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Sunday, November 23, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 1/26/2014 - Updated: 10 months ago

COMMENTARY

Romules Durant: Heroic leader on an urgent mission

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

Since he has taken office, I have run into Romules Durant at more public forums and events than I can count. The Toledo superintendent of schools is a workaholic — not only high energy and long hours, but he seems to be everywhere.

I have also heard him speak to a range of audiences and in a range of settings. Sometimes he relies too much on catch phrases and edu-speak, but he is always passionate and sincere and those qualities almost always move people. Especially when he appears with YWOE and YMOE — his Young Women and Men of Excellence. He started those two youth groups to combat the collapse in family structure and the attraction of gangs, and he leads them himself. More on them in a minute.

I knew Mr. Durant was a charismatic leader, moving very fast for his 37 years, and the hope of many for revitalizing Toledo schools.

For, let’s put it on the table: If Toledo is to grow and prosper; if it is to go to the next level and become the model midsize America city, the miracle on the lake, its public schools must do more than get by. They must become excellent, and be recognized as such.

What I was not sure about was whether Romules Durant could lead the way to that transformation. I wasn’t convinced that anyone could.

A few days ago, I spent the better part of a day with Mr. Durant, shadowing him, watching him do his work. And what I think now is that if anyone can do this impossible job, it is Mr. Durant. Mind you, he will need help. He will need help from the business community, the labor unions, the churches, parents, TPS teachers and staff, and the students themselves. But, Mr. Durant is reaching out to each one of these groups — very intentionally. And doing so every single day, sometimes with specific and personal appeals.

“Intentional” is a key word for Mr. Durant. The man is centered. I have met and spent time with many public officials through the years, from governors to presidents. I employ no hyperbole when I say that Mr. Durant is one of the most gifted leaders I have ever met.

Consider these gifts: First, he can not only give a passionate speech to a chamber of commerce or an African-American church, but he is a tremendous one-on-one politician. I am using that word in a positive sense. He makes it a point to drop in on the schools unannounced, a different one or two each day. He knows the staff, from teachers to cafeteria workers. He knows their stories and their names. He knows many of the students — quite a few Toledo high school students are members of YMOE and YWOE.

Second, Mr. Durant is a disciplined administrator. He thinks like a businessman. I watched him conduct a meeting of his small “Cabinet,” and though he is unfailingly polite and respectful to all, the conversation stays on track and leads to specific actions. I watched him in another meeting, where he was not in charge, and he pushed for the same things: target dates and goals. Personally, I would take the pipe if I had to attend as many meetings as Mr. Durant attends, but this man has a mission. He does not meet to meet. (One of his sayings is, “Without the data the chatter doesn’t matter.”)

Third, the way he has framed his mission: It is simply put. Romules Durant’s mission is saving the lives of kids. It is not to be superintendent of schools in Toledo for 30 years or to be the super in Chicago or New York. It is saving the lives of young people who may be a little lost or rudderless.

So, Mr. Durant is a good politician, a good businessman and administrator, but even more — a spiritual father to many of our city youth. I do not know what resources he has drawn upon to be that person. But I can tell you that he is a manifestly spiritual man and a father. Very deeply both.

This is not your usual model of a school superintendent. Not only is Mr. Durant peripatetic — doing much of his job on the move and eating in his car, but his relationship with students is intensely personal. You walk down the hall with him at Woodward High School, and no one slips by. Every student is asked how his grades are. YWOE and YMOE members are asked if they are coming to the next meeting. Girls get a pat on the shoulder. Boys get a fist clench and a man hug. I watch him question and console, and it seemed to me, partially heal, an obviously troubled kid in a doorway. I back away, the meeting is so private. A mother who works at the school thanks him for all he did for her son, now grown, years ago. She has tears in her eyes. She hugs the super. He remembers her son very well. He gives her his cell phone number and tells her to have her son call him. “He’s not too old for me,” Mr. Durant says.

Everyone is Mr. or Ms. to him — me, his Cabinet and staff, people in the community. He is loose and funny, but he is also formal, old-school reserved, and respectful. His concentration is as formal as it is intense.

He has a couple very big proposals coming soon: He wants to build on the experience of the Ella B. Stewart and Martin Luther King single-sex elementary academies and open two single-sex leadership academies on the high school level. And, this will make a lot of eyes pop: He also wants to re-open Macomber-Whitney High School, preferably in its old location. He thinks it was a huge mistake to close it. He thinks TPS needs one vocational high school in the central city. He thinks reopening Macomber would be a huge psychological boost for the city. Indeed it would be. It would put points on the board.

Mr. Durant tells me he does not work only for TPS, its parents, or its students, but for the whole city.

Indeed he does. The whole city is lucky to have this multifaceted young leader. The whole city needs to get behind him.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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