Within a few short months of what's been a decades-long career in education, Curtis L. Jones Jr. has become a nationally renowned leadership figure. In December, the Georgia School Superintendents Association named Jones — who leads Bibb County Schools in central Georgia — the state's 2019 Superintendent of the Year.
And it doesn't stop there.
About two months later, AASA, The School Superintendents Association, chose Jones as the 2019 National Superintendent of the Year. It's an honor he said his community hasn't stopped celebrating, and it's one that even speaks to the days before he first became a superintendent in 2015.
Long before the Georgia native first set foot in education as a Junior ROTC officer, he served as a military officer in the U.S. Army for 20 years. And though he retired from active duty, he says his long stint as an educator — which spans multiple districts and two tenures as superintendent — is another way he's serving his country.
Education Dive spoke with Jones about his newly awarded titles, his long line of accomplishments and what it means to be dedicated to public service.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
EDUCATION DIVE: How does it feel to not only be named the 2019 Georgia Superintendent of the Year, but also the National Superintendent of the Year? What do these awards mean to you?
CURTIS JONES: I'm filled with joy. It's an honor I never thought I would receive. It demonstrates the hard work that's going on. And when I think about what we've done over the last three years, I look back and say, "You know what, I'm so happy for us." And for me personally, I'm very excited, but for our district, I'm even more excited.
AASA's selection criteria includes leadership for learning, communication, professionalism and community involvement. How do you feel you embody those characteristics, and how do they show up in your work as a superintendent?
JONES: With leadership for learning, I think we have demonstrated we were willing to change what we were doing. Our reading levels were not where we thought they should be, so we invested in a new curriculum for reading. We invested in a phonics program, and we brought technology into the process, so we're now able to assess students and give the assessments to teachers — or let them create their own. We set a strategic priority that we wanted students to read on grade level, and we wanted to do better on the Georgia Milestones, and we set the tone and conditions for making that happen.
Community involvement was demonstrated in a lot of ways. The community was ready for new leadership and new ways of operating. And based on the initial ideas the community had and my willingness to accept them, we've been partnering ever since. I'm also on the Board of [Trustees] for the United Way [of Central Georgia], and that and the [Macon Chamber of Commerce] have really been part of this. The third piece is that this is a very religious community. We have a lot of churches. And while they recognize a separation of church and state, they were willing to become partners with our schools.
With communication, there was a mindset that the school system wasn't listening, [and] that when employees talked about things, they could be retaliated against. We tried to remove that [and] found a way with "Let's Talk." If you had an issue, you could write it in an email and send it to us. And when I was in the Army, my general had me draft a letter every Friday evening that said what we were doing. So when I got here, we started sending a weekly update to board members. We took on internal communications with employees, the board [and] the community. And I think people see we're being responsive.
With professionalism, I was the president of our local superintendents association, which I've been very supportive of. We have a new superintendents orientation, and [we] sponsor a professional development program ... and I've been able to not only share our story, but to give lessons learned as we've gone through it. I think I'm trying to help make our profession better, and I think people recognize it.
You spent 20 years in the Army, and your educational career started as a JROTC instructor. What other experiences from the Army impacted you, in terms of mentality or in practices you use, as an educator?
JONES: My very first unit in Germany was a rifle platoon, and ... we all had an office we shared together, and we supported one another. We weren't in competition to be the best. We were a tight group and we were friends. That attitude is something I've learned — you've got to have this team that is key to what you do. I tried to have that when I was a principal and when I was a superintendent, and I have a great team now. That's one thing you've got to have — this inner circle that works with you.
In the military, we had all these field manuals that told us how we were to operate. If you had questions, you had a document to go back to. In education, not everybody's using the same books. What I took from that is I needed to find the books, the document, the theory of action I wanted us to implement. When I found something good, that became my field manual. And I still use that process today.
The third thing I took was that it's really about people. In the Army, we had the expression, "Mission first, people always." I've brought that with me as a mindset, and how you balance those two things is something I've been focused on, as well. The Army had a set of values, but as I moved into school administration, that became even more important to me — this idea that you have values that drive you, focus you and give you boundaries. The Army values were important to me, and now, we try to have our district values be just as important to our employees.
What are some unique challenges Bibb County Schools is facing, and how are you working to address them?
JONES: We're surrounded by some outstanding school districts that have higher student achievement, as far as test scores are concerned. So you get people who want to move to other counties because they think the school system's better. Another issue we're facing is we have a lot of private schools, and we've had a lot of interest from charter schools that want to come in. And now, our system is majority minority, whereas the county is majority white. In some ways, this system, like a lot of systems, is leading the nation in the trend of becoming majority minority.
The last part is about continuing to try to provide a quality education without being critical of other partners who are trying to provide educations well. We all want to educate kids. We all want to build a better future. But you get a lot of people who say that's a threat to [public education]. I look at it a little differently. I think if we do a good job, we can become that great American institution that can continue to educate our students for the future. And if anybody wants to be better than us, then that's fine, but we're still going to be good.
What would you say is the biggest issue in K-12 education in the U.S. right now and why?
JONES: I'm not going to say public education is under attack. I'm going to say in many ways the confidence — the trust people have in public institutions — is under attack. And in some ways, those things, which have made our country great, are now being looked at differently. Public education is one of those. I think the big challenge is continuing to let people know public schools are here to do the very best they can, ... that our teachers are as good as teachers decades ago, [and] that the curriculum we have today is as good as the one we had before.
We're here to educate whoever comes through our door, [and] I would like people to have confidence that we're doing what we think is right. Nobody comes to school to make a child feel bad. Nobody comes to school to take away a child's hope. Nobody comes to school to figure out how they can take advantage of somebody else. We're here because we want to be and because we're public servants. When I was in the military for 20 years, I was serving my country. I've been in public education for 21 years, and I still feel like I'm serving my country.
Teachers are doing a public service, and they're not going to make a lot of money, but they're doing it because they think it's their calling. There are efforts now to figure out ways to take away some of the prestige that goes with teaching, and today, we're having a hard time finding people to go to college to come out to be educators because we've said so many bad things about schools and teachers. We need to stop that.
What insight or advice would you give to other superintendents?
JONES: It's a hard job. It's a lonely job. And it's one that allows people to take shots at you almost every day. But it's probably one of the most rewarding positions you can be in. And you can make it even better by recognizing there are superintendents in other places that are facing some of the same issues. Find them, talk to them and use them to help make you be even better. I would not be where I am today if it had not been for the superintendents who were in my area that I could meet with every month [and] say, "Hey, what are you guys doing about pay? What are you doing about safety? What are you doing about testing?"
Some of the best exchanges happen not during formal meetings, but between meetings. I've learned superintendents in other states have a lot of the same issues, and it has been truly amazing to be able to call people and talk to them. So, it may be a lonely position in your community, but it's not a lonely position in America. You can do this. Principals are looking for us to help them develop and grow, and teachers are looking for principals who can help them develop and grow, and the best people to help make that happen are superintendents. So take this job and have fun.