It’s been an eventful first year for Dr. Kevin Whitaker as Jamestown Public Schools superintendent.
Whitaker took the reins of the Jamestown Public Schools District in June 2020 at the height of a COVID-19 pandemic that made it more difficult to manage both a school district’s educational success and its financial stability. Whitaker’s first 14 months as superintendent included leading the district through reopening schools with ever-changing COVID-19 protocols, fuzzy guidance from the state and federal governments, day-to-day uncertainties over state aid withholdings, local controversy over the Jamestown High School mascot and now the task of opening schools in September with little guidance from a state government that had previously been heavily involved in school districts’ COVID-19 protocols.
One wouldn’t know it’s been such an unprecedented year by speaking with Whitaker.
“First of all it’s been awesome,” Whitaker said. “It’s been tremendous. It’s been a huge learning experience as I connect with people and learn a new city and a new school district. But the kids have been great. The parents have been great. The community has been really supportive. The staff has been incredible. We’ve been really building a collaborative work environment and working on communication and access and that sort of thing. It’s been a really solid year. With all that stuff said, boy did it go fast. It seems like it was a month ago that I was signing my contract and we were taking pictures and I showed up in the newspaper and I was talking to (Cam Hurst, former Post-Journal reporter). Honestly it really seems like its been a few months, and it’s been 14 months or something. With high engagement and lots to do, time flies. And it certainly has flown this year. But I’m happy to have spent it with so many great people.”
Whitaker joined the Jamestown Public Schools after a nearly 30-year career in education. He began teaching in the Albany area before coming to the Rochester area to work at the middle school, high school and pre-kindergarten through 12th grade levels. He brought experience as a high school and middle school teacher, a department chair, staff developer and national-level consultant, assistant principal at the early middle, middle and high school levels, principal at the high school level in a high-needs district, and as an assistant superintendent.
Whitaker’s prior role as assistant superintendent of the Geneva City School District, a highly diverse district of 2,500 students with high levels of poverty, led Whitaker to want to begin changing the culture inside Jamestown’s schools. One of the things Whitaker told The Post-Journal in July 2020 he wanted to do in Jamestown was change the culture of the school in similar ways to the work done by Whitaker and Trina Newton, the Geneva superintendent who began her career as a science teacher at Washington Middle School in Jamestown, in the Finger Lakes. Whitaker said it is important to change the views of some students from “problems” to “scholars.”
That sort of work can’t be done, though, if there isn’t trust between the superintendent and those the superintendent is leading, a point Whitaker made last year when he talked about building relationships.
“The third thing is building relationships,” Whitaker said this week. “There was some culture stuff we needed to work on in the district and I feel I’ve gotten a good head start on that. Building relationships with folks, building trust and opening a dialogue, and that’s only going to continue. I have faith in people and thus far it’s worked out really well.”
Whitaker said early in his tenure he had a goal to implement a multi-year financial plan for the school district. The district has made progress in looking at three-, five- and 10-year financial estimates as Whitaker tries to create a fiscal plan that ensures the Jamestown Public Schools’ long-term financial stability.
“That was one and I feel like we’re in a good spot with that now,” Whitaker said. “I feel like we have a good plan with the board subcommittee on the finances and budget.”
A large part of Whitaker’s first year was spent dealing with COVID-19. In 2020, that meant waiting for guidance from the state and then implementing that guidance throughout the district’s seven school buildings. In addition to state and federal guidance last summer, Whitaker gathered the thoughts of parents about what school should be in 2020-21 and then melded the state and community guidance into a school reopening plan that had to be approved by the state. As COVID-19 cases spiked last winter in Jamestown and Chautauqua County, the district moved into two unplanned weeks of remote learning in the lower grade levels.
Through it all, Whitaker said he felt the district handled the past year as well as could be expected.
“As bizarre and crazy and unpredictable as all that COVID stuff was, the way that the team — and I mean team by everybody, this was a community effort,” Whitaker said. “I mentioned in my graduation speech that not only was it unprecedented, this whole group came together — the community, the parents, the teachers, the physicians, health staff, the county. Everyone came together to be a collective 1-0 against COVID and we pulled it off. I don’t take that as any indication of my triumph — that’s a team win right there. The game ball goes to everybody.”
What’s on Whitaker’s agenda for his second year? Instructional and curricular needs will take priority. Reading and literacy will be part of the district’s work this year as well as changes to some of the district’s curricula.
On a broader level, though, Whitaker said he wants to align the school district’s goals with the goals of the greater community.
“Getting involved in a community wide vision is something that I’ll be talking a lot more about — the idea of Jamestown in 2030. I just actually talked with Cummins about that, joining together with community groups — and that’s everybody from Cummins to pastors to local support agencies to small businesses — coming together to focus on success in the school district. Using metrics like reading on grade level at third grade and a certain number of credits by a certain grade in high school, passing algebra regents in ninth grade, what percentage of students can do that, things like that, attendance and things like that. Having a collective impact on those metrics so that the school district can be successful. And the school district is successful when we educate and graduate all of our students so that they can lead lives of consequence. Leading lives of consequence leads to a healthy community and also leads to graduates and community members who are prepared for whatever their future may hold — college, being an engineer, working the line, being a CNC operator, being a pilot, a professional drone operator, whatever it happens to be. When the community can come together, then we have great things happen for all of us and that includes the economic side of the community.”