Roberts posing with Ramirez-Chavez
Roberts posing with Ramirez-Chavez
K. Acosta-Molina

Dr. Ian Roberts, The New Superintendent

An interview with Roberts

A superintendent is a role that most school districts have, the job of this role is that the superintendent heads the whole school district’s operations, or in basic terms, the boss of the school district. This role having been so consequential it’s no wonder why it was major news when DMPS announced on July 1, that they have found its new superintendent to lead DMPS, Dr. Ian Roberts.
Dr. Ian Roberts has a lot to his name with what he has accomplished, from growing up Brooklyn, being the son of immigrant parents from Guyana in South America, being a former All-American Olympic Track and Field Athlete during the Australia Sydney 2000 Olympics. After his track career, he got involved in teaching, he has been all around the East coast in the education world, in which his last job before coming to DMPS was serving as the superintendent of Millcreek Township School District in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Now, many individuals are curious about who Roberts is, which is why the Scroll staff decided to sit down with Roberts for an interview, the following is a transcript of our interview;

Ramirez-Chavez: I’m writing about you because you’re the new superintendent, and you know, I feel like there’s a certain obligation that the students should know about you because you do play a vital role in student life, true. So, I’m going to start jumping right in into the interview here. Um, first question, I have to ask this, same goes for the last question, always have to ask this: What is your name, and how do you spell it? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: It’s Ian Roberts. It’s I-A-N, last name is R-O-B-E-R-T-S. So, Dr. Ian Roberts. 

Ramirez-Chavez: Okay, how was your life growing up? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: I would describe my life as blessed, inspired, or inspirational, and certainly one that has allowed me to develop a lot of resiliency. Yeah, and I say that because although I was a child, one of three boys who grew up in a single-parent home with a mom who did not go to college. I benefited immensely from a lot of love, support, and guidance from a woman who prioritized making sure that her children were cared for and successful. 

Ramirez-Chavez: So, what got you into education? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: You know, I like to think that I got into education through some kind of divine intervention. I remember working in a summer camp as a counselor in a juvenile delinquent camp, a camp for juvenile delinquents, and just interacted with a number of young men in an urban environment in Baltimore City. Many of whom expressed that they were feeling a sense of hopelessness. But what I saw in them was so much potential and so much talent and the spirit of resilience that I experienced as a young person as well. I think that camp experience was one of those pivotal moments for me that told me that education is a field where you can provide input and guidance to young people. So, I think that’s part of the genesis of it. 

Ramirez-Chavez: Okay, now why did you choose to come to DMPS? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: I think it’s a little bit of reciprocal choosing, right? I think I chose DMPS, but I’ve been sharing with friends and peers. I believe that DMPS chose me. I think that this time is almost ordained for me to be here. Having served in a number of other roles, DMPS’s need at this time in terms of the work ahead of us, the mission and vision of this organization, and the goals that they’ve set for themselves, really tightly aligns with my commitment to Pre-K-12 education, with my current trajectory as a leader, and it’s strongly aligned with the work that I want to do. That is to lead a culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse school district towards excellence. 

Ramirez-Chavez: Now, how did you get hired at DMPS? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: I jokingly said that it’s a process that comes second only to a Supreme Court nomination. Once I received the information about DMPS’s vacancy for a superintendent and I received that information through a mentor, I went through a rigorous and a very thorough process with members of the board and an executive search firm. These are the search firms that reach out to individuals across the country and they do a match. Once I was connected to DMPS school board, we had a series of interviews, virtually, as well as in-person. The DMPS board really wanted to make sure that, of the list of candidates from around the country that applied for the position, they wanted to vet, interview, and hire who they believed to be the appropriate person. So, it’s just a pleasure to be here. 

Ramirez-Chavez: How are you going to address some of the issues here at DMPS? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: I think it’s a three-prong approach. The first is to make sure that I am galvanizing the collective intellectual ability, strengths, and knowledge of a number of different stakeholder groups. I would not be foolish enough to think that I can do this alone. So, really galvanizing the collective voices of community members, leaders in the district, teachers, and, more importantly, the voices of students. I need to know what students are experiencing and what do they need from us. Secondly, I think just utilizing not only my experience but my knowledge about effective leadership and effective leadership practices and working collaboratively with the members of my cabinet to make sure that we are continuously keeping our finger on the pulse of what those issues are. And thirdly, not necessarily in this order, to make sure that we are being thoughtful about what is expected of us from those who we’re serving. That includes students, teachers, the families that we serve, and to make sure that we are making strategic and tactical decisions that really meet the needs of all of those individuals. 

Ramirez-Chavez: How do you plan to really tie yourself in with and relate to those in Des Moines, since you’re relatively new here? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: My approach in my personal pursuits and certainly in my professional life is, you know, I’ve never met a stranger. I come into a community, and my commitment right now is to become an integral part of that community. So, what I’ve done thus far is been intentionally engaging with interacting with members of the faith-based community, visiting churches, connecting with pastors, reaching out to legislators, spending time in community spaces, and visiting schools. I don’t believe that the work I’m responsible for should happen at the district office. I want to know what students are experiencing, what teachers are feeling and seeing, and what challenges leaders have, which is why myself and I expect the members of my cabinet as well to spend a lot of time in our schools. 

Ramirez-Chavez: I did some digging and figured out you were athletic back in your day and got a chance to play track at the 2000 Olympics, so what got you into track, back in the 2000 Sydney Olympics? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: Often times, I’ve done so many TV interviews with sports reporters from ESPN and all places, and one of the questions that they would always ask me is, “Is it true that maybe since you were like a toddler, you would just spend a lot of time running around the house or running around the yard, and that’s where your Olympic journey started?” And they’re always disappointed when I said “no.” In response to the question of what got me into this, I’ve always been athletic. I’ve always been a student-athlete. I’ve always spent a lot of time focusing on my academic pursuits, but I was always athletic. You know, in high school, I played pretty much every sport you can name. I was a basketball player, I played soccer, and I ran a little bit of track. My track journey really started because I wanted to go to college. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, but I also knew that college was not affordable to my family. There was no way, based on my mom’s income, probably even with lots of loans, that we would be able to afford college. So, being a part of a summer track and field club, my coaches and I decided that I was running relatively fast enough to try to seek and find a scholarship. So, I was fortunate enough to get a scholarship offer, and once I got the scholarship offer to go to college, a Division I college, I knew that I had to spend an inordinate amount of time training and competing so that I wouldn’t lose that scholarship. And during my collegiate career, I had a lot of successes and I started to run faster with each passing moment. A couple of agents saw me and decided, “Hey, we want to serve as your agent, and you can compete professionally in the Caribbean, in Europe, in Asia.” So, I started running track in my post-collegiate career, having been an All-American and having won so many conference championships. I eventually competed in my first big international meet in Barbados many years ago, won the gold medal there, and qualified for the Olympic Games. So, I ended up in Sydney, the 2000 Olympic Games. 

Ramirez-Chavez: That’s very impressive. Now, this is just a general question here, but would you mind telling us about your home life, your family? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: I’m currently here in Des Moines. I’m here by myself at this time, but eventually, my wife and our four dogs are going to join me. I know, four dogs, right? The four kids, a lot of good time. But for now, I’m here, and when I think of family, I often think not only about my own personal relationship but I often think about my mom, who lives in Brooklyn, New York, and my two brothers. They are such a critical part of my existence when I think about family. 

Ramirez-Chavez: What sets DMPS apart from other school districts, and how do you try to capitalize this in your new job role here? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: DMPS is diversity. Here’s a school system that is essentially a microcosm of what America is. We have students from more than 110 different countries, more than 83 languages are spoken. We have not only students but teachers who unapologetically embrace the cultural differences that we see and experience every single day. When I walk into a classroom, visit a school, or interact with adults, having the opportunity to interact with individuals whose lived experiences are very different from mine and very different from the next two or three people that I’ll meet, that’s such a big part of our strength. Another thing that sets DMPS aside is the governing board. The board is so relentlessly focused on governing in a way that is about decision making that supports what is best for students. And the last thing that I’ll share in terms of what makes DMPS stand out is, this is, I just completed 100 days on Wednesday in the role, the teachers whose classes I have observed, the teachers that I’ve seen in this district with whom I’ve spoken are unlike many artists that I’ve seen any place. Their commitment, their dedication, their intellectual skills and abilities, that sets them aside. Because of all of those reasons, I have concluded that we have not necessarily scratched the surface of our potential as a school system, and there are so many possibilities for us as a school district, certainly for every single student to achieve in unprecedented ways. 

Ramirez-Chavez: Do you have any advice for the community members who want to help DMPS succeed? What can we do? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: I want the community to know, to hear, and to understand that DMPS and the larger Des Moines community need to anchor our relationship in a symbiotic kind of approach. It’s one that should be characterized by mutualism. The more success DMPS experiences, the stronger the community is going to become. When DMPS produces highly qualified high school graduates who can go into the greater Des Moines community and be positively contributing citizens, this, the limit of what the city can become. I think the city of Des Moines is poised to attract many different industries and become one of the desired destinations for young professionals who want to move into a city that is thriving and where they can raise their families. That is going to happen much faster when our school system and the city as a whole really develop and strengthen their relationship and is one that is characterized by mutualism. Finally, I would say that when I think about my message to the larger community is, I want them to know that our doors are open for conversations, for partnership, for collaboration. I want to make sure that all of those individuals with whom I’ve interacted, who lead businesses right now, who serve in the state legislature, many of whom are DMPS graduates, that they know that I’m open and ready to have those conversations about how we can partner to better support our almost 31,000 students. 

Ramirez-Chavez: Is there anything else you’d like to add? 

Dr. Ian Roberts: I am incredibly inspired by my time here thus far. The students with whom I’ve interacted, the conversations I’ve had with them, my observations of them in classes, the teachers that I’ve seen that I know we ought to support so that they can continue to do good work for students really speak volumes about what we should expect. Often times, outsiders tend to look at a school system’s academic performance as measured by state test scores. State test scores are incredibly important, but our current test scores are not an accurate reflection of the brilliance, intellect, and potential of the students we have in Des Moines Public Schools. What is important for us to do right now is to make sure that, in addition to all of the other qualities that our students are exhibiting, that we make sure that we continue to work on improving those test scores so that it really matches who we know our students are and their talents. 

Ramirez-Chavez: Well, I think we’re done here for today. Thank you. I still need to get a photo, ha, we have a pretty good camera. 

Dr. Ian Roberts: Let’s make it happen, okay, I hope this interview helps, and if you have any more questions or need further assistance, please feel free to ask. 

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