- Expertise: Districtwide Improvement
- Position: Superintendent
- District: Fayette County Public Schools, Lexington, Ky.
The tattered 6th grade report card inside Emmanuel Caulk’s wallet has motivated him for more than three decades. A handwritten note from his teacher—not the less-than-perfect grades—serves as his inspiration.
“He told me basically, ‘I’m not going to lower the bar for you. I understand where you’re going, and you’re going to get there. If you keep applying yourself, keep making those great choices, you’re going to get there,’ ” says Caulk, the superintendent in Kentucky’s 40,000-student Fayette County school district.
From his work as a special education teacher in a juvenile detention center to steering two school districts through financial crises, Caulk has adhered to the view of his 6th grade teacher: Where others see problems, he sees promise.
That’s why he took the superintendent’s job three years ago in Fayette County, which includes the city of Lexington. The district was beset with financial challenges and a fractious school board. Its leaders had drawn sharp criticism from the state’s education commissioner for ignoring the needs of low-income, nonwhite, and special education students. Now, residents, parents, and school board members say, Caulk has restored confidence in the school system with a sweeping improvement plan that has focused heavily on fostering broad community support and zeroing in on the needs of students who struggle the most.
Lessons from the Leader
- Establish Collective Values: Decisions and actions of the organization have to be driven by a shared mission and values that are reflective of your community.
- Expect Results From Yourself and Others: You have to commit to proving every day that you’re the right person for this work. Sharing accountability at every level of the district is essential because it doesn’t matter how hard you’re working if you’re not making progress.
- Build Partnerships: To ensure we can provide excellent opportunities for all students, we have to improve our schools from the inside and the outside. That requires collaborating with nonprofit agencies, faith communities, and business partners.