Q&A with Bibb County Schools Superintendent Dan A. Sims

Bibb Schools Superintendent Dan Anthony Sims wore a half dozen different shirts on the last day of the first week of school.

The district’s new leader wanted to wear each schools’ spirit shirt while visiting them to greet students, teachers and employees returning from summer break.

Sims, a 50-year-old father of two, most recently worked for Atlanta Public Schools as one of five assistant superintendents. Before that, he worked for 21 years in Fulton County Schools, his high school alma mater, as math teacher and principal.

Baritone vocals and jazzy blues of gospel singer Gregory Porter blared from his fourth floor corner office that overlooks downtown Macon, a city 83 miles south of his hometown of East Point. Portraits of his family, art featuring Superman and golf, an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity cup and an assortment of awards earned throughout his career in education were among decor in his office on Mulberry Street.

Sims swapped his Alexander II Einsteins shirt for a golden, collared Bibb County School District polo, on Aug. 5 and sat down with The Macon Newsroom for the first time since he was hired in June.

The superintendent job doesn’t come without challenges.

Like many public school districts across the country, Bibb Schools continues to face a shortage of teachers. The challenge of recruitment and retention is one Sims said he plans to address by having teachers give testimonies about their work and also becoming the face of recruitment himself.

In addition to a teacher shortage, student enrollment continues to decline. More than 60% of Bibb Schools lack the minimum enrollment required by the state for it to fund positions like a media specialist. Fourteen of the 21 elementary schools here have too few students. The result is the district is paying more money to operate these schools.

A month before his retirement in June, former superintendent Curtis Jones said during a called school board meeting that he did not see how Bibb Schools would not have to close schools in coming years.

Sims said his approach will “take a step back,” and first evaluate the circumstances surrounding declining enrollment then weigh values and options with locals in a transparent process in which the public will be engaged. Sims said his approach on increasing student achievement will be to first evaluate what tools and practices are being used before making any changes.

You can watch the full interview here and read the Q&A below along with excerpts of the full interview.

Q: What have you learned about Macon? You’ve done a lot of homework, done a lot of preparing before you got the job and I just wondered: what did you learn?

A:  “It’s a very cozy city, in my opinion. One of the first things that took me was just the level of comfort that people seem to feel and have for living in this city. I translate that to my most current work, seeing generations of individuals who grew up here, went to school here, and either went off and came back. Like, there’s a level of pride in the city that is amazing. And I was attracted to that because of where I started my career spanning 21 years in my hometown. So I learned a great deal about the coziness and the comfort and the love and the pride everybody has here.

I also learned about how beautiful clouds can be. It’s funny to have lived in the city, but now come somewhere where you can look up and almost every single night, there’s this beautiful cloud structure. That just blows my mind. And that might not mean a lot to some people, but it means everything to me. And I almost see it as almost just this, this guardian watching over the city, if you will, in terms of everything that’s going on.

I’ve learned about the opportunities. … As I visited almost every single school, I rode through different neighborhoods and in some neighborhoods, I saw there seemed to be a thriving community in terms of resources available. In other communities, I saw opportunities to increase those resources. So as I think about those disparities, and the impact that can have on our families, and on our children, it was, I won’t say enlightening, but it was informative to see that.”

Q: What else have you learned these two months being on the job? And how does that compare or contrast to what you learned before?

A: “I’ll start with the opportunities. It’s great to see how invested people are in the city of Macon, from the construction that’s happening, you know, on I-16 and I-75, to the work that different organizations are doing. There seems to be a recognition of the need for improvements and change. … There’s a level of investment in making things better for the people of Macon and for Macon in general. Being on the job these past two months has really shown me how much people, again, just take pride in their city. And I’ve been able to latch on with a lot of individuals during this timeframe, just to sit at their feet and listen and observe and just see what it means to be a Maconite. It’s for real, and to have that level of conversation with individuals – and I’m talking about conversations in Kroger, in people’s backyards, informal meetings, in schools,  at churches – pulling all that together has just given me a clearer view of the value that people place in this beautiful city.”

Q: What do you think the role of Bibb Schools is in this community? Or public education broadly, but specifically, how does Bibb Schools fit in this community?

A: “Bibb Schools fit in this community as a major organism in terms of how people view and perceive Macon. Macon has a rich history. … So you think about all the history and everything that’s happened in the city of Macon. And when people see a historic town, you want to look at every aspect of it. So I know that the public school system serves as a primary organism to represent that rich history.

I also think the school system plays the role in preparing students who may decide to remain in Macon because of how great the city is. So, if there’s anything we want to do, we want to continue to be able to add to the rich history of this city. As businesses come and find their home in the city of Macon with a variety of job and career opportunities, we want to be able to say that students in Macon and Bibb County Schools are able to come and be competitive in those particular roles while at the same time enjoying the fruits of still living in the city they grew up in and take great pride in.

We also serve the role of leading the way in my opinion, in changing the world. You think about how you’re going to change the world, the primary way you’re going to change the world is through young people. So here we are, sitting on just over 20,000 young people, who one day will be adults, husbands, fathers, wives, mothers, whatever role that they played and then in the professional realm. So how is it that we prepare them in such a way that they are true leaders and true representatives of all the great things that help people get along, and then we thrust them out into this world and make it a better place. So, I take seriously the fact that out of all the children in the world, I’m responsible for these 20,000 at this time in life, to get them as prepared as possible to go out and be a change agent in this world.”

Q: You’ve talked a little bit about people going away and coming back and moving up from the ranks then having kids come through the district. How do you see Bibb Schools will benefit from the perspective of, you know, an outsider, someone who isn’t from here?

A: “So here’s the beautiful thing about public education. I mean, it’s happening everywhere. But as it happens everywhere, we all run into different ways to do public education. Well, so my perspective or my lens is from two different districts, two different sets of leadership, two different sets of students and some different city dynamics. From that has come a pretty decent level of knowledge in terms of best practices, you know, be it from the outside, there’s nothing like a fresh set of eyes.

One of the things that I even learned in being in the city of East Point where I served for 21 years, everything I saw was, ‘East Point, East Point, East Point, East Point.’ But sometimes it took for somebody to bring another set of lenses to me and perhaps uncover, not intentionally, a blind spot that I may have had in terms of how to do things better. I remember benefiting from that.

So my fresh set of eyes, an unselfish set of eyes, can help the city of Macon and the school system, of course, just see things from a different perspective. And I’ll tell you one of the things I’ve been able to do very often is just to sit and listen, and then become a thought partner in terms of some things that perhaps individuals inside the system have not thought about. And we’ve already seen some benefit to that.

Now the other part is, you know, having someone from the outside, combined with somebody from the inside, you know, you bring those two together like the ‘Wonder Twins’ – I might be dating myself –  but the Wonder Twins’ powers coming together, it’s a great combination in terms of looking at new and greater things, new and greater ways to do public education do it well.

The second piece has to do with the fact that we’re coming out of this pandemic. We all learned a lot during the pandemic and quite frankly, every public school in the world is now trying to engage in what they look as a new normal. This is the perfect time for a fresh set of eyes to come in so that Bibb County and any other district doesn’t go back to things as usual. It’s a great time to redefine normal and I believe that a fresh set of eyes helps to do that in a quicker manner.”

 

Q: Tell me a little bit about what you’ve noticed that’s in place and works well and what you see that might be some of our blind spots.

A: “I’ll say primarily, you know, the branding of this district, you know, to have Victory in Progress, VIP, it’s a great brand. It’s attractive. It raises people’s antennas and it makes people pay attention. It made me pay attention, which is one of the reasons I’m here. I started paying attention to the Bibb County School District just because of the brand. So branding has been phenomenal.

From a students-first standpoint, I appreciate the focus on mental health and awareness, through Project Awareness and other efforts that are in place, in addition to helping students grow beyond the academic side with the Leader in Me program … That works well in addition to the other pieces I’ve mentioned.

I will say that the relationships, the professional relationships that are in place, it is just the perfect foundation to build from because there’s a level of trust and camaraderie where if you don’t have it, it is difficult to get good strong practices off the ground and fully implemented. And the base that is in place and making Bibb County is perfect ground to make those things happen.

In terms of things I think can use improvement, I’ll use the data. So we still have students – and this is the case in many, many public school districts – who are still at the beginning level of learning. So I think we’re all struggling with how to best approach the needs of every single student so that we can accelerate their learning and take it to the next level in a shorter period of time. So, I see there’s an opportunity for us to come sit down at a table – the strategy table as I like to call it – and really think through how we can do things different, do things better, in order to reach every single student.

We’re all desperate to do extremely well for every single student and sometimes that desperation, it causes us to pick this and this and this and this where it might just require us to focus on this and this. So I see an opportunity in Bibb County for us to put everything on the table then ask ourselves, ‘What are the most valuable practices, the most valuable approaches, the most valuable programs?’ And then let’s dig deep into those particular programs, ensure that there’s an alignment between those programs and the needs of our students so that we can maximize outcome.

I also see an opportunity to increase a focus on building capacity. There are great capacity building efforts in place but part of my philosophy is if you’re going to build the capacity of individuals, it has to have a strong relationship with the needs that you’ve identified for students. And I see there is continued work that definitely has to happen in our district to ensure that whatever PL, professional learning, that we do, it is meeting this need. And if it’s not then we reconsider or just totally gut that professional learning so that we’re actually building ourselves up – #Built4Bibb – building ourselves up to meet the needs of every single student.”

Q: You’ve sought a position that comes with some baggage and some history. So what is your plan to build trust? And how will you ensure transparency and commitment to the district?

A: “So in terms of building trust, I’m going to do what I’ve already done, and that is to be myself. I don’t apologize for being a personable, honest, upstanding individual. I’m a good human being. I treat people right. Even the nayest naysayer can sit down with me. We can have a great conversation. And I respect the fact that people feel a certain way. I think the more that I do that, and that is not just extending the olive branch, but when people extend themselves to me that I’m gracious in welcoming them than me. And in doing that, the main thing I want to accomplish in building trust is not so much to get the focus on me, but to get to focus on our students and know that I am in place as a primary agent to help students and I need you to join me in that effort. So I will continue to forge ahead in terms of just using my own personal qualities in order to do that.

One of my strengths is called Woo [see below question], and it basically means that I can take a piece of toilet tissue and make it talk if you give me enough time. It’s just the way that I relate to people. So I think a strengths based approach is always appropriate. When you’re trying to build trust, you’ve got to channel your strengths and then use those strengths to make things happen in terms of relationship building.

As far as transparency is concerned, I’m going to call it a necessity. So it’s hard for me to say that I have space to not be transparent, because what I intend to do as superintendent is to engage this entire community to support 20,000 plus students. In order to do that, I have to be transparent in terms of the needs of our district, the challenges of our district, the successes of our district and make sure that everybody knows and understands those at a level that now they can go and get engaged with us. There are three things that I think we owe to everybody in terms of anything we put out from a transparent standpoint. We owe them what I call the three C’s. We owe them content.  Give them good, strong content. If we have access to that content, they should have access to that content. The second C, give them clarity. One of the things I don’t plan to do is ever put out any information that’s not clear to anybody. I almost feel like the information that’s put out should stand on its own without any questions. And until that happens, we’re going to be careful to not to put any information out.

But then the third one is critical and that is character. That is something in that content that is clear that grabs me and makes me want to ask, ‘How can I get involved?’ And it’ll be transparency, that is the umbrella of those three C’s in terms of everything that we put out. …

Two areas I know that are most important to be transparent about: school safety and school performance. So in terms of school safety, we understand that’s not just a school issue, that’s a community issue. So we’ll be sure to put out strong, powerful information, timely information, so that people know what’s going on inside the school from a safety standpoint. And in terms of school performance… we run the ball, but it’s everybody’s responsibility. We want to make sure we put out clear information so that people can now ask themselves, ‘What do I need to do to support what you’re doing outside of school?’ ”

Q: I want to hear more about ‘Woo.’

A: “Woo is that person. A person with Woo comes in the room and knows everybody’s third cousin by the time that person leaves the room.That’s the Woo person. Woo is the person who plays music. Woo is the person who’s always smiling, has energy but focuses on people. Woo is that leader. Woo is that person who doesn’t come in the room and say, ‘There I am,’ but they say, ‘There you are.’ It makes a person feel like, ‘Okay, my focus is on you because I want to get to know who you are.’ …

Woo is one of the Gallup strengths. You have the Strength Finders’ assessment that numerous corporations all over the world have taken. There are 34, they call them ‘Clifton Strengths’ and based on taking this assessment it tells you, it kicks out your top five, but ranks you from one to 34. For example, my first one is activator. So I’m the guy that can get things going. Second is ideation. Talking would be long enough, I give you a great idea. Third is Woo. I can make friends with anybody. Fourth is developer, it speaks for itself. Fifth is communicator.”

Q: What do you want the public to know about your vision for the district and your strategic plan that we might not have heard already?

A: “In terms of this next strategic plan, which will likely cover five years, the most important thing the public needs to know is that this is not a document that we will create in isolation. We will take careful time to cover the entire community and give all stakeholders an opportunity for their voice to be heard. So that when that strategic plan is put together, everybody can say that I have part in that particular plan. So we’ll be very strategic and careful about how we arrange community engagements, student engagements, staff engagements and the like with the business community, so that everybody has a hand in the strategic plan.

They also need to know this won’t be something that we start today and finish in two weeks. A true strategic planning process is like an Amazon truck. You take all the time in the world to load that truck up but you have to put the right pieces on that truck and that truck does not move until everything is on that truck. And that takes a while. But once that truck is going, it’s hard to stop that truck. And that’s the approach that we intend to take. …

Everything that drives that strategic plan will be led by the nucleus, and that is student achievement, and everything else will wrap itself around that … But we’re in a space now where what I don’t want to do as superintendent is come in and impose my views and impose my thoughts, as much as I want to be a thought partner with other individuals and then put myself in the space to lead the effort that I know that is well fed by the needs and concerns and the input of the entire community. However, I do know that there are two critical things that are on my mind as far as the vision is concerned. And that is to cultivate a strong desire to learn in every student and to co-create a path to success for every single student.”

Q: The teacher shortage. What is your plan to recruit and retain talent?

A: “People need to feel like they have value and when people feel like they have some value, you will be surprised at what they’ll do even in the worst circumstances. So a critical part of what I intend to do is to always make people feel from the top that I value them. Everybody. I’ve walked up to custodians to take pictures, first graders to take pictures, the principal to take pictures, whoever it is because you are a human being. You deserve to be treated as such. So a core of what intend to do to help recruit and retain individuals is to get this culture increased in the district because I’m not saying it wasn’t there, I’m just trying to increase it, where people feel like this is a place that cares about me as a person and is a place that it gives me the freedom to do my job and do it well.

I also operate under three holds and my expectation is for everybody to operate on these three holds. Number one: I hold you accountable. People don’t mind being told what to do and to have expectations. However, we fail when that’s the only thing that you do. The second is: I hold you able, which means if I give you a task or job to do, now it is my job to make sure that the resources and the mechanisms are in place to make sure that you are able to perform that and perform it at a high level. And then number three: I hold you close, which means after you perform at a high level, you’re so close to me that I can celebrate you now. I can make you feel like you’re the greatest show on earth. If you actually are, I’m going to make you feel like it because you are. It’s those three holds that I think helped to just increase the power of the human spirit inside the organization.

I believe the teacher shortage is largely due to people not feeling like they matter in these systems. And what I want to do in the Bibb County school system is be a world example where people feel like they can come here and they matter every single day to everybody.”

Q: We are surrounded by some pretty good school systems. How will you capture talent and recruit teachers to Bibb Schools?  

A: “I think it’s important to put the story out and tell that story. So what will happen over the course of this school year is that we’ll start getting testimonials in terms of how great it is to work in Bibb County public schools. We want to make sure that we use social media and other outlets to get that information out and get it out well.

A second piece, I think, is having and maintaining a strong relationship with university systems where they have strong teacher education programs and make sure that those teacher educators have the opportunity to come to the Bibb County public school system and to do their practicums and their student teacher times so that they can see for themselves what it feels like it looks like work in the Bibb County School System. Third is the obvious one: ensuring that we have competitive pay. So we know that as we look at our budget from year to year, one of the things that we always want to do is to look at our pay systems compared to others pay systems so that we can stay competitive so that people feel that when they come here, they’re getting paid what they’re worth. …

As much as I’m able to, I want to get out in the streets as well, and not let recruitment be somebody else’s job, but to personalize it in such a way people can see and be able to touch and engage with the superintendent of schools because it’s important to me that we put the best possible adults in all in front of all of our people.

The last piece has to do with making sure that everybody feels empowered to recruit. Recruitment is everybody’s responsibility. … I want to empower individuals with number one, the experience to speak about but also the tools to speak about the district when they speak with friends, former former college classmates etc. who might be in education. A lot of times people come to a district by word of mouth. So what’s the word that is coming out of the mouth of these educators? It is based on their experience. And that is a recruitment strategy sometimes we tend to ignore, but we don’t plan to do so in Bibb County.”

Q: You will soon be tasked with some difficult decisions as the district needs right sizing. Former superintendent Curtis Jones said he didn’t see a way around the district having to close schools amid a continuing decline in student enrollment. So how will you approach these decisions and how will you ensure the public has informed enough to be engaged since the Bibb Board of Education does not record called meetings and, you know, heavy business goes down in those meetings?

A: “In terms of my approach, I think what you have to do is take a step back. When you start saying ‘close schools,’ there’s something else that led to that decision if it actually happens. And the step before that is to ensure that all students have access to high quality instruction and high quality programming to ensure that the city and the district is fiscally sound (and) to ensure that teachers are paid in a way that we attract the best and brightest talent. So now in terms of those, how do we do that? One option on the table (is to) close schools. Hypothetically, another option on the table (is to) reduce staff. Hypothetically, another option on the table (is to) increase revenue.

So as I approach the community, what I want to do is talk about all of the possible ways to ensure that things I mentioned before are able to happen. And then let’s have some thorough conversation about the benefits, the scenarios, and the negative aspects of going down those possible roads so that everybody can be able to look at it from a panoramic standpoint and see what’s possible and what’s not.

The mistake I think most districts make (is to) jump out there and say, ‘No, we got to talking about closing schools.’ Wait, wait, wait, before we talk about that, let’s talk about the why behind us even having to have that conversation. Let’s show data that show how many (students) are in said school versus another school, let’s talk about the programming available to students in this school versus this school and possible scenarios of how to increase the quality of what we could give to students in every single classroom every single day. So it cannot be and it will not be an isolated conversation. It’s so much bigger than that and I think when you approach it from that standpoint, people tend to better understand why we started talking about it. … When you make it an isolated conversation, people get territorial, and they get defensive and they do for good reason because, ‘You’re talking about closing something that I covet and I love and I cherish and that’s all you’re talking about is closing?’ You know, that’s a better and deeper conversation we have to have with people before we get to even talking about closing schools. So we’re going to take our time having those conversations and do it in such a way that we are able to not only invite people to our board meetings to voice their concerns, but we get out to the community as well. So I can envision not only us talking about strategic planning, but also about some things that we need to put on the table and just hear from the community about what you’re thinking and have some back and forth exchange so we can get on the same page.”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the color of Dan Sims’ shirt at the time of the Aug. 5 interview.

To contact Civic Journalism Fellow Laura Corley, call 478-301-5777 or email [email protected]