful in doing this. But I have every faith and the community that I now live in and serve that we will come together as a school district, as a city, and as a community.

Superintendent C. Michael Robinson said community support for a levy will be key to ensuring quality instruction continues at the school district.
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Superintendent C. Michael Robinson said community support for a levy will be key to ensuring quality instruction continues at the school district.

Fifteen million dollars, does that mean that there are folks who will be laid off? Will there be staff reductions?

No, because we have a lot of people that retire every year. People resign. So we'll do a lot of that through attrition, just ordinary resignations. There are certain positions that even now as people resign, that if it's not something that we desperately need or have to have, then I'm just not going to fill it. So that's going to help a lot.

I have been there before at other school districts, wondering, am I going to get cut? Am I going to be the person? Do I need to look for another job? Those are normal apprehensions and emotions that people have. I think it’s much too early now for people to be panicking or to be concerned about what's going to happen. Even though we may have to cut in certain areas, there'll be other positions that people can actually apply for.

A lot of it I'm hopeful we will be able to do through just ordinary attrition with people resigning, people retiring as opposed to us discussing massive layoffs and things like that. But, you know, right sizing the district involves all of that.

The school district is facing other challenges, too, of course, with declining enrollment and relatively low test scores and graduation rates, although other urban school districts are experiencing those issues too. What’s the plan to try to address those issues?

I want to say thank you to our teachers, to our school administrators and those who have actually been at the central office level because we have seen strides being made to increase student performance. This past year, we were able to see that we have two and a half stars now under the new rating system that the state has. I know it may not be great, but I do celebrate the small successes that we have been able to make because people are working very hard.

I want people to understand that the success of the district is the success of the city. So goes the school district, so goes the city of Akron. Right now we're working on our blueprint for excellence, our strategic plan. And so my "levers" of excellence are around literacy and early childhood (education). It is important for parents to truly think about placing their children in pre-kindergarten. I don’t know if we will be able to do that or not, but it is my desire for us to do a full day of pre-kindergarten and not a half day. I don't think that a half day is suffice enough.

It is also my desire that we really build capacity of our teachers and our school leaders and our central office staff around pre-K to 12th grade literacy. I was very excited that we are doing what we call letters training, and we were doing the very same thing in the state of Louisiana. It’s a literacy initiative that helps to support the instructional delivery and the implementation of teaching students how to read and how to be efficient and very analytical and skilled readers.

The reason that that is so important to me is because you're looking at a scholar who was a non-reader in school. My mother was a very, very fluent elementary teacher. I come from a lineage of educators, so it was not that my mom did not do her job. I just had a block when it came to comprehension.

All of my English teachers, middle and high school, I attribute great thanks and my success to them because they worked with me. I still, via Facebook, keep in touch with two of them even until today. I'm saying all that to say that in order for us to improve - and what I want to see is double digit gains - that is not going to happen as quickly if we don't focus on early childhood literacy and literacy, as two of my levers for excellence as I call them right now.

That means that we as central office will have to get out into the community and hold community forums and professional development opportunities at our churches in our community to help educate our community on literacy. And when we educate the community on literacy, the community will be able to help us educate the kids, our scholars in our schools, which is going to make it better.

I want to place a greater emphasis on it, working with our CEOs of our hospitals here to ensure that those moms, those dads, those grandmas go home with a book that they can read every night to their newborns. And we want to teach parents that education does not start when the child is born. Education begins at the point that you find out that you are you're expecting a child. And that's the time when you need to start reading every night to that fetus.

Is there anything else you want the Akron community to know about you or just about your life in general, or about your plans?

I didn't come here to do a contract and then say, well, I'm going to use that as a stepping stone to go somewhere else. I live in Akron, and so I intend to be a very active part of the community and in the community. This is work that I'm called to work to do. This is my heart's work and my desire. As much as I want to be an attorney, I can be one in my mind. I love (the TV show) Perry Mason, even though I wasn't around when all of those shows came out.

But the key thing is I want our kids to dream. I want our community to dream the impossible dream. I want them to understand that in the end, that this work that we're doing today, that our efforts and our energy as we, for example, have conversations around North and Miller South and all of those things, I want to plan for a future action that none of us may be around to even know.

Conor Morris is the education reporter for Ideastream Public Media.