New Deputy Mayor Tackles the "Simple and Complex" Issue of Education
By: Mary Dieter, President, Mary Dieter Communications LLC
It struck Jason Kloth that the intricate Gerhard Richter print – a mass of tiny, colorful and rough-edged squares – was “simple and complex” at the same time.
“It’s a good metaphor for education.”
And so the print now hangs behind Kloth’s desk in an otherwise stark cubbyhole of a government office that the new Indianapolis deputy mayor for education occupies. Small, yes, but this office is a lofty place, literally and figuratively: It is on the top floor of the City-County Building, just down from Mayor Gregory Ballard’s office, and it is the launching pad for the most overt, high-level effort ever by an Indianapolis mayor to involve himself in the education of Marion County students.
While other Indianapolis mayors have had education experience (Richard Lugar started his political career on the school board) or were heavily involved with schools (Bart Peterson appointed a charter schools’ director, David Harris, and together they founded The Mind Trust), Ballard is the first to raise the matter to the level of deputy mayor. He appointed Kloth in mid-March to become his liaison to the education community, his point man on the simple and complex issue of education reform.
Kloth’s appointment has garnered high praise from many quarters. “He’s terrific,” says Harris of The Mind Trust, who has known Kloth since Teach for America came to Indianapolis. “He has the perfect profile for that role” and already has proven that he is capable of “marshaling resources to drive change and reform.”
And while the deputy mayor himself says he is prepared and qualified for the job, he seems intent on living down the loftiness of his new position. He avoids the ivory tower nature of the 25th floor by spending as much time as possible outside of it, visiting schools and meeting as many education stakeholders as his schedule will allow.
“I never would introduce myself that way to anyone,” he says of his title. “The reality is what we’re trying to work toward as a city literally cannot be done without everyone’s efforts. And any time you’re not operating in an inclusive way, your ability to get things done is dramatically lessened . . .
“I think humility is one of the most important traits people can have.”
Kloth, 31, hails from Champaign, the downstate home of the University of Illinois, from which he graduated in 2003 after attending a parochial grade school and a public high school. He was the middle of three high-achieving children born to two artists: Susan Kloth is an art teacher and Bruce Kloth was a Pepsi delivery man and former bronze sculptor who keeps a stained-glass studio in his basement.
In high school, Kloth was, he says, a smart but goofy kid who “thought the world was much more crystal-clear-cut than it actually is.” The certitude of adolescence was challenged in his sophomore year of college, when he read “Savage Inequalities” for a sociology class. In the 1991 book, author Jonathan Kozol wrote that educational opportunities for children in poor, urban schools were substantially lower than those afforded students in affluent, suburban schools.
“I found myself really taken aback by that because, up until then, I was really under the impression that opportunities are equal,” Kloth said. He subsequently took courses about the history and the philosophy of education, as well as education policy because “I was just intrigued by the system and its impact, but had no intention of going into teaching.”
In his senior year, after accepting an offer to work as a research analyst for the Illinois House of Representatives, he learned of Teach For America, a not-for-profit, national organization that trains new college graduates as teachers and places them in schools in low-income rural and urban locations.
“I decided if you’re going to be credible, you’ve got to do the hard thing,” he says. “And so I moved down onto the border of Texas and Mexico, where I taught sixth grade language arts in a small town.” He also served as the yearbook and student council sponsor.
The experience honed his sense of humility. “I remember thinking to myself that the important thing here is you show up, be the first person there, be the last person to leave and keep the conversation centered around kids. Ask questions, get their advice, get their input to be as good as you can be, as quickly as you can. Because you still have so much to learn when you come out of college . . .
“I was, I think, a good teacher but there were a lot of great teachers at my school,” he says. “They knew a lot more than me and had been doing it a lot longer than I had.” Nevertheless, they voted him teacher of the year in his second year.
“Those two years for me really solidified a lot of the beliefs and points of view that I had come to develop in college. I decided I wanted to continue doing this work,” he says, so he became a recruitment director for Teach For America. In short order, he became a senior recruitment director; managing director of recruitment; founding executive director for Indianapolis; and senior vice president of public affairs, overseeing the national organization’s lobbying and federal policy work, communications and community relations. While running the Indianapolis office, Kloth led the creation of the Indiana Principal Fellowship to recruit and train Teach For America corps members to become school leaders.
Also during that time, he served as chairman of the Board of Directors for KIPP Indy, a charter school, where Dollyne Sherman, KIPP Indy’s board secretary, met him. “Jason is an outstanding leader who takes the time to truly understand all sides of various school issues – from the policy and operations to the people,” she says. “Yet he’s not afraid to take bold and decisive action when needed.
“He led a major change in direction at the school, including leadership and staff, when academic performance became unacceptable. That decision sparked a turnaround that has resulted in dramatically improved academic results in each of the subsequent three years.”
Nate Schnellenberger, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, says, “I am sure that local teachers hope that he brings a balanced vision to the education debate in the city and county. Obviously with his management experience in the Teach For America program, he sees education through that lens, so my expectation would be that he develops a wider range of relationships within the local education community in the context of his work.”
While Kloth was managing Teach for America recruitment in the Midwest, his boss asked him to persuade Ronni Gaillard, then chief of staff to the CEO, to take a similar position in the Northeast. Their work relationship became a friendship, which blossomed further. They were married in 2009 in Indianapolis, adopted Ollie, a schnauzer-poodle mix, and settled in Butler-Tarkington, from where Ronni still commutes to New York, where she is vice president of marketing.
Jason, meanwhile, was tiring of his commute to Washington D.C. and started thinking of finding a local job. The mayor’s office contacted him about the deputy mayor position at about the same time that Kloth was offered the job as chief of staff for the Chicago Public Schools.
“Ultimately it came down to (the fact that) I really do think Indianapolis is at a unique moment in time,” he says. “I think as a city we’re ready to have a conversation about the future of our education system. And my wife and I just really like it here. We’re thinking about starting a family and so we felt like Indianapolis would be more conducive to raising a family than Chicago.”
Kloth says his job here involves implementing the mayor’s vision for education, primarily through supporting existing charter schools; establishing new ones, as the mayor’s office is allowed by state law to do; and ensuring the schools serve children well.
“And then there’s the stream of work that relates to community engagement and innovation,” he says. “The mayor has said he wants Indianapolis to be the epicenter of education reform. The question is, how do you go about doing that?”
To answer that question, Kloth and the mayor’s office – as well as a large group of partners, including the Education Coalition spearheaded by the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce – sponsored a series of “community conversations” during the late summer to solicit ideas about how to improve public education in Marion County – the Indianapolis Public Schools as well as the township school corporations.
Kloth said it was imperative that the meetings were seen as a community undertaking. Having learned about Indianapolis’s experience and expertise in public-private partnerships, he is optimistic that, as difficult as the challenge is, the community is up to it.
“I think there is a sense we need to galvanize around something,” he says, “and we do collectively have a history of doing that.”