The search for a new Columbia Public Schools superintendent was narrowed down to two finalists last week. CPS superintendent candidates Dr. Dred Scott and Dr. Peter Stiepleman will be introduced to the community and will answer questions Tuesday at a public "meet and greet."
Scott and Stiepleman said personally connecting with underachieving students would be a priority.
Almost one out of two students is eligible for a subsidized lunch, said Stiepleman, CPS’s assistant superintendent for elementary education.
“One of the things that we have to be concerned about as a community is the fact that we are at 46 percent free or reduced lunch,” he said.
Scott said he empathized with those students. He is the deputy superintendent of the Independence School District, in Independence, Mo.
“I grew up in inner Kansas City," Scott said. "I grew up with a single parent. I grew up poor. I grew up bouncing around schools in my district. And so it’s deeply ingrained in me."
The candidates said teachers, as well as administrators, had a role in educating these students. Scott said he would hire teachers who shared his belief that CPS can be the best school district in Missouri.
“I have a desire to pursue opportunities to support students that most would consider at risk" Scott said. "Those opportunities for me kind of go back to my belief that all students can learn at high levels if they’re given the right amount of support. What matters is you being exposed to individuals and to teachers who believe in you and prepare you for success despite challenges that you might face along the way.”
Stiepleman said the school district has more challenges ahead as the district grows.
“As a community, we’ve seen an increase of students who speak more than one language,” Stiepleman said. “In the past, these were typically children of visiting scholars. Now they are more likely to be immigrants, who truly are refugees. For example, we’ve gone from about 650 second language learners four years ago to 990 this year. So we’re just exploding with need.”
Scott said the story of his namesake, Dred Scott, the plaintiff in the famous civil rights Supreme Court case, will inspire the increasingly diverse CPS student body. In the case, a slave sued for his freedom.
“I think students can learn from that story that despite what the circumstances look like, and despite the obstacles, that it takes courage and perseverance to overcome those obstacles,” he said. “And, if Dred Scott can do it, as a slave, who was not considered a whole person, then surely the boys and girls, the young men and women, within the school systems that I’m fortunate to serve in can overcome the obstacles.”
Stiepleman said he would redefine the role as superintendent to be more than visible but active in the community. He said he did home visits when he was principal of West Boulevard Elementary School, and would continue to do so as superintendent.
“There’s a kid at one of our schools who has had the most incredibly traumatic upbringing. He’s right now in foster care. He’s significantly suffering from post-traumatic stress. And, of course, this is one child. But that doesn’t stop me from visiting him regularly. Or wanting to be a part of his success,” Stiepleman said.
Stiepleman said he would be honored to stay in Columbia for a long time as superintendent. He’s worked in the district for 10 years. He cited a high turnover rate in superintendents.
Scott said if chosen, he would move with his family to Columbia.
The "meet and greet" is Tuesday, March 11, at 5:30 p.m. at the Aslin District Administration Building, 1818 W. Worley St.