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Profile of Kevin McGowan: A Considered Decision Maker in the Midst of Professional Challenges

Kevin McGowan receives NSOY coat from Curtis Cain
Kevin McGowan, center, was named 2023 National Superintendent of the Year. Curtis Cain, left, was last year's winner.

As superintendent of the Brighton Central School District in Rochester, N.Y., Kevin McGowan is known for his strategic thinking, his willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints, his transparency and his calm leadership.

 He’s also known for his steadfast commitment to the belief he commonly shares that every single child matters: “Every child, every day, in every way.”

Elaborating on the point, he says: “You start by paying attention to every single individual and what their needs are. It’s not that complicated. It’s actually embarrassingly simple. … I think, ‘what would I want for my own children?’ Then we put all of our decisions in that context.”

Now 48, he does have children of his own, ages 20, 17 and 10. And he’s the proud holder of the title of 2023 National Superintendent of the Year, having received the honor at the 1st General Session of the AASA National Conference on Education on Thursday afternoon in San Antonio, Texas. The honor has been annually since 1988.

Student-Focused from Day 1

McGowan was just 34 when he interviewed for the superintendency of the Brighton Central School District, a highly desirable suburban district that prizes its excellent teaching staff and diverse student population.

“Kevin was the only one who turned to the students and said, ‘What do you think?’” says board of education president Larry Davis, who served as a parent volunteer on the search committee that interviewed McGowan as a candidate for the job in 2009. “He was the only candidate who spoke to the students directly. And that wasn’t a staged thing. That was him being him.”

Once McGowan took the job, he maintained that focus on ensuring every student received the attention or services needed. He routinely scheduled meetings with principals and school staff on their own turf, says Tom Hall, principal of Brighton High School, who still hosts McGowan at his school each week.

He’s become a regular presence in all four district schools. He attends as many band concerts, art shows, school plays and athletic events as possible so he can meet students and they can get to know him.

“He thinks about all of them, from the seen to the unseen, from the varsity stars to the ones who maybe don’t have a voice, and he tries to represent all of them as well as he can,” says Matt Tappon, principal of Council Rock Primary School in the district.

Strategy for Improving Success

Under his leadership, Brighton developed a blueprint strategic plan to guide the system in setting and attaining goals for student performance and districtwide achievement, as well as professional development and growth for educators.

He’s particularly proud of the district’s successful efforts to close achievement gaps. When McGowan arrived at Brighton in 2009 from a superintendency in 1,100-student Warsaw, N.Y., he began reviewing student achievement data. At the time, the district’s graduation rate was a respectable 89 percent, but he knew it could be raised. Of greater concern was the 54 percent graduation rate for Black students and 65 percent rate for students with disabilities.

“We said, this is not okay,” McGowan says. “Achievement can’t be for some kids. Achievement has to be for all kids. It should be measured by every single subgroup.”

The superintendent, other administrators and the school board collaborated to analyze every single student who hadn’t graduated the previous year, about 30 students in all.They looked at barriers for each non-graduate and devised strategies to overcome those barriers for those in following classes.

Today, McGowan is proud to say the graduation rate is 98 percent. He’s also excited that more students, especially marginalized students, have begun enrolling in Advanced Placement courses after he approved eliminating prerequisites and revamped the recommendation process.

Book and Curricular Challenges

As in school communities elsewhere, Brighton has fielded criticism, often from  Brighton parents or other individuals in the community, over its policies governing diversity, equity and inclusion.

When a potential controversy arises, McGowan’s thoughtful approach to decision making serves him well. He listens first, making sure to get all the necessary information before responding, says veteran board member Hall.

When a small group of parents attended a board meeting to object to inclusion of Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe in the high school library, McGowan calmly told them he would listen to their feedback. He then read the book himself and requested board of education members and high school administrators do so too, so they could all talk about it together.

McGowan eventually told the parents that the book would remain in the school. “He stood up and said, ‘If one kid benefits from this, from seeing themselves in that library book, that library book will never leave our shelves,’” Tappon says.

On another occasion, a few parents objected to a high school teacher’s inclusion of Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye on her reading list for students. McGowan could have removed the book until he could read it and consider it, or he could have removed the book altogether to avoid parental objections. “But he didn’t,” Hall says.

After a public board session to discuss the book, McGowan and the board kept it. McGowan told parents they could choose an alternative book for their teenagers, but the teacher would continue teaching the book.

In December 2021, McGowan and the Brighton district found itself in the glare of some national media attention when one of the primary schools removed “Jingle Bells” from its holiday song list because of its problematic origin as a song often sung by performers in blackface in the 1800s.

The superintendent stood by the school’s decision, saying in a statement: “It may seem silly to some, but the fact that “Jingle Bells” was first performed in minstrel shows where white actors performed in blackface does actually matter when it comes to questions of what we use as material in school. I’m glad that our staff paused when learning of this, reflected, and decided to use different material to accomplish the same objective in class. It is also important to note that a song so closely related to a religious holiday that is not celebrated by everyone in our community was not likely a song that we would have wanted as part of the school curriculum in the first place. … This was very simply a thoughtful shift made by thoughtful staff members who thought they could accomplish their instructional objective using different material. … This is not a political situation, it was a simple, thoughtful curricular decision.”

That measured tact has made McGowan a logical choice to design and teach the “Politics of Education” course for aspiring high-level school leaders for eight years at University of Rochester. He blends practical political skills with instruction on theoretical frameworks pertaining to local, state and national politics filtered through his distinctive lens.

His actions in the face of public tests delivered the kind of support teachers and administrators welcome today. “That was a brave and powerful thing to do for us as staff members because we feel completely supported,” Tappon says.

(Jennifer Larson is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.)

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