Q&A: Superintendent Terry Walker discusses district goals and challenges

Over the summer, Terry Walker became just the seventh superintendent in the history of the Irvine Unified School District, succeeding Gwen Gross.

Though the title was new, Walker was no stranger to IUSD, having served the district for 15 years, including six as a teacher. He was named director of Human Resources back in 2003, and four years later he was promoted to assistant superintendent of that department.

Superintendent Walker recently sat down to answer a few questions about his new role, as well as his expectations for 2011-12 and beyond.

Q:  What are you most excited about as IUSD’s new superintendent?

A: The main thing that I’m excited about is getting out there and talking to people about what they perceive has gone well and what they think we need to work on. As a result of the state budget crisis, there have been a lot of challenges that we’ve faced, and I’m interested in — and sensitive to — what those impacts have been out there amongst the ranks, and to learn what they think we can do to try to address them.

Q:  What will be the district’s biggest challenge this year?

A: The state budget is really going to continue to be our biggest challenge. We are operating within an envelope that has shrunk by 20 percent, and that is something that creates impact. The ripple effect of that is that it starts to rock the boat a little bit and has the potential to distract us from what our usual focus has been. Yet our primary focus should be to insulate educators from the direct impacts that strip away the tools that support what they do with students. Instead, we need to engage in a dialog to talk about what we might add and how we can complement what they’re already doing to get to that next level. Our role is to make sure that each and every day – as much as there may be other things going on – there’s nothing to indicate to students that it’s not another great day in Irvine.

Q:  From a big-picture viewpoint, what are the district’s goals this year?

A: Our Board of Education recently approved the purchase and implementation of a computerized Learning Management System that will serve as an all-in-one warehouse for student data while consolidating other needs, including assessment, professional development, communication with parents and online collaboration. Our primary goal for the district is to make sure that this system is introduced strategically, in a way where teachers have the resources and the support they need to integrate this technology to the best of their ability. It’s a very comprehensive system, and we’re not expecting that everyone will fully utilize it right out of the gate. But, incrementally, I am hopeful that we can provide perspective and demonstrate that this technology will support our teachers in a way that saves them time and more strategically leverages their talents in supporting students.

Q:  What perspectives or experiences do you bring to the role of superintendent?

A: First and foremost, I understand this organization. I’ve been here for 15 years, including six as a teacher and nine at the District Office. In applying for the superintendency, I felt confident and incredibly fortunate to know the people and the different stakeholders here, while understanding on a very deep level where we’re going as a district, as well as our philosophy and culture.

The other piece that I think supports my role is my background in the private sector. As a commercial real estate broker, I moved my offices from Anaheim to Irvine specifically because we saw this as an area that was growing and dynamic, and we knew it would be a place where corporations would want to bring their employees, and certainly that’s happened. Now, I hope to be able to reach out to many of those business owners, and to continue to build bridges with them in order to fully maximize these partnerships to benefit the community and IUSD.

Q:  Tell us how technology is changing, and will continue to change, the way teachers teach and students learn in the Irvine Unified School District.

A: What we know about technology is that it’s already changed the world. You look around and you see 3-year-olds working with iPads and adults using their phones to answer emails and to access information from the internet – anytime, anywhere. I think that’s the shift we need to be contemplating as an organization. What are some of those technologies and how will they best support us?

Not everything will be something that adds value, so we need to be very mindful that technology for technology’s sake is not something that supports our teachers. What we need are instruments and tools to support what they’re doing in the classroom, as well as what they’d like to do. We’re hopeful that the Learning Management System is just one of those pieces. Overall, I think we’re moving into an environment where we’re replacing tools that we’re already using with perhaps some that are digital and more efficient, and I think that’s a benefit.

Q: What, in your view, is the key to IUSD’s success?

A: When an organization gives its employees an opportunity to invent, to take risks and to create something that they feel deep ownership of, I think that’s when you get people who are fully engaged in an organization’s vision. They don’t feel like they’re here just for a paycheck or here to move forward with somebody else’s marching orders.

Certainly, we’re an organization that provides support and guidance and parameters, but we also operate as a team that really values employees and empowers them to be innovative and work collaboratively to do what they think is best for students. I believe this has created a culture that is very attractive to other dynamic educators and staff who want to be part of this kind of environment. There’s a certain excitement about that. Whether the employee is the superintendent or a custodian or an instructional assistant or a teacher, I think collectively we all feel the sense of ownership of what goes on in this organization, and that is a powerfully unifying force. It’s very intrinsically motivating, and, if there’s a secret recipe, I think that’s it.