Leaving a promising corporate career to work in a struggling city school system like Hartford's is hardly the normal career path, but to Ebbie Parsons III, it made perfect sense.
"I grew up in a family full of educators," said the personable 28-year-old, whose sister worked as a teacher and whose parents taught in Detroit's public schools. "I've always wanted to be a public servant, but I wasn't sure how to do that."
He got his chance when he was selected by the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation to be part of a program that trains business executives to work in the nation's neediest urban public school districts. He is serving a two-year residency in Hartford as the latest addition to Superintendent of Schools Steven J. Adamowski's brain trust.
Before arriving in Hartford, where he will specialize in school budget matters, Parsons worked at several major companies, including Intel and General Motors. He was an investment strategist at American Express this summer before taking the job in Hartford.
Although that kind of career switch is still relatively unusual, some school systems, especially large urban districts, have hired outsiders such as business, government or military leaders to take administrative jobs.
In Los Angeles, for example, retired Navy admiral David L. Brewer III was hired last year to head the city's school system. In New York City, Joel Klein was an assistant attorney general before becoming schools chancellor. And in Pittsburgh, former Massachusetts legislator Mark Roosevelt became superintendent two years ago after completing a Broad Foundation training program for superintendents.
"If you look at the biggest districts, a lot of them are headed by nontraditional superintendents ... New York, Los Angeles, Chicago," said Paul D. Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.
The results have been mixed, he said. "There's no clear track record that it's a good thing or a bad thing." But he said school leaders who come from other professions must understand the peculiarities of running schools.
"The school culture is very different than any other culture I know of," he said. "You just don't make unilateral decisions."
In Parsons' case, long before he started his business career, he had a first-hand view of public education.
"I grew up in it," he said. "I would hear my mother making phone calls to parents at night, grading papers and dealing with the difficulties of urban districts," he said.
Like his hometown of Detroit, Hartford runs a school system in which most children are members of minority groups and come from poor families. Many lag in academics and are at risk of dropping out of school.
"I believe in public education, and I am committed to ensuring that our youth are afforded the same opportunities in the public school system that their peers receive in private schools," Parsons wrote in a brief biography on the Broad program's website. "As an African-American man, I have seen far too many failures in my community to ignore the needs of urban children."
Although his parents taught in public schools, they sent him to private schools for middle school and high school. Later, he enrolled at Florida A&M University, where he played football and, in 2001, graduated with an industrial engineering degree. In 2006, he received an M.B.A. degree from the University of Minnesota.
After being accepted in the Broad program, Parsons was selected for interviews in both Hartford and Boston. He chose Hartford, in part, because of Adamowski's reputation as a school reformer and his ambitious new plan to transform Hartford's schools.
In Hartford, Parsons will help develop a new weighted budget formula that allots money to schools based on individual student needs. He also will work on a team developing Adamowski's plan to revamp the entire district by allowing parents to choose from among a range of schools. In addition, he will work on teacher and administrator contract negotiations, Adamowski said.
"He's a very quick study," Adamowski said. "Already, he's making contributions. ... He brings a set of experiences very enriching to us."
Erica Lepping, a spokeswoman for the Broad Foundation, said the residency program and a superintendents academy are designed to attract strong leaders to public schools. The programs look for candidates who are skilled at "team building and making sure people are constantly focused on the task, that they are seeing results, measuring results. ... It's squarely what they are taught in business school."
Parsons said he has much to learn.
"You can be a good manager in the private sector, [but] it doesn't mean you'll be a good educator," he said. "One of the biggest mistakes anyone from the private sector can make is assuming they know what it takes to be a successful educator. Educators are the ones who deal with children every day. ... First and foremost, you have to learn from those educators and offer your assistance where you may see some gaps."
In taking the Hartford job, Parsons also took about a 50 percent pay cut, he said. His annual salary is about $95,000, half of which is paid by the Broad program, and half by Hartford.
Someday, he would like to run an urban public school system, he said.
"The opportunities given to me wouldn't exist if it weren't for education," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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