Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Book on Elaine Farris

This is the second of three reviews of the public record on finalists for the superintendency of the Fayette County public school district. The information is not analyzed so much as it is organized and presented for review by the public, and most importantly, the Fayette County Board of Education. It is our hope that the information will allow the board to make the best decision possible on behalf of our children.

Generally, the material is presented in three sections:
  • First, the candidate's official resume, along with a collection of school district performance data, and where provided by the candidate, materials presented for consideration by the search firm, as well as other goodies we found
  • the Herald-Leader's brief resume
  • a chronological listing of public utterances as recorded in the press
This adapted from FCPS:
Thursday Clark County Superintendent Elaine Farris will meet with nearly 200 employees, students, parents and community representatives. School board members have expressed appreciation to all those who have agreed to represent their peers and provide the school board with feedback throughout the interview process.

At 3 p.m. Thursday, Farris will meet with members of the media. The news conference will air live on Channel 13 and replay at 11:30 p.m. If you do not have access to cable, Channel 13 programming streams live here: /administration/departments/channel-13/live-webcast.

At 5:30 p.m., everyone is welcome and encouraged to attend a public forum in Norsworthy Auditorium at the school district’s 701 East Main Street office. KET news anchor Renee Shaw will interview Farris with questions submitted by our community. The forum will air at 7 p.m on Channel 13.

The Fayette County Board of Education is encouraging all stakeholders to submit their comments about each superintendent hopeful by emailing superinput@fayette.kyschools.us. All feedback sent there will be automatically forwarded to the five school board members.
Elaine Farris's official Resume

Clark County Interim Performance Report 2009-2010

Clark County KCCT Combined Reading/Math, Proficient/Distinguished Report

Clark County NCLB AYP Report 2011 (14/16 87.5%)

A Conversation with Educational Leaders on How Spiritual Leadership Increases Professional Effectiveness #1. The following interview [is] part of a research investigation on how spiritual leadership among school leaders enhances school and student performance. This interview is with Elaine Farris, Superintendent of Clark County Schools.

KET's Connections with Renee Shaw:
(#310) Elaine Farris
Renee speaks with Elaine Farris, Kentucky's first African-American school district superintendent, about her new role as deputy commissioner overseeing the Kentucky Department of Education's Bureau of Learning and Results Services. Farris is also a member of the Kentucky Authority for Educational Television, KET's governing board. A 2008 KET production.

The Winchester Sun uploaded this on Apr 14, 2009.
The Clark County Board of Education hired Elaine Farris on April 13 as the district's new superintendent of schools. Elaine Farris to serve as Superintendent

Distinguished-educator program learns new approach.  Blackford, Linda (1998, May 7). Lexington
Herald-Leader, p. C1.

For the past year, "distinguished educator" Elaine Farris has shuttled between Estill, Bourbon and Powell County high schools, trying to help teachers raise test scores. "It's been a good experience," said Bourbon Principal Ron Wigglesworth.

"She's given us a lot of tools and ideas to improve." But according to legislators, the glow of the distinguished educators program - created by the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act to improve school performance by sending in outside experts to the lowest-scoring schools - has dimmed.

So when legislators revamped the state testing system, they also decided to give the distinguished educator program a new name and less clout.

Over the next two years, the new Commonwealth Accountability and Testing System test will replace the old Kentucky Instructional Results Information System test, and 30 newly chosen "highly skilled educators" will be added to the 29 "distinguished educators."

…..Farris said she lets teachers decide what they need to improve. She then suggests different tools to solve their problems. "Just because test scores are low doesn't mean teachers aren't doing a good job," Farris said. "They're the experts, I just help give them focus." For example, she has introduced ways for teachers to incorporate the state's core curriculum into their everyday teaching, which taps into the content of the state test. She also helps teachers make writing an automatic part of lessons.

Students check out hotel industry- all in a school day’s work (2003, May 2). Lexington Herald- Leader, p. C6.

Fifth-grade students from Maxwell Elementary School spent yesterday morning "working" at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Lexington. The nationwide annual event, called Camp Hyatt, is put on by the Hyatt chain to acquaint youngsters with the travel and hospitality industry.

Fayette County Schools' elementary director, Elaine Farris , said career education is part of state-mandated core content, especially in the fifth grade.

"We need to start making sure students are familiar with careers," she said. An emphasis on
career education carries on through middle school and high school, she said, adding that the Fayette County School Board requires that any field trip be instructional in nature.

Minority educators chosen for program – internship to groom minorities to become superintendents (2003, June 17). Lexington Herald-Leader, p. B2.

A veteran Fayette County educator has been selected for a new program meant to groom minority superintendents in Kentucky.

"I'm so honored to have been selected for this program," said Elaine Farris , director of elementary schools.

None of the top jobs in the state's 176 schools districts are filled by minorities.

Two other educators have been chosen for The Minority Superintendent Intern Program, which will place them in school districts for one year. There, they will serve as assistants to superintendents, meeting frequently with school boards and search firms.

Farris, who has more than 20 years of experience in Clark and Fayette counties, will begin her internship in Shelby County on June 23.

More than 30 seek top position- district is ‘in good shape’ on quest for next superintendent.  Deffendall, Linda. (2004, May 6). Lexington Herald-Leader, p. A1.

More than 30 people are seeking the top schools post in Fayette County, a consultant with the search firm coordinating the superintendent application and selection process said yesterday. And although that's significantly fewer than the 62 peope who applied for the same job when it was open a year ago, officials are still optimistic they'll find a top-notch schools chief…..

…names were suggested as possible applicants by a panel of community leaders discussing the qualities they'd like to see in the next Fayette schools chief.

Others were Jon Akers, executive of the Kentucky Center for School Safety; Joyce Bales, superintendent of Pueblo School District 60 in Colorado and a finalist from the last search; and Elaine Farris , the Fayette elementary school director who is doing a superintendent's internship in Shelby County.

Both Akers and Farris said they did not apply for the job, although they were encouraged to do so by their Lexington friends and colleagues…..

Farris is scheduled to return from her one-year internship and reassume her post as elementary school director. But, she said, she is pursuing other opportunities.

Hawkins eyes Shelby County job DCOS director of personnel one of 6 finalists for superintendent. Cooper, Mark. (2004, May 21).  Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer (KY), p. B1.

Another top Daviess County Public School administrator might be leaving for a new job.
Scott Hawkins, director of personnel, is one of six finalists for superintendent of Shelby County Public Schools. He'll interview with the board and meet school officials and employees, community leaders and the public June 2…..

According to the Shelby County district's Web site, the other five finalists are:
…* Elaine Farris , a superintendent intern with Shelby County Public Schools this year. Farris is working on her doctorate in instruction and administration at the University of Kentucky. She has served as a Kentucky Distinguished Educator, an elementary school principal and an elementary director for Fayette County Board of Education….

New Superintendent (2004, June 23). Kentucky Post (Covington Kentucky), p. A6.

In a move civil rights activists say was long overdue, the first black superintendent of a public school system in Kentucky was hired Tuesday when longtime educator Elaine Farris got the job in Shelby County.

"I feel like I've opened some doors for minority candidates," Farris said after her selection by a 3-2 vote of the school board . Farris, 49, previously served as an elementary school principal in Clark County and was an administrator over 12 elementary schools in Fayette County.

A Kentucky first- Racial barrier broken Shelby County breaks ground by hiring black schools chief, Kocher, Greg. (2004, June 23).  Lexington Herald-Leader, p. A1.

SHELBYVILLE -- Elaine Farris , a veteran educator in Fayette and Clark counties, will lead Shelby County public schools as the first full-time African-American superintendent in the state.

Until yesterday's 3-2 Shelby County school board vote, none of the top jobs in the state's 176 schools districts had been permanently filled by a minority candidate. Kentucky has had three black interim superintendents, including Fayette County's Marlene Helm, who didn't pursue the permanent Fayette job.

Applause and cheers erupted from the audience of administrators and central office staff when school board member Brenda Jackson made the motion to hire Farris.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, I am convinced that I am the person to take this school district to the next level," she said later.

"I feel like that I've opened some doors for minority candidates and superintendents," Farris said.

" ... I just want to be a good role model. ... And I would like to see all the students look at me as an individual and judge me by the content of my character and not so much by the color of my skin."

She will receive a four-year contract that pays $108,000 annually. She starts her new job July 1.

School board members Jackson, Mike Cakmes and Sam Hinkle voted to hire Farris, but Eddie Mathis and Allen Phillips voted no. Mathis said he didn't think Farris was the best candidate, but pledged to work with her. Phillips said he wished he could have found in one candidate the characteristics of three finalists that the board considered.

The board's split vote was not a slight, Farris said.

"From what I have observed, even though there are split votes, they have worked together and done what's best for kids. I think we'll all be able to still work as a team."

Farris, 49, also is the first participant in the state's Minority Superintendent Intern Program to be hired for a superintendent's position. Civil rights activists have long noted that Kentucky had never had a black superintendent. The program, which began last year, placed minority educators in three school districts for one year to groom them as superintendent candidates.

'She certainly hung in there'

Farris was mentored by Shelby County Superintendent Leon Mooneyhan, who leaves the district after 16 years as superintendent.

"I tried to give her every experience that I have as superintendent, from late-night meetings to early-morning meetings, and she certainly hung in there with me," Mooneyhan said.

The Rev. Louis Coleman, head of the the Louisville-based Justice Resource Center, called the
appointment "a joyous, historic moment where a major racial barrier has been broken."

Coleman praised Mooneyhan for championing the cause of black superintendents in Kentucky schools.

"For years, people talked about it but he went out and did something about it," Coleman said. "I consider him the Branch Rickey of Kentucky's public school system." (In 1945, with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey became the first major league baseball executive to break baseball's color line when he signed player Jackie Robinson.)

Jackson, who is president-elect of the Kentucky School Board Association, said she thinks Farris will be scrutinized more closely by the local community not because of race, "but because she is following somebody with 16 years of experience. So whatever she does, it's going to be, 'Would Dr. Mooneyhan have done it this way?'"

This spring, friends and colleagues encouraged Farris to apply for the Fayette superintendent's job.

But she didn't, and the opening went to Daviess County Superintendent Stu Silberman. Farris said she thought smaller Shelby would be a better fit.

Shelby County has more than 5,400 students in 10 schools, with 700 employees and an annual budget of nearly $39 million. African-Americans make up nearly 10 percent of the district's enrollment, and Hispanics make up 9 percent.

Farris said she wants the district to continue to focus on reading and math, and "then we're going to look at our middle schools and see how we can help them perform better."

Patty Meyer, principal of Shelby County East Middle School, said Farris is willing to get into schools with students and staff and ask questions.

"She knows curriculum, she knows assessment," Meyer said. "She has high expectations. I'll work my tail off for her -- not that I wouldn't for Dr. Mooneyhan -- but she's the kind of person you want to do well for."

Said Molly Sullivan, assistant superintendent for student achievement: "She has a great depth of understanding for the curriculum, instruction and assessment.

"She knows the things to be looking for. She's a wonderful people person. People trust her, they want to talk to her, and she's a team player."

In training to lead

Farris has been a Kentucky Distinguished Educator, an expert teacher who assisted peers and administrators at low-scoring schools; an elementary school principal in Winchester; and an elementary schools director for the Fayette County school district. She has been on leave from that position since June 2003 to be a minority superintendent intern.

Farris was one of 21 applicants and six finalists for the Shelby superintendent's position. The other finalists, none of whom was a minority, were from Louisville, Owensboro, Tennessee, Virginia and New Hampshire.

Mooneyhan, 56, who has been in education for 34 years, will become the new chief executive officer for the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative on Oct. 1. Established in 1976, the Shelbyville-based cooperative employs more than 200 people and provides education services and programs to 14 member school districts.

Farris has commuted from her Winchester home to Shelbyville during the past year. In a lighter moment yesterday, Mooneyhan joked that the central office staff might want to take up a collection to pay for her occasional speeding tickets.

"Traffic flows pretty quickly but, you know, you have to keep up," Farris said later. "I'm glad I'm moving here."

BIOGRAPHY: Elaine Farris

Age: 49.

Family: Husband, Alvin; one son, Ryan, 28.

Education: Bachelor's degree in secondary health and physical education, 1977, Eastern Kentucky University; master's degree in health education, 1981, EKU; currently a doctoral candidate in instruction and administration, University of Kentucky.

Experience: Health educator with Clark County Health Department, 1978-1981; physical education teacher in Clark County, 1982-1989; health and physical education teacher at George Rogers Clark High School in Winchester, 1989-1993; assistant principal at George Rogers Clark High School, 1993-1996; Kentucky distinguished educator, 1996-1998; principal at Shearer Elementary School in Winchester, 1998-2001; elementary director for Fayette County Public Schools, 2001 to the present.

Current job: On leave from the elementary director's position in Fayette County to be a superintendent intern under Shelby County Superintendent Leon Mooneyhan.

District profile

Shelby County Public Schools

Enrollment: 5,487 students, including preschool.

Total pupil-teacher ratio (kindergarten through 12th grade): 17-to-1.

Percentage of students for whom English is second language (K-12): 5.7 percent.

Percentage of minority students: 9.8 percent African-American, 9.2 percent Hispanic, 0.5 percent Asian, 0.2 percent Native-American, 2 percent other.

Percentage of low-income students (K-12): 36 percent.

Percentage of students in special education (preschool through grade 12): 14.2 percent.

Percentage of gifted/talented students (grades 4-12): 16 percent.

Promising start- Shelby schools chief breaks another racial barrier (2004, June 29). Lexington Herald-Leader, p. A6.

In the 50th anniversary year of the high court decision that opened the door to racially integrated schools, Kentucky can celebrate another barrier broken.

Elaine Farris became the first African-American school superintendent permanently appointed in the state. Shelby County made the historic choice last week.

Farris, 49, brings to the job an array of experience: teacher, principal, distinguished educator and director of elementary schools for Fayette County.

She participated this year in the superintendent internship program for minorities, which placed her in Shelby County with Superintendent Leon Mooneyhan. The program might be the most promising means of opening up the ranks of superintendent.

Farris was quick to win over the Shelby County staff. "I'll work my tail off for her. ... She's the kind of person you want to do well for," said one principal.

That's effusive praise.

One minority superintendent out of 176 is not exactly diversity in its fullest sense.
Let's hope it doesn't take another 50 years to appoint a second minority superintendent.

Activist is choice for Peeples award.  Hobbs, Charles (2004, December 29). Lexington Herald-Leader, p. D3.

…Also receiving an award Saturday will be Elaine Farris , superintendent of Shelby County Schools. She will get the Making it Happen Award.

The award is given to "someone who is paving the way for the next generation" Baskins said.
Farris is the first black to hold the position of full-time superintendent in any school district in the state.

Prayer challenged again- Shelby county students want it barred from graduation,  Ogawa, Jillian. (2006, May 23). Lexington Herald-Leader, p. B3.

Another Kentucky school faces a decision about prayer at graduation.

The Shelby County Public Schools board met yesterday in closed session about a possible litigation regarding a complaint filed through the American Civil Liberties Union, superintendent Elaine Farris said.

The complaint was filed last week, she said. Graduation is June 2.

"A student has filed a complaint that they desire not for that (prayer) to be part of the graduation ceremony," Farris said….

Agency releases new hirings (2007, July 3). Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer (KY), p. C1.

The Kentucky Department of Education announced the following hirings Friday:
* Elaine Farris , superintendent of the Shelby County school district, has been named deputy
commissioner of the bureau of learning and results services….

Farris fills the post vacated by Linda France, who has served in the position since 2003 and is retiring.

She will oversee five offices: district support services, teaching and learning, assessment and
accountability, leadership and school improvement, and special instructional services.

Those offices and the divisions and branches within provide numerous services to districts, including finance, facilities, nutrition, curriculum development, virtual learning, early childhood education, assessment, school improvement, school assistance, special needs, career and technical education,  federal programs, and teacher and student diversity.

Interim state schools chief is appointed.  Warren, Jim (2009, January 8). Lexington Herald-Leader, p. D3.

The Kentucky Board of Education on Wednesday named veteran educator Elaine Farris as the state's interim education commissioner, pending a nationwide search for a new permanent commissioner.

During a special meeting Wednesday, board members also set parameters for the search, and said they will hire a recruiting firm to help replace Education Commissioner Jon Draud, who resigned last month.

They also agreed that candidates for the post will be screened by the entire school board, rejecting the idea of forming a screening committee.

The search for a new commissioner will be national, but the board said qualified candidates from Kentucky would be considered.

Farris, who now is a deputy state education commissioner, will serve until Draud's permanent successor is named. But she will not be a candidate for the permanent post herself, board members said. Farris is a former superintendent of the Shelby County Public Schools with extensive experience as a classroom teacher and education administrator.

Board members said Wednesday that they hope to name a new permanent commissioner before the start of the 2009-2010 school year. But they admitted that might not be possible, given the magnitude of the task.

Test overhaul clears Senate- sent to house for more work. Blackford, Linda. (2009, February 11). Lexington Herald-Leader, p. D2.

A bill to overhaul Kentucky's student testing system sailed unanimously through Senate committee and floor votes Tuesday to fast-track it to the House for more work.

There was no discussion of Senate Bill 1 Tuesday, but the committee did hear testimony last week. Sen. Tim Shaughnessy, D-Louisville, said his yes vote was a both an agreement that the testing system had to change and a push toward more work on the bill…..

The Kentucky Department of Education has pushed for slower change, urging lawmakers to adopt new standards before changing the test.

The state Board of Education voted Tuesday to adopt a policy paper on testing. Interim Education Commission Elaine Farris stressed that education standards must be upgraded - starting with math - before a new testing system is devised.

"Everything will be on the table" when a new test is devised, Farris told the board. "There will be no sacred cows."

She said the education department has evaluated SB 1, which would dramatically alter the
Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, and will probably suggest amendments.

Nevertheless, Farris said she thinks common ground could be found, based on discussions she's had recently with lawmakers.

"The dialogue has been very open," she said. "I don't think we're as far apart in our thinking on accountability and assessment as some people think we are."

State may lose interim ed commissioner- Elaine Farris is finalist for Clark County superintendent. Warren, Jim. (2009, March 31).  Lexington Herald-Leader, p. C3.

Interim Kentucky Education Commissioner Elaine Farris is in the running to become Clark County's new school superintendent, which could complicate the selection of a new state education commissioner.

The state Board of Education appointed Farris as interim education commissioner in January to serve until a permanent successor to former Commissioner Jon Draud is selected. The board hopes to name the new commissioner before the next school year starts in August.

But if Farris is picked for the Clark County job before a new state commissioner is seated, the state board would have to name a new interim commissioner to serve until Draud's successor is selected, said state Education Department spokeswoman Lisa Gross.

The state board will discuss the commissioner selection process when it meets Wednesday.

According to Gross, Farris told state officials she intended to apply for the Clark County post after Superintendent Ed Musgrove resigned effective June 30. Farris is a Clark County native.

Interim Kentucky education chief to leave- Farris to take over as Clark county superintendent in July. Clark, Ashlee. (2009, April 17).  Lexington Herald-Leader, p. B3.

The Clark County Board of Education has chosen the state's interim education commissioner to be its new superintendent, leaving a vacancy when she takes the helm at the end of the summer.

Interim Kentucky Education Commissioner Elaine Farris was hired as the Clark superintendent at a special meeting Monday. She will begin her term July 1.

In January, the state Board of Education appointed Farris as interim education commissioner to serve until a permanent successor to former Commissioner Jon Draud was selected. The board hopes to name the new commissioner before the school year starts in August.

Farris' hire leaves a month-long gap between her departure from the state and the start of the next commissioner's term, said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education.

Gross said the state board of education must decide how to fill the break in leadership. Board members probably will discuss the issue at their retreat May 12 and 13, she said. They normally do not take action at their retreats.

"This is a little out of the ordinary, so they may discuss it then," she said.

State board members usually ask someone within the agency to serve in interim roles, Gross said.

The Clark County Board of Education selected Farris from a pool of 21 applicants. Farris, a Clark County native, appealed to the members because of her passion for students and the community, board chairwoman Judy Hicks said.

"We were just all mesmerized," Hicks said. Board members think Farris' positive attitude "will go a long way in continuing the board's mission in improving education in Clark County," Hicks said.

Farris' previous roles include Shelby County superintendent, the elementary director for Fayette County schools, assistant principal of George Rogers Clark High School in Winchester, and principal of Shearer Elementary School in Winchester. She is a graduate of Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Kentucky.

Clark School among worst buildings in U.S.- Fannie Bush featured in Peoples magazine (2010, June 5). Lexington Herald-Leader, p. A4.

A Central Kentucky elementary school that was on a list of the state's most dilapidated buildings is about to get some national exposure.

Fannie Bush Elementary School in Clark County got a visit last week from People magazine, which interviewed the principal, teachers and some parents about conditions at the school for a piece about the six worst school buildings in the United States…..

Superintendent Elaine Farris said it was surprising to her that a school district in Central Kentucky could have so many category 5 schools.

"The thing that is surprising to me more than anything is for Clark County, in the area that it sits in Kentucky, to have three category 5 schools, is very unusual for this part of Kentucky," said Farris. "The question we need to ask ourselves as a community is, 'Why is that?' And what do we do to remedy it?"

Both Taylor and Farris said they hoped the publicity would shine some light on the problem and spur state officials to take action.

Stream to cost Clark schools $234,000- It’s on property of high school project. Flynn, Bob (2011, March 3).  Lexington Herald-Leader, p. A6.

An 8-inch-wide stream found by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the construction site of a new high school will cost the Clark County Public Schools $234,000. The stream was found in late October after the Corps and the Kentucky Division of Water received an anonymous call about a blue-line stream near Christview Christian Church on the north side of the property. The school project had been estimated at $31.9 million…But that didn't mean they were happy about having to spend money for the fee from the construction contingency fund that could have been used elsewhere on the project or for programs at
the new school when it's finished.

"My main concern is that they want us to use public school funds for this type of mitigation," said Superintendent Elaine Farris

Bio of Farris from CPE:

Elaine Farris became Kentucky’s interim commissioner of education February 1, 2009. She has served as deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Learning and Results Services for the Kentucky Department of Education since August 2007. She has been a public school servant for 27 years serving as elementary school teacher, track coach, assistant principal, and principal in the Clark County School System and elementary director for Fayette County Public Schools. Ms. Farris was selected for the first class of interns to participate in KDE’s Minority Superintendent Internship Program and later became Kentucky’s first African American school superintendent at Shelby County Public Schools. Ms. Farris holds a bachelor of science degree in secondary physical education and a master of arts degree and Rank I in
education and school leadership from Eastern Kentucky University. Her superintendent certification is from the University of Kentucky, and she is pursuing an Ed.D. degree in educational leadership and policy development in EKU’s first educational leadership doctoral program.

The Race Debate: Q&A with Elaine Farris” from Scholastic October/November 2004.

Fifty years after the U.S. Supreme Court decision that ended segregated schools, Kentucky
broke its own color barrier in education. It now has an African-American school district
superintendent. Elaine Farris took over Shelby County Public Schools in July, the only minority superintendent out of 176 in the state and one of 20 female superintendents of Kentucky schools.

During her two decades of working in K–12 education, Farris, 49, has been a health teacher,
assistant principal, principal, and elementary director. It was a long climb to her new position
boosted substantially, she says, by a new internship program for prospective superintendents the state established in the past year to attract more minority administrators.

Now Farris has many challenges ahead of her. She must raise the district's academic
performance—it ranks in the middle among the state's districts—while not leaving behind a
growing population of Hispanic students whose primary language is not English.

We spoke to Farris about her historic appointment, the challenges ahead, and the issue of race in education.

Do you feel any pressure to excel because you are the first African-American
superintendent in Kentucky's history?

The pressure is the pressure I put on myself, because I have raised the bar for me. I know that individuals are watching. I know I'm in the fishbowl because I'm African-American and because I'm female. I'm going to showpeople I can do this.

Nationally, only 14 percent of public school superintendents are women, and only 5.1 percent are minorities. Do these statistics surprise you?

I'm not surprised by that because I've lived through it here in Kentucky. To most people those small numbers are the status quo. It's not acceptable, but it's real. My hire is just the tip of the iceberg. Will it happen again? Hopefully real soon, but who knows? That's the weight that I carry on my shoulders. I have to prove a point that "Yes, it can happen" and "Yes, we [as African-Americans] can be successful." I feel like I have to stand in the gate and keep the door open and help others come through. I take that personally.

Why did it take so long for this change to happen in Kentucky?

Kentucky is not a real diverse state. We probably have six school districts that have large,
diverse populations. The rest of them are predominantly Caucasian children. And I think people have tended to think that if it's not a diverse population then we don't need a minority leader, which is a myth. But that's what people think, and because of that very few districts have even opened the door for minority candidates to come in for interviews. They've already decided that if they don't have any black students, they don't need any black superintendents, black principals, or black teachers. And the other thing is that we don't have many African-American teachers in our state. And your principals and superintendents come from those ranks most of the time.

You've said that you want to be a role model but also judged by the "content of my character, not the color of my skin." Do you believe high-achieving African-Americans face the burden of representing the race while also proving that their appointment or hiring is not race-based?

I know without a shadow of a doubt that I was the most qualified individual for this job. I have so many different experiences in my 21 years in public education. And more than anything, individuals in this community and this school district, whom I had an opportunity to work with during the past year as part of the internship, also know the experience I bring to the table and they know that I can do this job. That's what was so important about the internship. It allowed me to model and to work alongside my colleagues in public education to let them know that I have the stuff it takes, regardless of whether I'm African-American or female.

There are going to be some individuals that regardless of what I do, how successful this district becomes, they're still going to think my appointment was because of race. So it doesn't really matter to me what they think because you can't change that. That's been the whole challenge in the state of Kentucky as to why we haven't had African-American superintendents, because we have not been able to change the mind-set of boards of education (which are predominantly white) across this state.

How does the growth of the Hispanic community affect your superintendency?

Shelbyville is surprisingly a very diverse town and we have a fairly diverse district. Out of 5,400 students, 9.8 percent are African-American and 9.2 percent are Hispanic. I think that diversity enriches the community, but yes, there is also the challenge of bringing our Hispanic students up to the same academic level and to help them achieve on standardized tests. The district has some good programs in place, ones that precede my appointment. We'll tweak those programs and add to them to ensure that students are successful and that we reach AYP (adequate yearly progress) this year.

How essential was the superintendent internship to your selection? Do you think you would have gotten the job without it?

The internship was essential because I probably would not have thought about Shelbyville,
Kentucky, because I would probably have looked closer to where I lived (Winchester, about an hour's drive away) and may not have branched out. But the internship gave me the opportunity to experience the daily walk of a superintendent. The more I saw and the more I listened to my mentor and to the other superintendents I dealt with during the internship, the more I realized, "I can do this."

Do you see the internship approach as a critical way to bring more minorities into superintendent positions around the country?

I do. We really need to find viable ways to bring not only minorities, but to also bring every
credible person into superintendent positions, because the pickings are slim and fewer people are seeking these jobs.

To what extent do you believe white students can benefit from seeing an African-American in such a high position as yourself?

I think it enriches the students' mind-sets. So often the only stories they hear about African-
Americans are in the history books, TV, magazines, or newspapers and we're often portrayed
negatively. Now white students will see a person of color and hopefully say, "Black people can
do that, too." It enriches the culture in our schools and in our classrooms and it allows [students] to celebrate people's differences. And hopefully they'll learn that it doesn't matter what color you are or what language you speak, you can be successful. That's what America is about—the melting pot and the land of opportunity.

Elaine Farris is new superintendent. Petke, Fred (2009, April 14). Central KY News accessed from http://articles.centralkynews.com/2009-04-14/news/24921013_1_new-superintendent-board-member-elementary-schools-and-building on June 1, 2011.member-elementary-schools-and-building

Elaine Farris strode into the board room Monday night to a hero's welcome.

Greeted by a standing ovation and hugs from board members, the state's interim education commissioner and deputy commissioner of learning results was announced as the new superintendent of the Clark County School District.

For Farris, accepting the job is a chance to return to where her education career began as
a student, then a teacher and later as a principal.

"I've made a full circle," she said. "I can't tell you how exciting that is."

The excitement was unanimous, both before and after she signed the four-year contract worth $134,000 annually.

"She's highly qualified," board member Rick Perry said. "She's a beautiful person inside and out.

We needed to get back to our core belief of teaching and improvement through enhancing our
curriculum. I believe she's the person to do that."

"We are impressed by her progressive experience in classroom teaching and educational
administration, as well as her personal and professional accomplishments on behalf of students," Board Chairwoman Judy Hicks said in a statement during the meeting. "We believe that Elaine is uniquely qualified to provide the vision, leadership and motivation to our staff, students and the community in establishing Clark County Public Schools as a top school district in the Commonwealth of Kentucky."

Farris worked in the Clark County schools for 19 years, beginning as a physical education
teacher at Odell Gross Elementary and becoming principal of Shearer Elementary in 1998.
In 2001, she became elementary director for the Fayette County schools. She also served as
superintendent of the Shelby County schools from 2003 to 2007, when she joined the Kentucky Department of Education.

Farris will succeed Ed Musgrove, who is resigning effective June 30 after three years with the district. Musgrove had one year remaining on his contract, but resigned, saying he had done as much as he could with the district and the board.

The board decided to make the offer during a special meeting Thursday evening. On Friday,
the imminent hiring was announced by scheduling Monday's meeting to announce the new

"I felt she was the right combination of credentials, proven track record and passion for our kids and our community," board member Wendy Berryman said.

The goal, Farris said, is to move the district from good to great. How to accomplish that will take a little work once she begins this summer.

"I just see the opportunity to move this district forward," she said. "I feel the excitement to move it to the next level."

Part of that will include the district's controversial facilities plan, which calls for consolidating
several elementary schools and building a new high school.

"I think right now, the biggest challenge is improving student learning," she said. "Not that
they aren't doing good things, but to narrow the focus â?¦ I think it's important as a board team (that) we have to remember this is all about the kids."

"I think good to great' is our new motto," Berryman said. "We're going to be one of the best
districts in Kentucky."

Subject of Interview: Sara Elaine Farris (born May 21, 1955)

Kentucky’s first African-American School Superintendent; first African-American and first Female Deputy Education Commissioner and Interim Education Commissioner

Interviewers: Dr Richard E. Day & Mr. Jonah Brown

Date: August 21, 2009

Location: Eastern Kentucky University, Combs Building, Room 100

[Richard Day speaking] This is an interview with Elaine Farris, August 21, 2009. If you would start off, what is your name?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Sara Elaine Farris.

[Richard Day speaking] And when were you born?

[Elaine Farris speaking] May 21, 1955.

[Richard Day speaking] Where did you grow up?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Winchester, Kentucky.

[Richard Day speaking] Tell us about your family as a child.

[Elaine Farris speaking] My mom — my dad actually, was from Mississippi and came to Winchester to work, at that time, on the railroad. My dad was actually 20 years older than my mother and had a third grade education and was actually illiterate. My sisters and I taught him how to read. I have five older sisters, and we were born and raised in Winchester, as I said earlier. Actually, we were raised in Tyler Banks Court, which was a housing project in Winchester. My dad and mom divorced, actually, when I was five years old.

So, my mom and the six girls kind of headed off and did our own thing ‘til we were older. Of course, my mom remarried several years later, and then my stepdad, of course, died about 10 years ago. So, three of my sisters are college graduates — well, two of my sisters and myself. My other three sisters kind of worked around Winchester and raised our family.

[Richard Day speaking] What do you recall about your education as a child?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I was educated, actually, in a segregated school system from kindergarten through sixth grade. Until sixth grade, all of my teachers were African-American, and I guess during the time of integration, probably most of the counties in the state of Kentucky probably processed into that in a different way. In Winchester, I remember, initially, they brought the white teachers to us. So, I had my first white teacher in sixth grade. Then, the seventh grade year, we went to the middle school as an integrated school system.

But I remember my teachers in the segregated school system — they either went to church with me or they were my Sunday school teachers, and many of their children and myself grew up together and were playmates, so I spent a lot of time in my teachers’ homes. That’s probably one of the most pleasurable experiences, I think, being in a segregated school system, is that you knew your teachers other than just at the schoolhouse.

[Richard Day speaking] Talk about someone that touched you that way, one of these teachers that perhaps offered some inspiration to you.

[Elaine Farris speaking] Virginia Menifee, who actually ended up being a counselor here at EKU. She was my third grade math teacher, and I didn’t like math, but I loved Miss Menifee. [laughter] Her daughter and I were very close friends. I remember spending a lot of time at her home and how encouraging she was.

The interesting thing about Virginia Menifee is that she ended up being my Sunday school teacher. I remember the same qualities as a third grader that when I was an adult at First Baptist, probably in my early 40s — the same encouraging characteristics that she had when I was a child, she had when I was an adult. She was very encouraging, always found the good in all of her students, and was so encouraging in saying, “You can go to school. You can go to college. You can be anything that you want to be.” Not only did she say those things, she provided support — you know, tutoring. She always made sure that kids had the things they needed to be successful in school. She and her husband both were that way.

[Richard Day speaking] Within your family, with your older sisters and your mother, in particular, what kind of premium was placed on education?

[Elaine Farris speaking] It was valued in our home, even though my dad only had a third grade education, and my mom only had a 10th grade education. She didn’t graduate from college, either. But it was just a part of the African-American community at that time that we were expected to do well in school. If you were outside playing, the neighbors would say, “Did you get your homework? Have you got your homework first?” You would say, “Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am.” They would say, “If you didn’t, you better get back in there and get it,” because there were no after-school programs. Our parents couldn’t afford babysitting, so if our parents were out of the home working, all of the neighborhood parents — we took care of each other. They took care of the other kids. So, my mom and dad — we always had a place that we had to sit and do our homework. Even though they couldn’t check to see if it was correct, they would always say, “Did you get it complete? Are you ready to turn it in the next day?” So, it was an expectation that we did well in school and that we did what the teachers asked us to do.

During the time I was growing up, in my home, the teacher was always right. [laughter] And we knew that. So, it was expected that we did what we were supposed to do to be successful in school.

[Richard Day speaking] As a child at that time, you mentioned you were in a segregated system. How aware were you of racial division as a young girl?

[Elaine Farris speaking] It was very prevalent — I suppose I could use that word — because everything was segregated. We knew we couldn’t do some things with white kids, but we didn’t actually probably understand it. I remember going into the movies in Winchester, and we had to enter in a different door than the white kids. We had to sit in the balcony, but the white kids got to sit on the floor. I remember — in my neighborhood, you could walk most places you wanted to go because my mom and dad didn’t have a car. So, we had to walk everywhere. We would walk to this little corner store — actually, it was a drug store — and we could go in and purchase medicine or whatever we needed, or candy or whatever, but we couldn’t sit at the counter and be served. We all remember that as kids and would always wonder why we couldn’t, and our parents would explain it to us. So, yeah, we were very conscious of that — that it was a segregated system.

[Richard Day speaking] How was it explained?

[Elaine Farris speaking] That that’s just the way it is. You can’t do those things with white kids. My dad, especially, being from Mississippi, was very — I remember growing up — he was very protective. He would say, “Make sure you don’t do anything that you’re not supposed to do or go any places you’re not supposed to go as colored kids because you’ll get in trouble.” We would — probably, for lack of a better term, he kind of made us afraid that we were gonna cross the line. So, we were kind of always very cautious. But my mom was probably a little more, I guess — knew more how to explain it than my dad did, and she would just say, “You know, at this point in time, there’s things that black kids can do that they can’t do with white kids, and that’s just the way it is.”

[Richard Day speaking] Did your father ever relate stories that gave you any insight into maybe why he wanted to scare you all into being good or whatever approach that was he was taking?

[Elaine Farris speaking] No, he didn’t. But I can remember very distinctly that my dad and I were on Main Street one day in Winchester, and some white people were coming down the street as we were going up the street, and he got off the sidewalk. I kind of looked at him and, “Why’d you get off the sidewalk?” [laughter] You know, and he says, “You always get off the sidewalk when white people are coming on the same sidewalk.” And I was like, “OK.” [laughter] Of course, I didn’t quite understand it, so when I went home, I explained to my mom and my sisters what happened, and my mother said, “He’s a little more over cautious than most people, but no, you don’t have to get off the sidewalk.” But he always thought that.

[Richard Day speaking] Did you ever wonder if his own level of education impacted that kind of behavior?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I think so, and probably, he was born and raised in Mississippi. I think probably he had a different insight and a different culture than we were used to in Winchester. So, I’m not making assumptions because he never — he didn’t know a lot about his family from Mississippi, so we didn’t talk a lot about that.

[Richard Day speaking] When did you first know that you wanted to become an educator?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Oh, my sister — one of my sisters was a teacher, my sister next to me. I think probably when she began to teach, and that was in 1969 — I think that’s when I really started to think about college, because she would always talk about college to me and say, “You need to do that. You really need to aspire to go on and get an education.” So, I think I started thinking about it then that I would probably like to be an educator.

Of course, in 1969, there weren’t a lot of other things that African-American females could do, so I decided then. I can’t say I had a strong desire that I wanted to, but I thought, “Well, you know, that’s probably a profession that’s respected, and I can do that.”

[Richard Day speaking] Is there anything that you recall about your personality at that time that might have foreshadowed your choice to get into leadership?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Well, I will say [laughter] that my fourth grade teacher always told me I was bossy. [laughter] That was the stated joke in my elementary class. I mean, literally, she would ostracize me. I remember distinctly, one day she made me get in front of the class because I had told all the kids what to do about — I can’t remember all the specifics, but she said, “You know, you’re just so bossy. Nobody told you to do that.” She said — then, they called everybody by their last name — “Smith, come up here. Get in front of the class.” Then, she said, “Class, come on, let’s think. Bossy, wossy, bossy, wossy.” [laughter] And I was. I don’t know why, but I was bossy. I just kind of ran my classrooms and told my friends what to do, and they did it. If we played school, I was always the teacher. [laughter] I don’t know. And I’m the baby of six girls, so, you know, go figure.

[Richard Day speaking] How would you compare your zeal for education now to when you were starting out as a teacher?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I’d say it’s probably magnified, probably by 100. I think that has to do with the experiences that I’ve had. You know, going in as a teacher, you’re green, and you don’t really quite understand all the ins and outs of public education. But the longer I was in it, the more, I guess, inquisitive I got about it, and why people did the things they did and why this rule was that way; how can you make a difference for all kids? So, I just got very inquisitive. I guess the more I started researching it and looking at kids and the kids who got to do things, the kids who didn’t, the kids who did well, the kids who didn’t do well, and why certain teachers treated other kids this way and some kids another way. I think my passion just began to heighten quickly because I wanted to figure out a way that I could change the way some things were being done. I think that has probably heightened my desire, my zeal, more than anything because I wanted to make a difference for, probably the underrepresented kids.

[Richard Day speaking] Since that time, you’ve had a little different view of the terrain.

[Elaine Farris speaking] Yes, very much. Very much so.

[Richard Day speaking] Do you ever miss the classroom?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I can’t say I miss it a lot because I — in every position I’ve been in, I made sure that I stayed in touch with kids. I visit classrooms a lot, even when I was at KDE. I went to the schools a lot. As a superintendent, I was in the classrooms. I had great relationships with my students. They knew me; I knew them. So, I can’t say I missed having the classroom because I try to stay connected with the kids.

[Richard Day speaking] How would you say your personal faith has impacted your career in education?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Oh, gosh, tremendously. Personally, I have to give all the praise and all the glory to the Lord for the direction that he has set before me. There’s no way in my small imagination that I would have ever thought that the Lord would have placed me where he has and given me the opportunities that he’s given me. I tell people — you know, some people believe it, some don’t — but I just think it’s been a divine direction placed before me. I just have to listen to what he says.

There’s so many spiritual experiences during my educational journey that when I tell people, they probably think, “She’s lying. That ain’t happened to her.” You know? [laughter] But I mean, I can go back to every position that I have moved into that the Lord showed it to me, before I even thought about it. Didn’t apply for it, and he showed it to me, and the next day I got a phone call. I mean, seriously. When I left Clark County and went to Fayette County — I never wanted to leave Clark County. I mean, that was home. I love Clark — I’m a small town girl. I just thought I’d always retire from Clark County, and I guess I will.

But when I — I’ll never forget -- I was walking one afternoon, and I was listening to some gospel music. This spirit just came all over me and said, “It’s time to go somewhere else.” I’m thinking to myself, “Wow, I wonder what that’s about.” You know? I went back home, and I mean, I was overcome with emotions. I was crying. I said to Alvin, “I don’t know what’s going on. But let me tell you what just happened to me when I was walking,” and I shared it with him. Went back to school the next day — I was principal at Shearer School. I got a call from [Fayette County Elementary Director] J. H. Atkins and asked me to apply for that director’s position. I hadn’t seen J. H. in 10 years. Go figure. [laughter]

[Richard Day speaking] I had asked you about your family when you were a young girl. Talk about your family as an adult. You’d mentioned your husband. He’s a minister. Tell us about your family.

[Elaine Farris speaking] We have one son, Ryan, and we — gosh, Alvin and I have been married, together, 36 years. He has just — I actually started dating when I was 17. We just — he always said that the Lord placed him with me. We just had a wonderful relationship. We have so many things in common. I mean, we used to be avid tennis players. We’d play tennis probably twice a day most times. Ryan, growing up — he’s just a daddy’s boy. I was always the disciplinarian in our family. But when Ryan wanted the, I guess, spiritual direction, the calmness of the day, he would run to his dad because I mean, I’d be up close and personal in his face most of the time. [laughter]

We just had a wonderful family time at our house. When there were times for family discussions, we would call — we’d say, “It’s time to go to the round table.” I don’t know. Ryan, I think — he had a lot of peer pressure in Winchester, I think, because of his mom and dad. Alvin and I being both college graduates, and sometimes in small communities and African-American communities, for whatever the reason, you get this stereotypical threatening-ness that generally comes with academics. You know, kids expect certain things of you, and then this thing about you shouldn’t be do those things, and so he kind of went through that. It was tough for him. But as he got older, he kind of understood what was going on.

But we had a wonderful family life in Winchester; very avid churchgoers, very active in our church. I did the youth ministry and the whole thing that educators do with the kids; I did all that. Alvin was the youth minister for a while at our church. So, we just kind of grew together.

[Richard Day speaking] And what is your church?

[Elaine Farris speaking] It was First Baptist Winchester when we were growing up, when I was in Winchester living, but now Alvin pastors at Elizabeth [Elizabeth Missionary Baptist Church ] here in Richmond.

[Richard Day speaking] Oh, OK.

[Elaine Farris speaking] Yeah. Ryan, of course, he went to EKU [Eastern Kentucky University] for a while but didn’t finish. Went into the military, met his wife and married and they have three boys.

[Richard Day speaking] We don’t have to ask who’s the boss at home, do we?


[Elaine Farris speaking] Nah. [laughter]

[Jonah Brown speaking] I’d like to talk a little bit about the historic impact of your career, not just the superintendency positions, but everything that you’ve achieved. Would you mind to just kind of give us a brief outline of your career and how it started after college and starting off however you did?

[Elaine Farris speaking] OK, actually, when I graduated from EKU, I couldn’t find a P.E. — I was a P.E. major, secondary P.E. major, without a health minor. So, that made it really hard to find a secondary P.E. job because most of the time you had to teach health and P.E. So, when I went back to Winchester from college, I actually worked for Bell South for a while — climbed telephone poles, installed telephones and that kind of thing. I did that for a while, and I thought, “I can’t do this.” I was crawling on the crawl spaces and climbing telephone poles and I thought, “Ah, I don’t want to do this much longer.”

So, I started substitute teaching. The teacher that I was subbing for — well, then there was an elementary job that came open. The teacher was diagnosed with cancer. So, I started long-term subbing for him and went back and got my elementary endorsement. I actually got my first job teaching elementary P.E. in 1982. I did that, and then I went to the high school and taught P.E. and health there, then came back to EKU and got my principalship. I started as an assistant principal at the high school, GRC [George Rogers Clark High School]. I did that for, I think about three years. Then, I went into the Distinguished Educators Program with KDE [Kentucky Department of Education].

Then, my superintendent at the time — it was Don Pace. He called and said, “I want you to come back to Winchester and be principal at Shearer [Elementary] School.” I said, “You can’t pick principals. It’s a site-based council.” So, anyway, I ended up being principal there, and I did that for three years. Then, I went to Fayette County as elementary director. I think my job spans have been three years, because I did that for three years.

Then, the Kentucky Department of Education had the superintendent minority intern program. I applied for that and was accepted and I did that, of course, for one year, but still employed at Fayette County. Then, the superintendent at Shelby County, Leon Mooneyhan, decided he was going to retire that year and shared that with me. He says, “I think you’d be a great superintendent for Shelby County.” I was like — and I mean, really and truly, Jonah, at that time, even though I went through that intern program, I wasn’t really thinking that I would get a superintendency right out of that program. So, when he mentioned that, Alvin and I talked, and I said, “How far would you be willing to drive, because the goal is I have to apply for a job,” you know, the superintendency. He said, “I will be willing to drive up to an hour.” So, that’s when I decided that I would go ahead and apply in Shelby County, and things worked out. Alvin did drive. He drove for five years from Shelby County to Winchester to continue to work.

After that, I went to KDE — I stayed in Shelby County for three years. Many people have asked me why did I leave without finishing out my contract. Of course, I had just been there three years, and I had a fourth year to go. I would — it was a very interesting community. Not a lot different than Clark County, but different because I didn’t know the culture there like I did at home. So, maneuvering around some of the things that you have to maneuver around as a superintendent became emotionally draining for me. Probably around that third year, I became — I liked what I was doing, but I had lost the excitement that I had.

So, I started to pray about that because I wanted to make sure that I was always on my A-game. I told Alvin; I said, “You know, I’m not sure I like doing this anymore.” Some of it was politics. I think some of it had to do with the color of my skin; I really do. I just didn’t like the politics. The local politics was just — I just didn’t like it. So, when the deputy’s position came open at Frankfort, as I said, that was not where I looked. I was just going to probably try to find another principalship somewhere and do that, and I got a phone call. [laughter] So, that’s how I ended up in Frankfort. Then, of course, the commissioner [Jon Draud] became ill, and I did that for a while [interim Kentucky Education Commissioner].

But I’m exactly where I wanted to be right now, and that’s in Clark County as superintendent. But it’s — I’ve been in education for 28 years, but I guess after my stint in Clark County, it seems like my intervals of staying in jobs came much shorter. So, it was kind of like a three-year stint. But that’s pretty much my educational journey.

[Jonah Brown speaking] Quite a journey, absolutely.

[Elaine Farris speaking] A quick one. [laughter]

[Jonah Brown speaking] You mentioned some things about the politics of that area and your race being a factor. I want to get into that shortly, but you mentioned the minority superintendent internship program. How beneficial was that to you?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Oh gosh, there’s no doubt in my mind that I would have never been a superintendent if it wasn’t for that program. There’s no way. I think that — I think Leon Mooneyhan had a lot to do with that. He was very adamant about me ensuring that I went to the right places, that I got to meet the right people, that— he was a big advocate of Elaine Farris. I think he convinced the community that Shelby County was ready for an African-American, female superintendent. I think because of his reputation there and his — I guess his character, that he had proven himself for so many years there and his credibility — that’s what I was trying to find — that they said, “OK, we’ll try it.” But even with that, I was voted in on a 3-2 vote. So, there were still two board members that weren’t ready. [laughter]

But I remember — I don’t know, I know I’m on tape, but I’ll tell this anyway. I remember being invited to the Farm Bureau’s picnic after I was selected in Shelby County. It was obvious that many of the white men there were not pleased. I would go up to them and try to shake their hand, and they’d kind of back up. They’d go to the other side of the room, and I was like, “Wow.” But that’s all part of it, and I know that that’s probably why two of those board members voted no, because they were big Farm Bureau guys. But I have to say that after I was selected, they were probably two of my biggest supporters.

[Jonah Brown speaking] You mentioned Mr. Mooneyhan. I had read once that the late Lewis Coleman had referred to him as “the Branch Rickey of education” because of his role, not just in working with you at the program, but just the way that he came out for you and advocated for you to get this. Do you feel that that’s an adequate assessment?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Oh gosh, yes. Louis Colemen? That was my buddy, I tell you. He — when I got to Shelby County, he was probably one of the first phone calls that I got. He came to see me, and we talked. He said, “Anything that I can do, anything you need, don’t you hesitate to call.” We had frequent phone calls. Anytime I needed, he would call and I would call him, and he made frequent visits to my office. [phone rings] — big advocate of mine. [phone rings] I can’t say enough about him. He was a man of the times, I tell you. I don’t think he can be replaced, even though that justice center [Justice Resource Center in Louisville] is still there, center’s still there, there will never be a Louis Coleman. Nobody could fill his shoes. He did things that people will never be able to do. He could go places and talk to people that other people would never, you know, open their doors to him.

I remember running into him one day. I was going into the governor’s office for something, and he was coming out. [laughter] But yeah, Louis Coleman, I would agree. That’s a good assessment, yes.

[Jonah Brown speaking] Were there other individuals? You mentioned Mr. Mooneyhan and Reverend Coleman. Were there individuals that you feel like were instrumental in supporting you at that time or advocating for you in getting that position or that just helped you to get through that year with the internship?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Yes, Brenda Jackson, who was an African-American board member in Shelby County, and I have — the church in Shelby County, Clay Street Baptist Church, that was kind of my church away from home. That congregation just wrapped their arms around me and was so supportive, the members of the church, and anything I needed, they were always there and kept me lifted up in prayer. Yes, they were very, very much a mentor and a support system for me during that time.

[Jonah Brown speaking] Did Mr. Mooneyhan ever give you any advice about what you’d be getting into with this position in that area, some of the politics that you had talked about? Were you, I guess, kind of put on notice of what you might expect?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Leon was very political. [laughter] I don’t think he’ll mind I said that. He did it well. But I remember saying to him, “I don’t like politics, and I’m not a politician.” He said, “You have to be a politician to be a superintendent.” And he said, “All politics is local politics.” I always remember that. He said, “You’ll be fine. You’ll be fine. You’ll know what to do and what not to do once you get into the position.”

I remember when Leon thought that there might be a 3-2 vote, and he called me the night before. He said, “Now, there might be a 3-2 vote, and it might be a roll call vote, but I just wanted to let you know that if that happens, will you still accept the position if it’s a 3-2 vote?” I said to him; I said, “I’m not sure. Let me call a couple of people.” The other individual that was very supportive and mentoring to me was Lucian Yates, Dr. Lucian Yates. I called Lucian, and I told Lucian what Dr. Mooneyhan had said, and he said, “Well, Elaine, the whole purpose of the program was to have an African-American be named superintendent.” He said, “If you don’t take the job, even if it’s a 3-2 vote, then everything we did was in vain.” He said, “You have to take it.” I was like, “OK, that makes sense.” He said, “And it’ll be OK.” “Yeah, OK, that’s easy for you to say.” [laughter]

So, one of the things I said when I called Leon back was, “Here’s what I want to put on the table.” I said, “If these two individuals that you think are not going to vote for me, if it’s about my gender, I think I’ll be OK because both of them have wives, and one of them has two daughters. But if it’s about my race, then that’s a big issue for me, and I’m not sure that’s something I want to deal with because I can’t change their minds about that because I’m black, and I’m gonna stay that way.” So, he says, “I don’t think it’ll be an issue, Elaine. It won’t take you two weeks to establish relationships with those individuals.” And it was true. It did work out that way.

[Jonah Brown speaking] Since then, I know there have been six individuals, including yourself, who had completed this program and one other individual that I’m aware of, Diane Woods, that has gone on to become a superintendent. Are you satisfied with the results of this program so far?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Actually, there’s another one.

[Jonah Brown speaking] There is? OK.

[Elaine Farris speaking] Mm-hmm. Donald Smith went through the intern program last year, and he was selected as superintendent in Marion County this year.

[Jonah Brown speaking] OK.

[Elaine Farris speaking] I am concerned about the program a little bit because I think it has kind of lost the focus that it had in the beginning. Some of that probably has to do with transition of leadership. When it first came about, Gene Wilhoit was the commissioner, and Lucian Yates was very, very involved with it. I think that he had been a superintendent, and he understood it and what it needed to look like. So, Blake Haselton and Leon Mooneyhan and Stu Silberman — and I think that after there was a transition, it kind of lost its focus a little. But we’ve been talking a lot about that in the last year, and hopefully we can get it back to how it began.

[Jonah Brown speaking] OK. What do you say to critics that charge this program as being some type of affirmative action or reverse discrimination against white educators who also are seeking to be superintendents that might not have this advantage of, you know, working under a superintendent?

[Elaine Farris speaking] They already have an advantage. They’re white men. [laughter] They have the advantage. They don’t need an advantage. I mean, look around. Out of 174 districts, over almost 200 years that there’s been common education in the state of Kentucky — what advantage do you need? You don’t have to have someone to go to bat and advocate for you. It’s a given. So, hey, let them say what they need to say. I don’t think that it would have happened in 2004 if it had not been for this program. Now, we’ve got to keep it on the radar screen.

[Jonah Brown speaking] Can you talk a little bit about some other initiatives in Kentucky, and I guess in other states as well, that are designed to assist minorities in becoming educators and in educational leadership roles?

[Elaine Farris speaking] There’s probably more for the principal leadership piece than there is for superintendencies. One of the things that — I belong to the National Alliance of Black School Educators, and we have presented the Minority Superintendent Intern Program [MSIP] to them a couple years. Model states have been very interested in how we’ve done that and that whole program, but I don’t know if anyone else has adopted it.

The issue we’re running into now in Kentucky with the MSIP program is that we’re not getting the quality candidates because it’s hard to find African-Americans who have been in the principalship or been in central office, and what we have found is that probably the more qualified and most successful candidates that, to be a superintendent [phone rings] that they’re looking for someone who has experience in principals — been a principal and at central office. If you look around the state of Kentucky, you’re going to find most of your principals in urban areas like Fayette and Jefferson County. So, that’s going to limit you.

Then, you’re not finding a lot of African-Americans in central office positions across the state of Kentucky, so we don’t have a pipeline to get them into the superintendency. So, we’ve really been kind of talking a little bit about trying to strengthen the pipeline in principalship and the central office position before they get into the superintendent minority intern program. So, that’s the issue right there.

[Jonah Brown speaking] Have you experienced any negative backlash from your achievements, either when you began in Shelby County or now in Clark County, or when you were working with KDE?

[Elaine Farris speaking] No. About?

[Jonah Brown speaking] Or just that, you know, as being a black woman who is advancing in these positions.

[Elaine Farris speaking] Nah. [laughter] I don’t think so. They wouldn’t say it to my face. [laughter]

[Jonah Brown speaking] Well, let me ask you this. Was there a reason that you decided to pursue this career in Kentucky as opposed to another area, knowing the history and the climate of minorities in education here?

[Elaine Farris speaking] No, I — you know, I’m a small-town girl. I’ve always just loved growing up in Winchester. It’s a great community. It’s not progressing like I would like for it to — going back home and watching some of the things and listening to some of the people, but I think the potential is there. It really, really is. I just want to be a part of moving that county to another level. I just never really wanted to leave Kentucky.

[Jonah Brown speaking] OK. Do you feel like people have a perception that’s a certain profile of a superintendent, and do you fit that profile? Do you think they have an idea of what a superintendent should be or what their background should be?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Oh yeah, definitely, and I think I shared that with you earlier. I think most people think that a superintendent needs to have been a school principal and have that central office experience. I mean, if you probably — I’d say 10 years ago, if you looked — well, maybe 20 years ago — if you looked at the superintendency, most of them came out of the coaching profession. [laughter] You know, P.E. background. I’ve got both. But not a lot of them had had a lot of supervision experiences, instruction, and I think now the superintendency is a lot different than it was 20, 25 years ago.

[Jonah Brown speaking] OK. Have you ever faced barriers or struggles that have caused you to second guess being an educator?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I don’t know if I would say it made me second guess, but definitely the barriers and the challenges have been there.

[Jonah Brown speaking] Do you feel like you’ve had the complete support of your African-American community in Shelby County, I guess, and Clark County as well?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I wouldn’t say complete support. I think you’re always going to have people, regardless if they look like you or not, that are always, you know, look at you and think, “Well, what does she know? Who does she think she is?” I sensed a little of that in Shelby County, being an outsider and coming to Shelby County, just a tidbit of it in the African-American community. I probably won’t see as much of it in Clark County. Most of them I grew up with or I know their parents or whatever.

[Jonah Brown speaking] OK. I know that this state needs more and more teachers, and it seems like not enough young people are pursuing a career in education, especially minorities. Why do you think that is in Kentucky?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I think young people now, African-Americans — they can do other things now. I think you’ll find that a lot of African-Americans are pursuing other professions — engineering, doctors, lawyers and those kinds of things. It’s hard for us to convince African-American children that education does pay well. They don’t see that, and for whatever reason, we’ve communicated that, you know, it doesn’t pay a lot of money. But we’re trying to continue to convince minority children that education is a good profession and work hard at trying to do that. There’s a lot of scholarship money for minority students, of course, to get into the profession of teaching.

[Jonah Brown speaking] I have a few questions, I guess, delving a little deeper into the issue of race. Can you talk about how important race has been to you in your career? Do you feel like it’s been a burden at time or an advantage or a little bit of both or a nonfactor?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I think it’s been a little of both. I think with my personality, it has allowed me to make the necessary adjustments when necessary. There have been times that I have felt that my race has been a barrier for some things that I wanted to get done, but I just had to back up, pray about it and be patient, find another way to get it done. But not as probably overt as some people might think it would be, but definitely there have been some things in the background.

[Jonah Brown speaking] OK. Do you find yourself having had different relationships with African-American teachers or Hispanic teachers than you do with the white teachers and other colleagues?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Yeah, I do, for whatever reason. It seems that African-American teachers gravitate toward me as a superintendent. Maybe I gravitate toward them; I don’t know. But I have — in Shelby County, I had great relationships with my African-American teachers. Clark County had very few African-American teachers, very few. I could count them on one hand. But the African-American teachers that are there, I do know them personally already. So — but there’s not enough of them. [laughter]

[Jonah Brown speaking] In some counties in Kentucky, do you think that race continues to inhibit the advancement of minorities, not just at the superintendent level, but at all levels?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Yes, I do.

[Jonah Brown speaking] Do you think enough attention is being paid to Kentucky’s lack of minority teachers?

[Elaine Farris speaking] No, it’s not. I was at a KSBA [Kentucky School Board Association] meeting over the summer with my boarder from Clark County, and they did a survey. They listed the top ten things that came out of their survey and one being to hire more minority teachers. KSBA — these are board members — and that was probably the bottom of the list. So, it’s not important, still, to individuals or to people all over, the citizens in our community or in the education field. There’s not enough attention paid to it.

[Jonah Brown speaking] I guess one of the most important aspects of that topic is how it impacts the students. How does a lack of diversity in the teachers — how does that impact white students and black students and Hispanic students?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Well, I think that we have to ensure that teachers see — that students see people in leadership roles, including teaching, that are very diverse, or that we all understand that all of us can aspire to be college graduates, teachers, superintendents, principals or what have you.

But the one thing that I’ve found over time, Jonah, is that when you have diverse teachers in a school culture, then what happens is, they will be individuals that will help ensure that we don’t put barriers up for students of color or underrepresented. They can say, “You know, that’s not going to work for little Johnny,” or, “That’s not going to work for Julio.” Where when people in control of the situation and in charge, they have not walked in those shoes, they don’t see the impact. They don’t understand. So, when you have diverse teaching staffs, they can bring all of those experiences to the table to ensure that we don’t have policies that will discriminate.

[Jonah Brown speaking] OK. Are you pleased, right now, with the performance of minority students in the classroom?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Absolutely not.

[Jonah Brown speaking] Can you talk a little bit about that?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Well, it’s just — we continue to have the achievement gap. One of my board members in Shelby County said it like this — Brenda Jackson, who is African-American; she says she sees it as an expectation gap other than an achievement gap; that the expectations are still different for children of color and white children, and I have to agree with her. We’ve still got to find a way to ensure that all students are taking rigorous classes —

[Richard Day speaking] Let me stop you for a second. [Changes tape] Yeah, you’ve got 20 minutes.

[Elaine Farris speaking] We have to still ensure that all children are taking rigorous classes, that we’re not tracking, that we’re not overly identifying African-American children for EBD [Emotional-Behavioral Disorder] and special ed, and it’s still happening. It’s happening in Clark County. We’ve got to understand that we have an obligation, a moral obligation, to ensure that every child, regardless of the race, what language they speak, how much money their parents have or don’t have, to a quality education, just like Dr. Susan’s child does or Attorney Miller’s child does. We’re not there yet. But if we give them opportunity and access, Jonah, then there won’t be an achievement gap.

[Jonah Brown speaking] OK. I’m going to go back to one of the answers you gave earlier about your childhood and your experiences that, even though your parents didn’t have as much education as you did, it was still placed very high on the priority list for your family and for your sisters. I know, my own family and my father used to talk about days when they would all have to turn the TV off, whether they had homework or not, they all had to sit and study something for a certain period of time, hours, every single day. Do you feel like there’s not as high a premium placed on education now in African-American homes than it was years ago?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Yeah, I would agree. I think there are many different challenges in the African-American family. I think African-American families are more dysfunctional than they were, probably, when I was growing up. I think it’s a cycle. These parents who are raising children, they probably were in dysfunctional families, and so — no, I don’t think the value is there on education. It’s still not an excuse.

[Jonah Brown speaking] OK. Why do you think that there are so few female superintendents, despite a majority of female teachers in schools?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I still think that there’s role identification. We still say that men are superintendents, and some females just don’t — that’s not their — where they want to go. They don’t want to be the CEO. But I think we’ll see more and more. I still think that some of it is the selection of boards, that they’re not ready, not only for African-American superintendents; they’re not ready for female superintendents. So, I was the first female superintendent in Winchester, you know? So, you look on the wall and see all these white men. [laughter]

[Jonah Brown speaking] One thing I want to ask you — a newly appointed Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor, faced criticism because of comments she made about the experiences of the wise Latino woman and how that would somehow benefit her role as a federal judge more than the experiences of a white man. Do you believe that the life experiences of an African-American woman can benefit you in the education system more than a white person?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I don’t know if I understand that question. [laughter]

[Jonah Brown speaking] I think where she was coming from was the idea that she’s had different life experiences, more diverse experiences, and that she can have a more subjective view of how she approaches things and be more sympathetic, more empathetic to all types of students. Do you feel like being a minority in a leadership role in education can benefit some of the day-to-day decisions that you make?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Absolutely. Yes, I do. I think that all of us bring our life experiences to whatever decisions we make. If people say that’s not true - it’s true. You do. I mean, what else do you have to make your decisions on, other than the data that you have in front of you, but your life experiences? In one event, now, I shared with my staff not long ago. I was born and raised in a project. You’re going to tell me that these kids can’t do it? I know they can. I did it. For me to be able to share that personal experience; I mean, what is a teacher going to say? [laughter] So yeah, I definitely believe that my experiences will help me make a difference — what I say and the decisions that I make, yeah.

[Jonah Brown speaking] Do you feel — and this is my last question — do you feel like what you’ve been able to achieve has opened the door for more minority educators that are looking to move up, or do you feel like they still face a lot of the same struggles that you faced?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I think that, now the door has been opened, as you said. There’s been three African-American superintendents, two at this time. I think that you’ll see African-Americans who will strive for that and say, “Yes, it can happen.” I see myself as being a mentor and continuing to support and trying to keep the door open and doing what I can to say, “You know, what difference does it make what color someone’s skin is? If you know education, you know education. Why wouldn’t we give them an opportunity to lead?

I still think there will be barriers for people of color. We only have — gosh, what, probably, maybe eight counties out of 120 — or if you want to look at it as districts, maybe 10 districts out of 174 where you might even see minorities. So, I think that’s going to be a challenge for a board to hire African-Americans when there’s not a lot of African-Americans in their community. So, it’s always going to be a challenge.

[Richard Day speaking] Let’s change pace just a little bit. Think outside of education. Tell me about a book you like. An influential author, something that just really resonates with you.

[Elaine Farris speaking] Outside of education?

[Richard Day speaking] Mm-hmm.

[Elaine Farris speaking] Right now, I’m reading Be Confident, and actually, that is the book of Hebrews. It just talks about how we can be more confident in the Lord and how He can lead and show us how we can be better Christians for Him. So, that’s the book I’m reading right now.

[Richard Day speaking] Do you have any personal heroes that you have thought about throughout the years that you’d think, “Gosh, I’d like to be like that person?”

[Elaine Farris speaking] You know, I get asked that question a lot, and I really don’t. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. But I know a lot of people say, “Well, my mom,” and she is because I’ve seen her struggle and do the great things that she’s done raising our family. But outside of her, I can’t say that there’s been one person who I have just said, “Wow,” and followed them.

[Richard Day speaking] What about favorite music? What’s on your iPod these days?

[Elaine Farris speaking] You know what? I don’t have one. [laughter]

[Richard Day speaking] Yeah, I was afraid of that — [laughter]

[Elaine Farris speaking] I like jazz. I like jazz. I don’t like a lot of background noise, so I don’t like words to songs a lot. So, something smooth and calm. I listen to a lot of jazz.

[Richard Day speaking] Groove, all right. You have been deputy commissioner and, for a time, interim commissioner. Tell me something you’ve learned about the Kentucky Department of Education that you didn’t know before you landed in Frankfort.

[Elaine Farris speaking] Something I learned about the department of education that I didn’t know. I guess the bureaucracy is a lot slower than I thought it was. I didn’t realize just the process of actually getting things out to school districts is really slow, slower than I would have imagined.

[Richard Day speaking] What have you learned about working with the state board of education?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Probably that they’re probably not the decision-making body that most people think they are.

[Richard Day speaking] How would you describe them as a body?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I think that, with those 11 individuals who come to the table together once a month, maybe for a day-and-a-half, that they do an awesome job for the state of Kentucky, considering all the backgrounds that they bring, and most of them being very much involved in their own profession. I think they do the very, very best that they can with the information that they have. I think they really try to do good things for the children of Kentucky. A lot of times, their hands are tied because it’s already been designed and regulated before it gets to them.

[Richard Day speaking] And you throw a whole lot of information at them, too, don’t you?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Oh gosh, a lot of information, and sometimes it has nothing to do with anything. [laughter]

[Richard Day speaking] What about the general political landscape that impacts education in Kentucky? You went through a time period when Senate Bill 1 was evil, and it was killed in committee. The very next year, it passes unanimously. You’ve seen pressure groups and all this — tell us, what’s the state of affairs right now?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I think, it’s all politics?

[Richard Day speaking] One hundred percent.

[Elaine Farris speaking] I do. I think somebody always says that if you give me this, I’ll give you that, and we’ll come out holding hands, singing “Kumbaya.”

[Richard Day speaking] So, you got the money, and we gave up the test?

[Elaine Farris laughs]

[Richard Day speaking] Kumbaya?


[Elaine Farris speaking] I think the results speak for itself.

[Richard Day speaking] Let me ask you this. There are two national groups right now that are kind of debating where the center of responsibility lies when it comes to closing achievement gaps and improving student achievement. You’ve got Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich and the Educational Equality Project basically saying it’s up to the schools to make this change. On the other side, you’ve got Richard Rothstein and this Broader, Bolder Approach group that’s saying, “Yes, schools are important, but also housing matters and health care matters and education for adults matters.” If I gave you 100 dollars to contribute, how much money would you give to each of those groups?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Fifty dollars to each.

[Richard Day speaking] Why is that?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Because I think — you can’t have one without the other. I think that’s the missing piece, and that’s the piece, Richard, I think that we, as educators, we’ve been around awhile, we haven’t put those two pieces together well enough. We haven’t refined the impact of health and family and all those things and the impact they have on educating or not educating our kids. It’s so hard in the organizational structure of a six-and-a-half hour day to make that happen. I think that — we’re going to see, I think, in the next decade, that schools are going to be more community-based. They’re going to be open 24 hours. We’ve got to let other people in to those buildings to do those things for kids, and it’s going to have to be open, just like anything else, 12 hours, 13, 14 hours a day, where families can come and go. It’s got to be fluid.

We have the six-and-a-half hour day for the instruction and the education, but then there are going to be people who come in to do the health care part, to do the other kinds of things. I don’t think we’re — we don’t see that yet, but that’s the only way we’re going to be able to compete globally, is we’ve got to take care of that other piece. We haven’t done a good job of that yet.

[Richard Day speaking] We’re going to wrap up with a couple of questions. First of all, where do you see Kentucky education heading? We’re in a time of flux now. We’ve had KERA [Kentucky Education Reform Act] in 1990. We’re approaching 20 years past that. We just passed Senate Bill 1, so now the way we impose accountability or the way we design accountability is about to change. It’s almost as though there’s a new reform effort. Where do you think this is going?

[Elaine Farris speaking] I tell you one thing that’s going to be on the table to deal with, and that’s charter schools in the state of Kentucky. It’s always been a pretty foul deal, and I personally think competition is good. I’d love to see charter schools in Kentucky. The reason I say that is because if we’re not doing what we need to do, why not give somebody else the chance to do it? I think that with that in the mix — I think it’s coming. A lot of people don’t — I do. I’d like to see it come. With that in the mix, Richard, I think that we’re going to have to step back and look at what is most important for students and to ensure that when they leave us after 13 years that they can be successful in whatever career that they choose to be. I don’t think right now that we have put enough emphasis on the output. We do a lot with the input, but we are not real concerned with what happens after they leave us because we’re always thinking about that class that’s coming in next.

So, I think we’re going to see a big emphasis on, “OK, you’ve got 13 years to get this done, but guess what? As we’re moving along, we’re going to start really monitoring the progress of these students.” I think somebody’s going to say, “If they get it, let them go. If they don’t get it, somebody’s got to keep them until they do get it.”

[Richard Day speaking] So, we just saw some ACT [American College Test] results that said that just about half of our high school juniors were not quite ready for college. If we were to flip that around, I suppose, we might say half of our high school juniors are. Would you let them go on?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Yes. I think we should.

[Richard Day speaking] Do you find that view to be somewhat influenced by your friendship and association with Louis Coleman?

[Elaine Farris laughing, speaking] No.

[Richard Day speaking] That’s part of his advocacy.

[Elaine Farris speaking] No, I don’t. But here’s what — we say it a lot in education, is that we don’t want to hold kids back. If they’re ready, let them go. Either you believe it or you don’t. If they’re in high school, if they get done and they master the skills that they need to go on in three years, let them go. We have a policy in place in Clark County right now that says they’ve got to have eight semesters of high school. I hate that. Says who? If they’ve got it, let them go. Well, it’s money. So? What do you want? You can’t have both. [laughter]

[Richard Day speaking] Robert King, the head of CPE [Council on Postsecondary Education], argues that if we would develop a system like that, it would actually save us money by going ahead and transferring some students that are ready into the higher ed realm.

[Elaine Farris speaking] Absolutely. I mean, it just makes sense to me. If you’re ready, you’re ready. If you’re not, then we need to spend more time with you until you do get ready.

[Richard Day speaking] What about the sacred Carnegie unit and our football team?

[Elaine Farris speaking] Hey, until we focus on the real stuff, real stuff is not going to get done. [laughter]

[Richard Day speaking] We’re going to wrap up with one more question. When people look back on the life and career of Sara Elaine Farris, what’s one thing that you hope people would remember about you?

[Elaine Farris speaking] That she cared about kids and that doing what’s right for kids was important for her and that she did right because it was right to do right.

[Richard Day speaking] This is Dr. Richard Day, assistant professor of educational foundations at Eastern Kentucky University, along with Jonah Brown, who is a third year law student at the University of Kentucky. It’s been our pleasure to interview Elaine Farris today. Thank you so much.

[Elaine Farris speaking] Thank you.

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