Dr. Robert Malito will not be Unit 4’s interim superintendent for long, but while he’s here, he’d like you to call him Bob. He told me this when he introduced himself to a group of Unit 4 teachers earlier this year at a summer institute meeting I was attending, and he repeated his wish when I met with him in his office last week. A bit cloying, perhaps, but Bob’s request lines up nicely with what he sees as one of the biggest priorities of his 100 day term at the helm of Champaign schools: community engagement.
“Our communication and visibility has not been at the level that a district like Unit 4 should have in a community like this,” Malito told me. “We’re the third largest employer in the area, thus, we need to be out there among the CEOs and the businesses, keeping their support of public education.”
Community engagement has not always been something that residents have associated with the top seat in the Mellon Building, but Bob would like to see that change when the next administration takes over, which is why he’s setting a precedent right now.
“I’ve talked to the Mayor twice, City Planner, City Manager, Fire Chief — I went to John Foreman’s office — because I feel that it’s important to respect those who have been strong leaders in our community.”
Community engagement has been a big part of Bob’s career, which began in Normal where he worked as a school level administrator before taking the superintendent’s position, which he held for 11 years. He later took jobs in Palatine, IL and a few years later, Chesterfield Missouri, where he was responsible for a district housing 19,000 students, 29 schools, and 2,500 employees.
It bears mentioning that each of these districts are different from one another and different from Unit 4 when compared by things like racial demographics and median household income. Malito says he recognizes this difference and is doing what he can to understand Champaign’s unique make-up. To this point, he has plans to reach out to a contingency of the community that has traditionally been neglected by Unit 4.
“I think the first thing I discovered about Unit 4 is that we need to engage all of our students, all of our ethnic groups better. The African American population is about 38% of our student population, so what I’m doing is, in the months of August and September, I’m meeting with a lot of local churches and ministers [in the African American community].”
Bob’s first meeting will be this week at Jericho Missionary Baptist Church across from Garden Hills. But when he goes there, he won’t just be asking for trust, he’ll be asking for something in return: “It’s not money. It’s thinking, speaking, acting and talking about Unit 4 in a positive way.” It’s this positivity that Bob thinks will help encourage residents who might otherwise be inclined to attend private schools, or sneak off to a district in Champaign’s hinterland, to attend Unit 4.
Bob’s outreach is also focused on teachers and staff. As I referred to earlier, I was at a professional development meeting earlier this summer that Bob informally dropped in on — but he’s also been making his rounds a bit more formally.
“I met with the Champaign Federation of Teachers, the support staff leadership, elementary school principals, middle school principals, high school principals.” And after all of his meetings so far, he has learned that Unit 4 is, “a very good school district that needs to get better. We have some areas that need to improve.”
Of course Bob’s efforts to improve Unit 4 are merely a preamble to the next administration’s — in some respects, he is writing checks that he won’t have to cash once his time is done here in Champaign. But what Bob can do is offer his insights.
“My suggestion is that we take what Unit 5 in Normal does well, what Naperville does well, and we bring it back to Champaign, and we mold it into what Champaign needs,” Malito suggests. “Our demographics are different, but we don’t make that an excuse, we make that a part of our assets. If we are able to lead, people will see what we’ve done. They’ll say, ‘Champaign school district has interesting demographics, but they’re outstanding in this, this and that. We need to find out what they’re doing.'”
By alluding to the kind of impact Unit 4 would make by taking demonstrable steps towards closing the achievement gap, Malito is setting his sights on the very same goal that his predecessor did. Presumably, this will be a major priority for his successor as well. Indeed, it’s not a new goal in the field of education — there is a reason other districts would take note of Unit 4’s would-be achievement.
But Bob did have some suggestions for how Unit 4 might continue to fight against some of the districts more negative trends. Namely, by focusing on high-quality, rigorous instruction.
“Curriculum, rigor, technology and programs. That’s our internal work. If we don’t do that, that’s our mistake […] Of course, we can’t focus on that without facilities and finance to support that which we wish to do. It’s difficult to have science labs of the 21st century when you don’t have money to rehab your science labs. That’s where we need financial support, because we do need to improve certain things.”
Bob made it very clear that one such improvement needed to be addressed immediately.
“We have three middle schools. They’re not air-conditioned. In today’s market, with asthma and allergy issues, we need to teach in air-conditioned buildings. End of discussion. It’s not a question.” This, of course, is not to mention Central, which is only partially air-conditioned, or Centennial, which is only air-conditioned on paper.
Of course, these kinds of improvements need to be funded, and even though he stopped short of calling for a bond referendum, Bob did offer one scenario that would see Unit 4 collaborating with the university.
“We need to seek any kind of federal grant we can get. Our demographics should allow us to qualify for something. When you have fifty-one percent of students on free and reduced lunch, and around a fifty-six percent minority population in our school district, we should qualify for some extra help for Kindergarten and First-Graders as a national prototype test site for education under the supervision of the University of Illinois as far as research and statistics to prove it.”
Of course, all of this relies upon follow through. At the beginning of our meeting, I noticed that Bob had a copy of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point on his desk. When I asked him about it, he told me that he’s been using it as a de facto guide to understanding Unit 4’s current situation. This seems to be appropriate for a district that is so clearly in transition, and yet, so much of the district’s direction will be decided by those who execute the its vision during the long haul.
To this point, Bob seems intent on modeling precisely what he believes a good superintendent’s vision is, leaving the rest of the job to the board and whomever they choose to replace him.
[Disclosure: I teach English in Unit 4.]
Bonus Track: Here are some snippets from my conversation with Superintendent Malito. Enjoy.
How soon could we have a new superintendent?
“We may find our permanent person prior to Winter Break,” although he acknowledged that such a timeline would be, “very quick.”
What will your role be in selecting your replacement?
I told the board, I will do as little as they wish, and stay out of it, or be involved as much as they desired. The only thing I suggested to the board is, in looking for our new superintendent, since they’re all going to be similar on the resumes, we need to find the person who will have the passion and conviction, the loyalty and dedication to spend the time with unit four […] and be ready to start running the race to improve unit four to the next level.
Could that person come from within the district?
We have to look inside [the district] plus inside the state and other states nearby for people who have a true desire to work in Unit 4 and in central Illinois. If they’re a superintendent who likes big cities, then they need to go to Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, NY. If they want a BIG 10 college town, we’re their answer.
I think Unit 4 in Champaign is a goldmine waiting to be reworked.
One concern in the community is the idea that Unit 4’s past trouble, (i.e. The Consent Decree, issues with truancy) make Champaign an unappealing landing spot for top tier superintendents. How would you address this?
Hopefully we can explain to them that we’ve already done all the hard work in trying to get equity and fairness in our eleven elementary schools our three middle schools and our high schools. So that hard work has been done.
All we need is an individual to, wisely and prudently, follow the spirit of Unit 4, and be ready to take us to the next level.
Another thing Malito wants Unit 4 to do is expand its gifted program
Gifted is shrinking. […] We have parents who actually turn down our Gifted Program. That means we’re not meeting their needs. Rarely in my life have I seen parents turn down a gifted program. You see just the opposite: they’re usually upset that they didn’t get in. But we have parents who turn it down. We need to re-invest in gifted and reverse that trend.
So what does re-investment in gifted look like?
You can’t have Honors and AP classes at the high school level unless you make kids stronger at the elementary level. They automatically don’t become “AP Qualified” when they’re 16. It starts when their in 1st grade, second grade, etc.
How can a healthy Gifted program help us with the Achievement Gap?
First of all, I’m going to be mentioning to the board that we need to, at the Kindergarten level and the First Grade level, attack and figure through curriculum how we can help students who have already proven to be academically below the Unit 4 standards. How can we accelerate them, either in Kindergarten or First Grade, to catch up? Because every child comes in differently. If we just let them come in at a lower level, they’ll be at a lower level in first grade, still at a lower level third grade, still at a lower level 5th grade. So why not attack it at Kindergarten? Identify the students in those grade levels who are academically somewhat behind the standards of Unit 4, and figure out a program to improve them.
Given your interim status, this is a kind of suggestion to the board and our future superintendent. What other suggestions do you have for them?
Do something at the science level for our advanced science people in the area that focuses on math and engineering. Our country has fallen behind in that. At one point the U.S. produced more engineers and scientific research people than the rest of the world. Now China produces more engineers than the United States. We have fallen behind in Engineering and Math. That’s our mistake as a country and we need to regain the ground we’ve lost.
How will refocusing on Math and Science affect other parts of the curriculum, (i.e. English, Foreign Language, the Arts, etc.)
As our district gets popular, everything gets popular. If the district does not get popular and just floats, everything stays stagnant. So, as math and science accelerate, because that’s where the money is at, I can’t imagine the other departments standing still. So, it helps everyone.
Bob sees possibilities for the district to build an enduring relationship with the U of I.
Universities are incredibly powerful when applying for national endowment-type grants for research and publication of scientific improvement in many areas. Why not improve learning in a public school district that has demographics that could make it a prototype for districts in big cities like Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Dallas, who have a similar demographics? Or smaller cities like Peoria or Decatur or Danville. We’re all pretty much alike. Now, we’re not like Naperville, and we’re not like Unit 5 in Normal, so why not take us as a prototype and prove that you can improve learning in a school district that has our demographics.
The board and I have agreed, since we’re at a tipping point, that we very clearly send down a message that we want your ideas, we want your suggestions, we definitely need your help, and we have discovered that we need to regain your respect, trust, and confidence.
Emails, letters, phone calls, and that’s why I’m trying to be out very publicly talking to teachers and groups, churches, real estate people, bankers.
I’m meeting with Carle Hospital’s CEO next week and I’m going to the U of I next week to tell them, I don’t want money, I need ideas, suggestions, and help. I want to regain your trust and support in Unit 4. We’re admitting our deficiencies up front, and we wish to change.
If you have any thoughts or feedback for Bob, he encouraged me to share his email freely. Here it is: malitoro [at] champaignschools [dot] org