Q&A: Title talks goals for Fairfield schools
David Title has barely had the time to unpack his boxes and settle in at his new office at the Board of Education administrative office building on Kings Highway East. The new superintendent of Fairfield's public schools took officially began work just about three months ago, and was thrust into the center of a stormy debate over redistricting.
With only a month before classes started and other major issues on the horizon, Title, 52, has had a steep learning curve, allowing little time to relax or even decorate his new office.
Title, who previously had been schools chief in the upstate town of Bloomfield for eight and a half years, immediately on taking the reins in Fairfield had to work with the Board of Education on redistricting plans to develop a new middle school feeder plan.
The new superintendent, replacing Ann Clark, who retired, and is being paid a $250,000 salary. He has also worked in Waterford, where he was assistant superintendent for 12 years, and before that was an assistant principal in Somers, and a history teacher in East Granby. A graduate of Dartmouth, he went on to get his master's degree and doctorate from Harvard University. The 2010 Connecticut Superintendent of the Year, Title was by far the top candidate, according to the school board for the Fairfield job, and is expected to bring an important vision and structure to the town's schools.
Overall, how have your first few months gone?
It's gone really well. I am simultaneously learning about the school system at the same time that I am in charge of it, so I have spent a lot of the first three months doing what's called an entry plan, where I am meeting with a lot of people, learning about the school system, its history, the traditions, the instructional programs, visiting classrooms, schools and parents. And at the same time, of course, I have to make decisions about the school system, so it is kind of like learning about the plane while you are flying it. But everybody has been very helpful. The Board [of Education] has been very receptive and the staff here at central offices has been great and the principals have been great. People have been very welcoming.
Redistricting has become a hot topic in town. What is your take on the issue?
Well, when I interviewed with the board back in the winter, I told them, "The best thing you can do for the new superintendent, whoever it is, is to get that fixed before he or she gets here," and now we can see why. It is a very hard issue to jump into the end of. This is something that has been going on for years, so there are a lot of nuances to it. There is a lot of history and tradition about it, a lot of local knowledge, so I felt that it was hard for me to give the board a lot of substantive input about which feeder pattern they should pick because it was so late in the process when I got here. What I was able to get across to the board, and they were very responsive to it, was that we needed a decision in a timely manner so that we could start planning to make that transition work as well as it possibly could be made. So I pushed them to make a decision about the plan and about grandfathering by the end of September and they did that. Obviously, it is a very emotional issue. It is not a new issue here, but the board had a timeframe because the Fairfield Woods project is coming online. I guess in an ideal world, you'd love to just do a big-picture fix, solve all the problems of redistricting in one fell swoop and never have to touch it again for the next 10 years. But that wasn't going to happen and we needed to deal with the extra kids that we know are moving into the middle school. That decision had to be made sooner rather than later.
What are your goals for the Fairfield school district?
This is a very good schools system. My job, as I see it, is to assess the programs that we have and our practices and if they are working, support them, leave them alone and keep that going. And if something is not working and can be done differently, try and improve it. I'm not here to turn the thing upside down, but I'm also not here just to preside. It isn't like a situation where we have a system with massive problems where you have to go in and fix it right away. We have a high-performing school system. We offer a very comprehensive program. So that is my big-picture approach, working with the staff here at the central office and the principals and the teachers to figure out what are those things we can improve upon, and then get at it.
Fairfield is a much bigger school system than Bloomfield -- nearly 10,000 students compared to approximately 2,400. How has that adjustment been so far?
It is about four times as large, in terms of number of schools and number of students, but the work is very similar. No matter what, you are trying to bring about consistency across a system, whether you are talking about aligning the work in three elementary schools or 11. It is still trying to get all of the elementary schools to offer consistent quality programming. One thing that is different is, this is the first district that I've worked in with multiple middle schools and multiple high schools. Just the scale of things is a little different. I can't quite be as visible and hands on in all the areas. I've spent time visiting schools, but it's going to take me awhile to get to them all. Whereas, I used to be able to get to the schools in a week, here it's going to take a couple months for me to get to all of them in a meaningful way. But it's still about instruction in the classroom, no matter how big the system is. That's the big driver for me.
You were very successful while working in Bloomfield and for that you were named the 2010 Superintendent of the Year in Connecticut. What experience do you think you could take from that and bring here?
The lesson there, I think, is that while the award is given to one person, to the superintendent, it is really more of a team award. We could not have accomplished anything in Bloomfield if we did not do it as a team. I'm talking about a team of the board, the superintendent, the principals, central office staff, teachers. When you really get a team working together on the same page, then you can get accomplishments that will get noticed. So, I took the award as an award for the team and I think that is the same way you have to get change done in a larger system. I can't have my hands on everything, every little bit of the organization, we have to do it as a team. I'm a little bit like the head football coach. I have to have a good offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, line coach. If you don't have good assistant coaches and players, then you are not going to look very good. To me, the big lesson of that award is when you work together as a team, you can really accomplish a lot.
How did you get into school administration? Is it something you always wanted to do?
I was teaching high school in East Granby, it is a very small high school just north of Hartford, right near the [Bradley International] Airport. I was in my fifth year of teaching, I taught high school history, and the principal said to me, "You know you've got to get your master's degree to stay in the field, I think you would be a great school leader, did you ever think about that?" And I said, "Well I like teaching and I like being directly with the kids, but sure I'll give it a shot." And that is how I got interested in it, because the principal tapped me on the shoulder and said, "I think you would be good at this." Teachers don't necessarily know whether they will be good at it or not, but when your principal says to you, "Wow I think highly of you, you have a lot of skills," that is very motivating. Shortly after that I was the vice principal of a high school and I've been a school and district leader ever since.
Are generally happy to have made this move to Fairfield?
I am very happy. I was ready for a change in my career, I had been in the same position for eight and a half years in Bloomfield. We had got a lot done, but there comes a point where in a school system you've done everything you can do, if the problems persist then you haven't figured out the solutions and somebody else needs to come in. And I had gotten to that point there, so I was looking for a new challenge. Fairfield is a highly regarded school system, very different from the two school systems I'd worked in before in many ways and so I really wanted the professional challenge of taking a school system that is highly performing and really try and take it to another level. I'm glad I'm here, the people have been very warm and receptive to my approach.