Ross Kasun has a TED Talk — one of the onstage and online video presentations that aim to inspire as much as inform. He mentioned it three times in his first interview for the Billings Public Schools superintendent job, an interview that earned him another shot at the job in his finalist interview Friday.
The talk gives Kasun, currently the superintendent at K-8 Freehold Township schools in New Jersey, a platform to do something he emphasized to trustees: tell your own story.
The story Kasun tells is rooted in his background as a salesman. He’s pitching a new kind of American school, one that rethinks things as fundamental as homework.
“We need to have the guts to implement massive, revolutionary change,” he said in the talk, a spotlight following him across a darkened stage.
Kasun was an agent of change at his current school district, and is himself a product of change. He went from working in sales to becoming a kindergarten teacher in New Jersey in 1995. After also teaching fifth grade, he became an assistant principal in 1999 and a principal a year later.
He became an assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in 2005 at a K-12 district with about 4,000 students. He became a superintendent at a smaller K-8 district in 2008 and moved to Freehold, which has about 4,000 students, in 2011. In 2017, he was named New Jersey’s superintendent of the year.
To open interview questions, trustee Gordon Klasna cited another piece of Kasun’s story, an article he penned about personalized learning — how his district integrated technology to help students learn at their own pace.
Klasna didn’t ask about the guts, but about the practical aspect behind change; how did Kasun get teachers on board?
“I think the best way to roll it out is to share the what behind it, the why behind it, the how, the professional development,” Kasun said.
It’s the last part that impressed at least one of his teachers.
Tracie Yostpille has been in education for more than 30 years, with the past 14 as the president of the local teacher’s union for Freehold Township. She’s more than willing to admit that when Kasun began pumping technology into her district, she wasn’t on the cutting edge.
The district needed a tech upgrade, she said. But it also needed support for teachers to learn to use it, and Yostpille said Kasun delivered.
He set up camp-type training sessions. Teachers were able to advance through content at their own pace, much like the student approach, and got extra help if they needed. And there was an extra touch: Kasun brought in food trucks.
“Our staff just loved it,” Yostpille said.
When trustees asked about Professional Learning Communities, a teaching-improvement approach the district started this year, Kasun emphasized the importance of teachers taking ownership.
“Any time you can have teachers together, talking about student growth, student data, it’s a great thing,” he said. “They want to meet, and they see the benefit of meeting.”
Yostpille also had a front-row seat for Kasun’s efforts to change the grading structure at Freehold. Kasun wanted to get rid of zeroes, arguing they had a disproportionately negative effect on students’ grades. Yostpille saw the logic, especially if a student whiffed on a major project.
“There was no coming back from that,” she said. “The students were then turned off.”
She also talked about accompanying changes like adding a study period or intervention time, which when combined with the emphasis on eliminating zeroes, echo the ICU initiative some Billings schools have worked to implement.
That didn’t mean every teacher agreed with Kasun’s initiatives, but Yostpille framed that as a minority voice.
“You always have opposition no matter what you do,” she said.
During Kasun’s semifinalist interview, he talked about the shift to personalized learning about four years ago.
“I think some of the staff was wary of that,” he said. “I think we probably could have done a better job of building background knowledge.”
In both interviews he said that during a new rollout, he’s found that a third of the staff will volunteer to pilot new projects, a third prefer to wait to see some results, and a third are more resistant.
After some buy-in, “now you have a critical mass going forward,” he said.
Kasun talks a lot about the superintendent of the year award. He talks about the attention it brought to his school district, from visits from lawmakers to donations from vendors. He told stories about getting grants and becoming a pilot for new curricula.
Trustee Russ Hall asked about the award. As New Jersey’s superintendent of the year, was there much networking and politicking? How much time, if hired in Billings, would Kasun spend outside the district?
“I don’t take a lot of time to do that. If I get a chance to present five times a year, it was a lot,” Kasun said.
Kasun said he’s used vacation time for some trips, but also that networking has helped him expand his knowledge as a superintendent.
When Skyview High principal Deb Black, during a morning meet-and-greet, asked him why he wanted to come to Montana, he said that he believed Billings could become one of the best school districts in the nation.
He floated the idea of becoming the superintendent of the year again in a different state, and again turning that into a conduit for donations and training.
At another meet-and-greet during the lunch hour, he used the phrase “lighthouse district” — schools that the rest of the country could look to for guidance.
Kasun was the last of three finalists to interview, after Helena administrator Greg Upham and California education consultant Rebecca Salato. During their first round of interviews, all three emphasized initiatives that brought change to their district.
But Salato and Upham tempered that in the second round, noting that Billings wasn’t looking for radical change. Kasun frequently complemented the district’s work and said that he’d remain committed to existing initiatives, but he never stopped positioning himself as a change agent.
When trustees asked him why he applied for the Billings job, he said that he felt drawn to the leadership profile, part of the district’s job posting.
“Not all districts do want to move forward,” he said. He felt that Billings did.
Kasun frequently knocks the bell schedule and structures that tie students to specific learning schedules. He talks about boosting funding from donations and working to establish more business partnerships to fund new projects. His TED Talk discusses eliminating "busy work," criticizing the word searches he once assigned as a teacher. He talked about giving principals autonomy to try new things in their buildings, even in a larger district.
He told trustees: "Schools need to understand that the world is changing."
Trustees will meet at 9 a.m. Saturday to pick a new superintendent.