Romules Durant — most people call him Rom — was far from destined to be the next superintendent of Toledo Public Schools.
Despite a rapid rise through the TPS ranks, Mr. Durant wasn’t a child prodigy and didn’t come from privilege. But that doesn’t mean he’s where he is now by accident.
Mr. Durant plans nearly everything. He’s the school district’s point person for the collection and analysis of test scores and other student information. A devoted health fanatic, he even keeps a data track of his diet.
When he was 20, Mr. Durant wrote out a career plan: where he wanted to go, what he wanted to accomplish. By the time he was 37, he’d hoped to be a school district superintendent.
He’s 37 now, and by July 1, he’ll be superintendent. The Toledo Board of Education voted last week to begin negotiations with the assistant superintendent to serve as interim replacement for departing Superintendent Jerome Pecko. That’s either fate, luck, or a really well-executed plan.
One of three children, he was born and raised in East Toledo’s Birmingham neighborhood to Benjamin and Carolynne Durant. Never in the worst way, never in the best way, the family made it as working-class. It very easily could have not.
The elder Durant grew up in the Spanish Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, one of the roughest parts of New York City noted for gang activity. He hints that he was caught up in that roughness.
“I was a good kid, but I was just raised around people who were doing bad things,” is what he says about his youth.
His grandfather came to visit, he said, and told him he didn’t think Benjamin Durant would live to see his 18th birthday. He convinced his mother to move to Ohio. Benjamin Durant ended up in East Toledo and went to Waite High School, as did the woman he’d marry.
While the elder Durant never graduated — he’d later get his GED — he and his wife worked and pushed their children to study hard in school. Classwork didn’t always come easy for Rom when he was young, the father said, but he always worked hard. Eventually, it clicked.
The elder Durant made sure his children were always active, often in sports. He coached with the East Toledo Junior Football League and coached his son. Sports and school helped keep Romules Durant out of trouble.
Romules Durant tells students about when he was in college and visited his old neighborhood. He stopped on a corner to say “hi” to an acquaintance who was involved in drugs. The next day, another boy from the neighborhood visited the same corner. Shots rang out, and he was dead.
Mr. Durant tells the story to remind youths that it easily could have been him if he had chosen a different path.
A heavy hitter
Early on, young Rom developed a reputation as a heavy hitter, often drawing flags for what his father still insists were legal tackles. They called him the “Hit Man.” And he had talent.
“If he had a little bit more foot speed, we might have been seeing him on Sunday,” his father said.
Maybe not fast enough for the NFL, Romules Durant was fast enough for the University of Toledo, first as a strong safety, then as a linebacker. Even now, Mr. Durant is built as if he’s ready to smash a wide receiver coming over the middle.
Drawn to education
It was at UT that Mr. Durant realized he had a way with youngsters, that they listened to what he had to say. And it was there that he first thought about teaching.
Much of how Mr. Durant talks about education, both to students and teachers, is framed around what he learned in sports. His focus on data is as much sourced from football as education. He tells students the impact that proper sleep and health have on their performance on tests.
Mr. Durant joined TPS in 1999 as a teacher and rose quickly as dean of students, assistant principal, principal, then district administrator.
Toledo Public Schools is a diverse district, both in racial and socioeconomic makeup and academic achievement. The truth is, data show those things are linked. While some TPS schools excel and others perform adequately, the schools that struggle the most have students who are intensely poor and student bodies that are overwhelmingly black.
And the truth is that TPS, like all large, urban American school districts, has been unable to find a way to close that gap. For the entire district to perform as the city needs it to, it must find a way to raise academic achievement in the poorest neighborhoods.
It’s unfair to expect any one person to find that way. In Mr. Durant, TPS has a superintendent who has dedicated his career to trying.
Mr. Durant is hesitant to announce concrete plans for the district. He is, after all, not officially the next superintendent of TPS until he signs a contract with the board. And even if he were superintendent right now, he’d still have to consider the school board’s opinion on major decisions.
But he will talk broadly about where he might focus. And he’s never been shy about where his education interests lie. Mr. Durant, who holds a doctorate in education, administration, and supervision from UT, wrote his dissertation on the collective social factors that contribute to the achievement gap between black and white students at TPS.
Closing the gap
Even in his application for the TPS superintendent position, Mr. Durant wrote about his focus on closing the gap.
“Being a product of an impoverished neighborhood, as well as a student who attended an urban school, the achievement gap has become an issue that I am deeply passionate about understanding and synthesizing a possible solution,” he wrote.
A TPS effort to address some of those social factors is the district’s community hubs program, a collaboration with the United Way of Greater Toledo. The district has four hubs, with community, social, financial, and mental health services provided for students, parents, and neighbors. Mr. Durant has been a champion of the program within the district.
Mr. Durant also was the driving force behind the district’s decision to keep its single-gender elementary schools, which were on the chopping block several years ago as TPS went through a series of budget cuts.
All-boys-school Lincoln Academy was folded into Martin Luther King, Jr., Academy for Boys as part of a triangle school concept that Mr. Durant devised. Parents in the area could send their sons to King, daughters to sister school Ella P. Stewart Academy for Girls, or both to the co-educational Pickett Academy.
Since then, King Academy has skyrocketed from a state rating of academic emergency to excellent, and test scores at Stewart have risen as well.
Mr. Durant wants to expand the single-gender concept to high school, putting TPS in competition with the city’s single-gender Catholic high schools.
Maybe the initiative with the most promise is the Student African-American Brotherhood and its sister program, the Young Women of Excellence.
Normally a program for college students, Mr. Durant spearheaded the explosive growth of the African-American brotherhood group in the district, turning it into a student leadership and peer mentoring program in many of TPS’ central-city and North Toledo schools. While the Student African-American Brotherhood in TPS only started in 2011, and the Young Women of Excellence last year, the two programs now have about 900 members.
Proponents and members say the programs have served as a real alternative to some of the dangerous draws young people face in tough neighborhoods.
“Many of its membership are attracted [or recruited] to SAAB as an alternative to or escape from a potentially harmful lifestyle,” TPS Superintendent Jerome Pecko said in an evaluation of Mr. Durant.
It’s had an educational impact too. The average GPA of members has risen from a 2.1 to a 2.6, Mr. Durant said.
Da’Jaun Hamilton, 16, a Woodward High School student, says what SAAB means to him and his friends is less tangible.
“It really puts love in people’s heads and hearts,” he said. “A lot of kids don’t have love.”
Most of the kids in Woodward’s SAAB chapter ran with gangs, Da’Jaun said.
“They were either gang members or they are gang members, and they want to change out of that, and they do it because of SAAB,” he said. “They get out of it because of SAAB.”
SAAB, in a way, is a gang. But in SAAB, you don’t have to worry about getting shot or arrested. You don’t have to do anything to join the gang. But there are expectations. And the members hold each other to those expectations.
“The true intervention is not the adult,” Mr. Durant said. “The true intervention is the expectations set within the group of peers that they hold themselves accountable to.”
While the organization’s purpose is to develop young leaders through peers, Mr. Durant may be downplaying his impact on members. He commands attention from the boys, Da’Jaun said.
Part of it is respect for his intelligence and his accomplishments. Part of it is the fear of disappointing him. Part of it is that, despite the suit and ties, he still looks like the “Hit Man.” And part of it is because they know he knows where they’re coming from, because he knows at least in part what their lives are like.
“He really speaks the truth,” he said of Mr. Durant. “When he speaks it, everyone has to listen.”
A ‘forceful presence’
A superintendent isn’t just a manager or an architect of instructional programs. They have to have a vision, and they have to convince people to believe in their plan. And if nothing else, Mr. Durant gets people to listen.
He’s not shy in front of a crowd or a classroom. In his first year as a teacher at Nathan Hale Elementary, he made an impression, at least on one veteran teacher who observed his class and wrote an evaluation.
“You are a forceful presence, and your demeanor and force of personality demands attention from the students,” the teacher wrote.
With a district that is still losing students to charter schools and vouchers, still struggling with poor test scores, and still facing possible budget cuts, Mr. Durant will need to use that force of personality to gain supporters.
Steven Flagg, a public school advocate who has been a frequent TPS critic, called Mr. Durant the “best choice available” and a superintendent he can support.
“[Mr. Durant] is an outstanding person and very capable of doing the job,” Mr. Flagg said. But that doesn’t mean Mr. Durant necessarily will be successful, he said. “He is in a cage built over the last 35 years that would hamstring even the most effective, conscientious leader. The task before him is monumental and requires a community effort.”
Mr. Durant will be involved in upcoming negotiations with the district’s three employee unions, and many of his possible initiatives will require either collaboration with — or convincing of — staff. Kevin Dalton, president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, has said he was “cautiously optimistic” he would have a collaborative relationship with the new superintendent.
Even if not contractually obligated, he’ll likely have to sell his home in Holland and move into the city. Mr. Durant says he plans to do just that and would like to live downtown.
And while much of his work has been on the high-poverty schools whose students are mostly black, Mr. Durant said his focus as superintendent “is not necessarily on race but achievement across the board.” He pointed to the majority-white Harvard Elementary, where test scores dropped last year.
His analysis showed the school was too focused on its low-performing students and not enough on its high achievers, and the school developed before and after-school enrichment activities for those students. Harvard’s parent-teacher organization lauded Mr. Durant’s work at the school this year and endorsed his bid for superintendent.
“Dr. Durant has been an asset to our school, our students, and our parent organization,” Emily Morrison, Harvard PTO fund-raising coordinator, wrote to the board. “We feel that his involvement with us shows how valuable he is to the district as a whole.”
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: email@example.com, 419-724-6086, or on Twitter @NolanRosenkrans.