Robert Kobylski has finally arrived. He’s only been superintendent of Davenport Community Schools for a week and a half, but he said he’s jumped right into the district, and is ready to move into the community.
Davenport has had its share of struggles: drastic budget cuts and state citations in special education and disproportionality.
Kobylski’s appointment has had its struggles, too. Originally, he intended to use vacation time from his previous post as superintendent of Nicolet High School and Fox Point Bayside districts in Wisconsin to start June 1. After his Wisconsin superintendent accreditation was denied by the Iowa Board of Educational Examiners, though, he spent the summer taking graduate classes to get his license in order for Iowa's standards.
The Quad-City Times sat down with Kobylski on his seventh day on the job. School starts in less than three weeks.
Below is the transcript, which has been edited for length.
QUAD-CITY TIMES: You had a non-traditional path into teaching. How and why did you decide to get into education?
KOBYLSKI: My former professional career began in the securities industry. It was a very rewarding career, and I enjoyed it.
But I found that I was finding a great deal of enjoyment with the college interns, and spending time with those interns and trying to nurture them and teach them. I was a graduate of Loyola University, and professionalism in the pursuit of social justice is something that’s always been a part of that Jesuit experience, and a part of me. I figured it was the right thing to do, and the right time.
I had absolutely no aspiration to be a principal, or an administrator of any kind, or a superintendent, but within a 12-year period of time, I went from student teacher to superintendent, which was rather a quick rise. I find in my current role as a superintendent, I can really effectuate positive changes in the lives of students on a much larger scale than I can as a classroom teacher.
QCT: What drew you to this position in Davenport?
KOBYLSKI: I’ve been very fortunate in Wisconsin, professionally. I’ve been able to lead districts to excellence, with strong teams, excellent teachers and a solid vision for the future. I knew that that school was on a very positive trajectory, and I was at that stage in my career where I wanted to take that knowledge I had developed over the years and expand it. So that challenge was something I felt very excited about.
The second piece, is my wife, Paula, and I have six children. The last two are off to college, so we’re now empty-nesters. But our children are scattered across the Midwest, so we didn’t want to move to Arizona, or California, or anything to that effect. I have a brother that comes here all the time and always raved about it, so we drove into town one weekend. Is this somewhere we want to live? This would be our forever home. It’s a very vibrant area, the Quad-Cities, and Davenport in particular. We felt very comfortable in this community.
QCT: How do you see your family becoming part of the community?
KOBYLSKI: Yes, we are absolutely going to immerse ourselves in the community, and there are a number of ways to do that. I learned throughout my interview process -- which was very robust -- that everyone here wants to help. Everyone wants to roll up their sleeves and make Davenport a better system. I want to be a part of that, and whatever I need to give back that goes beyond the school system, I’m more than willing to do. We're very excited to get involved.
QCT: When people consider the issues Davenport is facing, it usually comes down to the budget and the citations for disproportionality and special education. Can you speak to what experiences you have that will help you address finances?
KOBYLSKI: Finance is something that’s part of my professional fabric -- I’m comfortable in that domain. I’ve also worked in the state of Wisconsin and was the superintendent when Act 10 was put into place, which dramatically reduced our per-pupil revenue we were receiving. We had to make very thoughtful decisions and prioritize our programming.
I learned through that experience how important it was to evaluate what you’re doing and make sure that you’re spending public dollars in a way that you’re getting the biggest bang for your buck. We’re going to look at all the programs we have here in place and identify the ones that are doing what they were designed to do.
If there are programs that, for whatever reason, aren’t providing the results we thought they would, we either fix them or simply discard them and move in a completely different direction.
KOBYLSKI: When I first became the superintendent in my last school district, we had the widest achievement gap between African American students and white students in the entire state of Wisconsin, and we closed that within a six-year period. There are definite strategies in terms of access and equity and culturally responsive training for staff, and really working with our community, our teachers, our students, and our families in particular to understand how we start excelling the achievement of all students and giving everyone those opportunities.
Problems with disproportionality are not just with regard to behavior issues. There are dispropotionate outcomes that we’re seeing with academic achievement too. We’re going to look at that in multiple contexts.
QCT: Special education?
KOBYLSKI: Special education is near and dear to my heart. I’ve sat on the other side of the table as a parent of a special needs child. I understand the needs, the expectations that parents and families have for programming. It’s very important that we form partnerships with our parents when it comes to special education and making sure their needs and the service delivery model we have meets those needs. It’s individualized. There’s no "one size fits all" to special education.
We’re going to ramp up our programming. We’re going to make sure our staff understands what needs to happen for these individualized plans to really become effective.
QCT: Outside of addressing those three concerns, what do you want your legacy to be?
KOBYLSKI: Seven days and I’m already talking legacy -- haven’t thought that far out. I think it’s very important to rebuild the sense of partnership with our community, especially our parents, and make sure they have confidence and understanding with what we’re doing. Actions speak louder than words. We have to produce the results that are visible to the community.
At the end of the day, when people get to move all around the country, I want them to move to Davenport, for a lot of reasons, and one of them is I want them to come for the schools. The arrows are pointing up. We’re doing the right things already. There’s some very serious and thoughtful work that has been done the last few months, and we’re just going to accelerate that process moving forward. This is a feel-good story.
QCT: You’re starting a lot closer to the start of the school year than you intended. How does that change what your first few days or weeks look like?
KOBYLSKI: Most certainly, I would have preferred to be here on July 1. There’s a lot going on, and the school year starts in less than three weeks. As you can imagine, my learning curve has to be very, very steep, and it has been. Everyone has been eminently helpful in terms of the onboarding and making sure I’m getting the information that I need now so we can have a successful start to the school year.
Sure, that extra month would have come in handy, but this isn’t insurmountable. This isn’t my first rodeo as a superintendent.
QCT: When the district was searching for a candidate, there was a community survey. There were a lot of responses saying the district needed an outsider to come in and, while fewer, there were those who believed just as strongly that the district needed an internal hire. What’s the biggest advantage and the biggest hurdle with coming from outside the district?
KOBYLSKI: The first advantage is I’ve always valued some balance in that internal versus external lensing. I’m coming into Davenport with a fresh set of eyes, whereas the folks who have been working very hard here have been working on problems, staring at them day in and day out -- sometimes you don’t see what’s right in front of you. Having that fresh set of eyes, when it comes to opportunities and challenges, is a good thing for all organizations.
The challenge is assimilating, and getting to know the institutional structures that are in place as quickly as possible. Getting to know the people, in a district of this size, it can take a little longer to do that. I’d love to have been in every single one of the schools already, but I, logistically, can’t do that.
QCT: [Thursday] is your seventh work day. What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned about Davenport in that time?
KOBYLSKI: I can honestly say that there hasn’t been anything that has been surprising or shocking to me. Most everything that I’ve experienced in the last seven days have validated the conclusions and thoughts and feelings that I had throughout the interview process. Trust me, it’s been a lot of work and a lot of hours, but it’s been enjoyable because the people I’ve been working with and the people I’m interacting with have been, first of all, very warm, but also very efficient in helping me onboard.
QCT: The administrators, teachers and staff have been working on addressing state citations and corrective actions since November, and even earlier. What’s your initial assessment walking into the midst of all that work?
KOBYLSKI: They’ve done a lot of work in a short period of time. I spent the day in Des Moines [Wednesday] meeting with state officials and talking about what’s been happening in this district in the last few years and what our plans are. I won’t speak for the state, but I’ll definitely speak for myself: I walked out of the meeting feeling very positive.
They’ve been very kind with the resources they’ve been offering to us, and those resources are making a difference. It’s accelerating the change that needs to take place here in Davenport.