Dr. Timothy Gadson began his superintendency in the Salt Lake City School District on July 1, 2021. He received his bachelor’s degree in Business Economics and Secondary Education from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee, Florida and his master’s and doctorate degrees from Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. Dr. Gadson has served as an assistant principal and principal at various levels, including elementary school, middle school, high school, and alternative education.
For our December issue, we had the opportunity to interview Dr. Gadson about his vision for education in the Salt Lake City School District, some of the priorities for his administration, and his response to some high-profile debates about education.
What inspired you to work in the education field?
Dr. Gadson: I got into education because of life circumstances. My undergraduate major was business and economics, and I planned on being an entrepreneur, working in the world of commerce, and making all the money I could to retire early. When I was in my junior year of undergraduate school, the Dean of the College of Education invited black male students from across the university and all of its disciplines and shared with us that there was a need for more black males in education. We all looked around at each other because we weren’t education majors, but he offered us a sweet deal. He said that we wouldn’t have to change our major, and if we picked up education courses, he would pay for our junior and senior year tuition. Many of us thought that was a great deal: we could continue to pursue our major and also get our courses paid for. When I graduated from school and signed a contract to work in corporate america, my mom got ill. Since we weren’t wealthy, I had to figure out where I would work while I went home and helped out, and remembered my education degree. So I started teaching and fell in love with my students and the whole teaching and learning process, and haven’t looked back ever since.
What are some of your priorities for your administration?
Dr. Gadson: Our district has a vision of “excellence and equity, every student, every classroom, everyday.” One of my priorities is that we live up to that. I want to make sure that we’re providing excellent, world-class educational experiences to all of our students and the opportunity for every student to achieve the success that they determine for themselves—not the arbitrary success that we determine for them. We also want to provide equitable resources across our district so that every school can provide for the needs of their students. We want to ensure that we treat students and their parents as active partners in the educational process and that we actively listen to what they have to say. We want them to share their hopes, their dreams, their expectations for us, and their feedback. The last priority is making sure that we go all in to make Salt Lake City a premier school district, not only in the United States, but in the world.
Over the course of the past two months, you have visited schools across the District to give the Salt Lake City community the opportunity to talk to you directly about what they would like to see in our schools. What have you learned from this Listening Tour?
Dr. Gadson: I learned that, in regards to Special Education, there’s work that we need to do. We also have parents who are in our district that feel that they have not been heard. We heard about some of the safety concerns. Parents want to know what we’re doing to protect students while they’re in school and that we send the same child they send to us back home to them, just a little smarter each day. They also want to ensure that we rebuild trust with them. There are parents who are still upset and concerned that we were the only online district last year when other districts were back in session. Parents want to feel that they can trust the board and the district leadership again.
What kind of relationship do you want to have with students, teachers, and community members?
Dr. Gadson: In every school where I was principal, we had work that we needed to do to turn the school around. I couldn’t have done any of that work without the students first. Our students were open and honest, and they told us what we weren’t doing and what we needed to do to engage them. Students’ voices are really important to me because they are ultimately the customers of the district and the service we’re providing. Having a background in business, I know that if we are not listening to the customers, we won’t sell our products. So I want to have a relationship where students feel they can call or email me, and they can stop me in the hall and tell me what they want to see.
I want to have the same relationship with teachers, because a lot of administrators don’t understand that teachers are their immediate customers. They are the ones that are at the ground level and interacting with the students the most. And they are the ones that are providing the district’s direct service of education to students. I need to hear what resources they are lacking, and when the district has that information, it’s our responsibility to find what our teachers are asking us for so that they are able to do what they have to do in the classroom. I don’t want them to see me as superintendent, but as one of their colleagues.
What are the biggest issues facing the district this year?
Dr. Gadson: I’m hearing from teachers that we are still working to help students when school is back in sesion. We’ve been in remote learning for a while, and some students are still learning how to do school in-person. I’m hearing about the lack of substitutes and the hardship that causes when teachers need to be out of the building and still ensure that students are being supervised.
One other issue we are facing is that the shared governance model of our district has multiple interpretations. This has caused some issues where different schools are doing things differently. They may, for example, have different curricula. One of the things I’m hearing from parents is that they have students in elementary, middle, and high school whose schools are communicating with parents differently. I really want to work to have a school system, as opposed to a system of schools. I believe in the autonomy of schools because they all have their own personality, and there will be some room for that autonomy, but we really need to flesh out where we need to be consistent as a district.
What attracted you to the Salt Lake City School District?
Dr. Gadson: I originally aspired to be the superintendent of an urban school district, and I can tell you that Salt Lake City was not on my mind. I didn’t even know that there were urban school districts in Utah. In the back of my mind, I knew that there were urban centers in every state, but Salt Lake City was just not one of the districts that I was looking at. Salt Lake City popped up on my radar three times. The first time I didn’t even take a look, although some people told me to. The second time, I started looking at student achievement data and demographic data, and that’s when I realized that it was an urban district. But that didn’t move me enough to apply. The third time I saw the advertisement, I took a more serious look at some of the challenges the district has experienced, its vision, and what the board wanted to accomplish. I applied and went through multiple interviews, and in the end, I was excited that the board reached out to me and wanted me to fill this position.
So far, what has been your favorite part of working in our District?
Dr. Gadson: In the end, what’s been most rewarding to me is the diversity of the city, the fact that people genuinely want students to do well here, and that people are involved and invested in ensuring our district is successful. You don’t get that all the time, and I’m really proud of that as a superintendent.
What have you learned from your previous roles in education?
Dr. Gadson: What I’ve found is that students are students wherever you go, and that students have needs, hopes, dreams, and aspirations. That is the part that I love most about this job. Education is one of the only fields where we touch our future everyday. The end result is leaders, teachers, preachers, and lawyers that are well prepared to carry on what adults can’t carry on themselves. It gives me great pride and joy and it has been the same everywhere that I’ve worked. While our communities and demographics are sometimes different in each of the school districts, the commitment teachers have to ensuring that students learn is the same wherever I’ve been. Children want to be successful, children need us, and they are relying on us. Our families are expecting us to do good work with the best thing that they send to us, and that’s their child. They’re sending us their best, and we have to treat each of you like you are the best.
You’ve mentioned in the past that mental health is a priority for you. What have you done to ensure that students and teachers have good mental health, especially after the tumultuous year of remote learning last year?
Dr. Gadson: We are increasing the number of partnerships with groups that provide mental health counseling and support for students. We’re reevaluating our student services and support model and how we’re providing those services in schools. We’re looking at how we better prepare teachers to identify when students may be in distress and need support, and ensuring they understand where to turn to to refer students. Our Foundation has a health committee which is committed to helping our students with their physical and mental health. Currently, we are talking about how we can provide a service to our students to ensure they are mentally and physically healthy. This is important because if a student is not mentally healthy and doesn’t feel like they are seen or that they belong, they cannot focus in the classroom. I think mental wellness of students has been overlooked for a long time because educators might not have believed that it was our work or business, but the reality is that it is. If we are focusing on the whole child, mental and physical health are important parts of that.
We know that one of your priorities is to ensure that our district’s curriculum “is reflective of all of our students and that it allows teachers to meet students where they are and move them forward.” Recently, many movements, including our district’s branch of the Diversify Our Narrative, have advocated to create more diverse school curriculums that reflect the experiences of our diverse communities. Do you think school curriculums impact the equitable treatment and inclusion of our underserved minority and/or low-income communities, and why or why not? If so, how do you plan to alter our school curriculums to make them include a more diverse range of experiences?
Dr. Gadson: At the most basic level, the curriculum is what we expect students to know and be able to do. If, while we’re teaching students, they can’t see themselves reflected in what they are learning, they don’t feel like it’s relevant to them. They don’t feel that it applies to them. It’s important that we make sure that all of our demographics, socioeconomic status, and the richness of our community’s history are reflected in what we’re teaching. They have to feel that relevance, conection, and closeness to what’s being taught. It’s providing them with what they need to be successful beyond high school. That’s why I’m a huge proponent of “windows and mirrors”:: making sure students see both themselves and others in what’s being taught. It’s important for students to both see that other people have similar experiences and have gone through different situations from them. This helps us understand our interconnectedness with other people.
Along the same line as the previous question, we are aware of the high-profile debate over Critical Race Theory, where many conservative Utah legislators and state school board members claim that it is being taught in our schools, harming students, specifically white ones. What is your response to these claims?
Dr. Gadson: I’ll first say that it’s not being taught in our schools. I learned about Critical Race Theory when I was in graduate school. It’s a research perspective and lens that allows us to look at the data and experiences of minorities and understand them through this theory. When people started pushing and looking at Critical Race Theory, students at the elementary level and higher started researching what it was because they wanted to know what the adults were talking about. That meant that in this movement to get CRT out of our schools, they actually brought it into our schools. They allowed students to educate themselves. It was counterproductive in accomplishing their goal, because it created that curiosity in students. That’s what is ironic about this debate: they wanted it out of our schools when it was never there in the first place, and that brought it into our schools.
In the past few years, education and politics seem to have become increasingly intertwined. How do you think this is impacting our education? If you believe it negatively impacts education, how is the district attempting to change the effect the political atmosphere and specific politicians have on education?
Dr. Gadson: I see the divisive time we are in as a distraction. We can’t allow ourselves to be pulled into that distraction. Educators walk a fine line because no matter what we feel personally, we’re not supposed to bring that into our work. In a sense, we have to be duplicitous: I have to leave what I believe and what my experiences are at home and be neutral in the classroom to prevent indoctrination. That’s extremely important to me because it helps students understand how to think, not what they’re supposed to think. When we teach students how to think, process, and evaluate all of the information that is out there, they start thinking for themselves and forming their opinions. I see the Critical Race Theory debate, for example, as an attempt to stop the work we’re doing to help students understand how to think on their own. I think we’re most successful as educators when a student is able to amass all of this information, sort through it, evaluate it, and come out with their own beliefs—whatever those beliefs are. We’ve got to continue to focus on that as educators, and to teach students how to do that independently.
We know that our District as a whole is experiencing declining enrollment. What is the impact of this on our schools, and what is being done on the district level to increase enrollment?
Dr. Gadson: We know that there is declining enrollment, but we haven’t yet come up with any solutions or looked at its impact, so that’s something that the Board and I are taking up this year. We want to know what it means for our board, schools, district, and our city as a whole.
Over the summer, I sent out over 6,000 letters to families who have left our district in the past three years. I was excited when my parents started replying to me. Some said, “Too late, I’m out, you didn’t offer the programs that I wanted.” Others said, “I’m out because I stopped trusting the board and district leadership.” But what was promising is that a large number said, “We’re happy you’re there, and we are waiting to see if there is any change.” I want to continue to communicate with those families and let them know that we are their best choice.
We are also studying the programs that parents have left us for and looking at whether we can implement them in our district. No one should live in our city and district and feel like they have to go somewhere else because we’re not offering what they want. That is, again, listening to your customers. If you don’t offer what your customers want, they are going to find it elsewhere.
At West High, it often feels like there are two different schools in our building because of the difference in the demographic composition between “advanced” and “regular” classes. We know that the District is both majority-minority and majority low-income, groups that have historically been marginalized in education. What is the District doing to provide equal opportunities to all students, regardless of the circumstances they were born into?
Dr. Gadson: I’ll talk specifically about West. One of the things that I encountered during the first weeks on the job was that several parents and students talked with me specifically about West and said that they feel invisible. They shared that if they are not in the IB or athletic programs, they feel like they don’t matter here. We are looking into that and really understanding how resources are utilized here at West, and whether there is an equitable distribution of those resources. Some counselors have even said that they spend an extraordinary amount of time providing for the IB students, and feel that they are neglecting students who are not in the IB program.
When we start hearing from parents, students, and staff who indicate they don’t feel there is an equitable distribution of resources, we need to change that. The way we do that is by talking to staff, talking to leaders, and going back out to students and parents and making sure that everyone feels that they have a place in the school. The school is not going to get any additional money, but we’ve got to look at how the money is being utilized for our students in the building.
One of the real things that the district has done is removing prerequisites. A few years ago, you probably saw prerequisites on the course catalogs. We removed them because AP and IB say self-selection should be one of the processes that we utilize to allow students to take courses. We wanted to make sure that we removed the barriers and opened doors by allowing students who want to be part of a class and want to be challenged academically to do so.
It’s now a matter of how we help them believe that the doors are open to them and how we encourage students to participate in all of the course offerings that we have.
In the wake of last year’s remote learning, people across the country are discussing the phenomenon of learning loss. What is the District doing to regain the lost educational ground?
Dr. Gadson: Learning loss is not a new phenomenon. We deal with learning loss every year when students move from one grade to the next and when they are out of school for the summer. Our current circumstances present a greater challenge to teachers than in previous years, but I’m not fearful because they are trained and experienced to assess students’ prior learning and what support they need to provide to students. Teachers are doing more deliberate work in their professional learning communities. We are also planning to provide summer enrichment opportunities and provide access to students to technology for free through our Foundation. We’re doing everything we can to level the playing field for students, and will continue to do more.
What has the district learned from the pandemic? We know that it exposed some of the inequities in our education system that have existed for decades, but is there anything that you feel worked better during the pandemic, and will the district keep doing those things?
Dr. Gadson: One of the things we learned was that some students benefit from remote learning. Not every student needs to be in-person in a classroom physically to learn. I strongly believe in being able to provide the choice of different forms of learning for students.
It’s also taught us the importance of competency-based learning. If a student can demonstrate mastery of a concept, why would we force them to sit through it? If they already know it, we need to be moving them along and accelerating their learning. It has taught us to provide that opportunity for students.
Of course, it has also opened our eyes to the disparity that not everyone has equal access to the internet and resources at home. We know that schools have to fill that gap and communicate with families to understand what they need.
Overall, we know some students really excelled with remote learning and it was a big challenge for others.
Are there any plans to build a new West High?
Dr. Gadson: Aesthetics are very important to me. When a student feels good about their learning environment, it impacts their learning. We know that there is definitely a need for a new West High School. As far as I know, it’s the oldest school in the state.
The challenge that we face is that the school district doesn’t have money laying around to build a new school. We have to rely on our community, which means we have to go out for capital bonding. This is also how we built safer schools that could withstand natural disasters like earthquakes. We have to explain to our community the need for a new building. Districts rely on capital bonding to be able to get the money to do that. We face a dilemma with declining enrollment and the lack of trust that some have because of the situation last year. We’re asking ourselves how we can persuade our community that this is a priority and a need and what compelling information we can provide to our community that we have to replace this building. So, for now, we’re at the mercy of our community.
Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?
Dr. Gadson: Get the word out to students that I want to hear from them. It helps me inform my decisions. It’s important for me to visit schools and interact with students because I want to be reminded everyday that decisions I make and recommend to the Board have faces.
Superintendent Gadson wants to hear from students, teachers, community members, and parents. If you would like to contact him, you can email him at [email protected] or call him at 801.578.8351.