Stu Silberman said he had no plans to work again after he retired in August after a successful seven-year run as superintendent of the Fayette County Public Schools.
The day he announced his retirement, in February, Silberman said he received several email messages about possible jobs. One made him pause: Cindy Heine of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, which advocates for public education at all levels in the state, wanted to know whether he might be interested in succeeding the late Robert Sexton as executive director.
Silberman begins that new job Sept. 1 — three weeks after his 60th birthday —although he already has spent a lot of nights and weekends preparing for it. He will take a vacation day to attend the committee's spring meeting Sunday and Monday in Carrollton.
"Filling Bob's shoes is tough," Silberman said. "I think it's an opportunity to continue to make a difference in a different way."
Sexton had a background in higher education when he became the first executive director of the citizens group in 1983. Over the next 27 years, before his death from cancer last August, Sexton was a tireless advocate for improving education in Kentucky. During those three decades, Kentucky has risen from near the bottom of various national education rankings to near the middle.
Sexton set a goal of Kentucky being a "top 20" state by 2020. "I personally believe that goal is very attainable," said Silberman, who was superintendent of the Daviess County Public Schools in Owensboro before moving to Lexington.
Next school year, Kentucky schools will implement "core curriculum" standards and a new assessment system in what Silberman said will be one of the biggest changes since the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990. A Prichard Committee effort called Ready Kentucky is trying to help prepare everyone for the changes.
Those changes will include such things as end-of-course exams in high school with minimum standards, so that, for example, algebra II will be the same in Jefferson County and Martin County. "It really is a commonsense kind of thing," Silberman said. "Part of our job is going to be to educate people about what that means."
Other Prichard Committee initiatives include the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, which has trained 1,700 Kentucky parents to be more knowledgeable advocates for their children's education. It also has championed early-childhood education — preschool programs and all-day kindergarten, which the state still does not fully fund.
"As soon as funding becomes available, that's the next direction that needs to take place in education," Silberman said. Studies consistently show that early-childhood education helps students do better throughout their school careers.
The Prichard Committee, with money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is working to improve teacher skills. Silberman also wants to build on education partnerships with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which is launching a new leadership training program for school principals.
Silberman said academic excellence requires good school leadership, good teachers and involved, informed parents. It also requires persuading state politicians to make the investment.
"Our role is to advocate for excellence in education, and it takes funding to make that happen," Silberman said. "But lots of businesses have had to re-engineer, and that's what I believe has to happen with schools, too."
Silberman hopes to emphasize closing achievement gaps for poor and minority students. A self-described technology geek, he also wants to bring more technology into schools, because it is required for modern employment and because kids naturally become more engaged in learning when they use it.
Although core academics are essential, Silberman said, he also is a strong advocate for arts education, because it gives students a wider view of the world and because the arts are closely tied to brain development. He noted, for example, that research shows a strong relationship between music and math.
Kentucky has lost out on some federal grants because it doesn't have charter schools, but Silberman said he agrees with the Prichard Committee's view that charter schools are not a magic solution.
"Just like with public schools, you have some (charter schools) that are strong successes and some that are miserable failures," he said. "We want to encourage innovative approaches, and there are some really great things that are taking place right now across the state ... that are charter-like but are not separate from school systems; they are partnerships."
And, Silberman said, partnerships are what the Prichard Committee is all about.