Dual roles give Bess unusual view into schools

Scott Bess is getting used to living in two worlds.

As a young math teacher, Bess chafed against perceived rigidity in the public schools and left for a career in computers. But within a few years, he was creeping back into education, volunteering for his local PTO, coaching basketball and, eventually, landing a seat on the Danville school board.

Now Bess is straddling another divide: the increasingly contentious chasm between traditional public schools and privately operated charters.

Bess, still on the school board in Danville, also is superintendent of Indianapolis Metropolitan High, a charter IBJ is following this spring as it implements a school-wide overhaul.

His rare dual role leading both charter and community schools and his broad work experience—public and private, kids and computers—gives Bess an unusual perspective on the education-reform debate now roiling the Indiana Statehouse. (See story, page 1)

Bess’ experience also landed him on a 13-member panel tapped by the Indiana Department of Education to craft new accountability rules that will shape the future of all public schools—charters and traditional districts alike.
“People talk about the tension between charter schools and traditional schools, and the amazing thing about being in this situation has been to really take the best of both,” Bess said after rushing from Indy Met to a Danville Community Schools Corp. board meeting in mid-February.

Bess, 49, describes himself as “apolitical” on education issues—but his sympathies clearly lie with education reformers. He praises Democrats like U.S. school chief Arne Duncan and former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, as well as Republican Tony Bennett, Indiana’s controversial superintendent of public instruction.

“I’ve really admired the way he’s gone about it, saying, ‘Look, we don’t have time to sit around and debate and talk. Let’s go do,’” Bess said of Bennett.

Bess is no firebrand himself. He speaks calmly, even blandly—in contrast to the sharp rhetoric of Rhee and Bennett. Instead, Bess tries to reason with and at times even joke with his listeners to make his points.

But Bess is a man of action. And under his watch Indy Met has developed the same kind of get-it-done culture.

The Purdue University grad sends work e-mails from his Droid phone while watching a Boilermakers basketball game. And he expects his staff to do much the same. Indy Met teachers work 10-hour days and carry smart phones to answer student questions on nights and weekends.

Bess puts in equally long days, and says he “tries” to leave one weekend day free of work. On Sunday mornings, he plays the drums at his church, Northview Christian in Danville, but by that evening, he’s back to his e-mail.

“If you want a job where, ‘I’m in and I’m out,’ this probably isn’t the place for you,” Bess said.

He and Indy Met Principal Carlotta Cooprider say they try to keep turnover under control by making the time demands very clear in job interviews. But some former employees of the school said burnout among teachers was common.

Family man

Despite his work ethic, Bess is always willing to take off early when one of his four kids is competing in a sporting event. He and his wife, Robin, even drove to Wisconsin this month to watch son Cory in a college track meet.

Gary Caldwell, who worked with Bess at the electric utility Cinergy Corp. in the 1990s, recalls many days when Bess would drive to Cincinnati for meetings at the corporate office, drive back to Indiana to catch his daughters’ basketball games, and then head back to Ohio for more meetings.

“I really admired him for how he juggled everything,” said Caldwell, now chief information officer at Herff Jones Inc. in Indianapolis.

Bess also coached his three daughters through basketball, beginning in grade school and continuing as the assistant coach when they were at Danville High. He would drive from his office to the school, gradually changing clothes at stoplights along the way, and hardly ever missed a practice, recalled Steve Johnson, the former head coach.

Bess handled stats and conditioning for Johnson—and he didn’t mind when Johnson pushed his daughters to perform. Once at a summer camp when Bess’ daughter Kelsey, then a freshman, didn’t hustle, Johnson let her have it.

“I got on her right from the get go, and she was crying. I said, ‘You’re going to learn, there’s no dogging it,’” Johnson recalled. “And Scott was all for that. He didn’t care about me getting on his kids at all.”

Kelsey Bess went on to be the captain of the basketball team at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind. Her senior year, Scott Bess made it to all her games.

Bess also pushed the teams he managed at Cinergy, now called Duke Energy.

He led the sweeping implementation of a new company-wide software system, which normally would have required 18 months, Caldwell said. But Bess—packaging his plans under the tagline “This is Not Your Father’s IT”—instructed his team to do it in half that time.

“Initially, everybody thought he was crazy,” Caldwell said. “At the same time, it was something that you

get excited about. He had a way of getting his troops excited. It was just his own energy and confidence.”

Bess had to overcome some animosity when he first arrived at Cinergy in 1989. Just 28 then, he was hired at a level of pay and responsibility higher than his years—bypassing some veterans along the way.

“He wasn’t welcomed,” Caldwell recalled. “But just because of his personality, his sense of humor and his relationship skills, that didn’t last long.”

Indeed, nearly everyone who knows Bess comments on his humor, which he uses to ease tense situations. Robin Bess calls her husband a “silly man,” whorevels in telling dumb jokes at home.

“If you say (now by accident, because we all know better) the time of 2:30 in any sentence,” she wrote in an e-mail, “Scott will tell you to see a dentist.” Why? Because, “Tooth hurty.”

‘Always having visions’

Bess left teaching after three years at Beech Grove Middle School because he didn’t like his pay and advancement being determined by a pre-negotiated salary schedule.

“I could knock myself out and do it, but the guy down the hall who wasn’t, he was going to get the same. The raises were all defined in the book,” Bess said. “That was the part that really hit me.”

Not surprisingly, Indy Met now uses a performance-based pay system for teachers, which tries to gives extra pay for outstanding performers. And this year, Bess and Indy Met administrators are being trained in the Teacher Advancement Program, an improvement program with a performance-based component.
Quotes from students and staff at Indy Met High School
Cooprider said it’s challenging working for Bess, who’s frequently coming up with ideas and pushing employees to make them happen—while allowing them to flesh out the details on their own.

“It’s very challenging to be working for a visionary, because he’s always having visions,” said the principal, who has been at Indy Met four years. “It’s not really … just, ‘Here’s your job, and here’s what I want you to do and report back to me.’ It’s more, ‘Here’s what I was thinking, what can you make happen?’”

When Bess decided “to pursue his fortune” in IT, he said he became the “black sheep” of his family, nearly all of whom are teachers. His brother Todd was a public school administrator for years and is an executive at the Indiana Association of School Principals.

At the time, Bess’ mother, a third-grade teacher, assured him he would come back to education.

“You might be leaving teaching, but it’s never going to leave you,” Bess recalled his mom Eleanor saying. She was right and Scott Bess now calls his mom—even though it sounds “hokey”—his hero and biggest career inspiration.

Bess came back firmly into education by joining the Danville school board in 1998. He is now in his fourth—and he says final—term. He has run unopposed each time he’s been elected.

“Which either says I’m doing OK or no one else wants the job and I’m an idiot,” Bess quips.

In the late 1990s, Bess left Cinergy to start an IT consulting firm with a partner. They did work for public schools and had another big client: Goodwill Industries of Central Indiana, which now operates Indy Met.

Bess became chief information officer at Goodwill about the same time it launched the charter. He took over the school in 2005 and now also oversees the Excel Center, which serves adults who did not finish high school. He earns a salary of $130,000, according to a Goodwill tax filing.

Dual benefits

Bess’ roles in Danville and Indianapolis have, for the most part, gone smoothly, according to former teachers and staff.

He led contract negotiations last year with the Danville teachers union, and praised the union for its cooperativeness. However, local union chief Mike Klinker declined to comment about Bess.

Bess and his wife Robin, who was registrar at Danville High School for 13 years, received some cool responses when their son Cory left Danville High School after his freshman year to attend Indy Met.

“When my son came here, I got questions,” Bess said. He added, “I’m sure there were conversations [in the community].”

Bess said his experiences in Danville—where the high school has 800 students—helped him set up good structures for Indy Met that were helpful as the charter grew from about 100 students to more than 400.

The school, which tries to focus on students who have struggled in traditional public schools, has had mixed results under Bess. Its graduation rates are higher than traditional public schools with similar demographics, but its pass rates on standardized tests are markedly lower.

Since taking the helm at Indy Met, Bess has tried to advise the Danville school board to focus on addressing students that don’t fit the traditional mold. He also has counseled school administrators that it’s OK to try something and fail.

Bess said he thinks Danville administrators were encouraged by that philosophy when they converted an old middle school building into a center for students taking early college classes—something Indy Met has done with its students, too.

Danville administrators have visited Indy Met, and Cooprider and an Indy Met teacher spent time in Danville studying a new approach to teaching algebra.

“Our charter schools, they’re specifically designed to help reach students who maybe didn’t get fully served by the school corporation they were in. Well, I can bring those experiences here,” Bess said. “And we spend a lot of time talking about it, as a board, talking about it with the administration: How do we serve everybody?”

None of Indiana’s 62 charter schools are in Danville or surrounding Hendricks County, so the schools there have no immediate threat of a charter siphoning away students. But many people have asked Bess what he would do, as a school board member, if a charter school opened there. His answer: The best defense is a good offense.

“We’re a great school corporation. We probably serve between 85 and 90 percent of our students exceptionally well,” Bess said, adding. “Let’s make sure we’re serving as many students in as many ways, to take away the need for a charter school.”•

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