If you're in the presence of Alex Apostle for any meaningful period of time, you quickly become aware of a phrase that escapes the superintendent's mouth repeatedly.

"We are moving this district forward."

Over and over he says it - at school board meetings, cabinet meetings and school assemblies, in casual conversations over coffee.

The leader of the Missoula County Public Schools district states it as a coda, a tagline to underscore the importance of the changes he and MCPS are instituting for the district's 8,500 students and 1,200 employees.

It's Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., and the 64-year-old Apostle has already been up for four hours. He's had coffee and two mints, but no breakfast. Apostle doesn't eat breakfast. Occasionally he'll squeeze in a lunch, but only if he's at a lunch meeting talking about district business.

The 10 folks who make up his superintendent's cabinet are gathered in the district's business building on South Avenue. Here sit three regional administrators, four department heads, school board president Toni Rehbein, and the presidents of the two unions representing classified and certified MCPS employees.

In a pea-green blazer and yellow shirt, Apostle assumes his familiar posture - leaning forward, arms resting on the conference table, fingers interlocked - as he listens to updates on the happenings at Russell Elementary and leads discussions about the evening's upcoming school board meeting.

Regional administrator Mark Thane, the last to address the cabinet, gives the gathering yet another jolt of good news. The recent rounds of MAP testing (short for Measures of Academic Progress) show scores in math and reading rising once again in every grade in the elementary and middle schools.

That's the kind of thing Apostle wants to hear. He beams at the presentation.

"I believe," he says, "that we are making progress. We are moving this district forward. But we are not done."

But the meeting is done, and he makes sure it is done precisely at 10 a.m.

"We have seven minutes left, and we will end on time," Apostle says at 9:53 a.m.

Seven minutes later, the seats are empty.

*****

Alex Apostle is a man of meetings, which always end on time.

They have to. Most days, he has about 10 of them, not to mention the concerts or sports events or open forums in the evening. Last Tuesday, he had eight scheduled, including drop-ins at Big Sky High School and Paxson Elementary to talk with staff, and the reading of a children's book to Chief Charlo fifth-graders. He later met with state Rep. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula, to talk about school funding, then had a sit-down discussion with trustees Joe Toth and Debbie Dupree.

Those meetings are the necessary byproduct of the sweeping changes Apostle is determined to get through in MCPS, changes that are now being implemented across the district - the International Baccalaureate Program at Hellgate, the Health Sciences Academy at Big Sky, "student achievement for all," Graduation Matters, a "21st century schools" re-envisioning of education and others.

Apostle stole a half-hour before his next meeting, a test of emergency responses to a fictional school shooting, to reflect on the changes he and the district have pursued since he was hired 3 1/2 years ago. Since then, the school board has approved nearly everything he's asked for.

"When I came in for the interview, I basically gave the board my philosophy about a high-quality public education system," he said. "It was in concert with some of the things they were looking for. They did not hire me to come in and arbitrarily and capriciously make changes."

The changes have come in rapid-fire succession: more frequent staff evaluations; more advanced-placement classes in schools; the development of Hellgate's International Baccalaureate and Big Sky's Health Sciences Academy; greater MCPS ties to the University of Montana; the deployment of three new regional administrators; the districtwide shifting of principals.

Apostle has the full support of the 11-member school board. His annual reviews are flush with praise: From his most recent, board president Rehbein wrote: "We see few superintendents across this great nation able to conceive of these ideas, let alone accomplish them."

One fan of what Apostle is trying to accomplish is state Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.

Various AA school districts statewide are pursuing "pieces" of MCPS' initiatives, but she can't think of one that is pursuing so many at once.

"He has a clear vision of how a quality education is provided to Missoula children," said Juneau, whose office adopted Graduation Matters Missoula as a statewide program. "For him, it's not how it could get done, but how it will get done. ... I think he's set a high bar for a lot of people, and I actually appreciate that type of leadership."

But others say the changes are coming too fast, and are too numerous and top-down.

Dave Severson, who taught in the district for 25 years and was president of the Missoula Education Association during Apostle's first two years, said some teachers have felt dictated to and run over by the pace of the changes, and now must attend "meeting after meeting after meeting."

"When people talk with him one on one, he seems very sincere and genuine," said Severson, who also added that he personally likes Apostle. "But I think one of his weaknesses is that he's always trying to create new stuff, new programs, new directions and new excitement about whatever. And that's frankly just wearing people out. There's some good to that strategy, but there's some bad when you don't let off the gas."

Those criticisms were further reflected in teacher comments that current MEA president Melanie Charlson collected to read to the school board Tuesday evening. Charlson was there to prime the board and administrators for upcoming contract negotiations.

"It feels like so many more expectations are being put on teachers, with the same amount of workday and same amount of student contact time," one teacher wrote. "Please maintain quality over quantity."

Wrote another: "I'm taking home significantly less money than I did two years ago. This has to stop."

Charlson in general has been excited about the changes in the district, and mainly commends Apostle's efforts. But she sees trouble ahead if Apostle and the board continue driving the changes at the expense of those whose lives and work will be most affected.

"We're questioning that if there's funding for new and innovative programs, why is there not appropriate funding for those on the front line?" she asked.

Apostle's day ended at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday after an uncharacteristically short board meeting. He then drove home to eat his one meal of the day, a spaghetti dinner and salad prepared by his wife, Susan Apostle.

*****

Apostle and his wife had never been to Montana before he interviewed at MCPS in the spring of 2008.

A lifelong educator from Washington state, Apostle has degrees in physical education and science from the University of Puget Sound. He also holds master's degrees and a Ph.D. from the University of Idaho. He was a public school teacher for nine years before accepting the first of his principal assignments in 1980. When he retired in 2001, he was assistant superintendent for secondary education for the Tacoma Public Schools District.

The Apostles, who do not have children, were living in Scottsdale, Ariz., when the education bug bit again, in part because education is so much a part of the Apostle family.

Both of Apostle's brothers are school administrators in Washington.

"They constantly talked about it on the phone," said Susan Apostle, a retired banker who married Apostle 23 years ago. "They were always telling him what they were doing. Finally, he looked at me and said, ‘You know, Susan? I have never been a superintendent, and that's something I've always wanted to do.' "

Apostle found the Missoula job posting online. He was hired for his vision of modern education, replacing retiring superintendent Jim Clark.

Immediately after he was hired, Apostle was on the phone with Sheri Postma, the union leader of the district's classified staff - secretaries, food service employees, custodians and others.

"That surprised me," said Postma, a 25-year MCPS employee who is excited about the direction the district is going. "I've never had that. I mean, nobody calls me. He said, ‘Thank you, and I'm looking forward to this.' "

That speaks to Apostle's tone. He is a master cheerleader for the district's teachers and staff, always quick to credit them for their hard work and dedication.

Severson and others say they appreciate that tone, but that Apostle may not realize how much harder he's making everyone work - which is especially troublesome in light of the fact that the district's employees have received almost nothing in terms of a base pay raise in two years. And still present are the memories of Apostle's pay raise two years ago, which bumped up his salary by 10 percent and expanded his benefits package during a year in which his staff got little (he hasn't been offered a raise since then).

"It's pretty discouraging to get fired up and go after new programs while you're working harder than you've ever worked in your life," Severson said.

At other times, Apostle can be abrupt. Several teachers have contacted the Missoulian over the last couple of years to speak of Apostle's brusque tone during meetings.

Apostle, one of three sons of a Greek immigrant mother, said some of those people are merely mistaking passion for brusqueness.

"I'm passionate about my work and making sure that teachers have the best and students have the best," he said. "You have to have emotion to do the things we've done and are doing. I tell people the truth and I take pride in being upfront with people."

Postma said Apostle's critics don't appreciate how much better things are with a leader of his caliber in charge. Apostle's frankness and willingness to bring all voices to the table is valuable in itself and leaders like him are rare, she said.

"There might be a few things we might not agree on," she said. "But I truly have not had that (openness) in the past. The past superintendents would essentially shut me down."

Postma guesses that much of the resistance to Apostle can be chalked up to employees who fear the kind of changes the district is pursuing.

"It's maybe been difficult for some folks who are out of their comfort zone," she said. "I think things are maybe fast and furious at times because this change has been needed for so long."

*****

At 4 a.m. - "and sometimes 3:30," said Susan Apostle - Alex Apostle gets out of bed and begins working by answering emails, researching and reading.

It's the least hectic time of his day, and he enjoys it.

"That's a good quiet time for him to concentrate on things for the day," said Susan Apostle.

Apostle arrives at his office in the Central Administration building at 7 a.m. and sits at his desk, which is overseen by a watercolor of an eagle carrying away its daily catch, painted by his wife, a woman "constantly with me in terms of support," said Apostle.

The newest addition to the office is a framed portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt, one of Apostle's heroes.

"She stood up for what was right instead of what was popular," he said.

His meetings begin as early as 7:30 a.m. Many of them are with civic and business leaders from such organizations as the Phyllis and Dennis Washington Foundation, or the United Way, or St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center. Apostle spends considerable time in the business community, selling the changes he's pursuing.

That has led to an unprecedented amount of money invested in MCPS, and Apostle thinks he knows why.

"If you look at our record, we have one of the lowest dropout rates in the state," he said proudly. "Graduation Matters, rising test scores, every levy and bond issue passed. ... We are making tremendous progress. It'd be pretty hard to argue as a community about what we are trying to do."

But there are arguments. They mostly have to do with the pace and timing of the innovations and programs, and they're mostly leveled by the teachers and staff who in the end will be the ones who will implement every change, however grandiose or subtle.

Spearheading them is a man who has the unfailing support of his school board, and wakes at 4 a.m. to his vision of a modern education where all children are "college and career ready," and everyone graduates.

Apostle is at retirement age for real now, but he has no plans of leaving until the job is done.

Because, as he says over and over - and you can be sure he believes it wholeheartedly - "We are moving this district forward."

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com. Photography editor Kurt Wilson can be reached at (406) 523-5244.

 

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(1) comment

Parkway
Parkway

Regarding Alex Apostle.......It is teachers and support staff who are carrying the burden of education on THEIR backs. THEY are the ones "moving this district forward".
There surely will come a straw that breaks the back of these hard working people.
Dr. Apostle has money....."many many monies"......why does he think he needs MORE????
It gets down to these simplistic maxims.......treat people the way you want to be treated.....and acknowledge a job well done.
It is time you thanked your employees with more than just words.

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