By Mike Marsee
Teaching might have been in James Flynn’s blood, but it wasn’t in his heart. At least not at first.
Flynn wanted to become a scientist before his career path changed unexpectedly while he was working on a master’s degree in biology.
“One semester at grad school I taught a freshman-level biology lab class, and I absolutely loved it,” Flynn said. “I recognized that I had a passion for teaching.”
That passion has led to a career of more than 25 years as an educator, and Flynn has spent the past 12 years as superintendent of the Simpson County school district. He was recently recognized by the Kentucky Association of School Administrators as its 2015 Kentucky Superintendent of the Year.
“I don’t regret the decision to go into education. I’ve loved it, and I still do,” he said.
Flynn hasn’t been a classroom teacher since 1994, but he works to stay connected to students. He teaches inside and outside the school through platforms such as Junior Achievement and Western Kentucky University’s Center for Leadership Excellence. He also formed a superintendent’s student advisory council that allows him to hear and address Simpson County students’ concerns.
“It’s all driven by their voice, their issues,” he said. “I have so many meetings in other aspects of the business side, it’s a good opportunity for me to be with kids and have direct contact with them and hear their issues.”
Flynn said putting students’ needs first and making sure graduates are “life ready” has resulted in the biggest change in Simpson County schools since he took over as superintendent in 2003.
“We really have worked hard to build in the fabric of how we do things that everything’s student-centered,” he said. “That says, ‘Let’s create a conducive, safe learning environment so our kids can achieve what we want them to achieve, and let’s make sure we keep our students at the center of every decision because they matter most.
“I think building that culture and building it into a college- and career-focused culture has been very important.”
Simpson County has been rated a Proficient district, with almost 98 percent of its 2014 graduates – and 100 percent of its alternative school graduates – certified as college/career ready. The district’s Franklin-Simpson High School became one of Kentucky’s first two Hub schools in 2013, meaning the school had dramatically improved its CCR rate and was designated to share its best practices with other schools looking to do the same.
“In universities we hear a lot about college readiness, but for students who may not want to go to college, life readiness is a very important part of education for students who may not have those extra years, and his focus on that has been significant and innovative,” said Cecile Garmon, the director of the WKU Center for Leadership Excellence, where Flynn is an adjunct faculty member. “I’m glad to see him win this award, because he exemplifies what I think an educational leader ought to be.”
Flynn said the accolades he and his district have received shouldn’t be the final chapter in Simpson County’s success story.
“We’re just going to keep working hard. It’s not some event where we’re at the end of it and we say, ‘Oh, we’ve arrived,’ ” he said. “It’s the journey, it’s the process of helping the young people we serve achieve that vision. It’s going in every day with your sleeves rolled up trying to make something happen.”
Flynn followed in the footsteps of his father, James Jr., who taught English literature at WKU.
“I grew up, definitely, in an education family, but I did resist it,” he said.
He thought he was headed for a career in science when he earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and went to Texas for graduate school. He said a fourth-grade teacher who had a strong science background planted those seeds at T.C. Cherry Elementary School in Bowling Green.
And he said he thinks his own science background, including his affinity for problem-solving and using a systems approach, has helped him in education.
Flynn earned a graduate degree in biology and secondary education, then returned home to Kentucky, where he worked at schools in Warren and Shelby counties before being hired at Simpson County. He taught high school biology, chemistry and physics and coached basketball, football and track and field before moving into school leadership.
“I’ve watched him grow up, and I’ve been so impressed with the work he’s done and the enthusiasm he’s brought to public education,” said Garmon, who has known Flynn and his family for years. “Having watched him develop this great strength, I was eager to get his expertise into the university. He’s been a real help guiding us with his experience outside the academic world.”
Flynn’s father was ill and unable to attend the surprise ceremony at Franklin-Simpson at which Flynn’s Superintendent of the Year honor was announced in November, but he did record his congratulations on a video message. He died less than three weeks later.
“It was really neat that he was able to participate,” Flynn said. “They really went the distance in trying to make this not only a surprise event, but also a real special event.
“Obviously it’s a big honor and it was a big surprise, but it humbles me, also. Getting this award is a function of what we do as a school system, as a team. We have amazing staff and community partners who contribute to the outstanding work we’ve been able to do in our schools, so I really share this with our whole school community.”
Flynn said his role is much like that of a coach.
“It is important to emphasize that team component. Yes, I’m the superintendent, but it takes all of us to accomplish our vision. We want to be a world-class educational organization that sends out students who are life-ready. Our dream is when students graduate that they are prepared and ready and have the full range of opportunities in front of them to choose from.”
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