Photo by Monica Smith
As a self-proclaimed planner, and someone who is typically prepared in advance, he did not see this coming. Nonetheless, Owensboro Public School’s newly-appointed superintendent has chosen to take his lemons and make lemonade during this unforeseen COVID pandemic.
Dr. Matthew Constant, an Owensboro native, credits education as “being in his blood,” since his father was a 32-year veteran chemistry teacher at Apollo. However, he claims that his high school math teacher, Sister Barbara Jean Head, actually inspired him to want to be a teacher. “I want to do this; I want to be her someday,” he recalls thinking. “That’s when the bug hit me, and I never looked back from that. I frequently let her know how much impact she has had on me.”
Having stepped into an enormous leadership position during an unprecedented time, Dr. Constant points to several God-moments that led him to this time, this opportunity with OPS. Among those are the six years spent working alongside Dr. Nick Brake, a Batman-and-Robin type of partnership which allowed him to watch his leadership and to observe “how he handled crises, related to people, and worked all kinds of networks and systems,” essentially working as his understudy.
Seeing himself as a servant-leader, Dr. Constant strives to only ask of others what he would be willing to undertake himself. His decision-making approach is collaborative, trying to get input from many different people and sources, fully recognizing that all of them should be in this business “to serve kids, to do whatever it takes for them, and so regardless of pandemic or whatever other extraneous things are going on, I have to close my eyes and ask myself why did I get into this—because I wanted to change kids’ lives. That mission drives me daily.” Being a middle child who developed peace-making talents, he cites his ability to work with a variety of people, to compromise, and to build consensus as personal strengths. “I think I’m good at the sensing and feeling parts of the job,” he said. “I hope they see me as a genuine person who really does care.”
Named Interim Super-intendent January 1, 2020, Dr. Constant took the reins full-time in February. Then, the pandemic hit. How is he handling being a new superintendent in the midst of a pandemic? “Personally, it has been a challenge every day. I am challenged every day, but I am also strengthened every day by the generosity of people, the collaborative spirit of this community, and the willingness for people to roll up their sleeves and make decisions we’ve never had to make. I go home every night just mentally drained…just trying to get through like everybody else,” he said. Navigating these uncertain times, uncharted territory struck hard March 13 when Gov. Andy Beshear announced that schools had 48 hours to close. In lieu of informing the staff via email, Dr. Constant chose video. “I had no idea how that would take off. I got so much good feedback about that medium of communication that I’ve been doing them now regularly for the staff—and also I started doing them for the parents,” he said.
OPS, with a 5,000-student enrollment, is the largest independent system in Kentucky. However, those numbers have declined 3-4 percent this fall, with families choosing to enroll their students in private schools that are meeting in-person. Twenty percent of students chose full-time virtual learning; the remaining 80 percent elected in-person learning.
“I think the whole community realizes there is risk involved with whatever decision is made. So, in order for us to mitigate that before the Governor held us off…we said we have to make all sorts of options available. If families really feel strongly that it’s not healthy to come back in-person…they can do virtual instruction for the whole semester. We’ve got that sector going, and we have almost 1,000 kids in that.” The remaining students have been divided into A-B groups, with the A group to attend Mondays and Tuesdays; the B group will attend Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are set aside for deep cleaning at the schools.
What obstacles present themselves as they plan this school year? Transportation for one; 65 percent of the school population is bused. Social distancing dictates fewer students on a bus—and in classrooms. The health and safety of staff presents other challenges, as well as the shortage of substitute teachers. Food insecurities for children also continue to be an enormous concern. Some of those opting for virtual instruction were without Internet access. To address this issue, Chromebooks were ordered for almost all K-12 students, and 200 wi-fi hotspots were created. However, Dr. Constant recognizes that the quality of education “has the potential to suffer” with strictly virtual learning. “Depending on the age level and grade level of the student, it makes it more critical,” he said.
On top of all this, the school system is asking hard questions about racial injustice issues facing their students. They have held 10 listening sessions to allow staff to talk about equity and have established an equity task force. These discussions prompted an OPS board resolution, which addressed equity for one of the most diverse school systems in Kentucky, serving 30-35 percent minority students.
“One of the things I have challenged our staff to do—we are even using a hashtag, #OPSopportunity—is to look at this as an opportunity. We are being asked, whether we want to or not, to redefine education, and we are doing that in the Owensboro Public Schools. I have never seen innovation and creativity as strong as it is right now,” he said.
Yet, many students—and teachers—and parents are hungry for in-person learning, which began after Fall Break. CARES money has helped the school system order needed PPE in anticipation of reopening. Without that help, their budget would be upside down, according to Dr. Constant. One million masks have been ordered, as well as hand-sanitizer stations for each classroom.
On their first official school day in August, Dr. Constant was encouraged. The good news is that “kids are showing up” for their Google Meet. They can see their teacher in real time and vice versa. “Students know it’s time for school, and they want some sort of connection,” Dr. Constant said.
He confers “to a great extent” with other superintendents. “People told me when I got the job that it can be a very lonely position, unless you don’t make it so—especially in this pandemic.” He regularly solicits feedback from three peer groups: regional, state and retired superintendents, which he sees as indispensable.
“The biggest challenge right now is the decision about in-person learning,” Dr. Constant said. He said that definite opinions exist on all sides of the issue, which matter. Yet, he said he must factor in what the health and safety data say. “Weighing all of that data and then talking with our board of education and advising them on what I would recommend, that’s been challenging. Just to assimilate and synthesize all of that, knowing that whatever decision you make, a sector of the population is not going to be happy,” he said.