Retirement Coming, Superintendent Reflects

David W. James Delivers Annual State of the Schools Address
Posted on 02/11/2021
Image of David W. James, Ed.D.Before an Akron Press Club crowd -- on You Tube -- of more than 400, Akron Public Schools (APS) Superintendent David W. James, Ed.D., delivered his 13th State of the Schools address Thursday, February 11, 2021. This will be James’ final such address, as he has announced his retirement at the end of this school year.

Dr. James began his reflective speech recalling lessons he has learned in leadership and the many community partners in the city who have been inspirational to him since becoming superintendent in 2008.

“With reflection, a leader will know when it is time to go, to turn over the role to another, so the organization can grow and achieve higher levels of performance,” James said. “You see, it’s not about an individual, it is about the collective. All of the people who make up Akron Public Schools, including all of you, deserve the right leader for the right time.”

James spent a good deal of time detailing the many successes of APS College & Career Academies of Akron and the transformative mission, as he called it, to revolutionize the way schools in Akron prepare students for what James called “what they will face in the real world.”

In a series of thoughts that began with “Little did I know …,” Dr. James mentioned surprises along his journey as superintendent that turned into significant accomplishments. Saying, “Little did I know … that what started out as a (I’ll just use the word lively here) discussion between former Mayor Don Plusquellic and me in front of my bosses, Dr. Sylvester Small and Donna Loomis at the time, would turn into a fruitful relationship to rebuild our schools as community learning centers.”

“Little did I know …,” he added, “there were many heartbreaking stories as well. Attending the memorial service at East High School for Marine Corporal Derek A. Wyatt who lost his life serving our country. To the many services over the years to mourn the loss of our students, staff and family members. And the very recent loss of community leaders Phil Maynard, Duane Isham and others who have had a marked impact on our community. The death of N’Kia Crawford and other young people due to senseless acts of violence -- they all weigh heavily on our hearts.”

Dr. James’ fondest memories, he said, came from watching seniors cross the stage at graduation. “After all,” he said, “our most important work is ensuring that our students are prepared for what comes next.”

“At Akron Public Schools,” James told the Akron Press Club audience, “we say we are connecting community to the classroom. With support from Ford Next Generation Learning (NGL), United Way, GAR Foundation, ConXus NEO, Summit Education Initiative and the Greater Akron Chamber, we have created a model where all APS students will have the opportunity to fully explore their career aspirations before they leave high school."

In the past four years, APS has ramped up the number of career expos it produces for its students and has seen participation from more than 400 businesses and community partners in the career expos. And this past year, Goodyear joined the team as a named academy partner for Ellet CLC and the National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM High School.

Now, Akron Public Schools has added to its mission the inclusion of middle schools and eventually elementary schools into the College & Career Academies of Akron.

“We want you to know, we’re not just replicating the high school model. Middle school academies are their own, unique creation,” James told his virtual audience. “We have designed them keeping focus on what middle schoolers will have ahead of them in high school. So they must be different.”

He continued, “In middle school, academy learning will promote a positive school climate, integrate social-emotional learning and shift instruction to an inquiry-based model. Simply put, students and teachers will work in small learning communities.”

James added that middle school students will solve “real-world problems that are driven by community issues and by students’ own personal interests. We call this thematic learning. They will also be exploring careers … getting an earlier start than ever in APS.”

The superintendent concluded his discussion of middle school academies saying that, different from the high school academies, in middle school APS will rely heavily on nonprofit and philanthropic organizations to provide career exploration and service learning opportunities for students.

David James mentioned his gratitude for LeBron James’ great work in the community and Akron Public Schools. “So it wasn’t enough to transition the Wheels for Education Program to the I Promise Program, then adding the I Promise Scholarship, then the I Promise Institute in collaboration with The University of Akron, and on to the I Promise School,” said James. “From there, the creation of the I Promise Village, a place where families can get a stable housing environment to get on their feet. The latest addition, House Three Thirty located at The Tangier which is being converted into a multifunction community resource space. All I can say is wow! When you look at the West Hill neighborhood, it is being transformed. And that transformation does not end there.”

Dr. James went on to talk about the I Promise Huddle, where leaders from across the country are learning from APS experience here in Akron through an annual program -- a program that “spreads the word and explores promising practices and shares experiences on how the We Are Family philosophy can help change our communities for the better.”

He said, “For me, to witness this transformation and the effect it is having on our students and community is utterly amazing. Kudos to LeBron James and Michele Campbell for their inspiration. By bringing great people to the table, we can also drive change across our community.”

The superintendent also addressed COVID-19 and its impact on education in America, not just Akron. He said, late in his address, “Of course, the elephant in the room is COVID-19. What can I say? During my time here at APS, I have been through the Ebola Virus scare in 2014, MRSA, H1N1, TB, Foot and Mouth Disease, head lice, bedbugs, mercury spills, you name it. But nothing like this, where the entire district is shut down, and had to make the switch to virtual learning.”

He continued to talk about plans for reopening schools to students within the month, vaccinations for staff, the “incredible” work performed by APS employees during the past year, and the dedication and professionalism of Summit County Public Health Director Donna Skoda, “a guiding force for Akron Public Schools during a most challenging time.”

Financial issues typically dominate part of the annual address to the community. Fluctuations in supply and need came in 2020 due to the shutdown of classrooms. Less was spent, overall, said James, but as students return to classrooms, that could change due to cost increases from continuing to follow pandemic health and safety protocols.

“As you know, APS has been discussing the need for additional revenue for more than a year,” James said. He continued, “As good stewards of taxpayer dollars, we continue to be flexible and respond as new information becomes available. We are in the process of updating the forecast with our January numbers, but we need a few more months of data to really show the true impact of our 2020-21 school year. For our COVID year, though, we will likely finish the year under budget.”

In the balance of his time, Dr. James talked about
  • Child Nutrition staff making two million meals for curbside distribution,
  • APS commitment to equity and diversity,
  • The Stay in the Game attendance initiative from the Cleveland Browns,
  • United Way of Summit and Medina and its Bold Goals #1 and #2 in support of education,
  • The newest and last community learning center is on the drawing board to be done for the Kenmore and Garfield communities by late summer of 2023.
David James concluded his remarks, reflective of his nearly 30 years with Akron Public Schools. James said, “This has been a challenging year. As I reflect on the last 29 years of my life, I hope that I have served this community with dignity and respect. Make no mistake, what has made this journey truly enjoyable is this community and all of you. No matter where my path takes me, don’t ever forget that Akron is a very special place, and you are very special people.”

The text of David James’ speech will be posted on www.akronschools.com as will the video from his presentation.

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