Desmond Blackburn is not only preparing Brevard County Public School students to work in their desired industries, but also to be leaders and innovators, and ultimately to lead fulfilling lives as a result.
By Eric Wright
For someone who was a standout athlete, one might assume Desmond Blackburn’s fondest memories of high school were of cheering fans who saw him play basketball or because of his prowess as a track and field star. But instead, he points to certain, more intangible, qualities and experiences, which for him are priorities for every student in the vast system he oversees today.
“My high school experience was one phenomenal time,” said Blackburn, superintendent of Brevard County Public Schools. “The relationships I developed with teachers, coaches, principals and assistant principals still exist today.”
The personal interest and motivation they provided Blackburn, and the environment that seemed to embrace and envelop him, were transformational. Later, after graduating as a math major, as well as a standout student athlete, at the University of Florida, the dynamic of an educational ecosystem was far more intriguing than a career in engineering or business.
“I did a number of internships, but what connected for me was being a volunteer basketball coach while in Gainesville,” he said. Starting as a substitute teacher in math, he went from teacher, to assistant principal, to principal, to Chief of Schools in Broward County with oversight of 231 schools, to his current role in Brevard County.
As he looks back, though raised in a great family that put strong emphasis on academics, he points to his grandparents as being the inspiration behind his love for education — particularly his grandmother. “She was only able to attend school until the third grade in her native Jamaica. Yet, the impact that experience had on her and in turn on me was profound,” he recalled.
She loved and treasured her seemingly brief excursion into formal education and was able to pass on to her grandson the value of learning, along with the need for and significance of teachers who could inspire and who genuinely cared.
Crystalizing The Mission
During the course of Blackburn’s professional journey, three core principles crystalized that drive him every day and became his non-negotiables. They are the filters through which he makes the myriad of decisions that daily come across his desk.
Value Proposition 1: The child, the student, must succeed academically beyond expectations.
Value Proposition 2: The child, the student, must be kept safe, physically and emotionally.
Value Proposition 3: We must have a positive relationship with all the adults in that child, that student’s, life.
Growing up on the northern border of the Bronx in New York, in a classic intercity environment, Blackburn was stunned by the feeling he had when he entered high school after his family moved to South Florida in the mid-80s. “When I walked into that high school for the first time, there was a sigh of relief,” he said. “I felt physically safe, and soon I had the same feeling emotionally and relationally.” super
Blackburn admits he does not have all the answers in replicating that experience for every student, but he does realize we must let go of the assumptions that kids are growing up in the same environment their parents were raised in. Technology, in particular, has changed all of that. Also, though today’s young people may experience many of the same things their parents faced, the notion that their responses will be the same is long gone. Bullying has always been a reality, but the impact and reaction to it is vastly different today. “In addition,” Blackburn pointed out, “perhaps for the first time I’m aware of in history, children, even younger children, consider ending their lives as a better option than living and battling through it.”
These are monumental cultural shifts that leaders are sprinting to keep up with. “The way we communicate is also so different today,” he asserted. “Almost lost is the art of face-to-face communication.”
At one time you could control what your child was exposed to, but in today’s world, that control is tenuous at best. What was once called “the generation gap,” which is really a culture gap, still exists. What is more, it can be quite wide between parents and children, without the parents even knowing it. Yet as everyone knows, in many ways the stakes are much higher.
A CEO, But Not A CEO
These and other challenges are staggering to most of us. Some compare the role of the superintendent to the CEO of a large corporation. Brevard County Public Schools (BCPS) is the county’s largest employer with more than 9,000 staff members serving 73,000 students. Also, like any Fortune 500 Company, the stakes could not be higher; the BCPS is responsible to fill the talent needs of tomorrow for our highly complex economy and to produce leaders in our civil, political and public sectors. It is dynamic, multifaceted and multi-cultural, with a very sizeable budget.
However, Blackburn pointed out, “There are some unique differences between what I do and a typical CEO is faced with. The most significant one is that in our production process, we simply can’t discard imperfect elements.”
Brevard County Public Schools is the county’s largest employer with more than 9,000 staff members serving 73,000 students.
Unlike the business decision to reject inferior products or lines, a school system is charged and challenged to embrace and equip each student for success. Regardless of how imperfect that student may be or the home they come from.
A second and equally striking point Blackburn identifies is that morale is a factor in any organization, and a level of emotional engagement is always critical to success. “In education, we’re disproportionally impacted by student emotions, parent emotions and teacher emotions. The morale component is a much greater factor in my executive role than with other CEO’s. So I have to lace up my shoes every day and get out there.”
Those close to him or who follow him realize Blackburn was an early adopter and avid user of social media. In fact, he contends he does not know how his predecessors survived without it. “If I didn’t have social media, I would have a definite disconnect with students, teachers and my constituents. With all the liabilities we talk about with technology, the benefits are staggering.”
In addition, he believes his physical, intellectual and spiritual health is crucial to maintaining his effectiveness. A man of deep faith, he begins his day early, investing in personal development materials and cultivating his daily walk and vigorous exercise. “Authenticity is central to my effectiveness, and I have to calibrate and orient myself to ensure that every day.”
What Success Looks Like
The professional mortality or lifecycle of a superintendent is not long; nationally the average is three to five years. This was one of the things that attracted Blackburn to Brevard County, where the previous two superintendents went well beyond this mark. Longevity provides a deeper understanding of both the challenges and the opportunities a school system has, along with the things that make for a healthy system. For example, teachers, administrators and parents are realizing that beyond the push for test scores and graduation rates, issues like security, mental health services and extra-curricular activities are essential to student and school well being.
In addition, Blackburn sees education headed towards a major renaissance in the coming years. “How we do education has changed very little in the last 50 to 75 years, but everything else has changed dramatically. Education is working to catch up, without allowing what may be viewed as innovation, to be a substitute for the essential elements of the teacher-student relationship.”
With the growing need for qualified individuals to fill technical/manufacturing positions in the workforce, Blackburn has some very specific ideas. Though most parents still look at college as the more desirable post-secondary school option, he wants to ensure all students are exposed to a variety of tracts to achieve an academic credential with real value. That means they can be self-sustaining positive contributors to society and look forward for additional opportunities.
“I don’t want to prepare a student to simply work in a particular industry. There are two things I want to equip them for — leadership and ownership,” Blackburn said. “Certification and credentialing are vital, but I want them to think beyond being a plumber, to being the owner or manager of a plumbing company. I constantly ask my sons, ‘What do you lead, what do you own?’”
For Blackburn, this is the secret to a fulfilling life, which he wants for all his students.
“I’m one of the few people in America who wakes up everyday and gets to work at their passion,” he observed. “If I can help our students find a way to do that, I’ve succeeded.”
“The way we communicate is also so different today. Almost lost is the art of face-to-face communication.” -Dr. Desmond Blackburn