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Some question why KCK chose outsider for superintendent. Charles Foust isn’t worried

New KCK superintendent making changes, setting high expectations

Charles Foust took over leadership of the Kansas City, Kan., School District in June.
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Charles Foust took over leadership of the Kansas City, Kan., School District in June.

Already at age 10, Charles Foust was picking up on the way adults at school pigeonholed children.

Growing up outside Greensboro, N.C., he was a bright child, whose father drove long-distance truck routes and whose mother dressed him well for school. In pictures from his middle school yearbook, Foust wears a pressed white shirt and khakis.

But while academics came easily, he watched wealthier classmates with active parents receive better teachers and classroom materials. Even as a child with growing aspirations of being a teacher himself, Foust sensed he had already been placed in a category.

“I was the middle-class African-American kid who spoke well,” he said.

The pigeonholing Foust resented as a child may be one of the larger looming challenges for the new 44-year-old superintendent of the Kansas City, Kan., School District: giving an “authentic perception” of a man some in the school community have already put in a box:

That he is an out-of-state candidate who might not be the right fit to take the helm of a famously diverse and fiercely proud district that has had just 15 superintendents since 1867.

That his ambition and his long-held desire to be a superintendent should prompt concerns that he may be using KCK as a stepping stone to loftier pursuits.

That he wasn’t, by some people’s accounts, the district’s first choice.

In June, the school board selected Foust as the district’s next leader with a split 5-2 vote that has become all too familiar to those who follow board matters. That night multiple community speakers spoke passionately about supporting another finalist: current deputy superintendent Jayson Strickland. An audience rooting for the homegrown candidate erupted into boos and cries of protest upon hearing of Foust’s selection.

In August, Foust moved from a job as chief school performance officer in Union County, N.C., to take the helm of the district. At a convocation ceremony that month, he became the first unfamiliar face in decades to address KCK staff as superintendent. While outsider candidates are a norm in most districts throughout the country, Foust replaces Cynthia Lane, an eight-year superintendent and visible advocate for school funding reform who spent 30 years serving the district. Lane’s predecessor, Jill Shackelford, served five years as superintendent after 10 years in KCK. Her predecessor, Ray Daniels, had a 40-year KCK career.

Board member Janey Humphries, one of two who voted for Strickland, said one of Foust’s challenges will be understanding the complexities, concerns and characters of this district with 22,000 students from homes that speak more than 70 languages.

“He has a lot to learn,” said Humphries, who told The Star she offered Foust her support after his selection. “I want him to be successful because then our kids will be successful.”

For his part, Foust isn’t worried about any preconceived notions of what kind of leader he will be. Nor is he interested in discussing any controversy surrounding his appointment.

“Even though the spin on it is not what I’d have chosen, I’ve been here before,” Foust said. “It’s déjà vu. I will not give in to the negativity.”

The chatter doesn’t faze him.

“Once people meet me, they understand my passion,” Foust said. “They don’t know my story.”

Teacher’s pet. Smart mouth. Aspiring educator.

The only boy and the youngest of three, Foust was born and grew up near Greensboro — his parents still live in his childhood home.

By his own account, he was both a teacher’s pet and a “smart mouth,” a student who might ask the teacher to explain something further for another child’s benefit and a student who might debate teachers on why they did things the way they did.

In eighth grade, he confronted his English teacher about his placement in a mid-level reading class. The assignments came too easy and bored him. The teacher offered him extra work.

Foust didn’t want extra work. He wanted to be placed at a higher level with “the rich kids.”

“I didn’t understand why I wasn’t in the top group,” Foust said.

After the teacher helped him get a new schedule, Foust graduated middle school that year with the top language arts award for his grade. Inspired by his first male teacher, a fifth-grade instructor named Irving Crump, Foust would ultimately decide to pursue teaching.

After college, Foust came back to Guilford County, where he’d spend the next five years teaching before serving as principal of an elementary school called Brooks Global Studies from 2006 to 2010. It was there Foust had some of his first opportunities to demonstrate his ability to lead efforts to improve student performance.

At Brooks, he created extra expectations for teachers that were more aggressive than district standards — students at Brooks needed to be reading two levels ahead of the district’s own requirements.

“Teachers said, ‘Oh my gosh’ but this is a non-reader,” Foust said. “And I said, ‘But you can do it.’”

To help, he applied a strategy that he still believes in to this day — deploying more resources to the elementary level where at-risk students often get off track. He took a third-, fourth- and fifth-grade reading specialist and sent her to support kindergarten, first and second grade.

He said over time black boys, who had fallen behind their white and Asian counterparts, began outperforming other students.

“We were a working-class school, and we were on a high,” Foust said.

At times his passion traversed into a sense of competitiveness and triggered what he frequently refers to as his “smart mouth.”

He recalls the time his school got second place for a statewide reading award. Foust was so taken aback that he called the judging organization to ask why the other school had pulled ahead. He says he was incredulous to find that the school had won simply because it had a few more students who qualified for free and reduced lunches.

Foust jokes that he referred to the award as being “first loser,” and that he made sure the school wrote “state-runner up” on its website instead of second place because it sounded better.

‘We never looked back’

At the end of the 2009-10 school year, Houston school Superintendent Terry Grier reached out to Foust about bringing his talents to Texas. Grier, who had previously worked in Guilford County, was a new leader guiding a district in crisis.

Many of Houston’s low-performing schools had been labeled “dropout factories.” The district was charged with coming up with a plan to avoid a state takeover and was prepared to replace leadership in its nine high schools and middle schools.

“When we started recruiting principals, we had over 100 candidates for those nine schools,” Grier says. “When we got to the middle schools, the first person we called was Charles.”

But Foust, by his own telling, remained unconvinced even as he flew out to Houston for a tour of a district he did not plan on working for. Then Grier and Foust had a pivotal conversation about his future. Grier promised Foust that as a principal of a turnaround school he would work harder and be tested more than he ever had before. But he says he challenged Foust to think of his aspirations and whether staying at a comfortable job in rural North Carolina matched his ambition.

“I knew Charles had the polish, the leadership, the knowledge and the capacity to be a big city superintendent,” Grier said.

Foust said he and his wife, Sharelle, were deep in thought, looking in different directions, on the plane ride back to North Carolina when they abruptly met each other’s gaze. They both wanted to make the leap to Houston.

“We never looked back,” Foust said.

As the principal of Fondren Middle School, a magnet school with students speaking 27 languages, Foust was tasked with adapting the district’s new Apollo 20 program, which applied practices used at high-performing charter schools in district classrooms.

The program involved replacing principals and firing ineffective teachers at 20 struggling schools as well as incorporating small-group tutoring, extra hours in the school day and infusing millions in grants and private dollars to those schools over three years.

Grier said Foust had inherited a school in chaos and transition. Right after Foust arrived students threw a grand piano purchased by a community group off a stage. Teachers had marched to the district office demanding answers as to why their principal had been ousted. Foust now had to bring the remaining high-performing teachers on board with new initiatives and an aggressive “no excuses” culture.

“They were wed to the old culture of not believing in these kids and the doubt that we could do what we wanted to do, that we could make school an engaging place where kids could feel safe,” Grier said of teachers and principals who were replaced or reshuffled.

Foust said the experience was tough. He was no longer a beloved, go-to educator.

“They didn’t know me and I didn’t know them,” Foust said. “In Guilford County everyone knew Charles. Everyone knew my style. I would get mentees. The district office would send people to train with me whether it was curriculum, whether it was community, whether it was how to partner, even writing memos.”

Teachers were resistant to new requirements, he said, but he remained consistent in his expectations.

District data on the school, Fondren Middle data indicate that the percentage of students who met passing standards did increase during Foust’s tenure, particularly for sixth- and seventh-graders in math. The school met state standards after missing benchmarks the year before, though enrollment at Fondren dropped by 130 students during Foust’s first year.

By 2012-13, the state had switched to a new test, and middle school students also showed small gains in reading. Foust had also helped the middle school gain an International Baccalaureate certification.

Foust says in his first year at Fondren, 13 kids had perfect scores on at least one of the state tests, and he rewarded them with a trip to Galveston. He also says his students had the highest growth in the district.

He remembers a 17-year-old eighth grader named Oscar who passed his state test for the first time and broke down in tears. Oscar picked Foust up and swirled him around.

“That was the toughest year but it was my favorite year,” Foust said. “Because then we were on the map.”

According to reporting by the Houston Chronicle, the overall results of Apollo 20 were mixed. Most participating schools saw significant improvement in math, while reading gains remained stagnant. Some felt the district was spending too much money at these school sites.

The district has since embraced a new plan. Grier resigned from the district in 2016 when board members indicated that they did not plan to extend his contract. And after the 2012-2013 school year, Foust was promoted to school support officer, essentially the assistant superintendent for a portfolio of schools.

“He was a quick study in giving something enough time to work,” Grier said. “And he would stay with it. But when it wasn’t working he was good about bringing people together to move in a different direction.”

Foust says he was open with his colleagues and boss about his desire to be a superintendent. In 2015, he was a finalist for the Minneapolis School District, making the top three. In 2016, he was named a finalist to lead Bentonville, Ark., schools.

That same year, Houston’s chief academic officer, Andrew Houlihan, was tapped to lead Union County Public Schools back in North Carolina. Houlihan asked Foust to join him.

“It wasn’t me flip-flopping. I was happy in Houston,” Foust says.

Houlihan sent a prepared statement to The Star, but declined to be interviewed for this story.

“During his time in Union County Public Schools, Dr. Charles Foust was very instrumental in developing effective processes, support systems and teams to help improve our schools and coach school leaders,” the statement said.

Foust said he was looking for superintendent positions but initially glossed over the KCK school board’s posting. A second glance prompted him to pull state data about the district.

A headhunter told him the district was looking for a “turnaround” leader, and Foust felt he fit the bill.

“In my head, I’m thinking that’s all?” Foust said.

He says he is aware that he drew some ire from community members who felt he didn’t know the details of the district’s Diploma Plus program in his district interviews.

The program requires students to graduate with an additional credential, such as an industry certificate, acceptance into the military, a 21 on the ACT or a full year of college credit. He said he briefly confused the specifics of KCK’s program because he’s been involved with similar programs in Texas and North Carolina.

“The community at that point said, oh, he doesn’t know our Diploma Plus. And I’m like actually I know your Diploma Plus better than you know it,” said Foust. “Because where I want to take the Diploma Plus actually puts you on the road map to compete with schools in the nation.”

The rest of the interview process he felt went smoothly. He wasn’t nervous.

“When I start to talk about education, it is second nature,” Foust said. “Turnaround? Second nature. High-performing? Second nature. Educating? Second nature.”

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Charles Foust took over leadership of the Kansas City, Kan., School District in June. Keith Myers kmyers@kcstar.com

A fresh perspective

Last month, Foust wrapped up a series of listening tours held in each of the district’s high schools. He and his cabinet — Strickland, his former job opponent, remains in the deputy superintendent role — listened as constituents stepped up to microphones to talk about issues ranging from students feeling unprepared for the rigor of college to teachers needing more support in interpretation services, technology and professional development.

He spoke about how the community’s input would inform his own vision for the district. But he has also already made some swift changes similar to strategies he has employed in other districts.

One of Foust’s first moves has been to transfer several instructional coaches from the district’s central office to work directly in schools. He said he also plans to move the best and brightest coaches to the district’s lower-performing schools.

He speaks clearly about his plans for the district. Expect him to send more foundational support to elementary schools, communicate directly with principals about using data-driven methods to measure success and add new programs to the district, such as Advanced Placement courses.

“The adults will get on board if they see a leader that is focused,” Foust said. “That does right by them. That gives them constant honest feedback.”

Foust says he’s also looking at new ways that the district and various community organizations can partner.

Kansas City Kansas Community College President Greg Mosier, also a new leader, said he hoped Foust would quickly grasp the workforce needs of the county and state and be a supportive partner to the college.

He was impressed with Foust when they began a series of regular meetings earlier this year.

“Dr. Foust is a person with really high energy and a lot of great ideas and really personable too,” Mosier said.

Mosier said the district and the college hope to expand the Diploma Plus program so that district students can ultimately earn an associate’s degree before high school graduation. Mosier also hopes that the district can help efforts to provide college classes in downtown KCK to better serve high school students.

Board member Stacy Yeager, who voted for Foust in June, declined to speak with The Star, citing her busy schedule. But she did send a statement.

“I have seen an increased focus on student achievement and success strategies for teachers, principals, staff, and leaders for each organizational department,” Yeager wrote. ”Dr. Foust and his cabinet is striving to ensure that each student have the tools needed to increase their levels of math, reading, and other key areas. “

But change will undoubtedly be accompanied by its own challenges, and Foust says he understands that a challenge he will have to overcome is courting a community that doesn’t know him.

Complicating the process: Foust’s family — his wife and his two children — have remained in Houston, fanning some fears that Foust does not intend to remain in KCK long-term.

Foust declined to discuss this topic with The Star.

Teachers and principals are still holding their breath to see how new initiatives will affect their day-to-day work, said National Education Association of Kansas City, Kansas President Jennifer Holt.

Holt said one challenge Foust will face is finding a balance between knee-jerk changes and a sense of urgency as he starts to shape his vision. But she stresses that new strategies aren’t inherently bad, even if it’s too soon to realize the impact of any of his changes.

“What he brings is a bird’s-eye, fresh perspective,” she said. “It’s having someone who will say, ‘Why do we do this?’”

That’s a quality that several of Foust’s school board supporters have said they wanted in their new leader, even as their own interactions with district staff have drawn more attention in recent months than district initiatives.

School Board President Valdenia Winn and Vice President Wanda Brownlee Page did not respond to emails asking for comments about Foust. But in July, Winn told The Star that the board and Foust were up against an “undercurrent of negativity” regarding decisions she believes are being made in the spirit of improving student performance.

One of those decisions, the approval of an $84,000 outside consulting contract to audit the demographics of some employees, led to a tense email exchange between Winn and an interim superintendent who resigned this summer after receiving information requests from Winn that she found unreasonable in scope.

“I have been impressed with Dr. Foust and do believe he can be a great leader for the school district, if the board allows him to lead,” Julia Ford, the interim superintendent, told The Star at that time.

Foust says he’s had no problems with board members “stepping in his lane.”

“They have not overstepped their boundaries with me,” he said. “They hired me. The support is there.”

He said he does not want his administrators to be frustrated by questions board members have the right to ask. It’s a philosophy he may keep in mind as he replaces several administrators who have retired or announced resignations since Lane’s retirement.

“Give us a couple of months, and the trust will be there,” he says.

Humphries echoes a call to give Foust’s impact more time to be felt.

“We can’t expect Dr. Foust to be like our other superintendents,” she said. “He has his own style. It’ll take time. It’s only been 60 days.”

Foust says he plans to hold himself to one clear standard: He wants every KCK child to improve scores by 10 percent by the end of the school year, no matter their circumstance.

“Everyone wants to be an advocate for their child,” Foust said. “We want someone dressed up in a suit and tie or someone who comes in with pearls and eloquently speaks about their child. That does not always happen. We have parents that send the best that they have. They expect us to train them. They expect us to educate them. That’s what I’m here to do.”

In an interview this fall, he reiterated his style several times. He’s competitive. He’s consistent. He’s confident in his own strategies. And he’s not interested in being judged before his time.

The media reports — the ones that detailed an audience’s disappointment in his selection? Foust says he didn’t read them.

“Maybe one day I’ll read it,” he says, “and I’ll chuckle.”

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