A new leader takes reigns of OKC schools

click to enlarge A new leader takes reigns of OKC schools
Shannon Cornman
Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Robert Neu prepares for his new position. Photo/Shannon Cornman

Robert Neu’s journey to Oklahoma City began years ago by looking into broken eyes.

It was the broken eyes of students whose almost-lifeless stare told the story of troubles at home that became troubles at school.

“You are sitting there across the table, looking at kids whose eyes are broken,” Neu, 52, said about his time as an assistant principal several years ago. “They are struggling at home, they are struggling in their personal lives and they come to school and they are struggling. We have policies in place that are not helping them. In fact, in some situations, it’s just exasperating the situation for them.”

Neu, who started out as a high school business teacher, loved the classroom but decided to transition his career to a level at which he could help enact policy and reform that could offer some hope and relief to those kids who seem to fall through the cracks of America’s education system, especially in urban districts like Oklahoma City.

His journey took him from Michigan to Federal Way, Washington, a bedroom community south of Seattle, where he spent the last four years as superintendent of the local school district.

His tenure in Federal Way — home to 22,000 students — ended this year after he accepted a superintendent position with Oklahoma City Public Schools.

Tough job

Who would want to be a school district superintendent, especially in an urban environment like Oklahoma City? Neu understands the question. The job is tough.

Oklahoma City Public Schools — despite a track record better than many other large cities — has seen nine superintendents — counting Neu — in 14 years.

School administrators face increased expectations along with decreased funding. Add in Oklahoma City’s level of poverty and size, and some see an urban superintendent as someone set up for failure on day one.

Neu not only understands it, he embraces it.

“This is a much more diverse district. Poverty is higher here,” Neu said, comparing Oklahoma City to Federal Way. “But that is part of the attraction, to come to a district where kids really are facing a lot of obstacles.”

On July 1, Neu will officially take the reigns of Oklahoma’s largest school district, which is home to nearly 43,000 students, the majority of which are either Asian, Hispanic or African-American and live in poverty.

“We’ve got to change their trajectory,” Neu said. “While the challenges here are going to be greater [than in Federal Way], the opportunities to help more kids are going to be greater.”

click to enlarge A new leader takes reigns of OKC schools
Shannon Cornman
Oklahoma City Public Schools Superintendent Robert Neu prepares for his new position. Photo/Shannon Cornman

The plan

In the typical stance of an incoming school administrator, there is a certain wait-and-see attitude for Neu. He’s not ready to map out specific details in many areas where he is still taking inventory of the situation.

However, Neu has some policies he is ready to bring to OKC, including offering college placement tests, such as the SAT, free of charge to every student.

“We paid for their exams,” Neu said of the policy in Federal Way. “I intend to implement this here.”

Federal Way students from eighth to twelfth grade were given the opportunity to take college assessment tests for free and during school hours, including the PSAT during freshman year. That allowed students to spend their sophomore year working on their problem areas before taking the PSAT again during junior year, followed by the SAT senior year.

“[The tests were taken] during the school day, so it was an equity issue,” Neu said. “So many of our kids don’t have transportation, don’t have resources to get to school on a Saturday to take the test and don’t have $80 to pay for the test.”

The policy raised Federal Way’s partition in the SAT from 25 percent to 94 percent. Neu plans to implement that same program in Oklahoma City this fall.

“Students who didn’t think theyhad the skills performed at a level [on the test] that surprised them, and all of a sudden, they thought, ‘I can be that student. I can be college-bound. I can be in the more rigorous programs of study.’”

Neu isn’t only entering a school district in need of stability and long- term vision; he will lead the largest school district in a state in which battle lines over education policy and funding become sharper each day.

Oklahoma’s per-pupil funding has decreased by more than 20 percent over the past five years, according to a report by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, which also highlights the state’s loss of teachers, overcrowded classrooms and growing testing culture.

Add in the controversy over the Legislature’s cut of Common Core, political squabbles over third- grade reading requirements and the campaign for state superintendent and Neu faces challenges that go well beyond the classroom.

You can forgive those local parents, teachers and civic leaders who are slow to buy in to big talk. While time will tell what a new superintendent will ultimately mean for local education, many of Neu’s former colleagues urge the Oklahoma City community to believe in his vision.

“[Neu] does not just talk about change but actually does it,” Federal Way school board member Claire Wilson said in an email to Oklahoma Gazette. “Rob helped us leap forward to change outcomes for children and families in our community.”

Danny Peterson, another Federal Way school board member, said Neu was an “innovative leader” who was not afraid to shake things up.

“His vision for public education challenges the status quo because he realizes our students need to be prepared for an increasingly complex and competitive global economy,” Peterson said. “Rob Neu accepting the OKC post is Federal Way’s loss and OKC’s gain. I am extremely saddened to see him go.”

Oklahoma bound

Why Oklahoma? That’s a fair question to ask of a person moving from the beauty of the Pacific Northwest to the Sooner State.

“When people [in Seattle] say, ‘Why Oklahoma City?’ my first answer was, ‘They have a basketball team,’” Neu said with a laugh, referring to the NBA franchise that also made the same move Neu will.

Of course, having an NBA team was not the main draw for Neu, but it’s an added perk for a man who started his career teaching and coaching basketball.

Neu and his wife, Kelly, have six school-aged children. The plan is for Neu to make the move to Oklahoma City in July while his wife and children remain in the Seattle area for at least a year.

When they join him, the plan is to enroll them in Oklahoma City Public Schools.

“I have every intention to do that,” Neu said.

Oklahoma City could be characterized as a dream job for Neu, considering his dream has been to lead a large city school system.

“I’ve always wanted to become a superintendent of an urban district, working in a major city,” Neu said. “You never take a job thinking you are going to take another job after that, but the Federal Way job was that, a stepping stone to get to an urban market.

“When OKC became an option ... I was blown away. It was an opportunity that really got me excited.”

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