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October 18, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Four years ago when he started with Columbia Public Schools, Chris Belcher’s first goal was to improve communication. He sent video messages to the thousands of employees in Columbia Public Schools when he needed to share important information. Since then, he has revamped summer school to include an arts immersion program, and Belcher credits the open-minded culture of Columbia for allowing him to test new ideas.
What drew you to education?
I thought I’d teach science because I’d always been a huge science-fiction fan. In high school, I was a very avid reader and still do read lots of fiction and science fiction. I surf the net on science stuff, I watch History Channel, Science Channel, look stuff up, still read science books.
How did your teaching background prepare you for being a superintendent?
I taught biology and chemistry for six years, and I still have that science teacher in me. As I look at my job now, I’m constantly analyzing data, looking at trends, trying a new activity at this school versus this school, which is nothing more than the scientific method to see if something works.
How have your administration jobs differed from being in the classroom?
The further you move up in administration, often you’re dealing with more conflict and more problem-solving. When you leave the building level, you really limit your engagement with the students, and you find yourself really missing that. Each job you have, it’s just a different population that you serve.
What do you miss most about interacting with students on a daily basis?
Kids are just so positive, honest and bright. They make you feel pretty good about being around. I think everyone would benefit from hanging around kids more because they sort of keep you thinking in an honest and more idealistic perception.
So why did you leave the classroom?
I didn’t think I ever wanted to be a superintendent. I was in my classroom one day, and the human resources director from Blue Springs came in and said Liberty Junior High had an opening for assistant principal. He thought I would be a good candidate. I really didn’t know what I was getting into, but I got in and felt, “OK, I can do this.”
How do you balance your time between schools and remain fair between rivalries?
I worried about that when I came here and found out I didn’t need to. Each week I try to hit three or four schools and spend 30 or 40 minutes just walking through the classrooms, talking to the kids, talking to the teachers. My presence is important. People need to know I’m interested and concerned about the classroom.
You reorganized Columbia Public Schools’ summer program when you started. How did the Art Explorers Fine Arts Camp come to be?
I wanted to take kids who are gifted in certain areas and try to get them something that would appeal to them. So I called Debbie Jacobs, our fine arts director, and she took it beyond what I could even imagine. I tend to have ideas, but I’ve got staff who can make it materialize in wonderful ways.
Why did you start creating videos for your staff?
I worried when I came to Columbia that it was so big with 18,000 students, and I think about 1,600 teachers alone. How do you keep that going? So when I came here, we talked about using a video to give a message to all the staff because we can’t find a place we can all meet in one day.
What kind of stamp do you hope to leave on CPS?
I’d like to leave a culture of respect, dignity and professionalism. That’s really the only thing I can do. I can’t teach classes; I can’t improve student achievement myself. The teachers have to do it. I can create a culture that makes them feel comfortable to try to do things, to feel supported and to stay.