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Springfield Public Schools, the largest school district in Missouri, has 23,500 students and 3,500 employees – but it’s safe to say brand-new Superintendent Grenita Lathan is ready for the challenge.
Lathan, the district’s 17th superintendent, comes to Springfield from the nation’s seventh-largest school system, the Houston Independent School District, which is more than eight times the size of SPS.
As interim superintendent of the Houston district for three years, Lathan saw her schools through Hurricane Harvey in 2019, devastating winter storms in 2021, and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Lathan’s philosophy: A leader must be fully present to engage with the community in both its challenges and its triumphs.
In her introduction video to the SPS community on day one of the job July 1, Lathan makes a promise: “You will see me out in the school district.”
Beyond the view of a top school executive in a leather desk chair, it is possible to get a glimpse of a high school cheerleading coach offering encouragement from the sidelines, because this, too, is part of Lathan’s background. One group she wants to cheer on is students who are falling behind academically.
“I’ll be reviewing curriculum to meet the needs of all of our learners – especially those who are behind academically,” she says during an exclusive interview with Springfield Business Journal.
Lathan says she was attracted to SPS because of its willingness to think differently about issues in education. Just a few district innovations include the SPS Choice Programs initiative, which aligns students’ passions with specialized learning opportunities; the Explore summer learning program, offering themed curricula to stimulate student learning; and the upcoming SHINE program, which stands for Students Have Important Needs Every Day, and which will partner with the Boys & Girls Clubs, the Park Board’s SPARC program, the Springfield Dream Center and the YMCA to provide before- and after-school care for students starting this fall.
The district’s innovative spirit is one of the factors Lathan finds most appealing.
“That’s what I’m most excited about,” she says. “We are recognized as an innovative school district, and that means we have the opportunity to enhance what’s already in place.”
Lathan figures the best course of action is to take some time to get her sea legs, rather than jumping in and making sweeping changes.
“It will take a year of looking at all of the pieces,” she says.
One existing program that appeals to Lathan is the Explore summer school model. That’s the kind of program Lathan sees working well because of how it serves families and engages students in learning, and she thinks it could be adapted for other times of the year school isn’t in session, like Thanksgiving, spring break and Christmas.
“It already exists, and it’s a great program. How do we extend that throughout the year?” she says.
Alina Lehnert, SPS Board of Education president, believes the board has found an excellent leader in Lathan, particularly with her experience in mid-sized and urban districts.
“It’s great to bring new eyes into our school district,” she says.
Lathan is the first woman and the first Black person to serve as SPS superintendent, and the importance of those facts is not lost on her. She knows that simply by filling her role, she is serving as a model of what is possible for students and others in the district.
“I’ve heard that from a lot of people, about the impact for children of seeing people like themselves in leadership roles,” she says. “That’s major for our community.”
What’s on the mind of children is something Lathan would have a pretty good idea of, because she hasn’t always been in administration. She began her career as a high school teacher and later a principal at the 750-student Morehead High School in Eden, North Carolina. She was an administrator in San Diego, California, schools, and then served as superintendent of the Peoria, Illinois, school district – and earned her doctorate in workforce education and development from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale – before taking on the interim superintendent position in Houston.
From the very start of her career, Lathan has focused on much more than teaching alone. She served supplemental roles, too, like a Future Business Leaders of America sponsor, prom sponsor and, as mentioned, cheerleading coach.
“I did anything that I could to be actively involved for the good of students,” she says.
She was also active as a parent, and parent engagement is something she values. A tool she’s used in previous roles is the “parent university” – an opportunity for parents to come to their schools and hear from the superintendent before attending breakout sessions on topics of common interest. The feedback she received from participants was immeasurably helpful, Lathan says.
Her goal is to get parents involved in their school district in lots of ways, even if COVID-19 has other ideas. When they can do so safely, parents should be invited to help on-site, Lathan says.
“Parents can assist us in various forms,” she says. “We should expect to see parents in our schools.”
Lehnert says that Lathan’s passion for education is immediately evident.
“She’s very curious, very inquisitive; she is interested in asking a lot of questions, and she wants to sit down and talk to teachers, principals, parents, community partners,” Lehnert says. “I see her as being someone who is going to strengthen us to enhance the things we’re doing well and continue to build upon that. She can help us look at our barriers and our challenges that exist and find ways to grow.”
When asked what she likes to do outside of the office, Lathan owns up to the fact that she’s not a parasailer or mountain climber or deep-sea fisher. Curling up with a good book is more her speed. Murder mysteries are her favorite, and she also loves old TV shows, like “Murder, She Wrote,” “Matlock” and “Monk.” Lathan also is the go-to event planner for all family events for her extended family.
“I’m not sure if they nominate me or I nominate myself,” she says. “I like to make sure people have a good time. If I’m in charge, people are going to participate. I believe in calling on them.” Consider yourselves forewarned, Springfieldians.
Lathan has moved to Springfield with her husband, and the two have a daughter in college. While Lathan herself is an open book, she likes to keep her family in the limited-access section of the library. She feels strongly that her own choice to live out loud as the leader of SPS should not mean her family members should lose their right to privacy.
It’s safe to say the needs of others are always at top of mind for this superintendent, who believes that children come first.
“I believe that all children are entitled to receive a quality education. They deserve to have the best experiences in our school district,” Lathan says.
Students, after all, are what the job is about. “I’m passionate about the work. Titles come and go, but who you are as a person remains,” Lathan says.
Lathan has another core belief about the work that happens in schools, where each employee sets an example for students with their conduct, attitude and actions.
“Every employee, regardless of title, is a teacher,” she says.
Lehnert is eager for members of the SPS community to meet Lathan. “She’s very genuine with everyone,” she says. “She’s approachable and she can laugh at herself. She’s someone who tells the truth and is genuine, and she wants to work and offer her support.”
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Seams the people of Peoria, IL. have a different opinion of Grenita. Seven years ago isn't all that long ago, look it up.