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District nears transition in leadership at the top



Published: Mon, June 21, 2004 @ 12:00 a.m.



Incoming Superintendent Wendy Webb says she will restructure administration.

By JoANNE VIVIANO

VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- As city schools Superintendent Benjamin L. McGee ends his seven-year tenure at the helm, he says he's pleased that he was able to use his office to make systemwide changes.

"I have truly enjoyed the experience of being an employee of the Youngstown City School District in many capacities. In the last seven years as superintendent, I was provided with an opportunity I thought I would never have to effect systemic change.

"You come to academics with the idea that you can make a difference. You don't come with the idea that you may become superintendent and be able to make systemic change."

Lasting impression

McGee has been an educator in Youngstown for 32 years, serving as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and assistant superintendent before becoming superintendent. He steps down at the end of this month.

During his superintendency, McGee has learned that when it comes to academics, "there's no one leader and no silver bullet," and that partnerships and collaborations are valuable in making change.

Among his achievements, McGee counts the receipt of several grants, stabilizing the district's budget when it was in fiscal emergency and whittling away the 140 union grievances against the district when he took over.

Over the last two academic years, McGee saw Youngstown move from academic emergency status to an improved academic watch level on state Department of Education report cards, as pupils made gains in 21 of the state's 22 standard areas.

"When I look at the district seven years ago, I do see some gains we have made," he said. "I'm heartened by those things but, being in education, we need to constantly strive for excellence. I don't feel we're there yet."

McGee said he's his own worst critic and that he's felt a sense of urgency to move the district along academically, financially and socially.

Not-so-new recruit

Taking over as superintendent Aug. 1 is McGee's assistant superintendent, Dr. Wendy Webb, a lifelong Youngstown resident and 27-year district employee. She began her career as a high school librarian and served as director of curriculum and instruction for five years before being named assistant superintendent about seven years ago. She is Youngstown's first black female superintendent.

Webb said she wants to effect change in critical masses, not just for one or two children at a time. Among her goals is improving the effectiveness of academics by honing the skills of teachers to develop and assess curriculum and by providing necessary technology and staff development in the classroom.

"When the gun goes off and other kids are at the starting line and our kids are in the barn, how do we close that gap?" she said.

Webb said she also will strive to create an educational system that extends beyond the school buildings. Her goal is to work with churches, community agencies and other groups to establish extra tutoring programs and one-on-one skill-building programs. She also plans to foster increased communication with parents, teachers and community members by creating "Pulse Teams" to offer feedback and by holding community meetings, not to argue or debate but to "listen."

"One thing I'm going to be working on is how to build a community of learners," she said. "It's not just about children learning but about all of us learning.

"The focus will always be back on the students and learning and knowing they can do it and figuring out a way to do it."

As McGee leaves, the district is entering a new era on several levels.

The district is in the midst of a $200 million schools construction project, funded largely with state money, that will rebuild or renovate 15 schools.

Also, with money from the Cincinnati-based KnowlegeWorks Foundation, Youngstown seeks to transform its high schools into smaller learning communities. The district will create "small schools" of about 400 students each within its high schools beginning this fall.

The Foundation also has supported the start of an Early College High School on the Youngstown State University campus to open this fall. The school will target Youngstown students at-risk of not going to college and offer them up to 60 college credits during their high school years.

Webb said she is excited and hopeful as she faces the challenges of these projects. She said she plans to build on the strengths of McGee while moving forward with her own visions.

Part of that will be restructuring the administrative team in July, in which she will balance responsibilities and expects to lose and gain some positions. She declined to go into detail, but said she does not expect to appoint a new assistant superintendent.

Past achievement

Webb holds bachelor's and master's degrees in library science from Kent State University and a master's degree in administration from YSU. A great-great-granddaughter of prominent local architect Plimpton Ross Berry (namesake of the middle school being built on the East Side), Webb also was the first black to earn a doctorate in educational administration from YSU when she accepted her diploma in December.

McGee leaves to pursue his doctorate in educational leadership at YSU. In his last days as superintendent, he'll be at a national conference on model high schools. Then, he plans to vacation, something he hasn't done in a while. (He says he's losing an "uncountable number" of unused vacation days, but that just comes with the superintendent territory.)

As he prepares for the break, he said he will miss the city schools.

"I'm going to miss student and teacher interactions. I'm going to miss community interactions," he said. "When you have the opportunity to talk with students, you take on a real like and love of kids -- the perspectives they offer and the things they need."




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