In-depth with the new Humble ISD superintendent

Controversy has surrounded the appointment of Humble ISD's new superintendent, Dr. Liz Fagen. KP Times reporter Emily Humble sat down with her over the summer.

Dr.+Liz+Fagen.+Photo+credit+Humble+ISD.

Dr. Liz Fagen. Photo credit Humble ISD.

Elizabeth Fagen was named the new superintendent of Humble ISD in June, following a national search. Her appointment to replace Guy Sconzo, who led the 40,000-student school district for fifteen years, came with some controversy.

Parents of students enrolled in Humble ISD protested Fagen’s appointment after reading what some from her previous school district had written about her on social media. A group of Humble ISD parents also began a petition for her appointment to be withdrawn. Before coming to Humble ISD, Fagen had been the superintendent of Douglas County ISD in Colorado, where many parents posted on Facebook that they were glad to see her go, as they believe that Fagen did substantial damage to their children’s school system as superintendent.

During the last year of Fagen’s tenure in Douglas County, high school students walked out of their classes to protest the increasing amount of teachers that were leaving the district, a result most believe was caused by the school board ending talks with the teachers union. A lawsuit was also filed against the school district in 2016 concerning a program that would make it easier for low-income students in Douglas County to attend private schools, which the Douglas County school board had been trying establish since 2011. The first version was struck down by the Colorado Supreme Court in 2015, causing national debate about the role public schools should play in enrolling students in private schools.

On June 1, parents held a protest outside Humble ISD’s school board meeting room, voicing their disapproval of the board’s decision to hire Fagen.

Emily Humble, the 2016-2017 Web Editor for kptimes.com, and Jacque Havelka, a correspondent for Tribune Newspapers who has covered the controversy surrounding Fagen’s appointment, sat down with Fagan on July 11 for an interview. This is the transcript of the interview. For clarity, Havelka’s name has been marked in red in the transcript, Humble’s is in green, and Fagen’s is in blue.

 

A full-length story about Fagen’s appointment will be featured in the next issue of the KP Times newsmagazine, which will come out at the end of October.

 


 

Havelka: Okay. So my first question is – how are you enjoying Texas? How are you getting settled in?

 

Fagen: I am, I have loved it. I have been here for a whole week –

 

Havelka: Yes, I know, I know, I was like ‘she’s been here a week, I don’t know if the heat’s gotten to her yet – ‘

 

Fagen: No, I haven’t thought – everywhere I go people say that. Like ‘oh, but you moved here at the worst time!’ But you know I don’t really mind.

 

Havelka: Oh good, that’s good!

 

Fagen: Yeah, I like it. I’ve had a great week.

 

Havelka: Good, that’s good. Okay. So what are you most excited about, now that you’re in Humble ISD. What are you most looking forward to?

 

Fagen: Well I’m always most excited about the educational aspects of my role. I love to visit classrooms and schools, and talk with teachers and talk with students, and just really understand the strengths, the challenges, the interests, all of that.

 

Humble: That sort of relates to a question that I had. Dr. Guy Sconzo, our previous superintendent… We kind of knew that he was there, as students – like some of knew that we had a superintendent, his name was Guy Sconzo –

 

Fagen: [laughter] That’s good!

 

Humble: [laughter] Yeah! But other than that, like honestly, we didn’t really like know him, we never met him. Do you plan to do that differently? Do you plan to be in the schools on a consistent basis?

 

Fagen: So, the way I generally work – and it changes with every district, because there’s different needs and whatnot – but like in my previous districts just for example, I went to schools every Thursday morning, unless there was an event that I couldn’t move or couldn’t avoid, or some emergency came up. But you know it’s challenging in large districts because you think about the sheer volume of students – over 40,000 – so certainly I would love it if every student would say ‘I know her!’ That’s definitely a goal I have and will continue to work toward, but at the same time I recognize the scale issue there. So maybe we can have some like – you know I think social media provides opportunities that maybe is something we can leverage together… I really want to get to know students through a collaborative approach. I had students in my previous district, we had a student advisory group, and one of them came to the board meetings, and we did a lot of things. But every district is different, I’m open to different ideas, but I hope we can create something like that.

 

Havelka: So our board president, Mr. Sitton, called you the best education mind in the country.

 

Fagen: That’s a nice thing to say.

 

Havelka: How do you respond to that?

 

Fagen: I don’t respond to it really. I mean that’s very nice of him to say, I definitely have a passion for education, as both  former teacher – my mother was a teacher, she was actually my teacher – and I have small children! Two small little girls, one just turned six, and one is just turning eleven. And so education is my professional passion, but it’s also something that’s close to my heart because of my own kids. So I do feel this sort of draw to education, and I really work hard to stay up to date, and I love working with teachers. That’s what energizes, that recharges my batteries.

 

Humble: Do you have any plans in mind already – I know you’ve only been here a week – but do you have any plans to change anything in the district that will make a direct difference in how students attend school, or will do things at school – like will you have large curriculum changes, are you thinking of funding any different parts of the schools which will alter what is available to students at Humble ISD?

 

Fagen: So the quick answer to that is no. I don’t come in the door with a list of things I’d like to do. I really don’t think that’s what leadership is. In my being, I believe leadership is about really learning an organization, building relationships with people in the organization, all the different stakeholder groups – and then collectively coming together to build, you know, whatever it is. Some districts come together and say ‘what’s the portrait of a graduate for us?’ And then it’s my role and responsibility to support the staff, the departments, etc., in getting from here to there. So I don’t come to the table saying ‘the best thing in the world is blue walls, we’re painting all the walls blue.’ No. That’s just not who – I didn’t appreciate that as a teacher, or as a principal, and I didn’t think it was the right way to lead then, and I still don’t believe it is. So I don’t have anything like that, my role is to really understand deeply the system, and then to lend my expertise to groups of people who do the work, to get where they want to go.

 

Humble: From your understanding so far, are there any big areas you would like to improve, grade wise or otherwise? Because I know your district in Douglas County – let’s see what I wrote down here – it was 3rd highest in math and 5th highest in reading [in the state] for a couple of years. I don’t know what Humble ISD’s record is, but I don’t think it’s as high as Douglas County. So are you looking at those areas to try and improve, like you want to focus there, or are there other areas perhaps you want to look at like graduation rate, or attendance, or sort of that type of thing?

 

Fagen: That’s a complicated question, but the answer that I would give you is that of course it’s always my goal to make sure that every single student is receiving the education that he or she needs to be successful. And to that end, to support each staff member in their unique role in supporting those students. So in my view, the system sort of mirrors itself up and down. Because you need principals to be supported to help teachers, who support students, and all of that. So it’s always my goal to work with those different staff members to get to a place where our students need it to be.

But as far as – so I have as many questions as  I have answers about standardized testing data and state rankings, and all those kinds of things. I don’t think that’s a whole picture, I think it’s one data point. One that we should definitely consider, but I think we need to make sure that we’re looking at a body of evidence of performance, and supporting students in achieving their goals in alignment with what they want too. So I wouldn’t come in saying ‘yep, I want to be first in math – ‘ I mean you know, that’s great, and we wouldn’t be opposed to that – but I wouldn’t say that would be “the goal”. Douglas County is a high performing district, there’s no question about that. And over my time there we improved graduation rates significantly, we improved our ACT to a composite of 22 across the entire district – all juniors were required to take it in the state of Colorado. And so anyway, there were improvements, but it wasn’t because we said ‘our goal is to have 22 on the ACT.’ It was because we supported every classroom in being the best classroom. And those are things that happen as a result of great instruction.

 

Humble: So you would say the way you lead is not to say you know, ‘I definitely want to improve this part right here,’ you’re saying we’re just going to strengthen the whole thing, and as an effect, you get better results on your ACTs for example.

 

Fagen: Well, I think that – so that may sound a bit vague, so my only modification is that we collectively need to decide if there’s something we want to be, or do, as a community, and then it’s my belief from experience that a lot of those indicators go up on their own as a result of that. So in fact, in places where they have said ‘we’re only going to focus on this one score…’ Sometimes really struggle to get the score to go up. Because it’s kind of like attendance, you mentioned attendance – attendance is generally correlated to engagement. The more engaged students are, the more they want to attend. And the more successful they are. And then engagement is correlated to supporting teachers, right. And many other factors, but it’s important to me that we focus on the core of the issue, and not necessarily the symptoms.

 

Havelka: So the school board let us know that you only applied for a job in Humble ISD.

 

Fagen: That’s true.

 

Havelka: Why is that?

 

Fagen: Well I’m – okay so you have to understand I’m a science teacher. That was my original – I was a high school science teacher. And so I’m sort a science nerd at heart, I just am.

 

Havelka: I’m right there with you! Just saying.

 

Fagen: Are you?

 

Havelka: Oh yeah!

 

Fagen: So I love to collect all kinds of data, and then analyze that data, and then kind of saturate themes and ideas and then move them forward. And so when my husband and I decided that we were interested – that really, the capacity was strong in Douglas County to continue good things for students, that perhaps it was the right time for us to continue to move forward in our lives… As you grow up, you really figure out who you are, and what’s most important to you, and it’s that model. So we kind of did an analysis of the entire country, and said ‘where’s the right place for our family, where’s the right place for our children, where’s the right place for me professionally?’ We went through a big process of that, and then ultimately really honed in on Humble ISD. We feel like it’s a wonderful place for our children, it aligns with my professional strengths and interests, and so that was my position was that this is the right place. Now, if I wasn’t the choice, I was of course open to considering other things, but this was my number one choice.

 

Havelka: Okay, so your last three roles have been in very large districts, and you seem to have an affinity for that, or maybe a glutton for punishment a little bit [laughter]. But can you explain why you seem to enjoy working in large, more complex districts?

 

Fagen: That is a great question. I have also worked in the smallest – my first principal position was in a little tiny district. And you know, that was really good for me to do that job, because I didn’t have a special education department, a curriculum department, a finance department – every one of those departments was me. So you have to learn all aspects of the organization – it’s a bit of undercover boss. You see what I’m saying, you literally learn everything, because you have to. And then as time has gone on, I would say that I have really enjoyed working with teams, That’s one of my leadership preferences, to work as a team. And so I’d never really thought of an analysis of my decision, but as I look back… You know Des Moines had 30-ish thousand students, Tuscon, 50-ish thousand students, and then Douglas County is very large… and I think that one of the things that I enjoy about large districts is that it’s really a team atmosphere, at the district leadership level. And also the fact that you can provide so many things for your employees, because of economy of scale, whereas in a small district it’s really challenging. Like in Colorado the small districts would say to me ‘you know, we just can’t do some of the curriculum work you all are doing,’ and we would say ‘that’s fine, we’ll post our work online and you’re welcome to use it.’ We understood that they were very small, and it would take ten years for them to do it. So I think those are some of the reasons.

 

Havelka: So, you know of course I have a few questions about Douglass County.

 

Fagen: Okay.

 

Havelka: So the Humble residents here, as you know I’m sure, were really shocked when you were announced as the lone finalist, and Douglas County parents and teachers and everybody started posting on Facebook. So how do you characterize the outcry that we experienced here?

 

Fagen: Well I can’t speak for them –

 

Havelka: Right, sure.

 

Fagen: All I can say is that in Douglas County, there have been some philosophical differences of opinion, and certainly the superintendent’s role is to give the board he very best advice he or she can, encourage them to the position that the superintendent believes is best for the district. But ultimately boards get to make decisions, policy level decisions. And sometimes not everyone in the community agrees with those decisions. And I think that it was politically charged there, based on some of the goals that the board had for the district, that they ran on in 2009 and were really more fully developed later. And I think that has created two different, strong positions, very passionate positions, and I think sometimes people, you know, you’re the superintendent, you’re the face of the district. And board members come once a month for a meeting, right. And I think sometimes maybe just don’t understand the way that that all works, and so a lot of the ire against a political position or a philosophical position is placed on the superintendent. And I think that that’s, you have to recognize that is the case when you make difficult decisions, and you work for a board that makes decisions. So I don’t understand always all the decisions that that group has made, as far as thing they post or whatever, because – I think frankly people just maybe don’t have all that great information, I think that some of it gets spread around that’s not exactly true, but they don’t know… There’s just a lot of complexities to that situation.

 

HavelkaSo Keith Lapeze described Douglas County comments and everything that happened as “a coordinated character assassination by a small segment of Douglas County.” He also said, “it was a controversy fabricated by misinformation and driven by politics.” So, do you agree with those statements?

 

Fagen: So, I generally just – how do I say this the right way. I have always had a belief that, you know, to operate at a level of professionalism, some would say grace, and to not have that conversation really. You know, board members are elected, so they are politicians; I don’t consider myself a politician. And so I just have held myself to a certain standard of engagement, and for six years I’ve maintained that.

 

Havelka: OK, great. So, what were the main reasons that you left Douglas County? I know you mentioned some of them…

 

Fagen: Yeah, I mean – so six years is actually, I hate to say this, but it’s actually a long tenure for superintendents in the country. It really is. And I guess I had hoped that I could raise my children there and stay there, but you know, I’m a continuous learner, and I think that  – I felt very committed to building the capacity of great teachers in the district, to make sure that we were teaching the outcomes that our kids needed in alignment with the direction I’d been given, to bring things forward to a certain level; and then once that capacity had been filled, and people felt very solid in their professional trajectory, etc., then I felt comfortable that I could go, and I wouldn’t be just sort of leaving people hanging. And the time had sort of come around that. Again, there was several years when I really felt like no, the work here is not done, we need to continue, I have a commitment, they have a commitment, we’ve all invested together. And I just felt like after six years, it was the right time. My older daughter was going to be transitioning to middle school, and my younger daughter is only going into first grade, so she doesn’t really see it. So it was the right time for our family, it was the right time for me professionally.

 

Havelka: Can you, how would you characterize the political environment in Douglas County? Is there a particular party that’s driving the decisions, are the unions an issue, how would you characterize that environment?

 

Fagen: The political environment… So, the situation for me as a superintendent is – I’m not elected. And in Colorado, the law is very clear that the district shall not use its resources to influence the outcome of an election. And so, the district doesn’t actually participate at any level in board elections. After a bond election is called, the district has to step away. So I would be characterizing the political environment as somebody who lived there more than anything, because I didn’t attend party meetings or any of that kind of stuff. I felt like it was a very involved community, a community largely very supportive of its school district. I do think that there were some small groups of folks who were pretty disenchanted with some of the policy level decisions being made by the board, and they had sort of come together. But I think that there was a very large positive, pro-student, the business community was wonderful, and so that’s kind of how I’d characterize it at a high level.

 

Havelka: Is it true that Douglas County actually had to hire body guards for you at one point?

 

Fagen: No. That’s not true. There’s a whole bunch of those kind of things that were spread – like one was that I had a chef; I’ve never had a chef. One was that I have a driver; I’ve never had a driver. One was that I had a bodyguard; I didn’t have a body guard.

 

Havelka: Ok, well I just had to ask. So you’re a speaker for the Friedman Foundation.

 

Fagen: I have.

 

Havelka: And so, I’ve heard, just in covering school board meetings, I’ve heard that a lot of residents are very concerned about what your role is there. And the comment that they’ve made to me is that they say, it seems like from them watching YouTube videos, that you’re not just representing Douglas County and doing a job there, that you’re really very passionate about a lot of the same things that Friedman Foundation espouses, like vouchers, privatization, charter schools, all of these sort of things. So can you talk a little bit about that?

 

Fagen: So I’ve never heard the Friedman Foundation, in any shape, manner or form discuss privatization. I don’t know if they do, and I’m just not aware of it, but that’s never been part of the conversation at all. And I’ve heard that before too, and it just really makes no sense to me, that somebody who was raised by public school educators, chose to be a public school educator, puts their children in public education, would be about privatizing education. That’s just – its illogical for me. As far as the Friedman Foundation goes, our relationship was very simple. So when I came into Douglas County, this is good context, the board of education there had a choice task force. It was their group, they created it, it had seven subcommittees… Douglas County has been pro good charter since Colorado passed charter law in like 1993. And Douglas Country had the first charter school in Colorado in 1993. So the community has long supported the idea of charter schools. Now, when I was in Des Moines, no charter schools. When I was in Tuscon, charter schools were not a good thing. Just different states approached different ways. So, Douglas County was very strong in their position. This choice task force came forward, the board directed me to wrap what they called ‘the blueprint for choice’ which were the recommendation of this task force, into our first strategic plan. So I did. The Friedman Foundation’s relationship with me was quite minimal over the years. And once in a while, they would say ‘will you come and talk with “x” and just tell them about Douglas County and how you guys have used choice.

 

Havelka: So this is mainly stemming from your task force. You’re mainly just reporting your results and accomplishments that you guys had made on the task force.

 

Fagen: Exactly. It’s – one of them was about providing more opportunities for home education students. One of them was about a level playing field for all schools in Douglas County. I mean, anyways, so seven different groups. And so privatization I don’t think is a fair characterization of that. I think it was simply a growing district, with huge capital needs, that had long embraced the idea that ‘if we’re going to have charter schools, let’s have good ones,’ and then moving that forward – there were magnet schools in Douglas County also – but that was kind of it. And so I do think that that’s kind of been misrepresented a little bit.

 

Humble: If you could say something to a student who attends Humble ISD, and has parents who are concerned about you being chosen as the superintendent, or has read news about it and are concerned themselves, what is something you would say to them?

 

Fagen: I think that I would just say – I would encourage people to get to know me as person, and as an educator, and a leader, before deciding based on information posted through social media. I just think that that’s – you know, I think people are really smart, and I think that they are open minded and have a good heart, and I think that once they have the information in front of them, they will make the right decision, the right conclusion. And if people aren’t willing to do that, then you know, that’s their decision, there’s not much I can do about that. But I would encourage people to really get to know me as a parent, and as community member, and also as an educator.

 

Havelka: A lot of the residents are concerned about the Texas legislature’s upcoming session, and some of the things that are expected to come out of that. So one of the concerns that I’ve heard people say is you know, were you brought here to fight against those things, or were you brought here to implement those things, if they’re sort of pushed onto Humble ISD?

 

Fagen: Well I can tell you that there was literally no conversation about the legislature or laws or things like that as part of my interview process. I know that there has been speculation, if you will, that ‘oh, this is a symbol of something that’s coming,’ that’s you know – and frankly I just don’t feel that that’s true. If it is true I’m not aware of it. I believe that I was brought here because I’m a parent, I’m a great educator, I care about teachers, I care about principals, I care about students, I work really hard, I believe in education, and I think that those are all the attributes that have been with me for twenty years. I know people like to look at the last three years, or the last five years, or whatever, but I would just encourage people to realize that I’ve worked in education for twenty years, and I have a long history of really focusing on supporting great teachers and doing things in the classroom.

 

Havelka: Well one of the things for instance is something called District of Innovation. And the school district – it’s going to be on the August docket for our school board meeting, and you know there’s been a lot of talk about that at the Texas legislative level. So you know, people are looking at the upcoming school board agenda, and saying oh my gosh, what is the District of Innovation? So I don’t know if you have any comments on that, and why you guys support it, and how you’re going to present it.

 

Fagen: So it’s funny, the timing of things, right. But Guy (Sconzo) called me and said ‘hey we have this situation where we have this certain calendar, and it’s the calendar we’ve had, and we’re not going to be allowed to use this calendar if we don’t do District of Innovation status.’ And I said oh my gosh, with all the stuff going on, people are going to think this is a symbol of something else! They’re going to think it’s a smoking gun!!

 

Havelka: [laughter] Yeah! That’s why I’m asking the questions!

 

Fagen: Yeah no, please do! And (Sconzo) said ‘no, its going to be fine, because I’m just going to tell them straight out, his is what it is.” And I said okay. And so, it’s as simple as the late starts and other aspects of the calendar that the district has used not being okay with the Department of Education of Texas without this change. That’s the only conversation that has been had about that. You can take it to the bank. And I knew, just the name of that is problematic. But on the other hand, and (Sconzo’s) point was a really good one… I have felt this way for six years. As superintendents, we’re always going to do what’s best for the district, for the students and the staff, even if it’s inconvenient, or the name is problematic, and in this scenario that’s just what it is.