Schools of Thought

Springfield Superintendent Focuses on Community Partnerships
Schools of Thought

Alan Ingram says his life is an example of being challenged to overcome barriers to success — and achieving it.

As he goes about the task of running the state’s second-largest school system, Alan Ingram falls back on experiences and lessons from his own childhood (spent attending a different school virtually year), a 22-year career in the military, time spent learning from several mentors, and a stint in Oklahoma City, a community facing many of the same statistical challenges as the City of Homes. His philosophy is simple: to create a culture of educational excellence.

Springfield School Superintendent Alan Ingram has a core belief that defines his work.

“I believe in the power of high expectations — believe that children and adults will rise to the level of expectations that you create for them,” he told BusinessWest. “Success is possible, even against the odds.”

It’s a tenet learned through a life that has taken him from an impoverished Detroit neighborhood to Europe and military bases around the world, to Oklahoma City, and more recently to Springfield, where he sits at the helm of the second-largest school district in the Commonwealth.

It’s a job in a city with statistics that are startling and present their own challenge. The majority of the students are minorities, who share poverty as a common demonimator.

The student body is 54% Latino and 23% African-American. Nearly 85% qualify for the federal lunch program, and 23% have special needs, a figure that is almost double the national average of 13%.

In addition, 13% of Springfield students have limited proficiency in English, and 24% speak English as a second language.

But those numbers have little effect on Ingram’s expectations and belief that, with collaborated effort, Springfield’s schools can become known for excellence. “Our circumstances just require that we do things differently to address the unique needs of our kids,” he said.

His life experiences and significant mentors taught Ingram that urban challenges can be overcome with a no-nonsense attitude and a strategic formula that puts everything and everyone in alignment.

“There is much work ahead of us, yet we will take time to celebrate our accomplishments along the way,” he said. “My vision is for a culture of educational excellence. In plain words, this means every kid will get a great education. It doesn’t mean we are perfect. People shouldn’t equate excellence with perfection. But it does mean we will be striving for excellence in every aspect of our work.”

His formula includes parents, teachers, principals, school administrators, the transportation department, food-service workers, business partners and even policies that Ingram has carefully combed to facilitate cooperation and consistency. “Springfield is a city where I can give back what was given to me by working hard every day to provide the highest quality of education so that all of our students are empowered to realize their full potential.”

Early Education

Ingram’s beliefs were ingrained in early childhood. He grew up in poverty in a single-parent home in Detroit. His mother was a high-school dropout, and by grade 4, he was responsible for caring for his two siblings after school until his mother returned home from working second shift.

In spite of their circumstances and her own limited academic history, Ingram’s mother had a strong belief in the power of education, along with high expectations for her children. “My mother was, without question, a very strong-willed, no-nonsense woman,” Ingram said.

She had no tolerance for excuses and expected a lot from her children. “One of my favorite childhood memories about expectations is that, when we pointed out what other children were doing, she would tell us, ‘Well, their name isn’t Ingram,” he remembered. “What mattered to her were the expectations she set for us.”

Ingram attended nine different schools from the time he entered kindergarten until his high-school graduation. While in high school, he had to change schools every year. “Although I was born and raised in Detroit, I graduated from high school in South Carolina,” he said.

Athletics played a large role in his life. “I played basketball and football, but football was the thing I was best at,” Ingram said.

“But it was tough,” he continued, referring to the constant change of schools. When he lived in Detroit, 90% of the school population was African-American. When he moved to South Carolina to help his aunt and uncle, that number was reversed, and was especially noticeable in sports. “There were very few African-Americans on the team,” he said.

But no matter where he was, people expected big things of Ingram. “I’ve been blesssed with coaches, mentors, and caring adults who have made a difference in my life,” he said.

One was his junior-high English teacher, Dr. Matt Blount. “He, too, was no-nonsense and had very high expectations,” Ingram said. “I resented him because he wouldn’t let me get away with anything.”

But they still share a friendship today, and Blount passed his strong work ethic, discipline to persevere, and love of writing to Ingram.

Another pivotal figure was Judge Dominick Carnovale. Ingram met him when he was in sixth grade, living in Ingram’s aunt’s neighborhood. He visited Carnovale on weekends and during his adolescence. “I cut his grass and washed his car … he was the kind of man who always had $10 or $15 for a kid trying to earn a few dollars by working odd jobs.”

More importantly, he had time for Ingram, and when his grades dropped precipitously during his freshman year of high school, Carnovale took him in and became his legal guardian and “the father figure I know to this day,” keeping a close watch on his educational and moral development.

As a teen, Ingram was often an observer of Carnovale’s courtroom proceedings. “I sat there and saw people who made horrendous mistakes and their consequences,” he said, adding that he lived with Carnovale for two years and is still very close to him.

During his senior year of high school, his aunt decided to move from South Carolina. Ingram didn’t want to switch schools again and moved in with his best friend’s family. It was headed by Willie Mae Smith, who had eight children and taught him “the spirit of giving. She was a devout Christian and beautiful lady,” he said.

Life Experience

Ingram’s next venture was the U.S. Air Force. Although his dream had been to play college football, he attended so many schools, he didn’t have a portfolio to demonstrate his potential.

Instead, he volunteered to serve his country. His career spanned 22 years, and Ingram lived all over the world, spending 11 years in Europe and three in Hawaii. Eleven of those years were spent in education and training, and he specialized in leadership and management, which he taught to to young airmen as well as civilians. By the end of his military stint, Ingram had achieved the rank of Air Force chief master sergeant. “Only 1% ascend to that grade,” he said.

During his years in the Air Force, Ingram’s belief in high expectations was enhanced by values that included integrity and a need to give of himself to “my country and my community. I also learned the value of excellence, which I had been introduced to at an early age. It was nurtured and cultivated and is certainly integral to who I am today,” he said.

Living abroad schooled Ingram in diversity and the importance of recognizing and appreciating different cultures. “We can’t live with borders and walls around the U.S. It’s a global economy, and we have to work with our neighbors in a productive way,” he said.

Ingram married while he was in the military. His wife was also in the Air Force and had been stationed in Oklahoma City.

When he left the military, he honored her desire to move there again and took a position as admissions officer for Oklahoma State University. “I saw it as a way to help kids,” he said, adding that it aligned with the educational work he had done in the military.

About two years later, “with a little nudging and encouragement,” he assumed the job of central office administrator for Oklahoma public schools. He spent 10 years on the job, and when he left, he was chief account officer and held the second-highest position in the district. During his time there, mentors Gui Sconzo and Bill Scoggins told him if that, he wanted to become a school superintendent, he needed to get a doctorate, which he accomplished.

At the time, Oklahoma City was almost a mirror image of Springfield in terms of its student body. “It had 40,000 students and was the second-largest district in the state at the time. They have a large Latino population and are a very poor urban district, much like Springfield,” he said.

But the knowledge and skills that led him to the City of Homes were honed even furthur when he was acccepted at the prestigious Broad Superintendents Academy. “It gave me exposure to some of the best minds in the country who were concerned with urban issues,” he explained. “We studied Miami-Dade, Chicago, Houston, Long Beach, California, and other areas.”

After graduation, he became one of 20 candidates who vied for the position of school superintendent in Tacoma, Wash. He was one of two finalists, but didn’t get the job, and the application process was so grueling, he was not ready to begin another.

But a short time later, he was contacted by a national search consultant about the superintendent’s opening in Springfield Schools. He interviewed, was hired in May 2008, and began work that July.

Ambitious Goals

Ingram’s action plan for Springfield began with a period of listening and learning the needs of the students, their teachers, the school system, and the community. His goal was to assess the district’s strengths and understand its challenges and weaknesses.

“Every child can and should learn,” he said. “We must not be satisfied with simply helping some children to succeed — we must strive to have every child learn to their highest potential. If we settle for anything less than success, that’s what we will get.”

Since that time, Ingram has put a number of initiatives into place via a strategic planning process. It was a year-long endeavor that brought 60 to 70 people together with a common goal. They included community leaders, people in the faith community, school principals, administrators, and parents. “We spent a year developing a vision, mission, and priorities for the district,” he said. “I believe in collaboration and have a leadership style based on bringing the right people to the table.”

Over the past 15 months, Ingram has made a significant number of changes to the Springfield School system. His first priority is to ensure “that every child gets a great education,” and to that end, he reorganized Springfield’s three school districts.

Today, all of the elementary schools are in two zones, and the middle and high schools make up another zone. Ingram also initiated a quality-measurement survey of district stakeholders which included students, parents, teachers, and staff, so he could prioritize needs.

In June, he presented four plans to the School Committee for its approval. The first was a Pupil Progression Plan, which would identify what each student should learn in each grade, along with intervention strategies.

The second was a District Grading Framework, which calls for grading students based on a formula composed of their achievement-based assessments and their academic habits, such as class participation and homework.

The third is a Student Assignment Policy, Procedure, and Process Manual, which contains guidelines and formal assignment practices.

Ingram’s final proposal dealt with academic policy. He revised the old policy to provide incentives for students to return to school after extensive absences, with a plan to recover lost credits and make up missed school hours.

He also instituted a rigorous process to find and hire experienced teachers, principals, and administrators, and fired a principal in July who allowed 10 students to graduate who had not fulfilled graduation requirements.

Ingram has joined forces with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department to launch a comprehensive, service-oriented truancy intervention and prevention program, and created a new Springfield Student Attendance Resource Center. Its goal is to provide support for students with egregious truancy records to help them get back on track.

“The warning signs are flashing around us, and it’s obvious that what we have been doing is not working,” Ingram said. “If we want new results, we have to do something new and something that has been proven to work in other districts.”

In November, he also instituted a ‘Principal for a Day’ program which allowed community leaders and business people to get a first-hand look at the challenges these officials face on a daily basis.

Ingram continues to be relentless in his pursuit of excellence and says he wants to make sure every student has the opportunity to become proficient in a school system that is safe. He has created community partnerships to facilitate these goals and formed committees to study a variety of issues.

He said one of the things that attracted him to Springfield was the realization that the business community has a vested interest in the city’s schools and is willing to work with him. Companies such as Big Y, MassMutual, and Baystate Health have strong alliances with the School Department, and a network of volunteers are dedicated to helping students.

“What makes Springfield different from other cities is that the business people here really understand the connection between schools and success. You can’t create enough gates outside of Springfield to shelter yourself from urban social ills. The solution is in the community — how well the children are educated and the opportunties they have,” he said.

Ingram believes leadership is and should be about influence. “It’s about creating the right vision and, more importantly, how to influence the people willing to go with you and those who are unable or unwilling,” he said. “The best way to do this is to strike a chord through collaboration with the use of data, high expectations, progress monitoring, and strategic planning.”

It’s a tall order, but what else would one expect from a leader who believes “greatness lies within each student — even if they don’t realize it yet.”

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