Halfway through his first day as superintendent over Salt Lake City’s schools, Timothy Gadson found a quiet classroom to sit down in for a short break. The elements of the periodic table filled the wall behind him as he sighed, breathing in O2 and out CO2.
Gadson, who took the reins Thursday, is starting his tenure by visiting every school in the district. This one — the Salt Lake Center for Science Education — was one of the first on the list. There are 40 total to get through.
“It’s been a lot of fun already,” he said with a smile, from behind a short desk made for middle schoolers who aren’t half as tall as him.
Gadson has spent his career in the classroom, so it’s an obvious place for him to pick to relax for a minute. He started as a social studies teacher in Florida 27 years ago.
Since then, he’s moved for jobs around the country, serving as an administrator at just about every level of education. He’s been an assistant principal and principal, a district director, a chief transformation officer and a drop-out prevention coordinator. He’s worked at elementary schools and middle schools and high schools and an alternative school.
He’s been in Rhode Island and Texas, Wisconsin, a short stint in the Virgin Islands, Georgia and, most recently, was the associate superintendent of high schools with Anoka-Hennepin Schools in Minnesota.
“I’ve found that children are children wherever you go,” he said. “And they’re the reason I do this job.”
Now Gadson is taking the reins of Salt Lake City School District, which faces some unique circumstances.
Gadson will be replacing previous Superintendent Lexi Cunningham who resigned last year. One former school board member disclosed, though, that Cunningham was forced out after four other members voted to fire her if she didn’t voluntarily leave.
He said she was “targeted” after some on the board asked her to fire 16 principals districtwide and she declined to do so. On that list was Ford White, formerly the principal at West High School. At the time, he was on leave for driving students home after he found them drinking on school grounds. According to district policy for safety, he was supposed to call police.
Since then, too, board members have come under fire for sending each other expletive-laden texts. And, most recently, one — Joél-Léhi Organista — stepped down after he was arrested on child porn charges.
The district also faced a lawsuit from parents this past year who were frustrated that instruction for Salt Lake City schools remained online-only for months due to the pandemic. Some withdrew their kids and transferred them elsewhere, adding to the already ongoing issues with declining enrollment.
Students were given the option to return in person beginning in January, but Salt Lake City — like many districts across the nation — still faces challenges in the coming school year with getting kids caught up on missed curriculum.
And add in that the district is one of the most diverse in the state, with a student body that is 57% minority and where more than 90 languages are spoken among those enrolled. And that’s amid a nationwide debate on what can be taught about race in the classroom.
The new superintendent will be tasked with bridging some of the continuing divide, rebuilding trust within the community and helping students forward.
Gadson said Thursday that he’s up for it — though he might need to have a supply of quiet classrooms at the ready where he can take a break every now and then.
The Salt Lake Tribune sat down with Gadson on Thursday to talk about his plans. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What is your No. 1 priority for Salt Lake City School District?
Gadson: My first priority is all-encompassing of many of the things I want to do here. That is to provide the best education experience that we can for all of our students, where we meet them where they are and we provide just what each student needs to be as successful as he or she can. Everything else that I’d like to do falls under that.
What that looks like is providing the mental health supports that our students are going to need. We know the pandemic had an impact. Other students have other traumatic events that have impacted their lives. And if they’re not mentally healthy, they can’t attend to what’s going on in the classroom.
It’s also making sure our teachers are well trained, that they have solid practice, that they know how to provide diagnostics where they find out what foundational knowledge students have and what the foundational gaps are.
Then last, it’s making sure that we provide performative assessments so that we know what the impact is from our teaching. Ultimately, we want to make sure that each student meets proficiency on our state standards. Hopefully, we’re able to provide learning experiences beyond what the standards suggest so that we really address the whole child so that they can be healthy citizens beyond our walls, beyond high school.
How will you move forward from some of the controversies that have rocked the district in the past year?
Gadson: The way we heal and move beyond that is helping everyone in our district, from the board down to the individuals at our schools, to really understand that children are our primary business. Everything that we talk about, all of our actions should be what is best for our students. We need to leave the personal and the subjective at the door and focus on the business of our children.
I’m also ensuring that I keep the lines of communication open with the board so they know what’s happening in the district and I know what’s on their mind and what their expectations are. We need strong, open, transparent communication. I’m extremely excited about the opportunity and the work and the partnership and the relationships that I’ve already started with the board.
How will you help students recover from the pandemic with grades and learning loss?
Gadson: We have summer programming going on across the district. And I am extremely proud of that.
At the same time, we’re planning for those students who can’t attend summer programming for one reason or another. Maybe their family has migrant workers and they’re following the work. Or maybe their family is traveling.
We have students who are in classrooms every year that have foundational gaps. They haven’t learned things in the lower grades that they need for the grade that they’re in. Our teachers are very skilled with dealing with that. And though they had an extended period of time out, we always have that summer gap, that summer lag.
What we are going to do is make sure each day we understand what is the requisite knowledge that students need. Our teachers will do assessments — and that’s not only paper and pencil. That’s through questioning and other activities. Those students who don’t have it, we need to be planning small group instruction to prime that knowledge that they should have already had, fill in those foundational gaps.
We’ve got to understand that this year requires all hands on deck. It’s important that we’re constantly assessing where students are at this year and using paraprofessionals or tutors to provide support to those who need it.
What worked for schools during the pandemic? And what will you keep from that?
Gadson: From the pandemic, what we’ve learned is choice is important. So we will have a virtual elementary academy, and we will continue to provide virtual opportunities for those learners who want that option in the older grades.
Something that I’d also like to continue providing are some asynchronous days. Asynchronous days are a way for us to give students a chance to keep learning at home with the support of teachers but also give teachers some time for the professional learning development that they need.
I’m also open to ideas and perspectives from staff. I’m visiting schools before the start of school and listening to things that folks have found to be beneficial and that help students.
This is one of the most diverse districts in the state. What does that mean to you and how will that affect your leadership?
Gadson: Through diversity is strength. It provides that richness of multiple perspectives. That informs my leadership as I listen to various voices, as I listen to how our decisions impact people, as I get input from people before we make any final decisions.
The diversity that we see in our district is so extremely important to me. It’s a challenge, as well as a strength of ours. It’s a challenge because sometimes voices are forgotten and left out. As a leader, I plan to make sure that that is not the case. Definitely, I’ll work to overcome that challenge. And, as a strength, that diversity of perspective really provides and is a springboard for innovation. I want to make sure that I am a superintendent who listens, who is informed and who always has those voices as a go-to.
What appealed to you about coming here? And how long do you plan to stay?
Gadson: Salt Lake City has all of the makings of a world-class school district. And that is my vision for the district. We have great teachers and leaders here. We have wonderful community support. We have excellent resources and facilities.
I have a young son, who has four years before he actually starts kindergarten, so we’re a ways off. But I want to make sure that Salt Lake City is a destination district and provides world-class learning experiences for all students. I have a personal stake in this. I am on the ground floor of what’s going to be a great and wonderful district for my son to attend. He’s 18 months old. I’m extremely excited about that.
And I plan to be here as long as the community and the board want me to be here. Everything that I’ve done in my career, even moving to other districts to take on additional challenges and learn, has been in preparation to become an urban school district superintendent. I am here. I have received my preparation. I’ve helped other leaders. And now it’s time for me to take the reins and lead.
I just want to make sure that our parents and community know I want to hear from them. I want to hear how we’re doing. I want to hear ideas for what they feel we can improve upon. And I want them to know that I think their voice is important. Their partnership is important to doing what we need to as a school district.
They can email me (firstname.lastname@example.org), call me (801-578-8599), reach out to my cabinet members or the board. I’m here. I will respond.