The Chester Upland School District has plucked a veteran administrator from the School District of Philadelphia in its national search for a new schools superintendent.
Dr. Gregory G. Shannon has taken on increasing responsibilities during a 26-year career, overseeing initiatives that helped 31 schools make marked improvements in student performance within two years. Those schools failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress and were considered to be lagging behind peer schools. He reports Monday for his first day on the job.
Since being named in March as Dr. Thomas E. Persing’s successor, Shannon has become a familiar face on campus, visiting regularly in order to gather information on the district, assess its strengths and gain a better sense of the challenges in meeting the needs of students and their families and community.
“The first challenge is regaining the public’s trust,” Shannon said.
In a district that has seen a steady decline in enrollment, the key to restoring that trust, he said, will be tied to progress on three priorities: maintaining safe learning environments in schools; providing rigorous academic instruction and setting expectations on student behavior; and involving parents and other stakeholders in positive student engagement.
Toward that end, Shannon has gone door-to-door with other school leaders with the specific goal of “engaging parents and asking them for their business. We want to rebuild our public trust so parents to feel comfortable and trust us to engage in the educational process … to enroll their children.”
School leaders also reached out to faith-based communities, including pastors, rabbi and imams. Shannon said the financial recovery plan would also guide decisions that determine the district’s direction.
Shannon emerged as a leading candidate because of his solid work experience and on the strength of his reputation for improving student performance. He was trained and certified as a “turn-around superintendent” by the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business/Curry School of Education.
State-appointed receiver Joe Watkins spoke highly of Shannon, saying, “He understands the elements of turning around a district that has been losing students consistently for a number of years.” School officials say the perception that schools are unsafe has contributed to declining enrollment.
But now, Watkins said the district is under new leadership and implementing new initiatives that will make public schools more attractive to parents with school-age children, including tighter security measures, new course offerings and a high school honors academy. District officials also said public school students are also scoring higher on tests than their counterparts at charter schools.
Shannon was among a national pool of 39 candidates from across the country vying for the position of school chief for a district situated about midway between Chester and Wilmington, Del.
He was responsible for managing 50 schools and was a central figure in revising the Code of Student Conduct as deputy chief of the Office of Student Discipline, Hearings and Expulsion and Assistant Superintendent of the Transition and Alternative Education Division. He was also noted for coordinating professional development for staff members.
“I have worked to develop strong front-line staff, principals, and create intensive staff development focused on improving instruction and operational leadership,” Shannon wrote in a letter included with his job application.
“It is vitally important to delineate clear lines of authority, accountability and responsibility. Once that is accomplished and the best people are in place in the right capacity, I am able to empower, support, monitor and move out of the way,” he wrote.
The search was conducted by the Chester County Intermediate Unit, which has assisted in superintendent searches for more than 20 school districts across the region, with leaders of the Chester branch of the NAACP and the school district participating in the screening process.
Three finalists were selected from the five candidates who were asked to participate in a “Meet the Candidate” forum. Shannon exuded passion, enthusiasm and established good rapport, distinguishing himself from the competition, said Joseph O’Brien, executive director for the Chester County Intermediate Unit.
“What impressed me was how he related to the people who showed up at the forum, and how passionate he was about helping students at Upland Chester School District,” O’Brien said. “That’s what showed through. He spoke to the heart.”
Jean Arnold, chairperson for Chester NAACP’s Education Committee, said Shannon demonstrated a keen ability “to connect with all of us in the district” during the interview process. That was “something we sorely need,” she stated in prepared remarks.
During the search for a new superintendent, O’Brien said it was readily apparent how much residents care about the local public school system. “We said, ‘Wow, we have to match the intensity. We have to do the job well and take the task seriously.”