Helping Educators Find their Voice

Alumni Achievement Award winner Rodney Watson

A commitment to urban education and dedication to diversity and social justice describe the influential career of Rodney E. Watson (EdSp ’00, PhD ’07), a University of Missouri-Kansas City alumnus and a high-level administrator in the nation’s seventh-largest public school district.

Watson has a long career history of demonstrating that commitment and dedication, and as chief of Human Resources for the Houston Independent School District, he does so currently by giving teachers and principals the support and freedom they need to do what they do best. Watson is the 2014 recipient of the Alumni Achievement Award for the UMKC School of Education.

Each year, the UMKC Alumni Association recognizes outstanding individual alumni, and one family, with top honors. UMKC will honor its outstanding alumni for 2014 at a luncheon event on April 24 at Swinney Recreation Center on the UMKC campus. UMKC’s Alumni Association will highlight the recipients’ stories and accomplishments at the luncheon as well as through other events, presentations and classroom visits where they will share their experiences with students.

It’s easy to see how Watson comes by his passion for teaching and learning. He comes from a long line of educators on both sides of his family, including his parents who are both retired educators. Before moving to Houston, he had a long association with the UMKC School of Education while living and working in Kansas City. He enrolled in the school’s educational specialist degree program while serving as administrator in the Hickman Mills and Lee’s Summit districts, and he was an adjunct professor in the school’s Institute for Urban Education while serving as an elementary principal.

“Dr. Watson is an exemplar when it comes to living the UMKC School of Education’s core values” of diversity and social justice, wrote Dr. Jennifer Friend, assistant dean of the UMKC School of Graduate Studies, in a nomination letter for the award.

In 2010, he became a school improvement officer/area superintendent for the Houston Independent School District in Texas, supervising 12 elementary schools. Watson later helped to develop, promote and implement the Apollo 20 program, where he provided direction and oversight to Houston’s 11 lowest-achieving elementary schools. After only one year, Watson was promoted to chief school officer, supervising 53 elementary schools and five school improvement officers. In 2013, Watson testified in Washington, D.C., before the House Education Subcommittee regarding the evaluation of teachers, Houston ISD support and development and its major successes. He is currently chief of human resources for HISD, where he is responsible for an employee group of nearly 30,000 individuals.

In his Ph.D. research at UMKC, Watson studied the core beliefs of elementary school principals. He found that high-pressure demand for immediate results drives many districts to force “cookie cutter” programs on schools and principals “without collaborative conversations or regard for the principal’s core beliefs surrounding the initiative, or their knowledge of what is necessary to improve the learning organization in which they work. Such practices often silence the voice of the building principals, causing them to implement or perpetuate mandates, edicts and sanctions that do not nurture, inspire or develop a sense of shared purpose in the learning organization.”

Watson said the most challenging aspect of his job is recruiting the highest quality teachers.

“Teachers are the single most important role in school districts, and I am committed to ensuring we have a highly effective teacher in every classroom,” he said.

Watson said he hopes to be superintendent of his own district someday, but also has his sights set a little higher – serving as U.S. secretary of education.

“I am driven by an innate desire to see equity and social justice in America’s school system,” Watson said. “UMKC has served as the foundation for all of my perceived success. I have had the pleasure of studying with some of the best professors in the country. The quality of teaching and learning I was provided has enabled me to truly transcend theoretical assumptions to practical realities.

“UMKC has prepared me to become a leader for those that are deemed lost or unreachable. God has blessed me to be able to instill hope in people and systems that are discouraged.”

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