Head of the class 

Apostle's audacious plan aims to curb dropouts

Superintendent Alex Apostle sounds something like a coach giving a locker-room pep talk when outlining his long-term plans for the Missoula County Public School District (MCPS). Days before launching his latest audacious initiative—a 100-percent graduation rate among the district's 8,500 students—Apostle pounds the table, passionately raises his voice and shows no patience for even the slightest bit of skepticism. He's an unapologetic idealist dead-set on shaking up the county's struggling school system.

"My feeling is that America's students can and will and must compete against students from anywhere," says Apostle in full Knute Rockne mode. "Not only compete, but win. That's the type of system we're trying to create here in the city of Missoula."

Apostle puts the current dropout rate at MCPS at 20 percent, a figure he regards scathingly as "unacceptable." It's challenges like this that dragged him out of retirement and into Missoula a year and a half ago. Now he's falling back on a full career in public school administration in Tacoma, Wash., to make MCPS succeed.

"We need to create an environment where students just don't sit in a row and the teacher lectures up in front," Apostle says. "Our kids are bored. That's a reason that some kids are dropping out of school. So what we need to do is actively involve our students in the education process."

Apostle hit the ground running in fall 2008, initiating a series of sweeping reforms. He divided the district into three separate regions, delegating evaluation and oversight of certain schools to a trio of executive directors. He played musical chairs with several MCPS principals last summer. And on Jan. 19, MCPS officially kicked off Apostle's Graduation Matters Missoula initiative designed to reduce Missoula's dropout rate to zero.

"It's not idealistic," Apostle says. "I believe it's achievable in Missoula. Somewhere else it may not be, but in Missoula it can be."

click to enlarge Superintendent Alex Apostle, left, has gone about changing Missoula’s public school district at breakneck speed since entering the position in fall 2008. Apostle’s new goal calls for a 100-percent graduation rate among Missoula students. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Superintendent Alex Apostle, left, has gone about changing Missoula’s public school district at breakneck speed since entering the position in fall 2008. Apostle’s new goal calls for a 100-percent graduation rate among Missoula students.

The coach-in-the-locker-room analogy stretches even deeper into Apostle's work with the district. He's designed what equates to a playbook for MCPS to achieve a 100-percent graduation rate, a list of five tasks he believes will take the district "within striking distance" of success in three short years. Some see Apostle as the district's first action-oriented leader with a clear and consistent objective.

"He keeps student achievement right in the center of the bull's eye," says Jane Bennett, principal at Willard Alternative High School. "I am positive that people within the school district are starting to realize and appreciate that this superintendent means business and that we will accomplish these lofty goals."

But Apostle's vision for the future of public education in Missoula isn't contained to MCPS. Students need opportunities to learn outside of school, he says. That means internships with local businesses, support from groups like the Rotary Club, and collaboration with the University of Montana in forging what Apostle calls a "seamless K-20 approach."

"We don't want any finger-pointing," Apostle says. "We don't want the community pointing at the schools and the schools pointing at the community in terms of where we're going. We want to be together and we want to be able to pick each other up as we move forward on this journey."

That push to bring the broader Missoula community into the public school system appeals to administrators like Bennett for a host of reasons, primarily the potential for non-traditional revenue streams. Bennett says dollars from the private sector could go a long way in replacing mismatched computer terminals and antiquated monitors at Willard and other schools with equipment shortfalls.

"I've heard students at MCPS referred to as 'time travelers,'" Bennett says. "They live in the 21st century, and they leave it to step into the 1980s during the school day."

Not all of Apostle's decisions to date have been met with wholesale optimism, however. Perhaps his most controversial move was the reassignment of Bennett from Hellgate High School—where she'd worked as principal for six years—to Willard. The decision came suddenly last June, and generated initial backlash from parents and students at Hellgate in the form of a petition and letters to the MCPS Board of Trustees.

"There was just a lot of confusion in the beginning on everyone's part," says Kelly Youbles, president of the volunteer parent group Knights of the Round Table. "The way it was announced, the way everything went down. But in the end we realized that schools are like any company and decisions are made for reasons outside of what we may see or not see."

Apostle maintains that Bennett's reassignment and that of two other principals in the district were necessary changes in his long-term goal to take student achievement into the 21st century. Sometimes a superintendent must make tough and unpopular decisions, he says, but standing by them isn't hard when they're made with 8,500 children in mind. He adds Bennett is primed to make Willard the model for reform across MCPS.

"Jane Bennett is doing a fantastic job at Willard," Apostle says. "She's doing a fantastic job in an area that she has great expertise as far as 21st century learning. She's kind of our point person for our 21st century schools."

As far as Apostle is concerned, the last year-and-a-half of change at MCPS is only the beginning. Missoula has a long way to go in achieving the kind of success he demands, and his playbook is far from exhausted.

"This won't be the last of restructuring in the Missoula County Public Schools," Apostle says.

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