Five Questions … with Jeff Sullivan, Instructional Specialist, Athletics Unit
If there is a message Jeff Sullivan has for you, it’s this: follow your heart and take opportunities when they present themselves.
An Annapolis native, Sullivan started his career with MCPS as a volunteer gofer. At the time, he was a senior at the University of Maryland.
“In the summer, we run a monthlong athletics workshop where we bring all the athletic directors and coaches together to do our scheduling for the year and revise our handbook,” Sullivan said. “We really set the stage for the new school year. That was so unique because I began my MCPS coaching career by being able to see the big picture. Most people don’t get that opportunity.”
Sullivan went to college thinking he would go into the medical field, maybe dentistry. That morphed into physical therapy and soon enough, teaching.
“I just thought, ‘I want to coach; I want to teach; I want to be involved with administration and help with planning.’ That really drove me.” He received a bachelor’s degree in physical education, and later, a master’s degree from Hood College in educational leadership.
“I knew that educational-based athletics was where I wanted to be. I feel very passionately about that. I think we have a lot to offer students, not only as students but also as citizens—athletics can help with character building and community involvement. Sports is a pathway to parental engagement; it helps to build a bridge between parents, communities and schools. I also believe athletics can help the school system achieve our mission and goals, and be a powerful ally in trying to narrow the opportunity gap that exists.”
He believes that sports offer important life lessons.
“Pick any MCPS school—some programs in one sport may be very strong; others may be in a growth phase. We want to provide platforms and opportunities for students to be successful. I think every experience in athletics is a learning experience. Winning with class and dignity is a lesson; learning how to handle defeat and losing in a game that’s lopsided or at the buzzer is another lesson.”
On July 1, Sullivan will assume the duties of systemwide director of athletics, succeeding director William “Duke” Beattie, who is retiring after nearly 40 years with MCPS.
When were you first hired at MCPS and what were you hired for?
My senior year at the University of Maryland, I started as a volunteer coach at Paint Branch High School. I was an assistant for the varsity girls’ basketball team. Then, I got an open contract in physical education. I graduated from Maryland in 1999, and fortunately, a job as a P.E. teacher at Paint Branch opened up and I started there.
I did that for four years. I coached [or was an assistant coach in] five different sports—varsity soccer, softball, baseball, basketball and volleyball.
After my fourth year, our athletic director [AD] had retired. That position opened up, and administration was something I wanted to do. At the age of 25, I went for the position and got it. It was a great opportunity. It made me focus on my leadership skills and on my communication skills. I was supervising people who were my colleagues, most of whom were older than me and more experienced. It was a very demanding job, but very rewarding. I was there for the next seven years.
After seven years, I went to Clarksburg High School as the AD there. It was a big decision for me to leave because I was so happy at Paint Branch. But I knew it would be a new experience to be part of a new school and a new community. I was there for three years. I was fortunate to work for James Koutsos. Talk about an inspiring leader. He helped shape me professionally and personally.
I became the athletics specialist about four years ago.
Tell me about the sports programs in MCPS.
In our high schools, we have 44 teams available in 20 different sports. Of the 44, 31 are varsity teams. Every summer, we schedule more than 10,000 athletic contests systemwide. We have about 23,000 students in high school that are in sports, and just short of 5,000 at the middle school level.
In middle school, we offer four sports—coed cross country, boys’ and girls’ softball, boys’ and girls’ basketball and boys’ and girls’ soccer.
In our corollary sports program, we strive for a 50/50 ratio of students with disabilities and students without disabilities. We’ve been doing it for seven years, and offer three sports.
There really is a learning opportunity in every practice and in every game. Spanning beyond the realm of competition, our athletes are students first, and they give back to our communities in so many different ways. I think our coaches do a phenomenal job at that—we have student-athletes reading at elementary schools, visiting middle schools to talk about the importance of academics, pulling together meals for the homeless, all kinds of wonderful things.
What changes or goals do you have for the department coming up?
We have some very big changes on the schedule already.
Starting this fall, we are going to be doing online registration for sports. We want the registration process for student-athletes and parents to be easy and user friendly. We want the ability to manage information for our athletic directors and coaches. We are working with OCTO [the Office of the Chief Technology Officer] now to create the platform.
Now, our student athletes and their parents fill out paper forms that are presented to the coach. With the new process, there will be an online template that you can access from a laptop, an iPad or an iPhone. We’ll be making a huge jump. It’s going to be fabulous. People have been asking for it for five or six years.
We also have changes coming to state cheerleading. MCPS is joining the state cheerleading association. We had been running our program independently. It’s a very exciting initiative. It opens up more opportunities for our cheerleaders to compete regionally and for state championships.
Another thing I want to get to next year is building the leadership capacity of our athletic directors and athletic coordinators. It is a priority to develop a leadership development program.
I’ve been meeting with Monifa McKnight [director of Secondary Leadership Development]. We may start with a couple different workshops. I’ve talked with Troy Boddy [of the Equity Initiatives Unit]. Infusing equity into our work is huge. Starting with equity and leadership development, we can start empowering the leaders in our program. Building leadership with our athletic directors is really going to help take our program into the next decade.
We hope to expand it to coaches. We’d eventually like to implement a student-athlete council, where we could have representatives from all schools meeting to engage in leadership, and in turn, bringing that back to their schools.
Sounds like you have a pretty full schedule and, to top it off, you’re in a doctoral program.
Yes, I’m in a Ph.D. program in educational leadership at Howard University. It’s a great program. I just finished all the coursework. We started two years ago and half of us made it through. It’s been a great journey in building my leadership and cultural responsiveness and seeing things from different perspectives. I’m starting my dissertation. I haven’t gotten this approved yet, but I want to study the effects of athletics on African American and Hispanic students and tie in my work to how [MCPS is] helping to close the opportunity gap. I’m hoping to finish next summer.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I spend a lot of time with my family. My wife Kristen is an English resource teacher at Kingsview Middle School. My son Mason is 14, and my daughters are Regan, who’s 7, and Avery, who’s 5. My son plays baseball and wants to play football. Both my daughters are in gymnastics and one is playing softball.
They’re at an age now where I can take them to live sporting events and they enjoy it.
I like to read, especially about leadership. I enjoy Simon Sinec, who wrote Start With Why. My favorite author is Jon Gordon in terms of leadership. He wrote The Energy Bus and has the 10 rules for the ride of your life. I try to live by those every day.
I love local sports. I’m a Terps fan. I pull for the Nats and Orioles. Before I had kids, I was playing in softball leagues. Now, I might play a game of pickup basketball with other dads or get out for a run.
I love live music—anything from a formal concert to going to the beach at Bethany and watching a band on the grandstand. I really love Billy Joel. The piano has always fascinated me.
I have two things on my bucket list—I want to learn Spanish and I want to learn to play the piano.