Meet the finalists for Fayette superintendent

Clark County School Superintendent Elaine Ferris, left, Jessamine County School Superintendent Lu Young, center, and Daviess County School Superintendent Tom Shelton were named finalists Wednesday, June 1, 2011, for Fayette County schools chief.
Clark County School Superintendent Elaine Ferris, left, Jessamine County School Superintendent Lu Young, center, and Daviess County School Superintendent Tom Shelton were named finalists Wednesday, June 1, 2011, for Fayette County schools chief.

Elaine Farris, Tom Shelton and Lu Young come from widely different backgrounds, but they all have something in common: By the end of this week, one of them could be Fayette County's new school superintendent.

As the three finalists for the job, each will visit Lexington this week for rounds of interviews, press conferences and meetings with groups and the general public.

The Fayette County Board of Education then plans to sit down Friday morning to begin deliberations on selecting the new superintendent to succeed Stu Silberman, who is stepping down after seven years.

Here is a look at each of the contenders for superintendent of Fayette County Schools.

Elaine Farris

Current post: Clark County superintendent.

Age: 56.

Education: Bachelor's degree in health and physical education; master's in health education; working on doctorate in education.

Family: Married, one child.

Humble start shapes outlook on education

Elaine Farris learned the value of education growing up in a Clark County household where education was scarce.

"My dad had only a third-grade education; my mother did not finish high school," she said. "I was born and raised in the housing projects here in Winchester, and I knew without a shadow of a doubt that education would be the difference for me."

It was. Farris has held key posts at all public school levels since starting as a elementary teacher in the Clark Schools in 1982. Among her many accomplishments: coaching the George Rogers Clark High School girls track team to a state championship.

Farris was "distinguished educator" for the state Department of Education, an elementary school principal and an elementary schools director for Fayette County. In 2009 she briefly served as interim state education commissioner, holding down Kentucky's top school post while a permanent commissioner was sought.

Farris made state history in 2004 when she was named superintendent of the Shelby County Schools. She was the first African-American to be a full-time superintendent in Kentucky. She became Clark County superintendent in early 2009.

When Farris took over, the Clark schools were embroiled in controversy over a facilities plan calling for the elimination or consolidation of several schools. Residents formed the Clark County Citizens for Quality Education to oppose the plan.

Citizens group member Leon Shortridge says the controversy isn't over yet. But he credits Farris with calming tensions on the school board.

"In fairness, Elaine inherited the situation," Shortridge said. "But what she did was settle the board down. I don't agree with her on the facilities plan, but I think overall, she's a pretty good person."

As superintendent, Farris initiated several projects, including a mentoring program for Clark County Schools' employees who aspire to become administrators or principals.

"I had mentors who helped me and I wanted to give back," she said. "I feel it's my job as superintendent to support employees who want to move ahead in their careers. And when we're looking for new principals, hopefully these individuals will apply."

This year, Farris formed a "superintendent's student council," composed of 21 Clark County students from elementary through high school who meet with Farris each month to discuss concerns.

The district tracks each student's monthly progress and steps in to help if they fail to reach goals. That has helped boost achievement in the district, which Farris said was "stagnant" when she arrived. She added, however, that the district still needs to improve.

If she becomes Fayette's new superintendent, Farris said, she would be involved in the community, not just the school system, a role she said is crucial for an superintendent to succeed.

"If you have quality teaching, if you have the resources the students need and you give the kids enough time, you're going to get the success you want," she said. "That's my passion.

"When I look at a child, I always see them, not as who they are, but as what they can become. Because I'm that little girl."

Tom Shelton

Current post: Daviess County superintendent.

Age: 47.

Education: Bachelor's degree in accounting, master's in business administration, doctorate in education

Family: Married, two children.

Silberman protégé carves his own path

When work gets tedious, Daviess County School Superintendent Tom Shelton slips away for what he calls "therapy."

"I go and spend a half-hour in a pre-school or kindergarten class," Shelton said. "As a superintendent, it's easy to get pretty removed from things. But visiting with those kids really reminds you of why you're here."

Shelton took a non-traditional route to get "here." A CPA with a master's degree in business administration, he had been working in industry when he joined the Daviess school system 16 years ago as finance director. He immediately fell in love with education, encouraged by Silberman, then the Daviess superintendent. Shelton succeeded Silberman in 2004.

Now, Shelton wants to succeed Silberman again as Fayette County's superintendent.

But Shelton emphasizes that although he and Silberman remain close and share many beliefs and values, no one should expect "another Stu" if he gets the Fayette job.

"I learned under Stu, but he would tell you that I have had other influential mentors as well," Shelton said. "Stu and I are two different people; our styles are different; the way we go about our jobs is different."

Shelton said he would be a "collaborative" superintendent, "bringing folks together, listening to them and looking for common ground to build on."

"I believe that the more minds you have involved, the greater the chance that people will support and be engaged in the solution you reach," he said.

Some of that thinking could stem from his dissertation for his doctorate in education from the University of Louisville. Shelton analyzed how interactions between school boards and superintendents affected student math achievement across 174 Kentucky school districts. He concluded that achievement improved most when boards and superintendents worked as a team.

Shelton has presented his findings to education groups in Kentucky and internationally. He also has put the results to work in the Daviess schools.

John Ed Dunn, former chairman of the Daviess County Board of Education, said that getting a doctorate in education is one example of the hard work Shelton put in to transform himself into an educator.

"He's very strong in finance, which he already knew, but then he learned the school system side of it," Dunn said. "He's learned and is learning to be a communicator with the public. He didn't necessarily have a need for that until he became superintendent."

Student achievement rose under Shelton, but it has "plateaued" somewhat in recent years, Dunn said. "We're still at a very high level, but those last few points are hard to get," he said.

To push further up the scale, Shelton launched "Focusing Our Vision," a drive to improve instruction. The district analyzed classroom techniques employed by its best teachers, then it used those techniques to develop programs to boost instruction. The idea grew from Daviess County's participation in a Harvard University education leadership program.

Shelton said he's most excited about "Community Campus," a program Daviess County is launching with several neighboring districts. In allows students to attend five area "academies," earning students high school and college credit while in high school. Something similar might be possible in Fayette, he said.

Shelton said that if he is hired, he'd work with the school board and the community to develop more ways of meeting students' individual needs.

"The whole reason we're here is what goes on in the classroom," he said. "Each student ultimately should have their own learning plan to meet their specific needs."

Lu Young

Current post: Jessamine County superintendent.

Age: 51.

Education: Bachelor's and master's degrees in Spanish

Family: Married, two children

Jessamine native 'has no weaknesses'

Lu Young briefly taught Spanish at Saint Mark Catholic School in Richmond during college, and she immediately was hooked.

"I changed my major during my sophomore year and never looked back," she said. "To this day, I still ache for the classroom."

Young, who grew up in Jessamine County, joined the county school system as a teacher in 1983, then she climbed the ranks to become superintendent in 2004. She knows Fayette County well — her family lived in Lexington for 20 years — and she says that would help her if she becomes Fayette superintendent.

Young is a strong believer in Fayette's Spanish immersion program and would be an enthusiastic supporter if she becomes superintendent.

"Both my children went through the Spanish immersion program at Maxwell Elementary, so I know how powerful it can be," says Young, who is bilingual in Spanish.

Young gets unsparing praise from Jessamine school board chairman Eugene Peel.

"We would really miss her if Fayette County hires her," Peel said. "She loves education; she works well with the community and with parents; she knows legislators across the state; she's a team builder. She has no weaknesses that I can see."

The Jessamine schools have made several advances during Young's time, but she says she's proudest of The Providence School, launched in 2000 as an alternative program for struggling students. The Fayette schools have copied some aspects of the program.

Young wrote a dropout-prevention grant to start Providence when she was Jessamine's assistant superintendent. Providence opened in a double-wide trailer with 30 students, and it now has its own building and 150 kids in grades six through 12.

Providence keeps such kids in school, sharply cutting Jessamine's dropout rates, which once were among the state's highest, Young says.

"We made a real commitment that we were going to hold onto these kids until our fingers were bloody," she said. "I consider it the best alternative school in the state."

Young also helped develop Jessamine's Career and Technology Center, which opened in 2006, offering classes in information technology, pre-engineering, health sciences and agricultural biotechnology.

"Our focus is on every child," Young says. "I believe it resonates with families and community and individual students. The message we want for them is that this is your education, your fighting chance.

"We can't squander time or resources. I like to have an intensity and urgency about learning in our schools so that we have really high energy enveloping the process."

Young will foster a similar approach if hired in Fayette County — and would stay around to make it happen, she said.

"Jessamine County would tell you they haven't been able to get rid of me in 28 years. I love this work. I don't have retirement plans; I'd be happy to commit to Fayette County for several years ... if they'd have me."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader