ne wonders how Ithaca managed to lure a star athlete, self-made super student, renowned school administrator to take over the Ithaca City School District. By 8 a.m. each morning Luvelle Brown has fielded calls from anxious parents, snowed in principals, and harried janitorial staff as the snow drifts gracefully outside his window for the third month in a row.
“Beautiful. My time in Ithaca has been a beautiful experience,” he said. “I’m learning so much about this cold climate, meeting amazing people. It’s like a 3 1/2 year vacation. I’ve grown as a person, as a professional.”
Luvelle Brown could have gone almost anywhere. There are not many African American 36-year-old high-ranking school administrators with a stellar reputation—and a successful stint as a student athlete to boot—out there. It’s a very small pool. Plus, as recently acknowledged by President Obama, word has reached the White House that Luvelle knows how to introduce innovative technology to an entire school system—kids, staff, families. (The National School Boards Association named Brown one of its “20 to Watch” educators for the 2013-14 school year. Brown was the only New York State educator selected this year.)
Education is central to who we are and how we live in Ithaca. Brown admitted it’s lively to be at the center of this town. Wherever he goes—to put out the trash, to buy groceries, to take a walk with his young children—someone rushes over to chat: school taxes, the future of education, good teachers and bad teachers are all fair game. His take on his “fish bowl” existence: “I’ve come to appreciate how central and important education is to this community. I feel blessed to be in this key role. And I am reminded every day that wherever I go: I have the opportunity to lead. I am fortunate to have the set of skills that can bring value to my community. When I am at work, I am serving our community’s children, and I love that. When I am at home, I am serving my two toddlers, and I love that.” Whatever we discussed, Brown projected a genuine happiness that makes everything he is doing seem hopeful. Fun.
“I am growing and learning from daily interactions,” he said. “Along with learning, regardless of what others express to me, I am in control of my verbal and emotional response. My parents are servant leaders whom I’ve never seen unhappy or disgruntled. My leadership style is similar. When I get out of bed in the morning the Devil may say: “Damn, he’s at it again.” I love to get up and do as much as I can.
“I make difficult decisions all day long,” he continued. “Those decisions are made from a place of love. I love the children I serve, and I have grown to love this community. Love for others is at the center of my decision-making, not personal power or ego satisfaction.
“I’m excited to live in Ithaca,” said the superintendent. “It’s fun to take occasional trips away. But I’m always happy to be coming back here. I’m committed to staying here and making this my home, so long as the community wants me, and supports me. So far, so good.”
Brown remarked that he has felt an outpouring of support during his years in Ithaca. And he realizes he is asking a lot of people from all walks of life. He meets folks who live on tiny rural roads in trailers, raising their grandchildren; single parents, working two jobs, who are also caring for elderly parents; people with advanced technology skills, and families with no phone. Wherever he has been, people have engaged with him, listened to his message, learned with him. “I’m learning too. All the time.”
“The work we are engaged in is transformative,” he said. “Now, we are seeing the quantitative and qualitative data shifts that we wish for. We are working hard to make sure no matter where kids come from, they succeed in our schools.” Interested community members watch board meetings on the Internet, attend community forums, show up at board meetings. “If they can’t come to a forum or a board meeting, and they have no Internet, they can just show up here at the district office (at Ithaca High School) or at any other school building. If they can get to a building, my staff and I will take it from there.” And for the first time most people can recall, the buildings are clearly labeled (“Library,” “District Office”) and staff is very welcoming to drop-ins.
This positive culture is here to stay. “The people we are recruiting and retaining are creating an exciting culture, an exciting atmosphere,” Brown said. “We must build in ways that are sustainable regardless of who has the title of Superintendent.”
Where did he find the vision and the drive to facilitate this transformation of which he is so proud? Luvelle Brown left behind hard-working, successful parents, siblings, and a large, loving clan in Charlottesville, Virginia. His story—hometown boy makes good—was well known throughout Virginia. He could have lived there forever and been happy and successful. While his close-knit family misses him (and his toddlers), they are very proud of him, and stay connected between visits via Skype and Facetime.
“I am a lifelong learner. I had to struggle to talk, to overcome speech problems,” he said. “I wasn’t a naturally gifted student. I had to overcompensate. I had to study harder than many kids to succeed in school. To become a competent speaker and develop good communication skills I watched videos and shows. I listened to the best speakers, I practiced, and I forced myself to speak, speak publicly whenever I could.
“It helps to have a love for learning, along with humility,” he went on. “I am open to constructive feedback that will help me be better. I realize that I have no real power as superintendent of schools. Whatever I accomplish is based upon my community choosing to buy in with me and work with me. Only then can I accomplish what I believe we must do together to educate all our children, so all our children can become the persons they were meant to be.
“My interpersonal skills are grounded in a few key principles,” said Brown. “I attempt to leave any room or place in a better place than it was when I arrived. Secondly, I treat people better than I expect to be treated.”
So, in addition to learning with Brown, what can the community do to support the schools?
“Currently schools are underfunded, due to decisions made in Albany,” he said. “The severe funding issues must be addressed through advocacy efforts with legislators. In the near future I will be enlisting everyone in the community to join with me to advocate for fair funding for public education.”