DeKALB – When asked why he was interested in becoming the superintendent of DeKalb District 428, Lorenzo Russell said he was excited to have a large role in a smaller district than his current one in Cleveland, Ohio.
"This is my time. This is my time to step into a role that is going to have a larger impact," Russell said. "To bring student achievement, to be consistent and transparent about the services that are needed, and helping bring a community back together so we can move the needle of student achievement and outcomes in DeKalb."
Russell was the first of four finalists to participate in an online community forum Monday night, during which he answered pre-selected questions sent by community members to the district's search firm, Raymond & Associates. The same questions will be asked of the other three finalists, Minerva Garcia-Sanchez, Johnetta Miller and Marcey Sorensen in individual forums on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights at 7 p.m. via Google Meet at meet.google.com/ich-dffk-xpg.
Russell supervises 15 high schools in Cleveland and has been in the role for six years. He graduated from Chicago Public Schools, and his first teaching and administration jobs were at CPS.
"When you think about the position in DeKalb, it makes me think about my aspirations of always wanting to have a larger impact," Russell said. "I was looking ... to be able to have experiences in improving student outcomes for students in diverse areas. So DeKalb became open and it became very attractive to me because it mirrored the work I've been doing."
Russell said his priorities center around diversity, talking frequently in the 50-minute session about an achievement gap that exists within the district.
"There's great aspirations in culture that exist for the district, but it needs to be refined," Russell said. "We need to make sure we have a clear plan around equity and have crucial conversations that address the deficits and the true realities that exist in the data before us. I want to make sure equity comes out of that diversity plan you guys have in place, because we want to make sure... we're not just using equity as a word but being very intentional with our actions, how we are trying to help our Black and brown students be successful and have the same experiences of our counterparts."
He said it's important the district's staff reflect the diversity of students so all students have opportunities to be taught by those who look like them.
Russell was also asked about school re-entry plans amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and said his current district in Cleveland is 100% remote for students and teachers. DeKalb is the only district in the county that's remained remote for the majority of its students throughout the pandemic, and is currently remote for students. D-428 teachers have the option of teaching from either the school or their home.
Russell said the safety of students is his top concern.
"Constantly monitoring and communicating our plan along the way is a priority, but so is making sure we are not just listening to certain individuals just so we can go back," Russell said. "We need to make sure it is a safe environment for everyone. ... In terms of a re-entry plan, we can't let the planning stop."
Russell was asked about benefits and drawbacks of e-learning. He said the amount of supportive collaboration among teachers is a definite positive.
But he also said that there have been significant drawbacks that feed into a lack of equity.
"It's not about the laptops," Russell said. "It's about the resources and services that families look forward to. Some look forward to that meal and the warmth they get from school."