With just a few months until his departure, Shaker Schools Superintendent Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. shares what he’s learned as an advocate, educator, leader, and a father.
By Jennifer Kuhel
There’s an unmistakable confidence that radiates from Dr. Gregory C. Hutchings, Jr. It’s a confidence that he awakened as a seven-year-old boy who was elevated to the role of man of the house when his parents divorced. He cultivated it as a teenager when he circulated a petition in high school to convince his teachers that indeed, he belonged in honors-level classes.
And now, as Dr. Hutchings prepares to depart his career’s first superintendency at the Shaker Schools, he will take with him a confidence that’s tempered by a newfound humility he welcomes and an authenticity he embraces.
In three months, Dr. Hutchings, his wife Cheryl, and their two children will return to his hometown of Alexandria, Virginia, where he will become the superintendent of Alexandria City Public Schools in suburban Washington, D.C. It’s a district of 16 schools with a culturally and socioeconomically diverse student population that’s nearly three times larger than the Shaker Schools enrollment.
“Shaker has brought out the best in me,” says the 40-year-old Hutchings. “I’ve always had certain qualities, but our community has pushed me to be the best that I can be. And when you’re trying to be the best that you can be, you’re pulling from everything within you. That’s what I was pushed to do here.”
The results of Dr. Hutchings’ and his team’s work are remarkable for someone who was a first-time superintendent, who built a new team of administrators, and who is young by superintendent standards (the mean age of a superintendent in the United States is between 54 and 55 years old and the mean tenure for a superintendent is just more than five years, according to the American Association of School Administrators).
“It’s gratifying to reflect on how much ground has been covered during Dr. Hutchings’ tenure,” says Board of Education president Jeffrey Isaacs. “We’re on firm fiscal footing, we’re investing in our physical plant, we’re offering IB-aligned high-quality pre-K, we’ve added to our AP offerings at the High School, we’ve adopted IB District-wide, we’ve greatly enhanced professional development, and the list goes on. Dr. Hutchings leaves the district in the hands of capable leaders committed to continuing the wonderful work already under way here.”
Despite these accomplishments, Dr. Hutchings acknowledges that his decisions have not always been popular, but he has remained true to his mission: to achieve the goals that the Board of Education set forth for him. And perhaps just as important, he has remained true to the District’s aspirations for all students: excellence, equity, and exploration.
When you look at the images of you from the August/September 2013 issue of Shaker Life, what strikes you? Obviously, you’re five years older, but you’ve changed. How?
I’m a lot more refined and comfortable in my own skin than I was then. And I know that who I am now is who I’m going to be for the rest of my life. I’m also the leader I want to be. Mahatma Ghandi said, “A sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have, but how many leaders you create.” I’ve taken that to heart and let it inspire me. I spent so much time in the early part of my career trying to understand my own leadership skills, but for the past five years, I’ve spent a lot of time building other people up to be good leaders. So that whole process changed the person I am, too. I’ve always been confident, but here, I’ve learned to demonstrate humility. I’ve been fortunate to make mistakes with a team that’s nurturing, loyal, and committed. I like to think that I serve as a model to them to be courageous and innovative. (Download a PDF of the August/September 2013 issue of Shaker Life.)
Working toward equity for all students has been a large part of your work at Shaker. Where do we stand now as a District and what work do we still have to do?
Equity is not new for us in Shaker Heights; what is new is how we implement our equity work and develop action plans around it. Today, we’re saying that we’re not just going to talk about equity, we’re going to do something about it. That’s a big shift and it’s also been a challenge. Our Equity Task Force is truly empowered to do this work, and they believe in this work, so I know that they will continue on after I’m gone.
What are you most proud of, in terms of accomplishments by the District?
I’m very proud of the work we’ve done around early learning. Our work to address the achievement gap through Shaker’s First Class, our full-day preschool program, really is a huge celebration. Our first cohort finishes this year and we’re moving on to our next group of three-year-olds.
I’m really proud that we have the Innovative Center for Personalized Learning. It’s not just a place for kids who haven’t maximized their success in a traditional high school learning environment. It’s also a place where students can take classes online and earn up to 30 hours of college credit. Today, we have offerings in career and technical education and in blended learning, so now there are multiple pathways for students to obtain a Shaker Heights diploma.
Our Human Resources Department has instituted an interview process that includes community members and has protocols in place to hire the best candidates. Also, we now have a professional learning department, which is something we didn’t have before. Our professional learning is intentional and its efforts are aligned with our strategic goals and initiatives. This has a huge impact on our kids.
Finally, becoming only one of eight International Baccalaureate PreK-12 Districts in North America was a major accomplishment. We completed a vision that started here even before I arrived.
Shaker has always had a very engaged parent population. What opportunities, moving forward, does the District have in working with parents?
The Family and Community Engagement Center has been instrumental in channeling the efforts of our parents and our broader community and engaging as many people as we can in the education of our young people. We still have a lot of room to grow in terms of working with parents side by side to meet the needs of our kids. We’ve also been working to shift parents’ mindsets so that they consider not just what’s best for their
child, but what’s best for all children in Shaker Heights.
How has having your own children engaged in IB learning shaped your thoughts on the philosophy?
I felt validated this year when my wife and I were at conferences for both of our kids. In both conferences, their teachers told us that our kids are not only mastering their lesson objectives but they are caring. That meant a lot. Because I really believe that if you have a heart, if you have compassion, then you can do anything in the world. Our children have taken advantage of the opportunities here and they’ve grown tremendously both academically and in terms of exploring who they are as individuals.
You’ve said that being Superintendent of Schools at Alexandria City Public Schools was your dream job. How do you top that?
The only other job I know that I will do on this earth is U.S. Secretary of Education. I want to help our country realize the powerful impact that public education has on our youth and the asset it will be to our future. It’s such a crucial part of our democracy. Public education has been a key to our success and that focus needs to come back.
You’ve come full circle to return to your hometown as a leader. How does it feel?
It feels like the right time, as if it were all meant to be. You know, when Shaker came calling, everything changed for all of us. And in the end, I think we both benefited from what I brought to Shaker and what Shaker gave to me.
Wherever your career takes you, what do you want your legacy to be?
I want to be known as someone who empowered our young people to actively engage in their education and to use their voices as power for positive change. I want them to know that they have the power to do something about the national achievement gap, they have the power to ensure that our classrooms are safe for all students, regardless of sexual orientation, cognitive ability, or race, and that they have the power to hold their districts accountable to ensure they are engaged in a high quality education that prepares them for the world.