When Alvin Garrison arrived last summer as the new superintendent of Covington Independent Public Schools, he was armed with a lofty goal.
Meeting with the city's business and civic leaders in May last year, Garrison took the podium. "The goal is to be the best urban school district in the nation and I believe we have all the ingredients to do that," he said at the time. Now with his first academic year at the helm of CIPS under his belt, Garrison still believes that to be possible.
"Anything is possible in Alvin Garrison's world," the superintendent said in an interview with The River City News. "In one school I worked at, that was our theme: all things are possible. And I believe that. If things were not possible, I wouldn't be superintendent of Covington, considering the history of our nation."
"We have great students, a committed, dedicated faculty and staff, everybody from custodians to teachers to central office folks to principals. When you put those ingredients together and you have parents and a community that wants a better community, all those ingredients, when you add all that together, we're destined to improve."
CIPS has struggled in recent decades to achieve high scores on standardized tests and the district has ranked at or near the bottom in Kentucky, a state that has historically ranked among the worst in the nation in education. Garrison is in his first superintendent role, arriving in Covington from John Hardin High School in Elizabethtown where he was principal. Though the task ahead may be daunting, Garrison said that as his first year concludes, he feels excitement.
"I really enjoyed the first year," he said. "I really enjoyed meeting the students, families, and community members of Covington. The teachers, faculty, staff. It's just been wonderful."
"I said it in the beginning, now I know it to be true" There are a lot of dedicated and committed people in Covington that care about the welfare of our kids. I think it's amazing. I just love it. It's really been good to see that and to see the passion that people have in Covington about education."
As Garrison prepares for his next academic year, he said he hopes to continually improve test scores, retain teachers, and maintain high expectations. Holmes High School saw a modest improvement in its ACT score last time around.
"We hope we can continue that progress," Garrison said. "This first year was a learning year for me. I wanted to learn how we do business here in Covington. Basically, I just sat back and watched and learned and I think, if there are some changes that need to be made, we'll start trying to integrate some of those changes."
Garrison said the district wants to celebrate small wins, celebrate learning, and honor all the contributions its educators make on a daily basis. "As long as people feel they have value, they are appreciated, they're recognized, that we celebrate their successes, I think that goes further than some of the other extrinsic motivational opportunities," he said. "That's the culture we want to create."
"People like to feel like they are a part of something, that they have a voice in the decision making. I think that goes a long way with keeping people. Everybody wants to be on a winning team."
"I want to see us competitive," Garrison said of the efforts to improve academic achievement at the high school. He said he will look to Hornblower to be an instructional leader, a learning leader, and to work collaboratively with the staff there and with the community. "Our kids deserve it and they can do it on anything we choose to participate in, if it's co-curricular activities, extra-curricular activities, whatever our students choose to be a part of, we want to be competitive and somebody to be reckoned with. We want Covington to be known as a school district on the move, that has high expectations, that wants continuous improvement."
In addition to getting to know the district that he now leads, Garrison and his wife have spent time getting to know their new city, too. The couple live in Licking Riverside. "I like the opportunity of everything being so close together," he said. The pair often walk from Covington to Newport and across to Cincinnati and back. "I just love the closeness of everything."
It's a different environment than the suburban and rural background of Rineyville in Hardin County where Garrison came from. There, the Garrisons had two acres of land and a only a handful of neighbors. Now he lives in the densely populated urban center of Northern Kentucky. "This is a new experience and we're enjoying it," he said.
It had always been his plan to live in a city, but after graduating from college he moved back home to take care of what he described as responsibilities involving a niece and nephew. "I wanted to be a positive role model in their lives," he said.
Now there are many more kids looking to Garrison as a positive role model. "I do expect high expectations and it starts with the adults first," he said. "The leadership starts with me if we're going to expect high expectations of our students. I truly mean that. It will trickle down to teachers and then to students. That is so important."
"Once we establish that in our kids, we need to teach our kids to live out of their imagination and not their past and not their memory, to live out what our future can be and we as adults have to live out of that for them. We have to get our students to dream and dream big, not just settle. We just have to get them to believe that and we have to believe that as well."
Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News
Photo: Alvin Garrison/provided