By Leonard E. Colvin
New Journal and Guide
When the roster of nominees selected by Norfolk City Council for the city’s school board was released recently, the name of current board Chairperson, Dr. Kirk T. Houston, Sr. was noticeably absent.
The absence of Dr. Houston’s name sparked some speculation that he had lost standing with his fellow school board members and city council and was asked not to seek reappointment.
But Dr. Houston said weeks before that 22-name roster was released, he already had chosen not to accept another nomination to sit on the school board.
His tenure will end July 1.
Houston is the second African-American to chair the Norfolk School Board. The first Black to hold the post and serve the longest was businessman Ulysses Turner.
Houston has been on the board since 2009 and has led the Norfolk Public Schools’ (NPS) governing board through some of the most turbulent and challenging times in the division’s history.
Primary among them have been a drop in SOL (Standards of Learning) test scores, a number of schools losing state accreditation, the exodus of three school superintendents in five years, and news of funds to help poor students not being used and returned to federal coffers.
Much of the blame for such calamities has been thrown at the door steps of NPS’s top leaders, such as the superintendent and school board members like Houston.
But Houston said during a recent interview with the Guide that he was proud of his six-year tenure as chair of the Norfolk School Board.
Despite the challenges he faced, he believes he put his best foot forward.
“I do not think a single leader can take full credit for the success of any school division nor all of the failure,” said Houston. “No one person has that much authority or influence.”
“I provided strong leadership during some very stormy times,” said Houston. “And I don’t think the public will ever know what happens at the table behind closed doors.”
At the top of the list of challenges he faced as chairman of Norfolk School Board was “building, maintaining and sustaining effective leadership with a lot of transitions over six years,” he said.
Houston said among his successes is providing strong leadership which enabled the board and the NPS administration to weather some of the heavy storms over the past six years.
He said his leadership style is based on providing help to the team. “I am a leader based on my service to others.
”I believe in collaboration … consensus building … always seeking to provide guidance toward studying the objectives and challenges to achieve success.
“You have to maintain and sustain leadership on the board and administration, But if there is continuous turn over,” said Houston, “that will impact the outcomes of policy and continuity.”
When asked about the exodus of three superintendents in five years, Houston was diplomatic in his interpretation of the situation.
“Turbulent times are always creating emotional dynamics which have to be navigated,” he said. “In Norfolk it came in the form of weak student achievement, losing school accreditations and funding challenges.
“This can cause morale to be low and cause leaders to jump ship,” he continued. “This will happen at the superintendent and support level administrators … who will say that ‘I do not want to take the blame for it all.’”
Houston amassed a list of critics and admirers during his tenure. One of his strongest supporters has been Norfolk Councilperson Paul Riddick.
“He must be commended despite all of the challenges,” said Riddick. “He devoted his time between the board and running a church he built from the ground.
“People overlook all of the challenges school division leaders face in meeting the mandates imposed from state and federal laws, “ Riddick said. “The SOLs, funding guidelines and the historic problems facing the division, which have not been resolved.”
Houston said that when he exits from the school board, he will be able to devote more attention to the church he leads, the Gethsemane Community Fellowship Church located in the Brambleton section of the city.
He will also continue to work to improve the ability of NPS to educate and prepare the city’s youth, especially the most vulnerable.
Norfolk Public Schools has a majority Black student population (75 percent plus) and a large segment of those children are the offspring of poor and working class families.
Houston said over the past two years, a coalition of pastors has joined forces with the Norfolk Education Foundation to develop a support system for the division’s public schools.
“We want to provide resources of varying kind to the schools who show the greatest need,” said Houston. “We have not fully implemented the initiative yet. We will be engaging the principals who have clearer understanding of the needs of the schools they are serving.”