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When the Kids Come First: Ty McNichols

​“I thought I could make a difference. I thought I could impact the community. And my record had shown that I could.”

Summary

You walk in expecting to do big things. When the wheels come off the plan, however, how do you regroup, reprioritize, keep a team aligned—and still try to accomplish something?

Episode Description

In March 2013, the Normandy School District’s board hired Ty McNichols as its superintendent. By January 2015, McNichols was gone, resigned from the post after gaining what had been a career ambition—to lead a school district.

In the course of those 22 months, McNichol ran into a buzzsaw of state and local politics, financial crisis, plummeting morale, personal attacks and lightly veiled racism as he navigated the sudden loss of accreditation for the district. Oh, and by the way, McNichols and his team had to educate 4,000 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

The drama began to unfold within weeks of McNichols taking on the role offered by the elected school board for the north St. Louis County district. The chronically underperforming district needed a leader with ideas about improving student performance. The board thought McNichols might have the right ideas. By June, however, the state of Missouri had stripped Normandy of its accreditation, setting in motion a series of issues and unintended consequences.

That included accommodating hundreds of students given authority to flee the district for a neighboring, fully accredited district. Those moves came on Normandy’s dime—indeed, a lot of dimes Normandy didn’t have. And it put the mostly Black and brown students of Normandy in the crosshairs of a somewhat hostile reception from the mostly white district identified to accept them.

“What are the things I value? What was I willing to do and what not? Education is a political action for social justice,” McNichols said. “That's what drove me.”

Our story is about how a leader confronts wildly competing priorities when the stakes are high—arguably no higher than the education of children. Can you strive for great? Must you settle for acceptable? Is this about making the best of a bad situation?

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Credits

This podcast is a production of Washington University in St. Louis’s Olin Business School. Contributors include:

  • Katie Wools, Cathy Myrick, Judy Milanovits and Lesley Liesman, creative assistance
  • Jill Young Miller, fact checking and creative assistance
  • Hayden Molinarolo, original music and sound design
  • Mike Martin Media, editing
  • Sophia Passantino, social media
  • Lexie O'Brien and Erik Buschardt, website support
  • Paula Crews, creative vision and strategic support

Special thanks to Ray Irving and his team at WashU Olin’s Center for Digital Education, including our audio engineer, Austin Alred.

Additional information
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Download the podcast transcript (PDF)