Meet the new boss
Washoe County’s new school superintendent Heath Morrison is young, experienced and excited, but can he turn around the district?
Washoe County School District Superintendent Paul Dugan retired on July 31, and the new superintendent, Heath Morrison, began his job on Aug. 1. He’s 43, married to Jennifer, and has two children, Samantha, 11, and Zachary, 9. Before coming to Nevada, he was community superintendent for the Down County Consortium in Montgomery County Public Schools, Md., where he supervised 34 schools and some 23,500 students. He holds a doctorate in Educational Policy and Planning and a Master of Educational Administration from the University of Maryland.
So tell me a bit about yourself.
Let’s talk about my family first because I’m much happier talking about them than I am talking about myself. I’m married to my high school sweetheart. Her name is Jennifer, and she is an English teacher, a staff development teacher, a nationally board-certified teacher, a very, very talented lady, and as I’ve often said, I married up. We have two kids, my daughter Samantha is 11, and she’ll be in seventh grade next year. My son Zachary is 9, and he’ll be in fourth grade next year. They’re just an amazing group of people, and I’m fortunate to have a family like I have.
So you have an offer on a house. What school are they zoned for?
Billinghurst, but again, it’s a contract offer right now, and in this market, we’re wondering if it’s going to stay or not, so we’re just going to see if that’s ultimately where we settle. But wherever we settle is where they’ll go to school.
So they will go to public school?
And your wife is an English teacher. Has she got a job yet?
She’s actually not going to come in to teach this year. Her plan is to possibly go to UNR and pursue her doctorate, something that she’s wanted to do for a while. It’s an opportunity to do something she’s really had an ambition and a goal to do so I hope that’s going to work out.
You’ve got a doctorate, right? It’s not William and Mary, where’s your doctorate from?
My doctorate is from the University of Maryland, but I got my undergraduate degree from William and Mary.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up for the most part in the Washington, D.C., area. My father was in the military, so I was born at Andrews Air Force Base. We’ve moved around from Alexandria, Arlington, and the past several years I’ve lived in Maryland. It’s pretty much been around that Washington, D.C., area.
So what do you think of the West so far?
Love it. True. I really, really love it. My wife and I came out to Reno several years ago to do a presentation at the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ conference. And we just really fell in love with the area and said, “Hey, we have to try to come back at some point,” because we spent a lot of time at the conference—unlike a lot of people who decided they’d go explore Lake Tahoe. I think if I’d known at the time how beautiful Lake Tahoe is, I might have done that as well, but what we did see of Reno and Washoe County at that time, we just really thought was gorgeous and beautiful, and we thought the people were really friendly. So we said, “At some point, we have to try to come back to Nevada.” My father passed this past year. One of the things I had done when he retired was to get him a gift to come out to Las Vegas. He went to the Grand Canyon at that time, and he just fell in love with it. So partly to honor his memory, when we decided to take a vacation last year, we decided to come out West. So we went to Arizona, we went to Utah, we went to California, we also spent time in Nevada. It just reinforced how much we loved the area, and how much we started to think that we’ve been East Coast all of our lives, but what would it be like to come out West? The kids loved it too, so there were a lot of personal reasons to want to pursue this.
Are you an outdoorsy-type guy? Do you hike and stuff?
I’m going to. Every time we’ve gone out to the West—we did so much hiking last summer—we just love it. We’ve been driving around and talking about the different places, and everyone’s got recommendations so we can’t wait to do that. I do work out everyday, but I go to a gym. I’m looking forward to instead of going to a gym on a Saturday, going exploring and hitting mountains, and that’s going to be great.
Which gym do you like?
I joined 24 Hour Fitness because with the hours I keep, by the time I’m getting to the gym, it’s either 4:30 in the morning or 10:30 at night. So I was thrilled that there was a 24 Hour Fitness.
There are a couple 24-hour places.
So I signed up and love it.
What does a school superintendent do?
I’m on day 5, so … I’ve always believed that there are three positions in the school system that have the greatest chance to make a difference. That’s not to diminish any other job in the school district, but there are three positions that have kind of control over their immediate vicinity. Classroom teacher, you maintain and set the conditions for your classroom. Building level principal, you set the conditions for your building. As a superintendent, you get to do that at a district level. So you help to create the vision, the mission, the strategic plan and the execution of that plan. And that’s incredibly important to move a district forward. That’s really what it means to me.
How does one do that as a school superintendent?
One does it well when one realizes you’re just one, and teams are always, always better than individuals. I think it begins with trying to do what I’m doing now—I’m on my listening and learning tour. And so I’m spending my first three months on the job getting out to meet with community members, getting out to schools, speaking with principals, speaking with teachers, speaking with support staff, always trying to meet with parents when they’re at the schools, having community meetings like I did Monday at Wooster High School, meeting with community leaders, business leaders, civic leaders, faith-based leaders. Just really listening to where people think we are right now, and then talking about where we need to be. I’ve been asking everybody five basic questions: What’s great about Washoe County Public Schools? The second question is, what can we do better, and what do we need to do better? Third question is, how can we close and eliminate achievement gaps? Fourth question is, what should be our budget priorities be during what we know will be some challenging times? And then, in some ways what I think is the most important question because it really frames the future vision, what does “world class” mean to you? We talk about Washoe County wanting to build towards a world class school district, but we need to have a common definition of what that is. Once we get a common definition where a lot of stakeholders have had input, then we’ll know what the destination is. And then it’s just drawing a map. How we going to get there? And that’s how I’m approaching this.
Do you deal more with your direct underlings, or are you going to go to principals to enact this stuff, or do you still have to figure that out?
I have an executive cabinet. I rely on them to help with day-to-day operations, to make sure that the important decisions are being made. As I say, I’m listening and learning for my first three months on the job, hitting the ground learning. That being said, every day there are a lot of decisions that have to be made. I expect my executive cabinet to come to me with their best analysis of situations, informing me of the options, and then I have to make the final decisions. So they’re critically important to the work that has to get done. But, I have loved getting out to the schools. I have a huge, huge belief that principals are a true difference maker in any school district. So it gets back to what I said before: teacher, principal and superintendent. The magic is in the classroom, so the teacher is the most important employee we have in our school district because without them … you need to create learning, which is what gives us a job. It’s our business, our core business, so you need the teacher, and you need the students. In order to set the conditions for a building to have the maximum learning environment, you need a great principal. So I’m going to have a lot of access to principals, spend a lot of time with them. As we start to talk about how to make improvements, I’ll be meeting with principals a lot and trying to get their important feedback.
What is the biggest difference in attitude toward education between the East Coast and Nevada?
It’s hard to say even on the East Coast what’s the attitude about education. I can say there’s a difference in attitude toward education in parts of Nevada. I had a chance to meet yesterday with the other 16 superintendents in Nevada, and there’s a lot of similarities, but there are great differences as well. I know this: I came from a school district in Montgomery County in Maryland—16th largest school district in the country. If you asked Education Weekly, Harvard Business School, the Wall Street Journal, if you asked them, out of the largest school districts in the country, what is the best school district that has a great attitude about educating kids, they’re going to name in their top three Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. My goal is to make sure that when we ask the Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business School and Education Weekly in a couple years, what is the best West Coast school district that has a great attitude about kids, that really is being innovative and doing things very differently, I want them to say Washoe County public schools.
At $238,000, you’re making $32,000 more than your predecessor, who had five years as Washoe County schools superintendent. The average starting teacher’s salary with a bachelor’s degree in 2006-2007 was $31,149. Does this seem like a disconnect to you?
I’ll say this: I’m very grateful for the faith and confidence the board of trustees placed in me. The contract was part of that faith and confidence, and I’m very appreciative of that. I think you have to look at things and say, “Where did they fall within a sense of scale?” Washoe County is the 64th largest school district in the country, and when you look at like school districts, and when you look at contracts of teachers, principals or superintendents, then you start to say, where does that fall, and where does that make sense? All I can look at is that it falls in very competitively with those larger school districts. Now my job is to earn that contract. You’ll never hear me say that teachers are paid enough. I think that teachers are critical. They’re the most important employees. I remember when I first came in as a teacher; I did not even get paid that. So it is what it is. All I can do right now is be grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had, earn that faith and confidence that’s been placed inn me, and to move this district forward and to make sure that I’m doing a great job supporting those teachers as they support our students.
Where does your salary come in in comparable school districts?
You’d have to do the investigation of that. It certainly is not in the high end. I’m certainly not going to say it’s at the low end. I think it’s very comparable, yet it’s the 64th largest school district …
It sounds like a lot; the new guy makes essentially more [in a salary increase] than a teacher makes all year …
I’ll just say this in terms of comparison. What are we, an hour and a half away from Sacramento, they had a superintendent search. I was contacted about that at a higher salary than this job. That’s a smaller school district.
Is it really? I did not know that.
I did not come for the money. I’m certainly grateful for the contract I was offered. But my job is to earn it now. But again, as you look at, as we all do, “Am I getting paid fairly?” you look at who has a job similar to yours, and do they have more responsibilities, do they have greater challenges? There’s a lot of factors that go into it to make sure that you feel like you’re being paid fairly. I can only offer that as a comparison, I was hired a couple weeks before the [Sacramento] superintendent was hired. While that job is a great job as well, and I’m certainly hopeful that they got a great individual, this was the job that I wanted.
Top administrators tend to develop kind of an aloof attitude toward the frontline, on-the-ground, in-the-classroom teachers. What are you going to do to prevent or alleviate that in your administration?
The great thing about being married to a teacher, whether she’s actively teaching or pursuing her doctorate, is she’s always going to be a teacher at heart. And so I’m married to somebody who’s always going to remind me about how important teachers are and the important work that they do. A big part of it is to be in the schools and to be in the schools a lot. I’ve been in a school every day that I’ve been on the job. That’s something I want to try as best I can do to maintain. The principals I’ve met with already have really enjoyed the fact that I’ve come out to the school, that it hasn’t been a rushed visit, that I’ve sat down with them. As a matter of fact, I was at Silver Lake Elementary School today, and the principal said many times, “I really appreciate how much you listen.” And then spending time out visiting classes and speaking to teachers and support staff and to some parents were there [is also important]. The core business of what we do is teaching and learning, I’m actively involved in those decisions, and I’m out there where it’s happening. You can’t do this job at a distance. The only way that I know how to do this job is to be out in the schools, visiting, meeting, listening and asking how we can support. The one thing I know about this building we’re sitting in is it exists to support schools. And I’ve been speaking to my executive cabinet about the customer service that’s important that we give to our schools, our principals and our teachers. I’m going to be out in the school’s a lot.
You were quoted on The Broad Superintendents Academy website as saying: “Public education has entered into an unprecedented era of accountability. We cannot continue to talk about ‘closing’ the achievement gap; we must be dedicated to eliminating the gap by raising the level of rigor for all children. As leaders, we must be steadfast in asking all stakeholders to think ‘how we can,’ not ‘why we can’t’ as we create the optimal conditions for teaching and learning.” What does that mean?
[Laughs.] Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
It’s great. It’s a great quote, but it’s dense.
Let me try to break it down. Sometimes I think we don’t talk in a way that really puts out there what we’re trying to do. What we have in Washoe County is what we call a “blueprint for student success.” We have as a goal that we’re going to have every student graduate. And I think that’s a worthy goal. Let’s start off with the idea that we’re going to have every student graduate; we’ve got a lot of work to do just to make that happen. But at the end of the day, I’m at graduation, and I’m shaking hands, and I’m helping the principals and board of trustees give a diploma, what does that diploma mean? [To RN&R photographer Lauren Randolph, a recent UNR grad and WCSD graduate.] You’ve graduated from a Washoe County school recently. What was that diploma? Was it a nice piece of paper that you’re going to hang up in a den and look at every once in a while with some fond memories, or is it a passport to the future? The other part of our “blueprint for student success” says that we’re going to graduate our students college- or work-ready. So if we do our job well, and we do the things we need to get done in a public-educational setting, if we’re going to provide a student from the time they come to us in a pre-K all the way through to 12th grade level of education, that’s going to be preparing them for college or the world of work. Now, there’s been a lot of debate about “Well, why do you want to make everyone college-ready? That’s not realistic.” Or “Why do you favor college over jobs?” I don’t differentiate over what any student chooses to do when they graduate. When they get that piece of paper, if they say, “I want to go to a four-year college,” wonderful. If they want to go to a community college, great. If they want to go into the world of work, outstanding. If they want to go into the military, phenomenal, proud of anybody who wants to serve our country. So I’m not as much concerned about the choice that the individual student makes. What I want to be able to do is look that student in the eye and say, “Have we prepared you for any of those pathways?” So that when they walk across that stage and get that diploma, all of those options are open to them. So that’s really what I mean by that quote. We have a system that does that very well for some students, not as well for others. And so, when we say, “All students,” does all mean all?
The first part struck me—“unprecedented era of accountability.” Does that mean No Child Left Behind? Why is it unprecedented?
Even 10 years ago, as a high school principal, parents would ask me, “Hey, how’s the school doing?” And I could stand up before a PTA, and I could say, “You know what? School’s doing great. Test scores are up. Building looks really clean. Safe school. And by the way, the football team might get to states this year.” And I’d get applause. No one could actually challenge me on anything I said, except the football team, ’cause at the end of the season, either we got to the states, or we lost every game. So there was no accountability. It was what we said we were doing; it wasn’t having to show people what we were doing. Now with testing, and No Child Left Behind is a part of it, our data is very apparent, it’s very available, and so when we say our test scores are up, or we have a safe building, people can ask for the proof of that, and we have to be able to show them the proof of that. And I think that’s the way it should have always been. I’m glad it’s the way it is now. So I do think it’s an unprecedented era of accountability, and one of the things I talk about a lot is accountability. We are ultimately accountable to the public for getting results. And we have to be able to show the results that we’re getting, and we have to be able to show that those results are at a high level, and we have to be able to show those results are at a high level for all students.
You mentioned the stats on safety. I don’t remember ever seeing those before. Is that just my ignorance?
I’m just on day five here in Washoe County, so I don’t know what we officially do in terms of releasing data about the safety of our schools. I will tell you coming from the district where I was an area superintendent, as part of our accountability system, we published information about the safety of our schools. Number of fights, things of that nature, because again, it is about showing that we’re going to keep our kids safe, and we’re going to make sure that we’re teaching at a high level, and learning is at a high level.
I kind of got the impression when you were talking about “all children,” that … were you referring specifically to Hispanic students?
I think, first of all, you brought in No Child Left Behind, and I’m often asked what I think about No Child Left Behind. I think No Child Left Behind forced many school districts that otherwise wouldn’t have done it to look at the achievement of all students and to really get serious about trying to make a difference for all students. It’s what we should be doing anyway. There are just some school districts that weren’t dong it, and probably wouldn’t have if it weren’t for No Child Left Behind. I’ve never, philosophically, had a problem with No Child Left Behind, as much as some ways in which it’s implemented. I don’t think No Child Left Behind really pushes us to do things for those students who come to school very ready to learn, learning at high levels already. It doesn’t really hold us accountable for pushing those students even further. And I’m a big believer in setting very rigorous targets and helping students meet those rigorous targets. If we have a student in fifth grade who’s reading at an eighth grade level, at the end of the year, I’d like to think our schools can get them reading at a ninth or 10th grade reading level, but No Child Left Behind doesn’t really measure that. What No Child Left Behind does measure is how fifth graders are reading and what level were they reading at last year, and what’s a whole other set of fifth graders learning this year compared to last year. And are this year’s group learning more than last year’s group. It’s interesting data, and it tells you some things—I don’t think it tells you the right things. I think the question you’re asking, is when you look at data—and it’s true in Washoe County, it’s true in Nevada, it’s true all over the country—you can look at data, and you can disaggregate it by race, and you can immediately tell which group of students you are looking at, based on those data. And that’s a sad fact. It’s unfortunate, so what we have to do is really work hard so that when you look at data, you can’t tell which groups of students you’re looking at because they’re all learning, and they’re all learning at high levels. And I think that’s the goal we have to aspire to.
That’s a great goal, but teaching students who speak less English is more difficult than teaching students who speak decent English.
Well, absolutely. And I think you have to differentiate even then among students who come in not speaking English. The issue is not only who comes in speaking English and who comes in not speaking English—it’s who’s fluent and literate in their native language and who’s not. Students who come in very, very ready to learn, reading at high grade levels, but they’re just not learning in English yet, they quickly learn the language, they quickly stay on grade level, they quickly prosper once they’ve mastered English. It’s students who come in not speaking English or who come in well below grade level or they’re not reading, not literate, in their native language, and those are students who take extra time, and extra intervention just to get them caught up.
Right. But it’s the same issue, how do you bring up all students’ abilities when you’ve got students who are drastically—who aren’t starting on an even field. How do you bring up everyone at the same time, when you’ve got some students, particularly the poorer ones, who require so much more work? And the smarter ones test where you want them just by virtue of the fact that their parents give a care.
Let me flip the analysis and the viewpoint on this. You’ve been into a doctor’s office, right? Would you say it’s a fair statement that some of the people in a doctor’s office are more ill than others?
Do you expect that doctor to be able to make everybody better?
But do you think that doctor’s goal is to make everybody better?
I certainly hope so.
And that’s got to be our goal. Some students come with more challenges. Just like that doctor has to face. Some students being less well. But what does a doctor do? A doctor makes an examination, gets data, starts to think about a case. These are the challenges to making the patient well, and here are the medications or interventions that I can prescribe, and I’m going to match the interventions to the particular health issue in an effort to make that patient well. We have to take that mindset as educators. We have to be so good with our data that we can diagnose where the student is below, come up with interventions that are really specific to that student, and then monitor the student, monitor the interventions, and watch that student, hopefully, get much better very quickly. It’s a different mindset, and it gets back to what I said about an unprecedented era of accountability. You can’t just put 25 kids in five rows and be at a blackboard and teach everyone the same way. You have to be able to differentiate, you have to be able to provide interventions, and you have to know what each child needs and be able to structure your educational program in a way that meets each child’s needs. It can’t be the same for all, but it’s got to be what each child needs.
Again, it would be very difficult to give every student in every classroom completely individualized instruction, not unlike a doctor can’t treat somebody with the flu for malaria. You got your work cut out for you.
What you’re always looking for is ways to do things better and ways to innovate, and technology is a great way to do some of that. I was in a classroom recently. Now, when you and I were in school, say in math class, the teacher would give us a problem, and they would say, “Is that the correct answer?” Some hands would raise, some others wouldn’t, some people participated, some people didn’t, and the teacher would try to get a sense of, “Do people really understand this concept that I’ve taught, are they ready to move on, is everybody ready to move on, or just some of the kids?” And what they would end up doing is if it looked like a lot of kids didn’t get it, [they would] go back and give another problem, reteach the same thing. Some kids are sitting there, they’ve learned it, they got the question right, but because the teacher didn’t really know who got it and who didn’t, they’re sitting there, and they’re not moving because we’re going to relearn the same concept. Now you’ve got interactive whiteboards, you have the ability to do things called Active Votes. So the teacher asks a question: “Is it A, B or C?” Kids have to vote. She can see that everybody voted. You’ve got 25 kids in the class; you’ve got 25 votes up here. She hits a button, and you see a bar graph. Twenty-five kids in the class, 20 answered A, A is the correct answer. Twenty kids got it, five kids answered B or C. They clearly didn’t get the material, so here’s what I’m going to do: The 20 of you that got A, I’m going to give you this other problem; this is the new concept. While the 20 kids are working on the new problem, the teacher can pull those five kids, and reteach that concept. She’s not delaying the learning of the 20, but she’s also not there just to meet the needs of the five. Technology can do a lot of that. It’ll never replace a teacher, but …
I’ve never seen that.
Well, you and I are going to go to a school. You’ve got to promise me you’ll go to a school, and I’ll show you one of those.
I would love to see that.
OK, let’s do it.
They use that in Washoe County?
Yes we do. We just had the Nevada Technology Commission here today, and they were extremely impressed with some of the technology they saw.
That’s great. Now how do you go about hiring and retaining the best teachers when Washoe County’s pay to teachers is middling nationally—38th in salary, 29th in salary plus benefits—but due to the state budget problems, the ones that we have don’t even get a cost of living raise.
This is a people business. There are all sorts of studies that say what really makes a difference for kids. The single greatest determination of students learning at high levels is how many years in a row they have excellent teaching. Three years of excellent teaching almost closes every achievement gap. As much as I love the technology I was talking about, it will never replace an outstanding teacher in a classroom. Before I came here for this interview, I was with our assistant superintendent of human resources, and we were talking about it: How do we actively go out and recruit, hire, retain the very best teachers we can get, the very best principals? So we were having that conversation, and I’m trying to figure out where we’re at in that process, and what we can do even better in the future. While money is always important, and I will never say the salary we pay people is not important, most people who leave the teaching profession—many leave after five years—mostly because they’re not happy with the conditions and environment of their school. Either they’re not happy with the principal, or they’re not happy with their teaching schedule. There’s environmental aspects of their job that lead them to be dissatisfied with their position. While they might say that salary was a factor in their decision to leave—there is lots of national research to show this all across the country—that’s not the biggest factor. It’s, do they feel supported, do they feel like people are listening to them, do they feel empowered in their decisions? One of the things I want to see—and I’ve had great conversations with our teachers’ association—and we’re going to meet monthly—is, how do we make sure that teachers in Washoe County public schools feel supported? That they feel like they have an active voice in decisions at their school?
What will you do to increase the percentage of minority teachers in Washoe County schools?
Again, you’re asking great questions. That’s another thing I was talking to the assistant superintendent of human resources [about]. We want to bring in great teachers. We want to bring in teachers who are just going to be excellent and have an attitude for wanting results and a passion for students. We want to bring in people who are highly qualified and have an attitudinal disposition for excellence, and great passion for kids, and also be very strategic about diversifying our workforce. We need to look at the composition of our teachers, our principals and ask ourselves if we can do better to proactively recruit outstanding educators—Hispanic, African-American—diverse teachers. We have a lot of voices in our public school system, so it’s something that’s going to be a real focus.
How will you increase or improve bilingual education, and is it more important to get Hispanic students speaking English or enabling English-speaking students to speak Spanish?
The thing I like about data is it really tells us where we need to focus, and where we need to use resources, and how we need to program. As I’ve looked at many of our schools, that aren’t achieving an AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress), they’re really struggling when it comes to English language learners. And so I think that’s something that I was at, an elementary school, I watched training for not only teachers at that school, but teachers at neighboring schools about ways to address English-language learners. So I think it has to be a focus, that we have to make sure we’re using research-based training strategies, and we’re really being thoughtful about how we plan for those students. There’s lots of different ways to approach language. There are dual-language programs. At my former district, we piloted at one of my elementary schools, a dual-language program, where you were able to have students learn Spanish and English simultaneously.
Very much like Mariposa. There are other types of immersion-type language programs, and they work well. I think a big part of what we’ve learned over the last five years about trying to help our students who don’t speak English as a primary language is that we used to do what we called “pullout.” We would take those students, we’d pull them out, and we’d give them their English-language instruction outside of regular classroom. And that made a lot of sense because in that way we could keep a small number of kids and a teacher, and we could try to meet that student’s needs outside of a classroom. But then I think people started to look and say, “What are we pulling them out of when we do that?” They were pulled out of math and reading and other things that they’re going to be held accountable for in the state tests. Now I think people are being much more thoughtful of what we’re doing; it’s called “plug-in.” The English-second-language-learner teacher comes into the classroom, partners with a regular teacher and addresses the needs of many students with a focus on the students who are not speaking primarily English.
To extrapolate, you do feel it’s more important to bring Spanish-speaking students up to speed on English, but how do you feel about making other students bilingual.
I’m not sure I quite understood the question. I think it’s important that we help students who are learning English to learn English at a very proficient level and at the same time and give them their other academic needs as well.
Let me be specific. For example, my son is 12. He goes to a charter school. He doesn’t get Spanish instruction. He’s gotten very little Spanish instruction, whereas I feel it’s a very important aspect of education, but it doesn’t seem to be available. I could put him in regular school, maybe it would be more available there, but then he loses all the benefits of a charter school.
How’s that get fixed?
Remember what I said about, “What does world-class mean?” I think, when you really want to be a world-class school district, I think everyone is going to agree that it’s going to be instruction that’s rigorous. I think everyone is going to agree that there’s going to have to be a focus on technology. I think that everyone is going to have to agree that there’s a focus on innovation. There’s going to have to be a focus on collaboration. But then, I think it’s really valid to say, “We live in a global world now.” I can get on a Blackberry and email somebody in China as quickly as I can somebody in California. That’s the world we live in. Are we doing our students the service that we need to owe them if in fact we only have them learn one language, and that’s English. So I think it’s very fair to have a concept of going to world languages where we really don’t look at teaching them a second language as an elective, but it becomes part of the core curriculum. I was at Wooster High School on Monday night, and I had several world-language teachers make that point, and I think they had a fair point and a very valid point. And I think it’s a point that we need to consider when we consider what world-class school district means to us in Washoe County.
Washoe County has accepted a lot of early retirements for teachers and administrators in the last few years, which essentially gets rid of the most experienced teachers. I also believe that in the next five years, we’re going to lose another huge chunk of those experienced teachers as they hit their 30 years in the district. How do you hire experienced teachers when they all start at the pay rate of new teachers?
Again, it’s day five of the job. I’d have to look and see exactly how many teachers have received early retirement and how many administrators, what it’s looking like over a five-year period—what we’re projecting. I think as a principal, what I always tried to do was have balance. I loved hiring people brand new out of college; I think they bring an energy and enthusiasm and a passion for the job because they’re jumping right into it, and there are no limits for them. That’s exciting, but then to get the best out of those teachers, you also need to balance that with people who have experience, have some wisdom, who know the tricks of the trade, so to speak. So you hire best when you hire a complementary group of brand new, right out of college, ready to learn, ready to teach with people who have experience, who have wisdom, who have multi-levels of experiences within an educational system that can, not only meet the needs of those students, but also help mentor those younger teachers. And I think that’s what we have to strive to do.
I see the mix, but I don’t see the problem hiring the first-year, right-out-of-college teacher that I see with someone coming from out of state. They’re taking a pay cut, right? If you’ve got a 15-year teacher coming back and making the same wage as a first-year teacher, doesn’t that keep them from coming here?
Well, most school systems, while they may not award somebody full credit for their years experience in a prior school district, they won’t put them right at the entry level salary. So you may have had 12 years of teaching in another school district, you may not come in at step 12, but you won’t come in at step one. It varies by school districts, but again, it’s that goal of trying to have a school system—in our human capital endeavors—that wants to bring in experienced teachers, brand new teachers, and maybe people that are coming in from non-traditional providers of teaching. We have things like Teach for America and the New Teachers Project. When you look at the success rate of those teachers, I don’t want to limit us on any particular way of doing things. I want us to be open to new ideas, new suggestions, new innovations. So hiring a variety of teachers gives us an opportunity to look at some data after five years, who’s really moving student progress forward.
Do you have plans to enhance or work within the charter school system here in Washoe County?
I met, on my second day on the job, with the charter school principals and some of their board members. I did that very intentionally. I told them this, and I think they received it very warmly, that we have public schools, and we have public charter schools. As a superintendent, I want my support to be for all schools. We had great conversation; we set up a series of meetings. They asked for some immediate support, and I’ve tried to put some things immediately to try to address some of the things that they had concerns about. They were excited about having additional meetings, and I was very, very appreciative of their willingness to do that. As I do my Hit the Ground Learning Tour, and I visit every school in Washoe County, I’m visiting the charter schools as well. I’m looking forward to those opportunities.
Now, what about home schooling? Have you had experience working with homeschoolers in the past? What are you learning about home-schooling in the West?
I think I have a lot to learn about home-schooling in the West, and I’ll learn it quickly. I know a lot about home schooling in the East. I have a core belief and value that parents are the first teachers of our kids. And if a parent makes a very conscious decision to home school their child, I respect that. I hope they do it with a lot of knowledge and a lot of thought because no matter how good that parent is going to go about delivering the needs of that individual child’s educational program, it’s hard to meet their needs the way a group could. If I home schooled my children, I could give them a lot of support in social studies and mathematics. Between my wife and I, we could do a whole lot with English, but we would struggle to help them with foreign language. I’m embarrassed with how much French I’ve forgotten since I took it. My wife took French and some Spanish as well, so there are things that our children wouldn’t get, and we’re both educators. But I respect people who choose to home school their children, and again, it’s part of my core value that parents are the first educators of the kids. At some point, though, I hope that people are not choosing to home school their children because they are so dissatisfied with the public education system.
What I know of it is it’s generally for religious reasons, particularly Christians, who want to keep their children from the secular schools.
And again, that’s a choice, and I respect that. I appreciate a parent’s right to be able to do that and serve the needs of their kids.
What specifically do you plan to do to improve the graduation rates of Washoe County schools?
I think there’s a short term and a long term answer. Short term: I want to engage my high school principals and ask them how they are identifying students right now. Pretty much, you can look at your senior class, and you can look at your data, and you can see who are the kids that I have that are really going to struggle through credits, through not passing their high school proficiency tests, and then, what are the plans that you have? It’s like I said before, it’s the doctor, and what do the data say, and what are the interventions? And I’m going to expect every high school principal to have a plan for any student who’s not on target for graduation. Now, that’s the accountability piece. But my accountability to those high school principals is, what can we do to support you to do that? We’re not in a position to where it’s necessarily through more resources, but we can provide some support through people, through professional development, some of the support to gather that data. Whatever it is we can do to help; we’re going to do to help. I used to say this in Montgomery County where we averaged about 10,000 seniors a year. If we started out on day one with 10,000 seniors, we wanted to be graduating 10,000 seniors. So that’s the goal for right now. Long term, to me graduation begins in kindergarten. So if you look at national data, the achievement gap really starts to get wide after second grade because kids start to read at different reading levels after second grade. As students start to fall behind, which is the biggest reason they drop out, because they are struggling so much that school is no longer engaging to them because they struggle in reading. So, going all the way down to kindergarten, how are we teaching reading, how are we measuring? Are we getting our kids to the next level, reading on grade level? I want to be able to measure kindergarten through 12th grade, and be able to benchmark. So when students begin to come off that graduation sidewalk, we immediately identify it, program for that student, provide interventions, get them back on that pathway that’s going to lead them to graduation.
That’s interesting. I’ve always heard that middle school is the place that they falter.
I think probably what you’ve heard is that middle school nationally is where there are many, many struggling schools. When you look at schools not making AYP across the country, there’s probably a higher percentage in middle schools than there is per se in elementary or high school. I think that there’s been so much done nationally with early childhood education and other programs—here in Nevada we have reduced class size in kindergarten and first, second and third grade—so there have been some very intentional things done that have helped to make things better at the elementary level. I think there have been some things with the promotion and pushing of AP offerings in high school that have done some things at the high school level. Middle school is that area that we really have to focus on and figure out how to program for our kids. I think that achievement gap—when you measure through math or through reading—starts to really divide about the beginning of third grade, and you start to see those gaps. And when they come out of second grade with gaps, they get bigger and bigger.