Superintendent John Covington leads the charge to revamp district
The Kansas City Star
The phone call came around 2 a.m.
John Covington likes to do that, Howard Watkins says: Call up his old college friend at 2 or 3 in the morning.
Watkins figured Kansas City’s school superintendent had been out walking again. Covington had been doing a lot of that, alone in the night along the streets outside his downtown condo.
Sometimes angry. Sometimes scared.
On this February night, Covington and his team of educators had stood before an anxious crowd, selling his plan to transform a long-troubled district, starting with the largest wholesale closure of schools that Kansas City had ever seen.
The 51-year-old Alabaman had plenty to keep him awake.
His staff members, repeatedly collared into late-night debriefings, were exhausted. Some would not last.
His school board was splintering. The unanimous vote Covington hoped for wasn’t going to happen, if the board approved his plan at all.
He could feel the national media coming to roost.
This time, when Watkins picked up his phone in Washington, D.C., Covington needed a laugh.
It seems an audience member pressing him after that night’s presentation had socked him with a good question, Covington told Watkins.
Actually, it questioned his school closings. But for Covington it bared so much more. That he was here, in Kansas City, while his wife was far away in Alabama. That he took this post even though his sponsors from the Broad Foundation had advised against it.
He was going after jobs, contractors and all the district’s sacred cows.
“Dr. Covington,” the audience member had asked, “have you lost your damn mind?”
The two friends laughed. Maybe he had. But so many people caught up in Covington’s relentless education mission, from Alabama to Colorado to Kansas City, knew he’d be fighting this kind of battle.
Always charging up that next, highest hill.
It’s never been easy. Not for him, not for anyone working for him, and not for Kansas City. “We’re laughing,” Watkins said, “and John’s saying, ‘These people are going to run me out of here.’”
Covington’s charge began 30 years ago, in Montgomery, Ala.
He’d married his college sweetheart, Wilanie, after both were education students at Alabama State University. She was already a teacher.
By day he helped her set up her classroom, decorating the walls for her with fabulous creations like a seven-foot Big Bird, or a Cookie Monster with letters and math displayed on his cookies.
By night, he worked as a guard at Draper Correctional Facility in Elmore, Ala., a medium-security prison for about 1,000 inmates. At a salary of $13,000 a year, he supervised and counseled men failed by their schools, men lost even though he saw in aptitude tests that many had the ability to learn.
He’d thought himself simply a teacher as long as he could remember. He wrote it in his seventh-grade memory book growing up in Enterprise, Ala. He was going to teach.
Covington went to work at the prison only because there weren’t any jobs waiting for a social studies teacher, and he needed the work while he went back to graduate school to add a counseling degree.
But the experience with the inmates lit a fire in him, said his uncle and mentor, C.C. Baker, 80, a former assistant state school superintendent of Alabama.
“He had a lot of faith in public education,” Baker said. “No question the work in corrections impressed on him to put himself in position to correct things.”
Education was a lifesaving force. Covington could not stand to see it idle.
He carried his anger with him as he followed Baker’s path, earning a master’s degree from Troy University in 1988 and a doctorate from Auburn University in 1994, always asking questions, wanting answers.
By 1991 he had landed his first high-pressure job: principal of the new state-of-the-art Booker T. Washington High School in Tuskegee. The Macon County, Ala., school district had plucked Covington out of nearby Troy for the post.
He wasn’t popular, being chosen over many envious locals. His family received threats. A police car watched his home. An armed guard escorted him to Friday football games.
A year later, Watkins was home in Alabama for a weekend from his service in the Air Force. Come see my school now, Covington urged him.
Covington led him to the front door on that autumn Sunday, ready to show it off, Watkins recalled.
But first a wager. For every mark or piece of graffiti Watkins could find on any of the walls, Covington declared, he would give him $5.
This was a high school, Watkins said. He knew kids.
“I’m thinking, ‘This is going to be good for me.’”
They didn’t see a single mark.
Covington handled the job in Tuskegee. Rose through the ranks of Montgomery’s central office. Launched a backward rural district into the future in his first superintendent job in Lowndes County, Ala.
Then he honed his skills in Pueblo, Colo., while winning a seat as a fellow in the Broad Superintendents Academy in Los Angeles.
It was then, in August 2008, that he got the cold call from Kansas City. School board vice president Arthur Benson wanted to know whether he would apply for the district’s vacant superintendent job.
Benson rounded out his quick sales pitch that morning by telling Covington he would have a school board “committed not to incremental change, but to radical transformation.”
The timing was bad, Covington replied. He was only two years through his tenure in Pueblo and just beginning his work with Broad.
“I wish you well,” he told Benson.
But he was intrigued.
Nope. Not Kansas City.
That was the Broad Foundation, calling the shots.
Broad — pronounced brode — more and more has been crowning education’s emerging royalty. It began graduating top managers from its superintendent academy in 2002, and now has alumni leading 28 school districts, including Denver, Detroit, Seattle and Pittsburgh. Another 28 alumni serve districts in top cabinet roles or hold federal posts.
Broad graduates can seek superintendent jobs wherever they please, but Broad’s resources — mentoring, trips to model districts to see what works — won’t necessarily follow them.
Broad wants urban challenges for its graduates, but not with unreliable boards, said the academy’s director of alumni services, Tim Quinn. Kansas City stood among the destinations, including St. Louis, that were considered poor risks for Broad’s investment.
Fast-forward eight months, to April 2009. Covington was finishing at Broad and finishing his third year at Pueblo. Other inquiries were coming his way. One became public when he was announced as a finalist to be superintendent in East Baton Rouge, La. He also looked at an opening in Clayton County, Ga.
By that time, the Kansas City school board had turned to a search firm to speed its foundering hunt for a superintendent. The director, Gary Ray, asked board members whether there were candidates on the district’s original target list they still wanted.
The board’s answer: Yes.
The Kansas City board had been working on policies to repel a history of micromanaging, repairing its image. Ray convinced Quinn the board was not so poisonous and was fundamentally changing. Covington, unleashed, came charging into Kansas City’s superintendent search.
He was the last candidate the board met, and Benson thinks Covington worked it that way — delaying, rescheduling his visit.
He gave a phenomenal interview, Benson said. He knew about Troost Avenue and the city’s racial divide.
He was blunt. Harsh, even.
Pueblo had half as many schools as Kansas City, half the number of employees — while serving the same number of students. He told board members straight up that this district should have closed more schools a long time ago. It had to slash its payroll.
If the board wasn’t ready to deal with it, he wasn’t coming.
“I knew from the jump he meant it,” said board member Airick Leonard West, who was chosen president in April. “It’s why I wanted him (over other applicants). Others told us what they think we wanted to hear.”
Covington swept in as the board’s unanimous choice. There had been some support among the nine members for the other finalist, but it didn’t take long to get on one page.
Besides, Covington had let them know he wasn’t coming with anything less than a 9-0 vote.
In June 2009, interim superintendent Clive Coleman’s team stared point-blank at the “whirlwind” that Pueblo warned was heading Kansas City’s way.
Covington’s official start wasn’t until July, but he was doing groundwork, at the moment joining one of Coleman’s cabinet meetings in the conference room that would soon be his.
And he was not happy.
Why did Kansas City have so many schools for a student population of only about 17,000? Why were class sizes so small? The few school closings that had been made had only just been determined — in June!
The team was talking about teacher layoffs that were coming.
Have teachers been notified? Covington asked, stewing.
“Everyone kind of hemmed and hawed,” recalled Don Bell, one of Coleman’s team members. “So I spoke up and said, ‘No, they haven’t been told.’”
Covington: How was this allowed to happen?
When Bell started to speak again, Covington cut in, asking him: What’s your title?
Bell told him he was executive director for school leadership.
“And he said, ‘Now I understand.’”
That was the beginning of the end for Bell and the rest of Coleman’s team, but Bell agrees even now that much of the work Covington has done, whatever his methods, needed to be done.
“Nobody before him could have done that,” Bell said. “Nobody had enough political will. He obviously knew he wasn’t going to be popular when he came. He didn’t care. That’s good for him, too.”
It’s not unusual for a superintendent to want his own team, said Carla Barksdale, who was the district’s director of human resources.
“We’d been through — how many superintendents?” she said. Most of the cabinet members had served three or four in just a few years.
“We were all very hopeful (that good changes were coming). We had to be hopeful.”
The day before Covington officially arrived, he pushed Coleman out, having legal staff hand-deliver Coleman a letter at 10 a.m. advising him to be out by 3 p.m.
Almost all of his cabinet would fall as well over the next several weeks.
Bell didn’t wait to see. He retired.
“I’m sure he’s doing what he thinks is best,” Bell said. “But I knew I couldn’t work for him.”
Impatience emanates from Covington like sweat.
It propels him into challenges like the Tuskegee high school principal job.
He attacks complacency, as he did in his first superintendent job at Lowndes County. People were actually getting suspended when they failed in their jobs, something virtually unheard of before, Lowndes County school board president Steve Foster said.
He stopped recreational field trips during instructional time. If the band wanted to go to Mardi Gras in Mobile, Ala., they’d better go on the weekend, not a school day.
These were not popular decisions, Foster said.
“He demanded a lot more,” he said, “and people saw he was really serious about education.”
He’s angry when he sees injustice. The disparity among Kansas City neighborhoods and their schools spurred him publicly to decry ills of inequity that he said the Supreme Court meant to abolish a half century ago.
His recurring word: “Heinous.”
His temperament: Bristling and wincing.
He has said it himself: “I don’t have time for foolishness.”
He’s also fiercely private.
He displays no personal pictures in his office. His wife, an assistant high school principal, still lives in Montgomery. Usually she comes to Kansas City, continuing a relationship that first became a long-distance one when Covington took the Pueblo job.
Their children — two of them adopted — are grown. Their older son, 36, is married, in graduate school, studying international business after serving in the armed forces, including tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Their 34-year-old son, a school administrator, is married with two children, working on a doctorate in education leadership.
Their daughter, 22, is finishing her bachelor’s degree in elementary education.
He doesn’t want any of them bothered, he said. Nor his mother.
“He called my mother,” Covington recently said to his communication director, Eileen Houston-Stewart, nodding at a Star reporter in his office. “She’s 82 years old.”
The reporter began recounting the 2009 interview for Houston-Stewart, telling her how Covington’s mother had raised “Johnny” and his siblings on her own. She’d told how she sent him off to college with two pairs of jeans, one of them knocked out with holes, and how, if she’d saved $15 at the end of the month, she’d send him half.
“Please!” Covington cut in. He stood to leave, angry. He wanted no more of this. “Please.”
The first time Jeffery McDaniels came to see Covington in Kansas City, he and his wife got in their car and drove all the way from Birmingham, Ala., so McDaniels could tell him, “No.”
He did not want to take whatever cabinet post Covington had in mind for him.
McDaniels, an associate superintendent in Birmingham, felt he owed Covington a personal visit to turn down such a flattering offer.
But his wife knew better, McDaniels said. He was coming to be won over.
The idea of being part of a team in a game as daunting as Kansas City was enticing, said Rebecca Lee-Gwin, an administrator in Alabama’s state department of education who had also come up on Covington’s radar.
Most of all, she said, “I like to be part of success stories.”
Covington was talking big, and he had his success in Tuskegee, Lowndes County and Pueblo to back him.
“He said whether I work here a day, a year or the life of my contract, that day will not be the same,” McDaniels said. “He said, ‘I promise you you’ll be part of the team that turns the Kansas City School District around.’”
Covington’s thirst for education also came through. Like his mentor, Baker, he’d never left school.
“I was always enrolled in something,” Baker said. “And John was the same way.”
Kansas City would spur that intellectual growth, Covington promised. He was surrounding himself with doctorate-minded professionals, urging his administrators on into university halls.
He’d done the same thing in Lowndes County, Foster said, compelling his staff to go and get doctorates.
Many of Covington’s team would join him in doctoral studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, seemingly a raft of extra work in an already overloaded year.
But they are using the time to keep thinking big about what they’re doing, Covington said.
He has given them and his principals each a bag full of summer reading, a dozen books in education research, philosophy and inspiration.
A rich opportunity all around, his recruits agreed, if you could stand the hours.
“I was honest,” Covington said. “I gave them as much history as I could tell them about the school district, and I assured them this would be one of the most exciting times they would spend in public education.
“I’d venture to say I have kept that promise.”
For once, Covington can’t make an evening session on the district’s strategic planning process.
Exhaustion has caught him. He has to call it a night. On this June evening he goes home and crashes. He bolts awake and looks at the clock. It’s 7:30. Cabinet member MiUndrae Prince is supposed to give him a ride to work. So Covington calls him. Tells him he won’t be ready until at least 8, then jumps in the shower.
He rushes to get ready, then waits for Prince. It’s 8:15, then 8:20, then 8:25. So he calls him.
“Aren’t you coming to get me?”
Then Prince tells him. “Doc, it’s 8:30 at night.”
Ronald Epps warned him.
“That work schedule,” the executive coach from Broad said, recalling conversations with Covington and his cabinet. “It’s grueling. There’s a limit how long one can hold on. People are human.”
But the job was proving monstrous, the urgency more severe than they expected, even as bad as Covington had thought things were in Kansas City.
As chief financial officer Lee-Gwin began to break down the budget last fall, the news was almost startling, Covington recalled. Old excesses had taken an awful toll. Past revenue sources that had buoyed the district against bankruptcy were dry.
All those school closings that he warned were coming would have to come quickly, he decided. Not in phases, but in one big blow.
That led to a lot of the night walks. He would have been out more if the winter had not been so harsh and snowpacked.
It’s a lonely job, Epps said.
The emerging Broad approach to transforming school districts pushes leaders to plunge in as a cannonball. The entrenched interests are bound to fight change whether it comes wading in or all at once. Going slow spares little pain, Epps said, and only costs time.
The plans rising from Covington and his team were growing immense. Beyond the practical need to close schools and cut staff, they wanted to eliminate grade levels and group students by what they can show they’ve learned. They wanted to reconfigure secondary schools. Rewrite math and science curriculum. Bring in a new reading program. Revamp student and community services. Create a marketing plan. Establish individual learning plans for every student. Devise a pay-for-performance plan for teachers.
Covington told Epps he expected that the changes he was trying to make would probably cost him his job.
“He didn’t care. He was more concerned with doing the job than keeping the job.”
Epps remembers one snowed-in day when schools were closed and his flight out of Kansas City was canceled. He watched Covington’s team working into the night.
“They’ve done two years of work in less than one year,” he said. “There’s been stress, and there’s going to be more stress.”
Some of them would fall. Covington would lose his chief academic officer in the spring. His chief operations officer was gone by summer. The head of human resources would begin a six-month sabbatical in July.
Still, the work was worthy of pride, said Roosevelt Brown, the departed operations officer.
The team was shaping its vast plan and mounting the research to back it.
“We had data, data and more data,” he said.
They were helping Covington secure power and support for a Kansas City superintendent that had been unheard of for years, even decades.
“One thing that’s clear about Dr. Covington,” said Kansas City Public Library director Crosby Kemper III. “To get the kind of reform he wants, he thinks he has to have total control of his universe.”
Covington’s closings plan cut across the board. He’d hit at the power groups — the African-centered program, the Montessori program, the protectors of the City Council’s 3rd District, the Lincoln College Prep program — and he had not backed down.
The city was rallying behind him, and the pressure was mounting on board members to stake their positions.
Kemper has been a rough critic of the district with a strong interest in competing charter schools. His first conversations with Covington and McDaniels, his chief of staff, were icy.
“Strongly negative,” Kemper said.
But even Kemper saw common ground. Covington welcomed hard accounting of the school district but also wanted to know how others in the community would help schools. Kemper liked the attitude, as did other leaders.
Civic and corporate players frustrated with the entanglements and excesses of the school district had waited a long time for Covington’s blunt charge.
This wasn’t someone selling new — and expensive — education programs. This wasn’t someone tiptoeing around entrenched special interests.
Covington was advancing tactics he’d practiced in Lowndes County and Pueblo.
The first order of business, Watkins said he heard Covington tell an aspiring superintendent in Lowndes County, was to “get the political and the city people behind you.”
He ran a tour of churches, civic groups, media and neighborhood associations.
And just as he had in his previous cities, Covington built a team of community members to engage in a vision and strategic plan for the school district.
Now he had to win over enough of the board.
As the politics came to boil preceding the school board’s vote on his plan, Covington purposefully tried to stand clear of the fray.
Publicly, he was unwavering in his support of the board. And board president Marilyn Simmons, though she aligned with a faction resisting parts of the closings plan, likewise professed solid support of Covington.
But behind the scenes, Covington was maneuvering. He could not abide a fracturing board.
State Education Commissioner Chris L. Nicastro came to visit at the height of the lead-up to the vote. She publicly urged support of the plan. Privately, she and the superintendent talked about what would be a two-year process if the state school board were to consider replacing Kansas City’s board with an appointed panel.
The return of the divisive governance of the past would probably cripple any reforms, Nicastro said.
“Ongoing tension would not allow school improvement to take hold,” she said.
The plan had to go forward one step at a time, Nicastro said. Get past the vote. Then get past the school board election.
“They focused on success,” she said “That’s what I would have done had I been in their shoes. You don’t plan for failure.”
On the biggest night of all, Covington said nothing.
For weeks he and his cabinet had been facing the crowds — hundreds of people at a time — selling his school closings plan, then listening, with Covington always at the point, standing and looking each speaker in the eye.
But not now. The board president allowed people one last turn to speak before the board debated and voted.
Television cameras and photographers swarmed.
In another town and another time, Covington had spoken to such a crowd — smaller, but just as angry. That was Lowndes County, where Covington was trying to close one elementary school.
He knew, whether one school or two dozen, how passions boil. A speech at this point, when minds are made up, he’d learned that night in Alabama, “only fuels the fire.”
So he watched from his seat at the table. No speech. No final imploring. No invitation for more catcalls from those in the crowd who are angry and scared.
The fear that had led him alone into the night wasn’t completely gone.
He believed he had his five votes. But no cushion. Just the slimmest of majorities.
His backers on the board knew that it was all or nothing. Covington didn’t want amended motions. He didn’t want the board picking and choosing schools from his list. If an amendment came — and one did — he believed he had the five votes to kill that, too.
There was no Plan B. All the eggs, Covington said later, were in this basket.
It passed 5-4.
And less than a month later, the school board candidates who had aligned against the closings plan were trounced at the polls.
Between training sessions for principals in an upstairs room at Union Station, the superintendent speaks.
It seems an issue came up on the school bus while principals were getting a tour of district neighborhoods. It seems that some may not be satisfied with the list of potential assistant principals.
“We need to talk about the way we communicate, you to me, and me to you,” Covington says.
The principals sit in small groups around work tables. They are supposed to call him if they have a problem or a question. This is something they have been told before.
“Who do you call?” he asks.
“You,” they say in unison.
“When do you call?”
“Anytime,” they chant.
“What if it’s Christmas Day?”
“What if I’m sitting down to dinner?”
“What if I’m about to get in the shower?”
“The line of communication (he is using an organization chart in their workbooks as a visual aid) runs from you directly to me. It’s done that way on purpose. Time is not on our side. We have one opportunity to get this right. We don’t have the leisure of making lots of mistakes and going back….
“So start calling, and stop having these conversations on school buses.”
Baker’s wife called him to their computer on a recent morning. News about John, she said.
A friend had e-mailed a link to a speech by Arne Duncan, President Barack Obama’s education secretary. A major speech at the National Press Club on July 27 in Washington, D.C.
Duncan had summoned Covington as one of a few educators purposefully scattered in his audience to put some faces with his remarks. Duncan called them out as his “warriors of the quiet revolution.” Baker leaned in and read.
There in the audience, Duncan said, calling him by his middle name, was “Dr. William Covington, who is facing some very tough budget decisions … but is determined to turn crisis into opportunity.”
Baker said to his wife, “I’d been expecting something like this.”
Weary-eyed, Covington looks off past the whiteboards in his War Room, his 10th-floor conference room, into the waning light of another long day.
Maybe, he says, they should have taken more time along the way to reflect on how far they’ve come, he and his team.
He knows they’ve made sacrifices.
His go back to those days he dressed in a prison guard’s uniform.
With one car between them, Wilanie drove home from her elementary school in time for him to drive to his graduate classes. He wore his uniform to class because he had to go on from there to work through the night at the prison, returning in the morning in time for Wilanie to get to school.
All these years later, still no rest.
The whiteboards, more than a dozen of them ringing the room, chart the progress of hundreds of tasks to open schools Aug. 30.
They knew it would be hard. Just how hard keeps rising up.
They didn’t get teachers assigned early as he had vowed. Notices of teacher layoffs didn’t go out until August — even later than the previous administration’s effort that had sparked his ire a year ago.
The start of the school year is rushing at them on the feet of 17,000 children.
“It’s something I should’ve done better,” he says. “I’m not good about celebratory events. It’s on to the next hurdle. On to the next work.”
Maybe winning the Broad Prize — which they believe will come — will be their oasis.
His team talked about it — the award given each year to the nation’s top-performing urban school district — around a different table after another long day.
Covington predicted it would happen in five years. Team member Mary Esselman said four. The district will be nominated within three. They were sure of this.
He snapped a look at a visitor at the table. He imagined a flash of doubt.
“You don’t think it’s doable,” he said accusingly. Brashly.
His eyes were fierce. He had flashed the same predator look weeks before, up in the War Room, when he was looking at the work facing his team.
“All that matters,” he said then, “is that they take that hill.”
Impatience flared in his eyes as usual. Appointments were stacking up. But he would explain “that hill.”
There is a battle in the Civil War, he said. A Union regiment is lined up at the base of a hill. The general stands before the regiment and tells it that the fate of the war — the fate of the nation — depends on taking that hill.
There is a terrible battle. And when the field falls silent, the general returns. The dead and wounded lie scattered across the plain. As he mounts the hill he sees a flag, but it lies on the ground. He can’t tell whose it is. As he reaches the top, it moves, and a young soldier rises with the flag and snaps to attention.
It is the Union flag, with the red and white stripes, and the stars of the colonies.
And the soldier says, “General, here is your hill.”
Covington pointed again across the mostly empty War Room, his mind’s eye filling in the empty chairs with his whole team.
“These people are going to take that hill,” he said. “And I won’t let anybody or anything get in their way.”
One last stare. A search for doubt so he can squash it.
“They are going to take that hill.”
To reach Joe Robertson, call 816-234-4789 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.