If you've been to enough conferences, one of the last things you'd probably expect during a session — especially one on administrative practices — is a sing-along, with dancing optional but encouraged. But that was the scene that played out twice during Coachella Valley Unified School District's "What Does a 21st Century Administrator Look Like?" session at ISTE 2016 last month as "The Rock, Rap and Roll Superintendent" Dr. Darryl Adams worked to engage an overflowing meeting hall.
The former keyboardist of '80s Memphis rock act Xavion, which toured with Hall & Oates and had a video in heavy rotation on MTV in 1984, began his educational career as a music teacher after the band split. And, he says music plays a heavy role in his approach to education and leadership.
"I loved teaching kids my love for music and helping them learn self-confidence, self-esteem through music," Adams told Education Dive during a recent phone call. "But then I got a little disillusioned with some of the leadership — or lack of leadership — I saw in principals and decided to go back to school, get my master's degree and become a principal ... and kind of started looking at superintendency because I saw sort of a lack of leadership there — the type of leadership I ascribe to, which is more of a servant leadership. You know, 'We're here to serve you, you're not here to serve us!' "
We recently caught up with Adams to learn more about how he fits music into leadership, his take on ensuring access in a low-income district, and advice for aspiring administrators.
EDUCATION DIVE: One of the things that stuck out to me during the panel at ISTE was the way that you fit song into the panel. How does song fit into your leadership style?
DARRYL ADAMS: Well, I do believe that music, musical expression, and the ability to touch people's heart and soul through music helps to connect us all. I've been sort of doing music and song and raps and things in my presentations, and it's been going over really well. It kind of loosens people up — gets them involved, gets them singing, gets them dancing, gets them standing up, gets them interacting. It's really helped to send a message of just love and learning and leadership and helping one another. I think music is the universal language, and I use it to bring people together and to connect us.
What words would you use to define the 21st Century administrator?
ADAMS: I think the 21st Century administrator must be innovative. They must be collaborative. They must be a person who can bring people together. They must be entrepreneurial. They must not be afraid to love and be loved, you know? To be able to share their heart and their soul. It brings that out in others when they see their leader willing to share those barriers and challenges, but also those opportunities and that grit and that growth mindset of continuous improvement and helping each other. I think the 21st Century administrator who has those attributes and characteristics will do well.
What advice would you give to new or aspiring superintendents or principals?
ADAMS: I would tell them it's an art form. It's a craft, leadership. Understand the philosophies of servant leadership and creative leadership, along with being collaborative and bringing people together. I think that's the one main thing leaders must do — bringing people together for a common mission/vision/goal, and work together as a team, as a family, to make the world a better place. If you have those kind of principles and philosophies, you will do well in today's need for true servant leaders.
You mentioned during the panel that your district is also classified as one of the poorest. How do you ensure access to things like technology for each and every student, especially today when a lot of districts are facing austerity in their budgets?
ADAMS: It harkens back to my ability to bring people together and establish a true collaborative structure. I knew that the Coachella community, which [has a] very low socioeconomic [standing] — there are some low expectations there. I knew [I could get support] if I inform everyone that "This is where you are, you don't have to be here, you can do better if we do it together," and one way to get this moving is to provide students with a 21st Century education. And one of the best ways to do that is to give every student a device and the connectivity so they can learn in the 21st Century.
Once the parents understood, "Wow, if we combine our forces and our money, this device is maybe gonna cost me $300," and it's a $700 device. But most importantly, the program is a 10-year program. My child will still get an up-to-date, new device when the time comes for the next 10 years, and the connectivity to go along with it. Therefore, they're gonna have a much better chance to compete if the education system is based around truly preparing them to go to college, go into a career and be a good citizen.
The parents bought into that and the students bought in and the teachers bought in, and once that passed in 2012, we were on our way to truly innovating and providing a first-class education. It's like we truly were able to make the impossible possible, in a way, and now we believe we can do anything if we do it together.
The school-to-prison pipeline has been a hot topic, especially in poorer districts. What approach does Coachella Valley take to discipline?
ADAMS: We truly believe in being proactive, and character education and citizenship preparation is important to that. We don't tolerate cyber-bullying. We don't tolerate harassment. We have programs like the positive behavior intervention system. We just finished a pilot with restorative justice. We're gonna be implementing that full-scale over the next several years. We just reach out to the parents and to the students and everyone to say, "Look, we're all together in this. Let's treat each other well. Let's focus on improving and preparing our students for college, career and citizenship."
The numbers are bearing it out. Our dropout rate was cut in half last year. Cut in half. Our high school graduation rate is now at an all-time high of 84%. But even more specifically, students who are in our academy programs learning career pathways, they're graduating at 95%. And students who are in our AVID program, they're graduating at 98%. We truly are getting the focus back on learning.
The curriculum and the programs are much more engaging and interactive. Students are doing robotics and computer sciences. We have an aviation academy. We just got a Gulfstream II jet donated to that academy, and students are learning to fly. They're gonna fly that jet out of there one day. Our attendance rate is at 98%, and that's like unheard of! So that tells us we're doing something right. The education program is engaging, it’s interactive, and students and families truly feel a part of it. It is shaping and changing their future.
During your panel, you stated "Our students are not test scores. Our schools are not test scores." Are you excited for ESSA implementation and the decreased focus on testing overall?
ADAMS: Any focus on using a single measure to measure students' outcomes, teachers, communities, schools is a tremendous mistake. There's so many different variables that affect every single child, every single teacher, every single classroom, every single school and every single community, so we're going all-in into personalized learning because I want students to understand and to help them find their passion in life so they can say they never worked a day in their life because they’re learning what they want to do in life.
For us, we're not going to boil that down to one test score, because there's qualitative data that's just as important to me. When I go into a classroom and kids are smiling and having fun creating new robotic coding, a number can't define that for me. You have to see that for yourself. You have to feel that. You have to be a part of that. So I'm happy that there's a decrease in looking at that sort of thing.
By the way, if you want to do that, let's look at progress people are making. If a student comes in reading at a second-grade level, and at the end of the year he's reading at a third-grade level, that's progress. But I'm not gonna measure them against a student who grew up with a tutor all his life and is at a fourth-grade level. The same thing for schools: There are affluent school districts that have many more advantages, two-parent homes, the best food, the best environment. I'm gonna measure that against my kids who are living in trailers that don't have air-conditioning, and in a one-parent family? Let's be smart about this and have a multiple way to measure qualitatively and quantitatively and then decide what that individual student or school is doing in progressing forward. That's the way it should be.