Rockford’s new superintendent is no stranger to education. Learn how his experience with coaching and teaching have helped him to lead a series of exciting changes for our public schools.
Education has always been an important part of Dr. Ehren Jarrett’s fabric. The superintendent of Rockford Public Schools (RPS) comes from a proud family of teachers, including grandmothers and several aunts. Growing up, he also was influenced by a number of teachers and coaches.
“There was never any debate about me being a teacher,” he says. “I still identify with being a high school English teacher and basketball coach. When I look in the mirror and think about why I got into education, I always remember it was about students and making a difference in their lives.”
Jarrett started his teaching career at Rockford Lutheran High School, where he was an English teacher and basketball coach for three years. From there, he spent 10 years at Hononegah High School as a social studies teacher, principal and basketball coach. In all, Jarrett coached basketball for eight years, including one at Rock Valley College.
“I think of all the experiences I’ve had, coaching was the best preparation for my current job,” he says. “I think that, in a very results-oriented world, the simplicity of having a scoreboard is important. All those fundamentals in coaching apply to what we’re doing here, just on a larger scale.”
In 2011, Jarrett joined RPS as an assistant superintendent. He arrived during a tumultuous time for the district; budget issues, staff cuts and dissension between the outgoing superintendent and the district were top of mind.
As a Rockford native, Jarrett was concerned about the district’s future. “I was candidly concerned about where the district was headed,” he says. “When you look at the economic viability of the region, you know you need a strong public school district. I jumped at the opportunity to be here. I felt that with a strong board, solid community support and strong union leadership, we could put ourselves in a position to really affect change.”
As assistant superintendent, Jarrett worked under interim superintendent Dr. Robert Willis. “He was a really inspiring person,” Jarrett says. “What I learned most from him was the importance of building relationships. Dr. Willis was always willing to go the extra mile to reach out to the community members, teachers and students. He drew energy from being around people.”
In 2013, Jarrett was given a three-year contract to become RPS’s superintendent. He knew the job was bigger than any one person could handle, so he surrounded himself with a strong administrative team. “Success requires leadership from all different aspects,” he says. “You have to have a strong district team, solid union support and great community leadership. If any of that misfires, it’s difficult to succeed.”
Ken Scrivano, RPS board president, has been impressed with Jarrett’s passion, energy and commitment. “Overall, I couldn’t be more pleased with the progress he’s shown so far,” Scrivano says. “He’s an excellent communicator with the board, staff and community. He’s visible and available, which is important for any leader. My hope is that he can bring stability in leadership for years to come, so we can stop the turnstile of superintendents.”
When Jarrett took office, his first priority was getting to know the district. He’s been traveling to every school to attend at least one faculty meeting.
“Getting out there is an important part of this job,” he says. “Our school district includes 190,000 residents, 30,000 students and 5,000 employees. You have to enjoy engaging with people. I don’t want to lead from the fourth floor of the administration building.”
Thanks to a $139 million referendum that passed in 2012, RPS is busy working on building and maintenance projects that include heating, ventilation, and air conditioning improvements, classroom and cafeteria renovations, and building additions. Voters passed another referendum in 2014 approving funds to build new schools. Over the next eight years, RPS will be making $250 million in facility investments.
“We’re also dramatically changing the footprint of our school system,” Jarrett says. “We’re investing in new theaters, libraries, and field houses at Auburn, East and Guilford high schools. We’re transforming all facilities into 21st century learning environments. Some of the projects are glamorous and others are just rolling up our sleeves and making sure the schools are what they should be. When families are looking to relocate here, I want the Rockford Public Schools to be part of the conversation.”
RPS is now revising its five-year strategic plan. Among its priorities are academic readiness, employability readiness, safety in all schools, support of 21st century technology, and recruitment, development and retention of diverse talent. “At one point we had 64 strategic initiatives,” Jarrett says. “Sometimes we take on too many things at once and we’re less effective than we need to be. We need to focus on the big picture.”
Positive changes within the district are reverberating throughout the community. In 2013-14, volunteers helped the district to save $1.17 million, which was equivalent to 23 full-time positions. From reading with students to painting school hallways, community volunteers have stepped up in a big way.
“I’ve been blown away by the outstanding commitment we’ve seen in the community,” Jarrett says. “When you look at volunteer efforts such as Sharefest and the two referendums the community has passed, and Alignment Rockford, which has supported our Career Expo and early childhood programming, RPS is thriving, thanks to great leadership within the community.”
There’s more good news. Graduation rates have increased from 62 percent in 2012 to 67.5 percent last year. And the governor has awarded the district’s Early Childhood Department with the Gold Circle of Quality award.
RPS recently was recognized as a Ford Next Generation Learning Community, one of only 17 in the nation to receive the honor. The distinction follows a curriculum redesign in the high schools that began with the rollout of the Academy model in 2010. This model holds that every high school student will graduate ready for college and/or a career. Jarrett says the hope is that RPS will become a Model Community by 2016, and can host visitors from other communities.
Bridget French is executive director of Alignment Rockford, a nonprofit organization that aligns community resources to meet the needs of RPS. Jarrett serves on the organization’s governing board and fund development committee.
“He’s done a fantastic job,” French says. “He has the right personality and management style to be Rockford’s superintendent. If I’m stumped on something and don’t know what direction to take, I can just call him. I don’t have to schedule my appointment. That’s how he operates. He trusts the people around him to do the best job possible.”
Many credit Jarrett with the district’s remarkable turnaround, which makes this unassuming school leader slightly uncomfortable.
“Anything I accomplish is a result of the great people around me,” says Jarrett, who is married and has two young children. “Accomplishments are dependent on having a great family who will always keep me grounded. And I’m not the one in the classroom making a difference in the lives of children. I’m standing on the shoulders of so many other people who make it possible – whether it’s great teachers, principals or community partners. If I ever lose sight of that, shame on me.”