Toledo Superintendent Reflects on Decade at the Helm of Hometown District

  • The goal that Romules Durant has for the 22,000 students in Ohio’s Toledo Public Schools is a simple one: to get each of them on a path that will allow them to stay in their hometown, make a living wage, and give back to their community.

    He uses a certain role model when he makes his pitch to the students - himself.

    In December, Durant will celebrate a decade as the leader of his hometown school district, a decade that has been marked by an aggressive building campaign, five successful levy campaigns, and several key initiatives.

    “My aim is to give families the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty - to have students achieve high levels of degrees and certifications without taking on debt,” he says. “I believe all parents want their children to have opportunities they never had.”

    Durant, who grew up in a working-class family in East Toledo, graduated from the district’s Waite High School and then attended the University of Toledo. He began working for the school system in 1999 as a classroom teacher, and served as an assistant principal, principal, assistant superintendent, and interim superintendent before taking the reins of Ohio’s fifth largest school system in 2013.

    Ten years as CEO/Superintendent makes Durant, 47, the current longest serving leader in the Council of Great City Schools. According to the 2022-2023 AASA Superintendent Survey, only 16 of the 94 superintendents who identified as Black or African American have served for 10 years or more - a 1.7 percentage rate versus the 24 percent for all superintendents who serve for a decade or more.

    Durant’s blueprint for today’s students - and the reason for his continuing drive - is rooted in two seminal experiences in his life: growing up with a father who was his first football coach and taking a life-changing trip to Germany early in his tenure.

    “Being an athlete helped prepare me for the superintendent’s job,” he says. “You learn to deal with criticism, you learn to shoulder the burdens of your teammates, and you learn to continue on even when you’re tired.”

    Life-Changing Trip to Germany

    In 2014, Durant participated in a program that took him to Germany, visiting such corporations as Daimler, John Deere, Deutsche Bank, and Mercedes Benz.

    “That trip is definitely what shaped the vision of today,” Durant admits. “I was struck by how there were schools at the locations of some of these major corporations.”

    Wood Powell, the former managing director of the Transatlantic Outreach Program of the Goethe-Institut e.V., the cultural institute of the Federal Republic of Germany with a global reach, can still remember Durant from that trip.

    “It was apparent to me right away that he was a force to be reckoned with, in a good way,” Powell says. “You could tell that the students meant the world to him, and he was determined to bring back as many best practices as he could.”

    The two have kept in touch, and Powell is impressed that Durant recognizes that the historic silos of education and business need to be torn down, a message he often conveys to a wide range of leaders in the Toledo area.

    Toledo Public Schools currently has five magnet high schools, with plans for five more, including an Educator Academy that will train the next generation of district teachers. Durant proudly declares, “Our magnet schools mark an historic transformation for TPS.”

    The key, he adds, is that a school like the Aerospace and Natural Science Academy of Toledo is located right at Toledo Express Airport. “I now have a child coming from [a high poverty] area taking a solo flight in an airplane, for example. That changes his perspective on what he can achieve.”

    Dr. Tom Brady, the founder and chairman emeritus of Plastic Technologies, Inc., praises Durant for creating magnet schools such as Toledo Early College and Toledo Technology Academy of Engineering, which are often ranked number one and number two in the state of Ohio.

    “Dr Durant is totally and personally engaged with his students, with the business community, and with all TPS stakeholders,” Dr. Brady says. He is part of a personal advisory team of many of the top CEOs in Toledo that Durant assembled when he first became superintendent.

    “They were influential leaders in the community, and I was looking to them for advice, to be advocates for the district, to help me get levies passed,” Durant recalls.

    He knows today’s students in urban districts are facing more challenges than ever, leading him to start their career exploration as young as the fifth grade.

    “I call it the innocence of education, when they’re not so concerned with the world of other attractions,” he says, adding, “Our goal is to give these students first-hand experiences to be able to stay in northwest Ohio.”

    Durant admits that the COVID-19 pandemic “took the wind out of our sails,” but he also cites that trying time for producing one of his proudest accomplishments.

    “The pandemic was when our people needed us the most, so we figured out job descriptions for everyone, so no one was laid off. I take great pride in that,” he says.

    Jim Gault, chief of educational development for Toledo Public Schools, says students, families, and employees can feel Durant’s commitment to them.

    “He’s the relationship builder. Everyone knows that he will listen to their concerns. They put their faith in him,” Gault says. “They know he walked through the same halls...”

    And that, in the end, is what has kept Durant at the helm of his hometown schools for 10 years.

    “I appreciate and am humbled by the offers that I have received to go elsewhere,” Durant says. “But the families in Toledo have made a commitment to TPS and have given me their loyalty - there’s a certain integrity in doing the same for them.”

    (Story reported by Mary-Beth Matthews in Toledo)