• Documents: See Evans' resume and OPS job application.
WICHITA, Kan. — Mark Evans, the next Omaha Public Schools superintendent, is from the west side of this city in south-central Kansas.
His part of town is where you're more likely to see a mobile home park than a gated subdivision.
His childhood home sits in a neighborhood where methamphetamine plagues some families.
For five years, Evans led Wichita West High, his alma mater and the district's highest poverty high school.
In the early 2000s he was the deputy superintendent, hoping to find an urban district to lead. He had attended a yearlong fellowship on the best ways to lead large, diverse districts.
But board members from the affluent Wichita suburb of Andover tapped him to guide their rapidly growing district. So in 2005, Evans left Wichita.
Now, as he prepares to move to Omaha, friends and former co-workers say Evans is returning to his roots: a district that includes many neighborhoods filled with kids who live with less than others, kids like he used to be.
His mother was a secretary. His father was a sheet metal mechanic who climbed onto roofs in 110-degree heat and cut metal in below-zero temperatures.
“There are an awful lot of people just like my dad,” Evans said. “We have to take care of their kids.”
Over the course of his 31-year career, he has learned how to set and achieve districtwide goals, get buy-in for his ideas and challenge teachers to find different ways of teaching to help struggling students.
He's also learned the value of being a hands-on leader.
He has picked up truant students from pool halls, revved up crowds at pep rallies and hosted parties for small academic improvements.
His varied career in the Wichita area has prepared him well to lead a district such as OPS, said Weston Schartz, a longtime friend.
“He can relate to very poor, very downtrodden kids, or he can rub elbows down in Andover,” said Schartz, who teaches and coaches football at Wichita West. “You can make more of a difference in Omaha than you can in Andover.”
About 15 miles east of Evans' old neighborhood, in an area with new schools and nice homes, Evans lowers his eyeglasses and squints at a spreadsheet of data.
At Andover Middle School, he wears a visitor's sticker and sits at a table with administrators and teachers discussing the school's biggest initiatives.
Evans starts each day with emails, a four- or five-mile treadmill run, CNN and ESPN, the newspaper and coffee.
He presides over an affluent school district with about 5,400 students and 11 schools, including two high schools.
On his watch, the district's ACT scores have been above the state average, its state test scores have increased and it has opened three new elementary schools, thanks to a nearly $40 million bond issue that passed in 2005 by an almost 3-to-1 ratio.
Tracy Ingram, a parent of two Andover seniors, recently had what she called a “very serious” concern about a teacher. She called Evans, who addressed it immediately.
“You can't ask for anything better than that — to be able to pick up the phone and have the man at the top address it,” Ingram said.
In Andover, Evans can take part in every midyear data review session. If he wants, he can answer most parents' phone calls and handle whatever problems arise. And he observes teachers and knows many of them by name, along with their students.
But the district, with 15 percent of its students from families that qualify for federal lunch subsidies, is more like the Elkhorn Public Schools than OPS. Omaha is Nebraska's largest and most diverse district, with about 50,000 students. Nearly three-fourths of its students qualify for school lunch subsidies.
Evans knows he will have to lead differently in Omaha, and he said his 20 years of experience in Wichita, including 17 as an administrator, taught him that.
“How do you do what you do here back in Omaha?” he said.
You do that, he said, by making sure the people working under you understand how you want them to lead meetings, know what you want them to emphasize — the board goals — and remember they should always ask what the district can do to help.
You accomplish that, he said, by asking teachers for help in creating district goals, by hosting retreats with administrators and by holding multiple meetings with the board to finalize district goals.
You also can get that done, in Evans' view, by using what's worked elsewhere.
In both Wichita and Andover, Evans has used student achievement data to tell him where to push for extra resources.
When he was working in Wichita's district office, four middle schools had students who were reading at third- and fourth-grade levels.
The district had tried pulling the kids out for one-on-one tutoring and using other popular strategies, he said, but nothing was working.
Rather than have the students retake classes or pass them on to the next grade without mastering the material, Evans helped the schools adopt a special reading program.
The district doubled the instruction time, gave teachers special training and provided materials geared to middle school students' interests.
Student achievement went up, he said.
He employed a similar method in Andover to help high school students struggling with math, particularly algebra I.
Rather than have failing students simply retake math courses, the district's middle and high schools have added small-group classes for students who need extra math help, doubling their math instruction time.
Before the extra math class, said Andover junior Michael Fairley, teachers didn't have class time to give kids personalized instruction. His algebra II assist class has about 15 students, six fewer than a regular math class.
At Andover High School, the percentage of juniors scoring below state standards on the state math test has dropped from about 20 percent in 2007-08 to about 13 percent last school year.
“I would rather ramp up than remediate,” Evans said.
You also achieve your goals in a large district, he said, by focusing on one thing at a time.
The state ordered Kansas schools to step in and help struggling students. Evans told his schools to select one big issue to work on in a given school year: math, reading or behavior.
High school staffs chose behavior. Andover Middle chose reading.
“You don't want to get spread so thin you focus on everything (or) you focus on nothing,” Evans said.
And the more buy-in the better — a lesson Evans said he had to learn again in 2005, his first year in Andover.
He was the new superintendent and he was bursting with great ideas.
He wanted to change the way administrators were evaluated. When Andover staff and administrators didn't immediately jump on board, embracing his plan, that didn't slow him down. He installed it by the end of his first semester.
Evans said the staff wondered if he was going to ram all of his big ideas through, whether they liked them or not. But Evans said the episode taught him a valuable lesson.
“I had so much that I wanted to do when I came here, I was a little impatient,” he said.
So he rushed his plan through. “I'll never do it again,” he said.
That doesn't mean Evans can't make decisions, or believes in studying everything to death, he said. He can and has taken decisive action, including getting rid of employees.
During his six months as Wichita's interim superintendent in 1998, Evans quickly realized that the district's director of technology was not ready to update the district's information system for the year 2000, nor was he willing to prepare the system.
So Evans replaced him — no committee needed.
Evans has spent his entire career within 20 miles of his childhood home. So why leave for Omaha, a district that's almost certain to have louder critics and bigger challenges?
“You can impact that situation a little bit more than you can in another setting where the students and community have a lot of supports built in,” Evans said.
At Wichita West High, students of all races walk the hallways, dressed in jeans and sweats.
More than 80 percent come from families that qualify for federal lunch subsidies.
When Evans was principal here, 1993 through 1998, he stood on the sidelines at football games.
He got students excited at rallies by ripping apart an opponent jersey, throwing it on the ground and stomping on it.
He hosted parties for students who improved their grade-point averages by a half point.
He installed a uniform policy that cut down on the school fashion show and bumped up the school pride.
In March 1998, he agreed to be Wichita's interim superintendent, expecting a six-month stint into district management. Instead, he has remained in administrative roles.
He stayed in Wichita with an eye toward leading his own urban district. Evans applied to be superintendent in Sioux Falls, S.D.; Sacramento, Calif.; and in his hometown, Wichita. But he landed none of them.
Wichita's decision in 2009 had more to do with the board wanting an outside candidate than rejecting Evans, said Sheril Logan, a former Wichita administrator who is now on the Wichita school board.
Schartz, the longtime friend and coach, said Omaha appeals to Evans precisely because it is an urban district.
Schartz says Evans doesn't quite fit in a district like Andover.
“Dude, you're in the wrong place,” he used to tell Evans.
Schartz had also once left West for a more affluent school.
When he decided to return, Evans told him: “It's about time you're back.”
Evans agrees he's more at home in an urban district.
Staff members said Evans has a hands-on role when it comes to tackling problems.
He is the principal who found out a West High student was gone, asked Schartz where he was, and said, “Let's go get him.” They drove to a nearby pool hall and found the student, who looked up with wide eyes — and went back to school.
Evans was the Wichita district administrator who headed efforts, such as audits of textbooks and curriculum, to make sure students at inner-city schools were getting the same education as other kids, said Logan, who worked with Evans in Wichita central offices.
Hoyt Sunderland saw the same thing when he was a counselor for 30 years at West, which encompassed Evans' time there as a student as well as when he was Sunderland's boss.
Evans took on veteran teachers who wanted to show videos instead of teach, and personally negotiated with a department store so kids could buy less-expensive school uniforms.
“I've never worked with an administrator that was as hands-on and tuned in to the needs of those kids as Mark was,” said Sunderland, who worked for seven principals at West High. “He was equally comfortable with kids who had money, but his heart was with the underdog.”
Coaches and teachers can change kids' lives wherever they work, Evans said, and all kids need good role models at school. But some people fit better in urban schools, and some work better in suburban schools.
Evans said he can identify with kids whose parents didn't attend college.
Kids whose parents might not know how to navigate college visits and federal loan applications. They might not have two-parent households or parents who modeled the path they want to pursue: higher education and a career.
“You know if you're there, your presence makes a difference,” Evans said.
At Andover, he knows he has helped kids. But at a place like Wichita West, Evans said, “It's magnified.”
Now he will have an opportunity to make a difference in Omaha.
After OPS named Evans to the post last week, his old friend Schartz, had his “I told you so” moment.
Schartz picked up the phone, dialed Evans and said three words:
“It's about time.”
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