After looking at his résumé and listening to his comments, Omahans can find a lot to like about the new superintendent of Omaha Public Schools.
Start with Mark Evans’ reason for leaving his longtime home to tackle a new challenge in a new city: “The only reason you do that ... is you believe you can make a difference in the lives of 50,000 young people.”
That’s a strong indication of what the Wichita-area educator believes he can accomplish here.
And it’s one of several strong reasons to support his selection to take the helm of Nebraska’s largest school district as it seeks to boost student achievement and close the gap between its white and disadvantaged minority students.
Monday night’s 10-0 vote by the Omaha school board will make Evans the permanent replacement for retired superintendent John Mackiel. He will become the first permanent OPS leader hired from outside the district in 30 years.
During the search process and after his selection was announced, much of what Omahans learned about Evans struck the right chord:
>> Experience. Evans, 53, has worked as a teacher, assistant principal, principal and interim, associate and deputy superintendent in the Wichita Public Schools. Since 2005, he has served as superintendent of the suburban Andover (Kan.) Public Schools. The Wichita district has about 50,000 students, a diverse population and needed to improve its test scores and graduation rates. Wichita mirrors Omaha in demographics, enrollment and other factors. Seventy-five percent of Wichita students receive free or reduced-price meals, compared with 71.5 percent in OPS, for example.
It is valuable, too, to note Evans’ experience with the Broad Academy, which works to prepare superintendents to lead large urban school districts and state education departments. “I’m familiar with an urban setting and I’m familiar with making a difference in that setting,” he said.
>> Focus on student achievement. Andover officials said that district prides itself on being one of the highest-achieving districts in Kansas, and Evans said student success is his top priority. Achievement rates have risen in both places where he’s worked, he said, adding, “That’s probably what I’m most proud of.”
That’s exactly what so many Omahans want to hear in the coming years.
>> Measurable goals. In an interview with The World-Herald, Evans said he wants statistical evidence five years from now that OPS has improved. So do Omahans. “That’s how I measure success — that we’ve had progress,” he said. Evans said he wants to take a closer look at OPS goals, asking a critical question: “Where’s our focus?” He plans to study Omaha’s academic data and set measurable goals with staff, the school board and the community.
>> Planning. During his public interview, Evans told school board members that he would spend his early days listening, learning and planning. He also presented them copies of an eight-page “entry and learning plan” detailing how he would spend his first 100 days. He should be ready to hit the ground running.
>> Outreach. That plan highlighted the importance of building relationships with the staff, board members and the wider community. Andover school board member Roger Elliott said Evans’ strengths lie in engaging the community, and he was part of monthly meetings with other Wichita-area superintendents. Reaching out to parents, the business community and OPS’s Learning Community neighbors will be essential in a job of such importance to the entire metro area.
>> Transparency. Lack of openness has been a problem, particularly surrounding the sudden un-hiring of Nancy Sebring in June and the surprise over the $1 million retirement payout for Mackiel. Keeping parents and the wider community informed is another important element of moving OPS forward. Evans said he has shown a passion for transparency in the Andover district’s operations. That, too, is good to hear.
It’s been something of a roller-coaster ride since the announcement in August 2011 that a new superintendent would be coming.
Omahans can hope that the hiring of Mark Evans, along with the steady hand of interim superintendent Virginia Moon, will allow OPS to put the turbulence of the past year behind it and again focus on the most important thing — providing the best academic outcome for all of the district’s students.