Darrel Bobe, District VII Superintendent of the Year, Superintendent of North Knox School Corporation
What program(s) or activities in your school district that focus on improving student learning do you feel are the most successful?
The North Knox School Corporation is a small rural district located in Southwest Indiana. North Knox School district encompasses 214 square miles in the northern half of Knox County. Programs we view as important in our district may seem pretty insignificant to others due to these logistics. The biggest activity which has had the greatest impact on student learning has been the installation of fiber throughout our community. Although this was a significant financial impact to the school corporation, we felt it was a good future investment not only for the school corporation and our student’s education but for the community as a whole.
Having fiber available not only gave schools greater opportunities to use all types of technology based education for the first time but also improved the quality of life for community members. Fiber allowed schools the ability to utilize such programs as USA Test Prep, My Big Campus, several Google and Apple apps and ISTEP online. For community members, the installation of fiber increased the educational resources available at their homes. Having access to web based programs and the use of Acuity has allowed teachers the ability to have more focus on individual student needs.
Other activities I feel strongly about for increasing student learning is giving teachers adequate collaboration time. Meeting the needs of each student and allowing teachers time to collaborate together to discuss the strengths and weakness of these students is of paramount importance.
Lastly, we continue to modify our awards programs for student academic success. The Warrior Pride Club was established to recognize and reward students for their academic accomplishments. With the creation of this club our goal is to encourage continued academic growth among our students.
What have been your most significant challenges as a superintendent and how have you dealt with them?
The most significant challenge I believe in education today is the continuous loss of funding. Due to the loss of funding in the last three years, we have decreased our teaching staff by 20% and North Knox has had to close an elementary and junior high school and re-align the grade structure of our remaining schools. Because of this re-alignment, we now house grades K-2 in one building and grades 3-6 in another building causing a hardship for some families who have children in multiple schools. Restructuring our existing schools also increased the number of students requiring bus transportation and in some instances created longer bus rides for students. In the last three years, we have also decreased our teaching staff by 20 percent.
Along with these challenges, there have been rewards in the educational process by our restructure of schools. By realigning teachers by grade level, they have been able to collaborate more efficiently and share ideas regarding subject content and how to reach at-risk students. Because of the restructure, it has allowed us to re-align our curriculum based on today’s standards. This has provided teachers with better opportunities to meet together as a group to discuss test results and new approaches to learning.
If you could improve one aspect of K-12 Education today, what would it be and what changes would you make?
In my opinion, I believe all aspects of our public education system: classroom, extra-curricular activities, and community events, has lost its local control. I have seen continued increase in the filtering down of top to bottom when it comes to federal, state government and state government agencies.
This one approach fits all mentality. In my opinion, will be the demise of the public school system. We have to get back to local communities knowing what is best for their local schools. I am extremely happy that what works for Northern Indiana and the urban areas is so successful. Students deserve nothing less. However, to believe that the same philosophy will work in Southern Rural Indiana is not realistic. Educators have always been good at collaborating across the state with different ideas without the help of the government and will continue to do so. The education of our youth today; partners with the needs of our community’s workforce for tomorrow and this can be best obtained by listening to the needs of communities and aligning goals accordingly.
What advice would you give to aspiring or beginning superintendents?
Success is determined by the habits you develop. Setting priorities, overcoming procrastination, and getting on with the most important tasks is a mental and physical skill that you learn through practice. Success requires decision, discipline, and determination. Make decisions, discipline yourself until it is automatic, and stay determined until it becomes who you are. Don’t confuse life with your work. What you are… will always be more important then what you do. All of us want to do well but if you don’t do good things, doing well will never be enough.
Jim Roberts, District VIII Superintendent of the Year, Superintendent of Batesville Community School Corporation
1. What program(s) or activities in your school district that focus on improving student learning do you feel are the most successful?
We have many programs and activities that positively impact student learning. However, the most impactful thing we do is adhere to a continuous improvement process, the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria. Originally initiated in our school corporation during the 1998-1999 school year by former superintendent Dr. Jim Freeland, the Baldrige process is as much about questions as it is answers. The programs and activities that we have adopted are our answers to questions generated through the simplest form of Baldrige, the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle.
Our “big arrow” approach to K-12 alignment, our collaborative efforts to create student-centered classrooms, and our strict focus on achieving results are due to our commitment to continuous improvement, namely the Baldrige process. Our focus on quality is visible with everything we do, as evidenced by the following:
1. Involved with (and a founding member of) the Indiana Coalition of Quality Schools;
2. Adopted the concept of “Believe in Better” with benchmarking in place to determine what school corporations are performing “better”;
3. Adhere to the Plan-Do-Study-Act cycle for creating questions and finding answers;
4. Provide ongoing Continuous Improvement (CI) training with all staff members, including special after school events with new staff members near the beginning of each school year; and
5. Consistent reinforcement of our “big arrow” through our Plan On A Page – a description of where we’re going and how we’re getting there.
2. What have been your most significant challenges as a superintendent and how have you dealt with them?
I have had two (2) specific challenges that stand out, a building project that initially failed and financial constraints created by cuts in revenue.
1) Building project(s). We proposed a $28 million building project, which would impact each of our four (4) school buildings, in 2009. Based upon the recently passed legislation regarding school building projects, we were required to hold a referendum vote. Although we had spent nearly a year finalizing the details of the project, meeting with and surveying various stakeholder groups, and utilizing a Political Action Committee (PAC), we were defeated soundly in the November 2009 election.
Due to this defeat and the recognized needs that still existed, we chose to “go back into the fire” to get a less expensive project done. We were able to get a combined $12 million project approved with no opposition due to the following:
a. Held meetings with individuals and groups known to have not supported the larger project to gather information for moving forward;
b. Identified specific needs, and wants, from the larger project that would appeal to those who were originally in opposition; and
c. Divided the project into chunks, with the strategic assignment of dollar amounts per building, so that a referendum would be avoided thus leaving the remonstrance process as the only avenue for opposition for those who might remain against the spend.
We began the $12 million project in 2011 and completed it by the beginning of the 2012-2013 school year.
2) Financial constraints. We, like most other school corporations, had our General Fund revenue severely cut in 2010. With another lesser shortfall occurring in 2011, we were very concerned about staffing and programs. We were able to weather the storm while making a commitment to NOT cut staff members from the CLASSROOM nor eliminate CURRICULAR programs. We were successful with this due to such activities as:
a. Conducting meetings with staff member groups to brainstorm and enact cost savings opportunities;
b. Contracting with a not-for-profit firm, via the use of donated funds, to audit the efficiency of our operations and then accepting and implementing their recommendations for improvement;
c. Offering a one-time retirement incentive for certified staff members via an agreement with our educators’ association;
d. Utilizing funds from our Batesville Community Education Foundation that was created to assist with school programs; and
d. Making personnel decisions that were outside of the “circle of the classroom.”
3. If you could improve one aspect of K-12 Education today, what would it be and what changes would you make?
We would increase time for curricular offerings beyond the core subject areas for our students in grades K-12. Although it is obvious that the core subjects of English/language arts, mathematics, science, and social studies are important, we would argue that increased time in art, music, physical education, and foreign languages is equally important. If able to “wave the magic wand”, then we would have enough funding to increase our programming such that students experienced each of these areas in ALL grades K-12 with increased frequency AND duration. We believe that each of these areas helps to improve the mind, body, and spirit of a student, resulting in a more engaged and better learner.
4. What advice would you give to aspiring or beginning superintendents?
You have looked into this position, or already accepted a new position, because you believe that you are a leader and that you can make a positive impact on an entire community. You can and you will by doing the following:
a. Develop an Administrative Team that shares your passion and vision;
b. Create an Advisory Committee of various stakeholders that you can meet with regularly to share your thoughts and gather theirs;
c. Develop a support group of OTHER superintendents, as these individuals may be the only other ones that truly understand what it is you do;
d. Ensure that you regularly get into your school buildings so that you remember why you are doing what you’re doing; and
e. Become a key figure in your community attending community events, volunteering for community activities, and serving on community-minded boards.